In a former report (Lamed, A Moment of Decision, January 2011), I described the escape from Ljubljana to Trieste. This is a report about the escape from Trieste to Rome. The police in Trieste ordered us to leave the city the latest in two or three days, towards the interior of Italy, because the Germans are near. They can enter Trieste almost any day. My school chum, Silvio Finzi, and I had to decide where we would go. Italy is big! I suggest Rimini, a tourist town on the Adriatic. With the logic that there, nobody will look or find us. The change (1943) of relations between Germany and Italy made Italy a bitter place since they assumed Italy to be the major ally. Italy joined America, England and their Allies. Silvio has not accepted my suggestion that we should go to Rimini with the following explanation: “I am for Rome.”
On July 20, 1943, Allied Forces bombed Rome and caused substantial damage. As a result of international negotiation, Rome was declared “Citta Apperta” (open city). No more bombing, soldiers will not bear arms in the city, only for security service. Many Italians who were financially able came to Rome to wait for the end of the war.
The decision was we go to Rome. A few weeks later, Allied planes bombed Rimini and caused tremendous destruction! In Rome, we found a room not far from the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggione--a section mostly for middle class citizens. The owner of the apartment was a postal employee, always ready to explain or help us to get settled. Among other things, he was a connoisseur of opera. He convinced us to see at least one performance. We agreed, but there were no tickets. Somebody approaches us and asks whether we are looking for tickets. Obviously, at a higher price, he could get us seats, second row balcony. Silvio and I decided that this is not a bad occupation (scalpers). For start, we’ll get some culture, and a few extra liras.
In Rome “coprifuoco” was strictly enforced, ordered by Germans, meaning that citizens cannot be on streets from 10pm to the next day at 5am. And so, Silvio and I took the streetcar near to 5am and waited in line for the opera to start selling tickets about 8am. All of us who sold tickets this way stayed in line some 3 or more hours. Early morning can be cold in Rome. All of us drank coffee to get warm. At one occasion, the famous opera singer, Beniamino Gigli, came early and saw the “line.” He asked, “What are you doing here so early?” After it was explained to him, he ordered coffee for the entire line (approx. 30 people). Short explanation: because of Rome’s status as an “open city,” the opera had two great seasons. As with other wealthy Italians, famous singers came to Rome for safety. I remember some names – Pia Tassinari and husband, Gino Bechi, Tito Gobi, Iwo Giglis, and many others. It was announced that soon the well-known composer, Pietro Mscagni, would direct his opera Cavalleria Rusticana. Silvio and I kept two tickets, first row, balcony. When Mascagni appeared, we were surprised that he sat down to direct! This we had not seen before! He was now old, and perhaps earned this privilege. There was another surprise. In the King’s box was Marsha Kesserling, commander of German Forces in South of Italy. The public did not know that he would attend. No incidents. Only our hearts beat much faster!
There were 7 people in the family where we rented. All members except one let us know that they support democracy, and expect a government led by the party called Democrazia Christiana, and smaller parties. Only one member of the family, we will call him Mr. Valeri, considered himself a fascista, and the war as a struggle between Europe and The Soviet Union, etc. One evening, when he returned home, Mr. Valeri invited us to sit down and have some conversation. He started with the question – “How is it that the two of you are not working? You have an accent and are not in the army.” We answered that we are “sons of Italians abroad”(figli d’Italiani al Estero) and that our parents are in South America. Valery simply replied – “Every young person must help the Germans and us in the struggle.” And he added, “I will talk with my boss, specifically because you mentioned that you speak German.” We were concerned, fearing consequences. Valeri spoke with his boss and arranged when to go to the office. We came on time and were told to wait. I went in first to speak with the owner. The interview went more or less this way. (1943)
The Boss: “What is your name?” I answer, “Pancrazio Feretti” (I had documents for that name.) The Boss: “You are not Pancrazio Feretti. You should not be concerned. I have to know the truth. For others, you can remain Pancrazio. (I decided that I have to confide to this young, elegant person because much else was not realistic.) “Joseph Gottfried is my name,” I hear myself say, as if I just open a box of huge secrets. The Boss: “I am Mario Bedoni (real name), architect. This is my company. Not long ago came officials from The Ministry of Communications with German military, requesting that I organize a working unit of approximately 1,800 workers to do construction on the railroad track from Naples to just a few kilometers north of Rome. We are now in full operation. Valeri told me that Finzi and you speak German?” “Yes,” I answered. Bedoni: “In the railroad station in Rome we have a cantiere (building site). I have an engineer there who leads the work and keeps contacts with Germans. If you accept to work there, tomorrow go to the station Termini, to the office Bedoni. I will offer the same job to your friend at the Civitavecchia station.” (a remark about 5 years ago, during a short travel through Rome, I phoned Bedoni’s old home number. He answered and said, “I am in the same office; I still work as an architect despite my age, well over 80.) The work in Termini did not last long. Among other things, I have on daily basis worked with Germans on “work orders” and the food distribution. Italians convinced the Germans that this was “hard work” and that some food has to be given to the workers if they were expected to work 8 hours. I was very busy with this operation because it was necessary to check and authorize the working force, individually, to receive supplementary provisions.
