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Virginia Cicero, WWII nurse witnessed the horrors at Buchenwald

Virginia Cicero | Brighton Gardens photo

Virginia Cicero grew up the cherished baby of Sicilian-born parents who had to bury six of their 13 young children, lost to illness in the era before antibiotics and immunizations.

They took her to the Century of Progress 1933-34 World’s Fair, where, thanks to an early refrigerated fountain dispenser, she recalled, “I had my first Coca-Cola.”

After graduating from nursing school at St. Mary of Nazareth Hospital, she joined the Army Nurse Corps to see the world and have adventures. She recalled her innocence in a 2011 interview with Dave Heun in the Daily Herald. “We were 40 gorgeous creatures,” she said of her unit. “We called ourselves ‘the dolls.’ ’’

She wound up in Germany, nursing former inmates from Buchenwald, one of the most bestial of the World War II Nazi concentration camps.

“We saw the crematories, incinerators and truckloads of dead bodies,” she once told the Brighton Times, the newspaper at her senior community. “We first gave the prisoners blood and plasma because they were emaciated and had been extremely undernourished.”

Virginia Cicero, then Virginia Cangelosi (front center) in the Army Nurse Corps. | Family photo

She saw how starvation had ravaged their minds as well as their bodies.

“Patients were given a small amount of food, then we added a little more each day until they could tolerate it,” she said in the Brighton Times. “Many hid their bread under their pillow, afraid it would be taken away from them.’’

Mrs. Cicero, who died on Nov. 18 at 93, always treasured a photo book about the camp’s liberation by the Third Army, “Buchenwald and Beyond.” It showed her in a turban, a feeble barrier against the lice that infested the freed inmates. “I haven’t had one on my head since,” she told the Daily Herald.

Her first wartime assignment was in England, where she found the weather so cold, “We left our clothes on at night, boots and all,” she told the Brighton Times. They had to flee to bomb shelters during air raids, said her daughter, Kathy Schlosser.

After Buchenwald, she cared for Japanese POWs in Hawaii.

She returned home with the rank of first lieutenant, took a job at Cook County Hospital, and met and married Michael Cicero, who was an airplane mechanic during the war. He worked at Intermatic electronic controls. She went to DePaul University on the GI bill, earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing and worked at Alexian Brothers Medical Center. They raised a son and daughter in Elk Grove Village.

Born in Chicago, Virginia Cangelosi grew up at Peoria and Hubbard. Her parents, Salvatore and Maria, immigrated to the U.S. around 1902 from Cefalu, a town in Northern Sicily. Her father was a successful fruit and vegetable peddler who used a horse-drawn wagon to cater to well-to-do families who wanted produce delivered to their mansions and apartments. The Cangelosis attended church at Santa Maria Addolorata.

Virginia Cangelosi Cicero in World War II. | Provided photo

Virginia wanted to be a nurse. “She was ambitious and intelligent,” said her niece, Rose Marie Anichini. After graduating from nursing school, she worked at Wesley Hospital, which would become part of Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Despite seeing the charnel houses of the Nazis, she retained the belief that life — and most people — are good. She called everyone “doll”: “Hi, Doll,” and “How are you, doll?”

“She was always positive, even though she a saw a lot of gory things,” said her son, Michael.

Still, Mrs. Cicero’s experience of wartime and the Great Depression had an after-effect. She believed food was not to be wasted. “We were not allowed to leave the dinner table until we finished everything,” her daughter said.

“She was able to spin multiple plates,” her son said. “She was a housewife and she worked full time as a nurse after she got married. At that time, I can’t say there [were] a lot of women working and raising a family.”

Virginia Cicero (standing) teaching other nurses post-war. | Provided photo

Her children loved the traditional Italian-American dishes she produced from her kitchen — mostaccioli, meatballs, lasagna. She also tried new recipes, like Chinese egg rolls. “She always was cooking up something different,” her son said.

After O’Hare Airport opened in 1958, sometimes, for fun, “We’d go to O’Hare, and people would sit on the shoulder and watch the planes take off and land,” her son said.

Mrs. Cicero could play piano by ear. She sewed many of her own clothes on her Singer machine. She sang in the choir at Queen of the Rosary Church in Elk Grove Village.

After retiring, she and her husband moved to Port Ritchey, Florida, where they lived for about 20 years. After he died seven years ago, she moved into the Brighton Gardens in St. Charles.

The Ciceros are buried together at Florida National Cemetery, a veterans’ cemetery near Bushnell, Florida. She also is survived by five grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

Virginia Cicero | Family photo