While Italians are slowly catching up with the commercialisation of Halloween, Italy is miles ahead when it comes to celebrating the dead. The 1st November, All-Saints Day, is a national holiday in Italy. The 2nd November, though, is Il Giorno dei Morti, the day of the dead. On this day it is custom to light candles and visit the graves of deceased relatives. Indeed, this is how most of my students were planning to spend at least part of the day.
Not wanting to miss out on this expression of reverence for the deceased, we decided to mark the occassion ourselves by making a pilgrimage to the memorial at Monte Comun, where Rita Rosani, a Jewish partisan, was killed during the second world war (for the full story, see una Ragazza in Guerra and A school called Rosani).
The 2nd of November was a beautiful bright Sunday morning in Verona. Armed with a map and a camera, we set off early, stopping en route at a florist outside the local cemetery. It was already busy. Cars were double parked as people flocked to the graveyard. The florist was doing a roaring trade. Ten minutes and a €20 bouquet later, we were soon climbing up the hills behind Quinzano to the north of Verona.
It had been difficult to pinpoint beforehand exactly where the memorial was located, so we weren’t entirely sure that we would be able to find it. Sure enough, we made a couple of wrong turns along the way, before eventually finding ourselves in the country lanes high above the city to the north of Montecchio. Somehow we stumbled upon a sign to Montecomun. Encouraged, we soon arrived at the sleepy hamlet.
A private road in one direction, a dirt track in the other, we decided to abandon the car and set off along the dirt track on foot. The dirt track soon proved to be something of a dead end and we turned back towards the car. While a delicate mist shrouded the valleys below, the high pastures of Monte Comun shone in the afternoon sunshine. But still, there was no sign of the memorial.
As we are about to give up our search, a car passed which we rather desperately flagged down. Take the private road, they tell us, and again we set off on foot, this time along the narrow track.
Passing a few houses, we presently arrive at an area of well-maintained woodland. I realise, with intense relief, that we have found the place we are looking for. Behind a row of ornamental graveyard cypresses, a series of inscribed stones encircle an ageing cenotaph inscribed with the names "Rita Rosani" and "Dino Degani", the two young idealists who died here 70 years ago. Beyond stands a shady forest of conifers atop a carpet of brown needles.
The afternoon is passing and the temperature in the hills is falling sharply. The sun disappears below the mountains to the west.
Trying to understand what happened here 70 years ago, we leave our bouquet and head back down the road to the car.
Like millions of other Italians, today we remember the dead.
More articles like this...
Undeterred by my previous encounter with historical commemoration in Italy (see Una Ragazza in Guerra), I recently went along to another event to honour heroes of Verona’s resistance movement.
The convention was held in the plush surroundings of Verona’s Gran Guardia and marked the 70th anniversary of the death of the two ‘heroes of the Scalzi’, Lorenzo Fava and Danilo Preto.
In attendance were various political dignitaries, including Stefano Casali, the charismatic vice-mayor of Verona. Despite having a different political outlook to the protagonists in this story, he spoke of the importance of their contribution to democracy. Another speaker explained that as a child he had attended Scuola Media Lorenzo Fava, without at the time appreciating the significance of the school’s name. He emphasised the importance of passing on these stories to our young people.
Avid readers may remember that during the Second World War The Scalzi was a prison in Verona in which a number of anti-fascists, as well as Mussolini’s son-in-law Count Galeazzo Ciano, were detained (see A Place of Execution).
Preto, the son of railway worker, was a 21-year old typewriter repairman. Fava, 25 years old, was a law student at the University of Padova with a passion for literature. He had already seen combat, earning the Croce di Guerra for leading a platoon of riflemen as they successfully conquered an enemy position in Montenegro. He had also committed various acts of sabotage, including the destruction of the Italian-German reading room in via Mazzini, accomplished by placing on the shelves a book by the German writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Hidden inside the book was a bomb!
On 17 July 1944, Fava and Preto, alongside fellow Gapisti (Gruppi di Azione Patriottica) Emilio ‘Bernardino’ Moretto, Berto Zampieri, Vittorio Ugolini and Aldo Petacchi, launched an audacious attack on the Scalzi. Their mission: to liberate prominent trade union leader Giovanni Roveda.
Roveda was already a national symbol of antifascism and a central figure in the mobilization of Italian workers against the fascist regime. In February 1928 he had been convicted and sentenced to twenty years and four months in prison. He served 11 years and was released on amnesty. However, in April 1937 he was sent into internal exile in Ponza for being insufficiently repentant of his crimes. He was then transferred to Ventotene, a remote island of the coast of Napoli. In March 1943, taking advantage of a permit to visit his sick wife, he escaped.
