The 10th of June 1940 was a Monday. At six o’clock in the evening the Duomo square was packed with people. This time the mobilization arranged by the all-pervading organisation of the Fascist party had met the people’s spontaneous support. Something important and serious was being expected.
My parents were also in the square, their mind oppressed by gloomy premonitions. Until then the racial laws hadn’t harmed them and my father had been able to carry on his modest trade. The situation however was all but peaceful: my parents were aware of the tragedy their relatives in Austria and Poland were living through. Just a few months earlier Bernardo had offered to ‘employ’ Leo, Wilma’s husband, and give him a home in Milan, to let him out of Buchenwald.
The loudspeakers began to spread the Duce’s stentorian voice in Duomo square, in the Merchants’ Loggia and in San Sepolcro square. Mussolini was speaking from the balcony of Palazzo Venezia in Rome, as he always did on solemn occasions, constantly interrupted by his supporters’ cheers:
Fighters on land, in the sea and in the air. Black shirts of the Revolution and the Legions, men and women of Italy, of the Empire and of the Kingdom of Albania, listen! Was it in sign of contempt, out of carelessness or due to a complete lack of understanding of the rituals best-loved by the regime that my father didn’t take off his hat? A militia officer flung it to the ground with a slap.
Ernst looked at my mother, who clasped his arm feverishly, and did not react. He picked up his hat and held it in his hand listening to the rest of the speech..
Italian people, take up your arms and show your tenacity, your courage, your valour!
In Milan celebrations ended before long. According to a Fascist informer quoted by Ganapini (A city, the war), the Milanese listened to the Duce’s speech “with disciplined and silent attention, in bitter and hard contrast with the Roman population’s heated and resounding cheers”. Groups of students holding Italian and Nazi flags joined the official procession led by the podestà and the prefect, which headed towards via Brera, to the seat of the army corps, among songs and hymns. But the ordinary people were sad and preoccupied.
The following day in the Corriere della Sera the headline: “Italian people, take up your arms” took up the whole page.
Below the photographs of Mussolini at the balcony and of the people’s rally at his feet, the readers found the text of the Duce’s speech. The texts of the telegrams sent by Hitler to the King and to Mussolini were also on the front page, along with an editorial with the emblematic title: “We will win”. A paragraph by the Stefani agency in the sixth column of the second page, however, announced something more relevant to the hard reality of war: the implementation of black-out in the city, passed by the Ministry of War on the previous day.
In the days following very little seemed to change for the Milanese. The arcades in the Duomo square were filled with sand bags, the Madonnina was painted green to avoid becoming a landmark to enemy airplanes. On June 17th , France asked Germany and Italy for an armistice, but on that very night six English airplanes bombed houses near Monza, missing the Caproni factory by a hair’s breadth.
Two days earlier the Head of the police had issued an arrest warrant for foreign Jews “belonging to foreign States which carry out a racial policy”; women and children were ordered to appear before the Prefecture of the province where their forced residence in special communes would be established. A subsequent circular letter issued by the Ministry of the Interior specified that only the Jews who had immigrated before 1919 were excluded from the measure.
On the 12th of July my father was summoned to the police headquarters “for a check”. After very short consideration, he gave himself up spontaneously and was arrested. The same fate in Milan befell 384 more Jews with German passports Bernard’s name, oddly enough, did not appear in this list: my uncle avoided the first selection.
On his arrival at San Vittore13, he had to give his full name and stamp his fingerprints on the prison register, beside those of illiterate thieves, who signed with a cross. At the Regional Archives of the State in Milan the register of the preceding period is preserved, recording the admissions until the beginning of July. I was stricken when I read the first names of foreign professional men, recorded as Jews, their destination entered beside their name: a concentration camp.
My father remained in San Vittore for seventeen days, in poor hygienic conditions and in suspense about his future. I never had the courage to ask either of them in what frame of mind he faced imprisonment, and how my mother reacted to the separation, made all the more painful as it was unexpected,.
On July 29th prefect Marziali gave orders that he should be escorted to the Urbisaglia concentration camp, in the Marche region, province of Macerata, along with other sixty-nine Jews with German passports.