One day the phone rings. I am to come to the main office without delay. When I arrived, Bedoni asks, without introduction of the subject, “How do you speak German?” I reply, “quite well.” Bedoni continues, “Here, I have a small office with 5 people. This office keeps contact with the Germans. Until yesterday, the group was led by a young Dutch lady. But, a few days ago, she had an incident with Germans and they arrested her. I don’t know why. The other 4 people in the group can write simple (German) texts, but cannot have conversation. Do you think you can converse with high-ranking officers?” I reply, “I can try.” He says, “If you accept, you will get 20% more than in Termini.” And so, over many months, I spent 2-3 hours at the Ministry doing the company’s business. Here and there problems, as in every business. In all the conversations I have never heard the word, Juden, or in Italian, Ebreo. How was this possible? Nobody in that environment was bothered that 6 million Jews of Europe disappeared, but, as in Sarajevo, it would be said, it would become ugly (gusto).
We had mostly dealt with German railroad units in blue uniforms. One difficult and complex day, we were called to the Ministry because it was alleged that food disappeared while it was under the control of the company. A very dangerous accusation considering it was German food. Bedoni, the Vice-President, the accountant, and I as the translator, arrived at the designated time. Wehrmacht officers lead us to a big hall with a long table. Enter more German officers. Quiet in the room. One officer reads part of the accusation. The door opens and a tall, decorated German colonel enters. We all get up. Without any preliminary statements, he opens the dossier and reads the accusations in German. I am sitting at the other end of the table. I am scared, but without any way to disappear. The colonel asks who will translate, Bedoni indicates – me. The colonel orders that I sit near him. I would like to become smaller than a sand pebble.
So, the company is accused, collectively and the company officials, personally, to be responsible for the theft of provisions from German storage facilities, designated for workers. Somewhat louder, the colonel asserts that this is theft from the German people, and if it is confirmed, harsh punishments will result. All of us understood the threat. The firm’s attorney (also vice-president) rejects all responsibility and suggests that there must be some bureaucratic mistake. He suggests that the Germans give the firm 10 days to examine the accusation. After almost 2 hours, the colonel ends the meeting by demanding that the firm provide an analysis and respond to the accusations in 7 days. Obviously, a high understanding of German was necessary. My level might not have been up to what was required, but this was what they had and no problems arose, at least on that difficult day. We were temporarily relieved. After seven days, we returned with the results, which were accepted, with the understanding that from now on the food accounting would be done by the Germans. We were given the understanding that very harsh measures would result if such things were to happen again.
When I think of the fear of being in the same room with so many German officers, I ask myself, “Why me?” or “How is it that I did not become instantly bald?!” I was mostly concerned that one of the officers might become curious about my accent or origin. Nobody suspected my fears. To the contrary, Bedoni said that all went well and smooth. I got a bonus.
On March 23, 1944, a company of older German soldiers, mostly from South Tirol (Alto Adige, Italy) marched near the center of Rome. They sang standard German military songs. Suddenly, from window and doors of houses, partisans open fire and killed about 24 German soldiers. Silvio and I were on a bus on a nearby street. Soon, police arrived, who the German fascists called “botaglioni M” (Mussolini’s battaglions). The entire area was closed. Buses were ordered to empty and the passengers directed to assemble for interrogation. We had one or two minutes to leave the bus or try to hide under the seats. We were afraid of interrogation. We hid under seats. A soldier opened the door of the bus and asked the driver, “Is it empty?” The driver looked through the bus without getting up. He did not see us. The bus was allowed to proceed from the area.
For the next few days, as revenge, Germans executed 335 civilians. It was revealed that the list of murdered people was “only” 330, but that a “mistake” was made in the final count – the first known list contained 57 Jews. The location where the execution took place, outside of Rome, is called Fosse Ardeatine. Each year, Italy commemorates March 23.
“Rastrelamento,” a kind of police action in which streets are suddenly closed and suspected citizens are “collected” when the Germans and Italians were looking for partisans. Obviously, those who had documents to live in Rome, and were not suspects, were released and sent home. This was not done only to find “unwanted elements,” but also to create insecurity of movements. Silvio and I were not sure where or when such “Rastrelementos” would take place. The situation got worse. We decided to go as early as possible to the Vatican, and wait till dusk to return home. The Germans entered the Vatican as if it were a neutral country.