At first he hid in Biella, in north western Italy, then in July 1943, after the collapse of the Mussolini regime, he moved to Rome, from where he represented the labour movement in government. After the armistice of 8 September and the re-establishment by the Germans of the Mussolini government, Roveda took refuge in a seminary. In December 1943 he was re-arrested by the Banda Koch, a notorious gang of partisan hunters. He was then transferred to the Scalzi prison in Verona.
At 18.20 on the 17 July 1944, the Gappisti, including Fava and Preto, enter the prison, cut the telephone lines, and locate Roveda. As they are escaping, a fierce shootout begins. They make it to the getaway car, but it won’t start. Preto is hit and gravely wounded. His comrades try desperately to push-start the vehicle. Fava and Moretto, who get out to push, are also hit, as is the trade unionist Roveda. With a skid of the flat back tyre, the car finally starts.
Not far from the prison, Zampieri, Ugolini, Petacche and Roveda abandon the car in search of a safe house. Morretto, the driver (three bullet wounds), Preto (in agony) and Fava (unconscious) finally ditch the vehicle at Porto San Pancrazio. It's curfew time. They search in vain for help.
Preto and Fava are seized by the fascist police. Fava, having destroyed his documents to avoid recognition, is taken to the military barracks Casermette di Montorio to be tortured by the SS. In response to threats that his parents will be killed, Fava ironically replies that he also has a granny aged 92. For two days he is deprived of water. His mother, who seeks news for him at the Palazzo dell’Ina (see in this building…), is told that he has been deported to Germany. On 23 August 1944, he is secretly taken to the firing range at Forte Procolo where he is shot in the back. His body is taken to the Cimitero Monumentale. It is a year before his family finally discover his fate.
The trade unionist Giovanni Roveda became the first mayor of liberated Torino. He died in 1962 of phlebitis, caused by the bullet that had been in his body since his breakout from prison in 1944. He remains a revered and respected political figure.
Fava and Preto, the heroes of the Scalzi, were posthumously awarded the Medaglia d’oro for military valour.
The bodies of the two young comrades lie together in Verona’s Cimitero Monumentale.
With thanks to some detailed directions from the helpful staff at the Istituto Veronese per la storia della resistenza e dell'etå contemporanea, I was finally able to locate the gravestone of Lorenzo Fava and Danilo Preto. See below.
Last Saturday afternoon, I went to a literary event at a local Veronese historical society. It seemed like a welcome opportunity for a civilised afternoon of informed discussion, a chance to discuss a fascinating period in Italy’s history with some like-minded enthusiasts in a convivial and collegiate atmosphere.
The joint meeting of the Istituto Veronese per la storia della Resistenza e dell’etå contemporanea (IvrR) l’Associazione nazionale partigiani d’Italia (ANPI) and l’Associazione nazionale perseguitati politici italiani antifascisti (ANPPIA) didn’t quite turn out as I had expected!
Now, I worked for 10 years at the Scottish Parliament and I’ve been to my fair share of public meetings, including, most regrettably, an annual general meeting of allotment holders (yes, held in a shed!), but never before have I attended a meeting where the chair has so completely lost control of proceedings...
For Italy, the latter part of the Second World War was, above all, a civil war. A brutal civil war, played out in the hills, towns and villages of the north. Red against black, pro-German against anti-German, monarchist against republican, pro-Mussolini against anti-Mussolini, fascist against communist. With neither shared objectives nor a unified organisational structure, even the resistance fighters were far from a homogenous group (although a centralised control structure eventually emerged).
By the end of October 1944, there were nearly 400,000 German troops in Italy, with all the accompanying brutality that this implied (including the presence of the SS and the ‘cleansing and destruction’ of the Jewish population). Those living in northern Italy had effectively been partitioned into the Third Reich. Civilian losses were over 150,000 (compared to 40,000 in the United Kingdom). Large numbers in northern Italy were starving or close to starvation.
The book being discussed at the literary event was “Non era una donna, era un bandito”: Rita Rosani, una ragazza in guerra by Livio Isaak Sirovich. Avid readers of this blog will remember that Rita Rosani was a 23 year old Jewish teacher turned partisan who was killed in the hills to the north of Verona by the German-Italian fascist militia (see: A school called Rosani). The book’s title refers to a discussion that is said to have taken place between a fascist soldier and his commander just after Rosani was killed:
“And now what are we going to do, you’ve just killed a woman”.
The reply, “she wasn’t a woman, she was a bandit”.
The meeting started off conventionally enough, with some interesting historical context and a resumé of the author’s background, but the constant buzz of conversation, which on several occasions, compelled the chair to plead for silence, and the sporadic sound of clandestine mobile phone use should have alerted me to the fact that the standard rules of etiquette to which I am accustomed at public meetings would not necessarily apply here!