At least 41 of them never returned home and ended their lives in Auschwitz’s gas-chambers, in most cases without even being registered in the camp because of old age or bad health. Their wives and children (often very young) shared the same fate, totalling about seventy people. My estimate is conservative, obtained by comparing the names on the list with those of the victims, recorded in the Book of memory. And these 384 are, so to speak, the luckiest, those who, having been arrested at the beginning of the war, sometimes managed to slip between the meshes of the Fascist police machine. What should we say of the victims of the Repubblica Sociale in the years 1943/45, who passed directly from the claws of torturer Franz in San Vittore to the goods wagons sealed with lead, heading east?
In September of 1940 fifteen camps were already active in Italy, and their number would constantly increase in the following years. The remaining Jews on the list were sent to Civitella di Chiana (40), Isola Gran Sasso (70), Agnone (30), Alberobello (60), Manfredonia (40) and Campagna (55).
Urbisaglia was mostly an internment place for ‘foreign Jews’, whose number from the very beginning was higher than that of the Italian Jews. The camp was located in a hunting pavilion within the long uninhabited eighteenth-century Villa Bandini, which had already been used as a camp for German and Austrian war-prisoners during the first world war. The villa was in the surroundings of Fiastra’s gothic abbey, about one kilometre away from Urbisaglia, bordering with the commune of Tolentino. A big park, enclosed by a wall, surrounded the building.
The camp’s main problem was overcrowding, above all at the beginning: 123 prisoners had only 13 habitable rooms, a corridor and an entrance-hall at their disposal. The bedrooms were on the first and second floor and in the garret; they ate their meals in a big hall with a vaulted ceiling on the ground floor, in a side wing of the building. In 1940 there was enough food, but in the following years the prisoners suffered from starvation because of rationing and of the failure to adjust the benefit which the internees were granted by the State to the high cost of living: many of them, including my father, lost a lot of weight.
All in all, spirits inside the camp were high; the internees were treated well and granted a certain amount of freedom: they could receive visits from their wives and relatives at regular intervals and correspond with their families far away. In theory they had the right to send one letter and one postcard every week; in practise, since censorship on post was entrusted to an internee, these limitations were never observed.
Besides, solidarity within the Jewish community in the camp was strong: when the seventy ‘German Jews’ arrived from Milan, they were promptly welcomed by the previously interned Italian Jews in a friendly way with a good dinner. The Italians, mostly in a good financial situation, immediately established an Assistance Committee to help the foreign co-religionists, who were almost all needy. The committee, directed by Raffaele Cantoni, an anti-Fascist who had been referred to the Special Law-court as early as 1930, and by the lawyer Carlo Viterbo, gave out a regular grant to those who needed it, helping a great deal to raise the living standard in the camp.
My father’s stay in Urbisaglia, in absence of letters, is documented by a series of photographs which I found in a cupboard. They were all taken in the camp and he appears in two of them.
In the first one he is wearing a suit and tie, with his hand in his pocket. In the second one, obviously taken in summer, he is in his short sleeves and Bermuda shorts. In both photographs his expression is serious and thoughtful, there is no trace of a smile, his eyes look into the distance. At the back of the first photograph, when my mother received it, or when she sent it to him after having it printed, she wrote words full of affection: “Where are you looking, my love? I kiss you, your Afra”. In July of 1941 she also sent him a beautiful picture where her resemblance with Bergman was really amazing.
Other snapshots portray fellow-internees. In one of them, dated 6 June 1941, a distinguished and elegant gentleman is photographed with the inevitable cigarette between his fingers, and the inscription in German is quite surprising: “In affectionate memory of our merry life in the concentration camp”. My father made friends with some internees whom he would see even after their liberation: Paul Schwenk, Engineer Leon Jaeger, Erich Malke.
In Urbisaglia my father ran a serious risk, because of a slightly too demonstrative cook who rested a hand on his shoulder. Dad’s impulsive disposition made him misinterpret this gesture as an insult. He jumped to his feet and landed a punch in the cook’s face, who fell to the ground stunned. In Dachau this act would have cost him his life, but even in Italy, in that very camp in Urbisaglia, for a far less serious offence generous Raffaele Cantoni had been punished with deportation to the Tremiti Islands. It was only thanks to the kind-hearted cook, who did not report the incident, that his outburst had no consequence.