One day while walking through the Vatican corridors and speaking Serbo-Croatian, we are accosted by a young priest who asked in our language, “Where are you two from? And what brings you here this early?” Surprised and uncertain, we reply, “From Sarajevo. We are hiding from the Germans because we are Jews.” “I am from Istria,” said the young priest, “I am studying at the Gregorian Institute.” He listened to our story of hiding and offered us refuge in his quarters during the daytime. His small room held nothing except a bed, wardrobe, and books. He explained that his day started very early, and that he was not free before 4pm. We accepted his offer and spent many hours in his room, playing chess, reading Osservatore Romano (the Vatican Paper) and some books, and listening BBC radio, the central source of news.
The young priest found some time to talk to us. We were careful with our interpretation of events in the first century and later. With assistance of the young priest, we had some access to originals and copies of some documents from past centuries and how things were understood. In peaceful times, what we saw, heard, and read in the Vatican, would have been interesting (specifically, the theological changes and the history of power of the leaders of the Catholic Church). But in the atmosphere of the time, it did not look important. Keeping the head, that was important! Just before Christmas, 1942, it was rumored that Pope Pius XII will soon speak. Both Germans and Italians were concerned about the content. Would the Pope criticize Hitler or not? Osservatore Romaro, in it’s own way described the European tragedy, and indirectly accused Germany. On the designated day, Germans came to magnificent St. Peter’s Square, surrounding it, as well as part of the Vatican. I was curious. I wanted to hear and see. Thousands of people all understood the German pressure by their presence, only a few steps from the Vatican border. The Pope said nothing that could be considered against Hitler. Here and there, a theological allusion on wars and the moral price paid when violence rules. The Pope finished his address. The balcony from which he spoke, closed. Remain the impression of the importance of church’s pronouncements, around the world. Officially or not, the people took a position. The Church explained the Pope’s declaration and understood as necessary as a defense of millions of Catholics who are under Hitler’s control. It was known how many priests were killed in Poland.
If it is possible to say as a war goes on, in the office things looked normal. I later understood, only on the surface. No official was what it seems to be! As the Allies came closer to Rome, people felt the change in political and social structure. There was talk of political parties, of democracy. It turned out that one of the people in my group was the sister of Bedoni’s wife, named Ana. We went out a few times so that Ana could show me parts of old Rome. Sitting in a park in the center of the city, she read to me Italian poems. Interesting. Still today, I remember some parts of powerful words of Leopardi. Pictures of words! Ana invited me to her home, a patriarchal environment. These people belonged to the elite of Rome’s social life. As in Paris, so also existed in Rome a strata of citizens who maintain civilization and society. Shortly before the Allies came to Rome, it became clearer why Bedoni told me and Silvio, “You can tell me …” First, the official who worked in my group was, in fact, a high ranking leader of the Liberal party, the right hand of philosopher, writer, and leading politician, Benedetto Croce. That gentleman explained to me how Free Masons existed and were organized (secretly) during Mussolini’s rule.
Events moved faster due to the military situation. One day, Ana told me, “My father was one of the first Ministers of Justice in the new Italian government” (note – in Southern Italy). I was able to find the list of ministers. My spelling may not be correct, but it was either Dr. Azzarity or Azarity. Ana had a brother who was one of the leaders of the Communist Party under Togliati. She told me that at home, there is little political discussion because her father is hurt that his son is such a fanatical communist. It all became clearer to me. In part, the company was a hiding place (if needed) for some politicians of that time. Perhaps some people remember the Allied effort through the Monastery Monte Cassirio, South of Rome. The liberation of Rome was considered a great defeat for Germany. The allied bombed Cassino almost without pause. The Germans fought and suffered great losses. Sometimes in the night we went on roofs to see the lights of falling bombs.
Finally, with changing tactics and more forces, the Allies penetrate the hills on which the Monastery was situated. The Allies speed up the push to Rome. The city is expecting the “liberators.” I go out to the streets. Here and there, a German truck, tank, artillery. It is my imagination or reality. I am seeing for the first time, dirty, disorderly, panicky Germans as they are fleeing? They asked, “which is the nearest road north?” Many looked not much older than 16. They were exhausted after so many losses on so many fronts.
Suddenly, quiet. There are no more Germans and the Allies are waiting to clear the mines. Several hours go by. I was near a bridge when I saw the first American tank with anti tank equipment dispensing a ribbon indicating free passage for mines. Stores are opened. People are back on streets. Some are saying – “Liberta” (freedom).
Next day, all of us come to the office. The boss, Mario Bedoni, explained the activities of the company. Under German direction, workers have already been released. From this moment, the firm is terminated, and we in the office discharged. Most of us received monthly salaries. Each of us thought of our futures. We said goodbye to each other. Perhaps, for us in Rome, this may be the end of the war. However, in the north of Italy, the war has not ended. Silvio and I told each other, if we recounted these events to most people, they would have a hard time believing us. But, two from Sarajevo – and Jews?
(The last chapter, from Rome to Naples, at some later time.)