To my grandfather Armin, who I never met, but from whom I inherited a watch

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14 The time of the beasts

Autumn 1943.

The nightmare of another winter of war was hanging over Italy. On September 3rd, Badoglio signed a secret armistice which was in reality an unconditional surrender: our country was only acknowledged the ambiguous status of “cobelligerent” nation. While the king was hesitating about what should be done, twenty-four German divisions were already in Italy or at the border. The Allies were planning the landing of troops from the air north of Rome to defend the capital, but came up against Badoglio’s lack of preparation and determination. Then General Eisenhower, commander of the allied forces in the Mediterranean, opted for the Salerno landing which, carried out with insufficient forces, nearly ended in a disaster.

The king and Badoglio escaped to Pescara and thence to Brindisi, leaving the army without orders and a commander. For long months Italy was split in two: the so called “Kingdom of the South” under the allies’ guardianship, and the Social Republic, founded on the 8th of September and nominally chaired by Mussolini, whom Hitler had freed from Gran Sasso to use him as a puppet.

Paragraph six of the programmatic manifesto of the Social Republic stated: “The members of the Jewish race are foreigners. During this war they belong to an enemy nationality”. Theory was immediately put into practice: the police order n° 5, dated 30/11/1943, and the law by decree dated 4th January 1944 ordered that all Jews should be interned and all their properties confiscated.

However as early as autumn 1943 rounding up and summary executions had begun in the Lake Maggiore area and in the Aosta Valley: on the 15th of September, an SS detachment coming from the Russian front and specialised in the Jew hunt broke into a Meina hotel which had become a shelter for many Jewish families. The occupants were captured, shut up in a room for eight days, then killed with a shot in the head and thrown into the lake. More people were killed in Arona, Stresa and Baveno. The instigator of the executions was Captain Saewecke, who would later on supervise all actions against partisans and Jews from the Hotel Regina, the headquarters of Gestapo in Milan.

The Roman Jews were forced by Kappler16 to hand over 50 kilos of gold in exchange for freedom. A captain Schulz tried to cheat about the weight of the precious metal which had been gathered. Having got the gold, the police surrounded the ghetto and arrested over 1,200 Jews, who were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau within a few days. Only fifteen of them would return after the end of the war.

Staying in Cesenatico was becoming problematic for the Brumers. Bernardo was still under the illusion of being safe, but it was the parish priest, don Lazzaro Urbini, who had made friends with the couple that attended the parish regularly, who realised how serious the situation was. The priest, an extraordinary figure of militant Christian who gave hospitality in his church to victims of persecution regardless of race and ideology, was no exception in a region where the Catholic contribution to the Resistance was very significant: in the Sarsina diocese alone, no fewer than ten priests fell victims to German reprisals for defending their parishioners or hiding people wanted by the police.

Don Urbini slowly convinced Bernardo that he could no longer hope for a new leave. He had to change his identity and hide to wait safely for the end of the war, which was hoped to be close.

The parish priest’s family owned several farmsteads in the hilly area between Cesena and Bertinoro, along the steep and winding road leading from S. Vittore (a hamlet near Cesena) to Paderno. In November the Brumers and my grandmother moved there, under the care of the priest’s brother, Adamo Carloni, child of the second marriage of his mother, who had been prematurely widowed. At the time Adamo was twenty years old and studied in the Forlì seminary. Bernardo was also given false documents forged by the Resistance: his new name was Augusto Sassoli. Thanks to his perfect knowledge of the language, it would not be difficult for him to pretend to be an Italian evacuee, like many others who had escaped into the hills to avoid the bombing.

Unfortunately hiding in the country-side, as Zuccotti, a student of the Holocaust in Italy, remarked, was also dangerous because of the intensely personal character of daily life. Villages were crammed with old people, the unemployed, youth burning with curiosity about unknown faces. You needed perfect documents and an excellent excuse for your presence. “Only a very courageous or hopeless foreign Jew could try to survive in a rural shelter.”

On the 12th of December 1943 Augusto Degli Angeli had written the last letter of recommendation to the Forlì prefect on behalf of Bernardo:

Mr. Brumer, to his misfortune, was born of Jewish Catholic parents, he is Catholic too. As a result, he should be interned with his family. My factory works almost exclusively for TODT [an organisation which recruited Italian workers to support German production] and the German troops resident in Cesenatico. Should you decide to adopt serious measures, subject him to police surveillance, but please avoid sending him to a concentration camp.

Unfortunately, not even the prefect’s mediation would be enough to secure Bernardo’s safety: the facts showed every day that the Nazis were in charge and the National Republican Guard collaborated with them very eagerly.

During the days which followed my relatives’ escape, their great protector, Augusto Degli Angeli, was arrested for aiding and abetting and kept in jail for twenty-four hours. According to his daughter Lia’s report, he was freed thanks to Rachele Mussolini’s intervention.

Not even the progress of the war comforted my persecuted relatives: the Germans were resisting, occupying the Gustav Line, and the winter went by without the Allies succeeding in storming Cassino. On the 22nd of January 1944 the Anglo-Americans landed in Anzio, but were once more stopped by the Germans, who held Montecassino until the end of May. Only after the liberation of Rome did the German troops leave central Italy to retreat behind the Gothic Line.

The early actions of the partisan Resistance had already begun, followed by the furious reprisals of

the Nazis and republican Fascists. In September 1943 in Piedmont, between the Gesso Valley and the Stura Valley, the “Free Italy” group was established, made up by a dozen civilian militants of the Partito d’Azione led by Duccio Galimberti. A thousand stragglers of the IV army corps concentrated around Boves, in the Cuneo area, keeping their weapons and equipment. On the 19th of September they drove back the Germans, who vented their anger on the inhabitants of Boves, killing 32 people and burning 44 houses, in the first reprisal ever carried out on Italian ground.

In January 1944 the Ministry of the Interior of the Italian Social Republic turned their attention to my father once again, asking the Head of the Sondrio province to summarise the criminal record of the “internee under discussion”. On the 18th of February, sanctioning the payment of the expenses related to his stay in the Milan Neurological Hospital, the Head of Police asked that my father should undergo a medical check “in order to ascertain whether he could be dismissed” because his admission to hospital by now dated back to eleven months earlier.

In the atmosphere of terror and “Jew hunt” of those months, the outcome of the medical check was nearly foregone. On the 29th of February 1944 the Neurological Hospital issued the following letter of discharge:

By order of the Authority, we are today discharging Mr. Roedner Ernesto, who was admitted to this Neurological Hospital on the 4th of May 1943 by direction of the Ministry of Interior – Royal police headquarters in Sondrio… His illness having been diagnosed as acute polio in an adult, Roedner underwent Roentgen therapy at opportunely spaced out intervals and, more recently, general diathermy. The above mentioned treatment led to a clear improvement in the motor conditions of the upper limbs, and an intense treatment of manual and electric massages of the lower limbs was in progress.
Therefore my father had been officially discharged and his new departure for a concentration camp appeared to be a matter of a few days, if not of hours. On the 29th of March the Head of the Sondrio Province, Rino Parenti, wrote to the Ministry of the Interior, informing it that

The internee was declared recovered by the direction of the Neurological Hospital where he stayed until the 21st of February of this year. On the 25th the local police headquarters drew the attention of the Milan police for the purpose of interning Roedner.

With a telegram dated 27th September, the Milan police headquarters notified that the German Command had given orders that Roedner should be interned in the Concentration Camp of Fossoli (Carpi di Modena).

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