In the concentration camp my father met Ruth, the daughter of an internee, a pretty Jewish teenager with a Biblical name, whose origins are unknown to me, and who was probably captured by his Central European charm, because she donated no less than six photographs to him, all showing the same innocent and melancholic smile. The last one, taken in Milan on the 1st of April 1941, has the following iscription:
To my dear Roedner as a souvenir of his young friend Ruthi. My mother was aware of their friendship and obviously not jealous; on the other hand my father never spoke to me about her. Her story thrilled and touched me since I was a child but only a few months ago did I receive reliable information about her fate, and unfortunately it was sad news.
Ruth Ullmann, born in Vienna in 1927, was arrested in Bergamo with her mother Fanny while they were organising their flight to Switzerland. Having been sent to Fossoli, they were deported to Auschwitz on the 16th of May 1944. Fanny was killed when they arrived, Ruth was enrolled with the number A-5408 but only survived a few months: there is no news about her after June 17th , 1944.
My mother spared no efforts to let my father out, or at least to have him moved closer to Milan. Following her suggestion, in January 1941 he lodged a petition, asking for the internment order to be revoked, using more or less the same arguments which his brother-in-law had used two years earlier. Unlike Bernardo, however, my father could also produce his baptism act14:
Even if he is considered of Jewish race, the applicant belongs to the Christian protestant (Evangelical) Church, as is proved by the attached certificate issued by the Evangelical reformed parish of Vienna-Centre, having been baptized on the 8th of January, 1909. His father, Armin, was nondenominational, and was never member of any Jewish community in Austria, like the applicant before his conversion.
In the same petition my father wrote about his activity, producing a long list of documents which proved the distribution of his ‘perspective tables’ in the kingdom of Italy, and stressing the fact that his internment had seriously harmed his activity and interrupted the preparation of other tables, planned and suitable for aircraft and naval constructions, “especially interesting and required in these times when Italy, being at war, is making a marvellous effort to free itself of all outside interference”.
It was perhaps naive to hope that those “spontaneous” declarations of patriotism might be enough to move Fascist bureaucrats: sure enough, prefect Marziali gave his negative response with the usual explanation:
The above mentioned foreigner…appears from these documents to belong to the Jewish race and as such he was proposed for internment…Since Roedner’s presence is not considered to be indispensable in this city [Milano] I am against the acceptance of his petition. My parents made a renewed attempt a few months later, playing another card, dad’s conversion to the Catholic religion, a move made by many at the time to press for the Church’s help in order to emigrate.
And so it happened that my father, born a Jew and baptised for the first time by the Evangelical Church, on the 28th of February 1941 “expressed his strong desire to be instructed in the Catholic Religion and to be baptized”, as appears from a message of Macerata’s prefect to the Ministry of Interior.
Even orthodox Jews were granted religious freedom within the camp: one of its nicest rooms had been turned into a synagogue and the internees, during Jewish holidays, were given the possibility of obtaining ritual food and unleavened bread. All the more reason why the competent authorities didn’t delay giving canon Filippo Bartolazzi, the parish priest of Macerata’s cathedral, and Father Giuseppe Gualtieri, rector of Fiastra’s church, both charged with instructing my father, admittance into the camp. On May 7th he was baptized and confirmed in the parish church of San Lorenzo. His friend Emilio Winter, who would carry on helping him after the war, offering him a job as travelling salesman for his sausage and salami factory, stood godfather to him.
The two sacraments were not successful in converting my father, who maintained grandfather Armin’s sceptical attitude to religion for the rest of his life. He didn’t approach faith at the time of danger like his sister Elena, his brother-in-law Bernardo and his mother Henriette, nor in the last moments of his tormented life. The many atrocities he had witnessed made him incredulous regarding the existence of divine justice. My mother however, a believer in her own very personal way, saw marriage as a means of winning not only the Church’s benevolence, but also the protection of the divine providence.