The headline speaker was the book’s author, Livio Isaak Sirovich. Thankfully, his detailed and thought provoking presentation was listened to with both interest and respect.
It was only when the chair invited questions from the floor that things really began to liven up.
Enter centre stage what can only be described as a triumvirate of angry old men. There followed a succession of long-winded and venomous rants, the precise relevance of which was not entirely clear (to me anyway). From the last of these contributors, the chair was unable to reclaim the microphone, far less re-establish order in the room. Exasperated, he was left with little option but to call proceedings to a rather abrupt halt. I later asked him if such behaviour was normal – his resigned look suggested that it was.
My initial reaction was one of incredulity and disappointment that the event had been disrupted in this way. After some reflection, however, I have come to a rather different conclusion. Let me explain.
Although 70 years have passed since this dark period in Italy’s history, the scars of fascist barbarity and Nazi invasion remain a source of pain. Many in the audience seemed to have some direct link with the events under discussion. Perhaps they were the son or daughter of a partisan. Perhaps they were from Monte Comun, the small village where Rosani was killed. Perhaps, like the book’s author, they were Jewish. There were even a few in the audience who seemed old enough to have witnessed events first hand. Perhaps.
Terrible atrocities were committed by both sides (fascist and resistance). The fascist “March of Death” began on 12 August 1944 at Sant’Anna di Stazzema with the massacre of 560 men, women and children and concluded on 1 October at Marzabotto with the killing of 1,830 civilians. When the war finally ended, partisan reprisals were severe – at least 15,000 and possibly 30,000 fascists (and suspected fascists) were killed.
As James Holland observes in Italy’s Sorrow, his epic account of the Italian civil war:
“The terrible rastrellamenti of the summer and winter of 1944-45 and the bloody reprisals at the end of the war are still the subject of debate and soul-searching in Italy”.
This was certainly in evidence in Verona on Saturday afternoon.
“One day, Italy will be able to forget. But not quite yet.”
Just a few yards from the hordes of tourists at Piazza delle Erbe and Piazza dei Signori, Piazza Indipendenza is generally overlooked by Verona’s many visitors.
Surrounded by mature trees, in one corner stands a towering sycamore. But the focal point of the piazza is the imposing statue of Garibaldi, Italy’s iconic general and politician, ‘father of the fatherland’, hero of the Italian wars of independence and leading figure in the formation of a unified Italy. His biscuits aren’t bad either.
Green, shady and peaceful, if you've had enough of dining out or if you're trying to avoid pasta altogether (as we are), this is one of the few places in Verona's historic centre where it’s possible to enjoy a quiet packed lunch. And so we found ourselves here one bright Tuesday lunchtime enjoying some crudités, raisins and home made banana bread.
To our east, adjoining Piazza Independenzia is Piazzetta Peschiera, to the west, Piazza delle Poste and the historic post office building. In September 1943, this was the scene of a dramatic battle...
La Battaglia delle Poste
On 9 September 1943, this area was a battlefield, the sight of what is known locally as La Battaglia delle Poste.
The day before (8 September 1943), the Armistice between Italy and Allies had been announced. The Italian army had ceased combat and the Navy had sailed to Allied ports to surrender. German forces in Italy were preparing for the Italian capitulation and had begun to disarm Italian units and occupy important defensive positions, including the city of Verona, an important staging post to the north. A group of local soldiers and civilians, including 'Garibaldista' Darno Maffini and the future 'Gappista' Berto Zampieri, build barricades in various places throughout the historical centre of Verona in a vain attempt to stop the German occupation.
A bloody conflict took place in Piazza delle Poste, where the Germans unleashed a pair of Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger Ausf.E, their infamous 'tiger' tanks.
The resistance held out for about eight hours. Towards evening the partisans were overwhelmed by the Nazi superiority in numbers and weapons. Maffini was wounded in the leg by a grenade explosion. Taken prisoner, he managed to escape a few days later and returned to Verona. He continued the resistance in France. Zampieri remained in Verona and participated in the assault on the prison degli Scalzi (see previous post, A place of execution).
The number of casualties is not known, but there were certainly fallen on both sides, including at least three from the resistance.
Piazza delle Poste has since been renamed Piazza Francesco Viviani. Viviani was a teacher, anti-fascist and prominent member of the Italian Resistance. On 2 July 1944 he was arrested, interrogated and tortured before being turned over to the Germans. He spent some time in the INA building (referred to in the previous post, In this building) and was later transferred to a transit camp in Bolzano. He was subsequently deported to Germany. He died in Buchenwald concentration camp on 6 February 1945.
