Conforming with the police superintendent’s opinion that in actual fact denied Henriette’s existence, which a simple inspection could have established, on the 31st of January 1940 the prefecture rejected the application.
Showing to be remarkably persevering and stubborn, my aunt submitted the petition again the following month, giving further details about her mother-in-law’s difficulties. The answer, prompt and disarming, was practically a photocopy of the previous one. Elena and Bernardo had to resign themselves to do without a maid: they had just had their first encounter with Fascist bureaucracy.
My father instead didn’t submit any application to stay in Italy. The most likely reason is that, since he didn’t officially reside in Milan (as I found out by research in the town-hall’s archives), he probably preferred not to attract attention to his position, hoping to remain undisturbed. Either for this reason, or because he longed for more freedom and privacy, he moved away from via Monte Rosa and rented a small flat in via Reina 24, in the Città degli Studi district. However, he was well aware of the precariousness of the situation he was in along with his sister and brother-in-law, but he carried on with Viennese light-heartedness and with the fatalism of the Rosenbaums, as is proved by the letter which he wrote Wilma shortly after Leo’s arrest11:
As you already know from Bernhard and Helene, all of us, and myself in particular, are not [but the German word used is ‘sitzen’, to sit, which allows the pun which follows] free to leave – which would be very nice – but rather lie, so to speak, under a chair. Otherwise at this moment I would already have booked a cabin or at least a cupboard on board a ship. But optimist – or lazy – as I am, I still think that a way out will be found for all of us. We might well meet up all together somewhere planting cactus, which is rather a pleasant occupation.
I hope Leo returns home soon, so that you may begin writing less elegiac letters. I hope to see you soon in Milan: you shouldn’t be afraid of the consequences of your journey, and your temporary stay wouldn’t cause any serious trouble.
If I had to go away, I would leave my heart here in Italy. But I count on a happy return. Why should I doubt being able to meet up with you one day, as we did long ago, walking along the pavement in the centre of Vienna? So cheer up!
Lots of love, Ernst.
Milan entered into war atmosphere as early as 30 August 1939, when blackout came into force: traffic wardens were equipped with a tiny torch, trams and busses screened their lights and everybody had to stick blue paper on the windows of their homes. The following night, attacking Poland on September 1st at 4.45 a.m., Germany triggered off a tragic conflict from which, for the time being, “non-belligerent” Italy was excluded. On the 1st of January 1940 cards imposing food rationing were given out.
In May 1940, a few weeks before Italy entered the war, Elena also wrote a sad letter full of omens to Wilma, who had found shelter in London with Leo almost one year before. Complaining about the complete absence of news, she wondered how and when she would see her beloved sister again:12
Milan, 16 May 1940
My beloved Wilma,
Today I dreamt about you and Emmy again, I even heard your voice!
By now several months have gone by since we received your last letter, at the beginning of January – over four months. In the meantime I wrote you two or three letters without success – we haven’t received a single line from Emmy either since December – and yet I wrote to her too! Maybe you wrote and the letters are not getting through?
I don’t need to remind you that all of us have nothing much to laugh about. For the time being, things are alright for us – for the time being, but we worry a lot about the general situation and now I think of you all the time: have you also been arrested after all? Will you ever receive this letter? Will I get an answer from you? What will the next days bring us?
My little one, you must not worry about us at all. We are all well. Bernhard is working, Ernst too is doing well lately, mother is as usual and I am well too! If only I knew the same about you I would be extremely happy. I haven’t received any news from your parents-in-law either for ages.
In conclusion, are you all so frightfully lazy? It’s inconceivable to me and I console myself blaming censorship.
My dear little Wilmerl, I am sending you my best wishes for your health and future life, and I ask God that we may meet again, but when and how? We can’t know what will happen tomorrow and whether we will be so lucky as to exchange letters again. Keep in good health my little Wilma, God protect you and Leo! Try to let me have a postcard, maybe through the Red Cross.
I hug and kiss you with all my love,
On May 30th , Mussolini wrote to Hitler, informing him that he had decided to put an end to Italy’s “non-belligerent” condition and to draw his country up alongside the ally, but the Führer asked him to wait a bit longer.
On June 10th the French army was on the verge of defeat and Mussolini foresaw the opportunity of a very short intervention for the Italian army, which would enable Italy to sit at the negotiating table among the winners. He therefore rejected a conciliatory letter sent by Churchill (“I declare that I have never been opposed to Italian greatness”) and Pope Pius XII’s last appeal:
From the depths of our heart we express the ardent wish that, thanks to your initiatives, to your firmness, to your Italian heart, Europe may be spared vaster ruins and more losses; and in particular that our and your beloved Country may be spared such a terrible calamity. On that very day, from his balcony at Palazzo Venezia, the Duce was preparing to declare war on France (by then gasping for breath) and Great Britain, “perfidious Albion”.