On the 16th of June 1941, my father submitted the second petition for his release, mentioning his fresh conversion to Catholicism and referring to grandmother’s poor health. In case the revocation of the measure had been judged impossible, my father asked at least for a short leave to see his old mother after over ten months’ separation.
Showing remarkable insensitivity, the prefect gave a negative response again “because the reasons put forward…are not sufficient to justify either the revocation of the precaution, nor a leave to benefit from in Milan because this city is important from a military point of view”.
To believe that my parents would surrender so easily would mean not doing them justice. As shown, the “laws for the defence of the Italian race” forbade mixed marriages (art.1) but at the same time (art. 25) exempted from expulsion the foreign Jews who has married Italian citizens before October 1st ,1938. My mother, perhaps advised by the lawyer Raicevich, tried to find a way to circumvent the law and to marry my father, albeit just with a church wedding.
In this way she hoped (and the events proved her right) to have sounder grounds to appeal to the Catholic church for protection.
The wedding was celebrated on the 9th of August 1941 in the basilica of San Giovanni Laterano in Rome. My father was absent, and as a consequence it was a “wedding by proxy”. In such a rite, which is provided for by art. 111 of the civil code too, the groom or bride, unable to attend the ceremony “for serious reasons”, are replaced by a nominee before the priest or registrar.
According to art. 34 of the Concordat between the Holy See and Italy, The State should have acknowledged civil effects to that wedding, celebrated with a canon rite. But article 6 of the above mentioned “provisions for the defence of the race” explicitly denied this possibility and warned the priests not to celebrate church weddings between ‘Aryans’ and ‘non-Aryans’. How to get out of the deadlock?
The answer came very soon. Perhaps made aware by Roman acquaintances of Raicevich, that very month of August the Vatican diplomatic corps got down to work to help my father. The apostolic nuncio to the Italian state, Francesco Borgongini-Duca, who had visited the Urbisaglia camp and met my father, interceded for the first time with the Ministry of Interior in order that he be granted the eagerly awaited leave to visit his mother in Milan. The application was rejected again but the tenor of the answer was very different from that of the previous ones:
With reference to Your kind letter I am very sorry to have to inform you that it’s not possible to revoke the internment precaution taken towards the German Jew Roedner Ernesto nor to grant him a short leave to go to Milan, since that prefecture has objected to it. With devout deference… At this point the Opera San Raffaele, a religious institution actively involved in providing emigration for the Catholics persecuted on political and racial grounds during the war, intervened in favour of my father. On the 19th of August, Father Antonio Weber, the Opera’s director, wrote to him, asking him to go to Rome the following month, in order to prepare the documents in view of his possible emigration to Argentina. Relying on his letter, my father submitted the umpteenth petition for a leave which would allow him to go to Rome. The application, reinforced by a letter from Weber himself to the Ministry of Interior, was surprisingly accepted, as the Head of police wrote the apostolic nuncio on the 12th of October, 1941.
On October 25th my father was escorted to Rome. I don’t know whether my mother had already devised the rest of her plan: what I know for sure is that both my parents attended a general audience with the Pope, during which once a week the Sovereign Pontiff used to receive, and still receives, believers from all over the world.
Mother made her way through the crowd and moved to the first row. When the Pope passed in front of her, she threw herself beyond the blocking cord and found the courage to place in his hands a letter which Pius XII, clearly surprised, handed over to one of his secretaries.
My mother was moved away brusquely, but she had made it. That letter, in which she asked the Pope to help my father, whom she described as a decent person who was just converted to Catholicism and was persecuted on racial grounds only, reached either the Pontiff or the nuncio and led them to intercede for him more effectively.
I don’t know if my parents at the time were seriously intent on emigrating, but I am inclined to believe that, had they been given the opportunity, they would have chosen exile, like Emmy, Georg, Wilma and Leo before them. On the 23rd of January 1942 my father applied to the Italian State for the issue of an identity card to emigrate to South America, since his German passport, along with those of all other Jews in Europe, had been revoked on the 25th of November 1941.