As we finish our packed lunch, I gaze up at the statue of Garibaldi, then turn back to look once more at the giant sycamore in the far corner. We leave Piazza Independenzia, passing Caffe Viviani, through narrow via Dante to Piazza dei Signore. We turn left and pass under the Arco della Costa and soon emerge amongst the throngs of tourists enjoying their long lunch in Piazza Erbe.
The Palazzo dell'INA is a blink-and-you miss-it office building on Corso Porta Nuova, just a few metres from Piazza Bra.
As with many other remnants of the Second World War, I stumbled across this building in Verona quite by chance. Patiently waiting for a green man, I happened to glance upwards and noticed the plaque (see picture to the left). Well above head height on a busy street corner, it's easy to miss. Aside from the plaque, the palazzo's historical significance isn't immediately obvious.
In search of further clues, I circumnavigated the building a couple of times and subsequently returned to surreptitiously explore the building's interior.
Once inside, even my inexpert eye recognised the tell-tale features of fascist-era architecture.
Fascist architects in the 1920s and ‘30s drew inspiration from classical Roman buildings, but while Roman design has ornate details and rounded edges, fascist buildings are generally cold and forbidding. Symmetry, straight lines and simplicity (think Mackintosh but without the nice bits), the interior of the Palazzo dell'INA exudes conformity and order (see below).
The Palazzo is now a busy office block and residence, with much coming and going. The maintenance work taking place in the enclosed courtyard at the back of the building adds to the general hustle and bustle. Passers-by are oblivious to the buildings dark past.
[click to enlarge]
On my third visit to the Palazzo, I meet the building's friendly concierge, who also happens to be something of an amateur historian. Without too much difficulty, I persuade him to show me the building's darker subterranean level, where traces of the buildings sinister past are still visible (see below).
The building was constructed in 1937, during the height of Italian fascism. Mussolini had been in power for 15 years. Built to house the istituto nazionale delle assicurazioni (the INA), it was designed in the style of Marcello Piacentini, a controversial figure in the history of architecture because of his strong association with the fascist regime. The building was part of a wider plan of urban restructuring, overseen by architect Paolo Rossi De Paoli. The onset of war meant that the other parts of the plan were never realised. Corso Porta Nuova, the elegant avenue on which Palazzo delle'INA is located was originally known as Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, after the famous Italian monarch. Throughout the period of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (1943-1945), the street was renamed Corso Cangrande, in tribute to the famous 14th century warrior and autocrat.
Between September 1943 and April 1945, the period of the German occupation of Italy, Verona became the headquarters of the German military administration for the whole of occupied Italy and the operations centre of the Italian Gestapo. The headquarters of the commander of the Security Police and the Security Service of the SS occupied the Palazzo dell'INA.
The upper floors were home to various commands and offices. The entrances and the corners of the building were protected by concrete casemates with slits for automatic weapons. Sentries were on guard 24 hours a day.
The basement level was transformed into a prison.
Although not large (average capacity was around 100), it was a feared interrogation and torture centre. Some traces of the building's past use are still visible in the basement, including original doors with German markings.
[click to enlarge]
Natale Mihel, a young antifascist, was only 17 years old when he spent a month imprisoned in the Palazzo dell'INA before being transferred to a camp at Bolzano. Although he suffered greatly, Mihel survived the camp and returned to Verona after the war. He subsequently emigrated to Switzerland but returns to Verona every now and then. In March 2014 he was awarded the diplomi di Onorificenza dell’Ordine “Al Merito della Repubblica Italiana”.
In December 1943, the decision was taken in Berlin to set up Department IV B4 to organise the systematic persecution and deportation of the Jews. In Italy, this decision was implemented from the Palazzo dell'INA. Starting with their arrest and internment in prisons, and concluding with their deportation to the concentration and extermination camps, Verona was the hub for thousands of deportees, the obligatory point of passage for convoys to the concentration camps.
Prominent Nazis in Verona during the German occupation of Italy include a number of so-called schreibtischtäter – the ‘desk murderers’, who, with the stroke of a pen, condemned thousands to death. Men like Martin Sandberger, a former Einsatzgruppen commander in Russia, he took over the Gestapo in Verona in October 1943. At Nuremberg he was found guilty of crimes against humanity. He was released in 1951. For decades he lived undisturbed in Germany. He died in a Stuttgart retirement home on 30 March 2010.
Available now on Amazon:
A short collect of reflections on family life in locked down Italy
Disclosure. This blog may receive a small commission for purchases if you buy something after clicking one of the advertising banners or links. Products are carefully selected in keeping with the ethos of the site.