He was granted both the document and an extension of his leave of absence from the concentration camp, in order to complete his application. But emigration proved to be an impossible plan: maybe my parents couldn’t give the hosting country the guarantee of financial self-sufficiency. At the beginning of March, on the point of being sent back to Urbisaglia, my father asked to be moved to a commune in the province of Brescia, to draw closer to his family.
Time went by without him receiving a reply.
Desolately my mother returned to Milan. As usual she divided her time between her job as operator and assisting grandmother Esterina, ill with diabetes and by then almost completely blind.
Mother had always been very attracted not only to transcendence, but also to the paranormal in all its manifestations. Besides, those were the years when the study of human mind began to fascinate the world, as much in its scientific aspects (Freudian psychoanalysis) as in the less verifiable but more spectacular and suggestive ones, like hypnotism and spiritism.
One evening in spring, looking for some entertainment which might distract her for a few hours from the nagging thought of her husband’s fate, mother went to a theatre to watch a hypnotism show.
The evening’s attraction was famous Cesare Gabrielli, one of the greatest psychics in Italian history, one to whom people’s imagination attached magical powers. Gabrielli was by then at the end of his career: he would die at the Milan hospital on the 2nd of October 1944, defeated by cancer, probably caused by his immoderate love for cognac and tobacco. He was born in Pontedera in 1881 and had started earning his living doing menial jobs: at first a matchstick pedlar, then a cabin boy on a merchant ship, finally a barber in Florence. According to a testimony gathered by Dino Buzzati and published on the Corriere della Sera on the 3rd of September 1965,
one day he went to a customer to shave him and cut his hair at home. At the entrance of the villa there was a big, ferocious dog who tried to savage him. Gabrielli stared at him and he immediately crouched down peacefully. The customer saw him appear in front of him. “Are you here? Wasn’t my dog there at the door?” “Yes sir, he was.” “Didn’t he do any harm to you?” “He went to sleep”. How was it possible? The owner went to look and found the animal snoring contentedly. The thing was so strange that the gentleman spread the rumour. Thus Gabrielli’s hypnotic power was revealed.
Gabrielli’s powers attracted the attention of professor Queirolo, a teacher at the Faculty of Medicine in Pisa university, who discovered in him exceptional telepathic qualities both passive and active, which the Tuscan sensitive decided to use to earn his living appearing on stage. In 1912 he began his activity transferring his thought on subjects in a hypnotic trance. But one evening in Turin, according to what he told the Secolo reporter Fidenzio Pertile on May 9th 1944, a police superintendent got on the stage and forbade him to put people into a trance. Unwilling to return to his obscure job as a barber, Gabrielli began that series of experiments on thought transference in state of wakefulness which would make him famous.
The night when my mother went to see him, the show was due to start at nine o’clock, but at quarter to ten “the man of the next century”, as the hypnotist loved to be presented on posters, had not turned up yet. The people in the theatre began to boo and whistle. Several people went to the box office, asking for their money back.
At five to ten the curtains finally opened and the stage lit up. Gabrielli, thin as a ghos but very elegant in his tailcoat and with the most innocent expression in the world, made his entry among the whistling and the swearing and asked the audience with his strong Tuscan accent: “Would you mind telling me what all the fuss is about?”
Several spectators, furious both at the long wait and at the artist’s cheeky air, stood up from their chairs and shouted at him: “it’s ten o’clock!!”.
After which Gabrielli’s expression changed from innocent to astonished. He took his watch out of his pocket, looked up to check the clock which hung in full sight from a wall in the theatre and answered: “Certainly not! It’s nine o’clock this very moment”.
And my mother used to swear that, at that instant, she and most spectators saw that it was nine o’clock, both on their watches and on the wall-mounted clock, and that they remained in that special time zone all evening.
At this point Gabrielli made the suggestion that, since they had accused him wrongly, the spectators should at least collaborate with him putting their hands on their heads and intertwining their fingers; while doing this their hands would lock together so tightly that it would be impossible to pull them apart.
In this way within five minutes he had put half of the audience under his hypnotic control. The show went on a usual: a sceptic in the first row, who had resisted the previous suggestion, was invited to think of a four-digit number and to note it down on a piece of paper while Gabrielli was doing the same on a blackboard placed on the stage and covered by a black cloth. Once the cloth was lifted everybody could see that the two numbers were exactly the same.
Then the great psychic, who twenty years earlier had taken part in the March on Rome and was a personal friend of Gabriele D’Annunzio, went down in the stalls and walked along the corridor blindfolded, after saying to the spectators: “When I am passing next to you, think of something and I will tell you what”. A few years earlier, in Turin, during a similar experiment, in an attempt to be led down the stage by the telepathic suggestions of a spectator, he had fallen into the orchestra pit, breaking his backbone. This time instead things went smoothly. He told a young man in the third row that he was thinking about a three thousand lira debt and informed a bald spectator in the seventh row that he had “received” his thought about the heartburn he suffered from. At one point he shouted: “You, sir, in the tenth row in a brown tie, shame on you! You shouldn’t think of this smut!”.
When he passed in front of my mother, whose hands were still “stuck” (as she expressed herself when she told me the story) he unfastened them and told her: “And you are thinking about your far-away husband who does not send you any news”. My mother was astounded and decided that after the show she would ask the “magician” if he could foresee her future and my father’s.
When the show finished and the crowd headed towards the exit, My mother, who had not felt uneasy in the presence of the Pope, didn't hesitate going straight to Gabrielli’s dressing room. She was received with polite amazement and asked him if he would be able to give her news about her faraway husband.
Instead of feeling annoyed at the request for a such a late unscheduled performance, or trying to get a reward of some kind from the circumstance (one should bear in mind that my mother was young and beautiful and her interlocutor, albeit already in his sixties, was anything but indifferent to feminine spell), the hypnotist sent her into a trance, got the confirmation that she was an excellent hypnotic subject and asked her a few questions about my father.
Mother didn’t remember anything else about the session, except that, when he woke her up, Gabrielli dismissed her with the words: “You will receive news from your husband before Easter”.
Mother returned home and related everything to grandmother Esterina, who told her that it was all just nonsense, that she had already compromised herself too much marrying that elderly foreigner, and that she had better forget him.
But mother waited and believed that something would happen. And on the Saturday before Easter she received a postcard from my father, who wrote that he was well, and that he had just been moved to Aprica, where he would live in “free internment in the commune”, without an enclosed fence, where it would be easier to visit him.
Gabrielli somehow had foreseen (maybe he would have argued he had caused ) the Vatican diplomacy’s effective intervention. On the 26th of March 1942, the Head of police wrote to the apostolic nuncio:
In consequence of your kind request, I have given orders that Mr. Ernesto Otto Roedner should be moved from the Urbisaglia concentration camp to a commune in the province of Sondrio, as a free internee. Even if one cannot affirm it with absolute certainty, I think that removal from Urbisaglia saved my father’s life for the first time. In September 1943, at the moment of German occupation, in that camp there were still 35 “stateless Jews” coming from Germany, Austria and other countries. The camp director opened the gates on his own initiative and invited the internees to escape, but very few of them left: without money or documents, with an inadequate knowledge of the Italian language, they didn’t have any hopes of coming out alive.
On the 30th of September 1943, several lorries, led by a Fascist officer and escorted by the Germans, entered the camp, turned the director out and transferred all the internees to Sforzacosta, to an old camp for war prisoners. On November 30th , they were all deported to Fossoli and three days later to Auschwitz, from where, out of the whole Urbisaglia group, Paul Pollak alone came back.
The Aprica “colony” was founded on the initiative of “Delasem” (Delegation for the Assistance to Jewish Emigrants) which in those years, with the government’s approval, carried out its precious activity, offering thousands of Jews material support (clothing, medicines, etc.), religious and moral help (liaising with families), besides favouring the emigration of about two thousand of them before Italy entered the war and, with more difficulty, of another three thousand before the armistice. Delasem had been established in 1939 by Dante Almansi, chairman of the Union of Italian Jewish communities, who had been a member of the Fascist party and vice-Head of the police until the promulgation of racial laws. He succeeded in convincing his Fascist friends that such an organisation would conveniently replace the Government in the onerous task of assisting emigrants, at the same time making foreign currency flow into Italy.
In Aprica the internees lived in a hotel owned by the podestà. Within the community several laboratories were set up, among which a shoe shop and a tailor’s shop, which supplied not only the colony guests but also the internees of other camps and the civilians living in several communes.
My father arrived at Aprica on the 6th of April 1942 and stayed there a little over a year. My mother was able to visit him, albeit illegally, often returning to Milan with food: apparently the internees were fed more generously than the Milanese citizens, who had to face a lack of
provisions caused by rationing.
Once again, all that is left of the second period of my father’s internment is a couple of photographs: a group of smiling internees, amongst whom my father stands out for his emaciated body, his usual frowning expression and his hand in his pocket; and a photograph of Giuseppe Weber bearing the inscription, “in memory of the nice days in Aprica”.
Between October 1942 and February 1943 Milan was bombed by English planes seven times and began to evacuate civilians. On February 14th , an incendiary bomb fell on the roof of my mother’s house in via Madonnina, but the porter saved the bulding by climbing on the roof and throwing the bomb onto the street. On October 24th , the air-raid took place in full daylight and mother saw distinctly the coloured face of a pilot who was machine-gunning the passers-by, flying very low on his spotter place and laughing scornfully.
The risk had become too big, Afra found shelter in Vaprio d’Adda with grandmother, but went back to Milan in the morning to work at Stipel’s telephone exchange.
In the spring of 1943 fate got even with my father and his happy ‘holiday in the mountains’ came to a dramatic end.
On March 9th , he was overcome by a high temperature and shivers. The provincial doctor diagnosed his illness as suspected myelitis and prescribed that my father should be urgently admitted to the Sondrio hospital, which was done the following day. Three days after the beginning of the crisis my father completely lost the use of his legs. With a delay which certainly compromised his recovery, on the 11th of April the same doctor diagnosed his case as suspected acute poliomyelitis and asked for my father to be moved to the Neurological Hospital “Vittorio Emanuele III” in Milan, today’s Besta, but his hospitalisation was only authorised on the 4th of May!
Because of the outrageous delay in his trasnfer to Milan and of the state of emergency in which people lived day by day in the city under the Allies’ bombing, the X-ray therapy, to which he was immediately subjected, was not associated with effective rehabilitation. My father remained paralysed.
Misfortune didn’t dishearten him and his spirit was unconquered. My mother was beside him all the time, giving him moral support.
In June he was briefly visited by his sister Elena and his mother, who had moved to Cesenatico a few months earlier, joining his brother-in-law Bernardo. The meeting between old Henriette and her son must have been heart-rending, and my father was certainly relieved when the two women left for Cesenatico once more.
But destiny would go on playing cat and mouse with my father.
As everybody knows, the summer of 1943 was a decisive turning point in Italy’s participation in the war. On the 10th of July the allied troops landed in Sicily and on the 19th Rome was bombed for the first time. Faced with Hitler’s refusal to employ more numerous forces in the defence of Southern Italy, Vittorio Emanuele, urged by his generals, understood that the monarchy and the State could only be saved by severing all connections with Fascism. He was offered the opportunity on the 25th of July: after the Grand Council of Fascism had passed a motion of censure against Mussolini, the king asked the dictator, who had trustfully come to the weekly audience, to resign, and had him arrested on the steps of Villa Savoia. Then he appointed Marshall Badoglio as head of government in his place. The new premier hastened to declare: “The war goes on”.
The Allies’ response was not slow in coming. On the night of August 8th , the RAF’s four-engined aircrafts converged on Milan: the Anglo-Americans had decided to resume their air-raids on Northern Italy to dampen the population’s spirits and compel the new government to accept an “unconditional surrender”. On Monday at daybreak, five hundred fires and 116 victims could be counted. The Fatebenefratelli Hospital, the Small Cottolengo and the Neurological Hospital had also been damaged.
My father was unharmed and my mother sent his relatives in Cesenatico the following message, which grandmother Henriette copied in her diary with the inevitable spelling mistakes: