Monday, February 11, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“A SECOND LIFE - APRICA TO SALVATION IN SWITZERLAND 1943” by Alan Poletti (privately published, may be bought directly from author at 330 Pt Chevalier Road, Point Chevalier, Auckland or website www.resourceroom.co.nz $NZ38)

            It is not my habit on this blog to review self-published works. But a friend of mine in the publishing trade is most insistent that, with established publishers in various ways limiting their range of product, the self-published book is becoming a more and more respectable phenomenon. It’s the only way that some worthwhile, but offbeat and perhaps non-commercial, works can see the light of print.

            All of this is by way of saying that I’m happy to take notice of Alan Poletti’s A Second Life, a project dear to Poletti’s heart, which documents a small but significant historical incident.

            Dr Poletti is a New Zealander of Italian descent – a physicist who, for over thirty years, taught at the University of Auckland. Some years ago, he took a trip to Italy to verify details of his family’s ancestry that his grandpa had told him. The family had come from the Villa di Tirano region in the alps of Italy’s far north, right next to the Swiss border. Alan Poletti confirmed things he wanted to know about his pedigree, but in the process he met the priest Don Cirillo Vitalini and unearthed a more dramatic story than the family one.

            Basically, it was the story of how sympathetic Italian border guards, and two anti-fascist priests, helped to smuggle two hundred Jewish refugees into Switzerland during the Second World War. This was at the time when the Nazis were about to invade Italy and Italian Fascist round-ups of Jews were becoming more common. On 8 September 1943, the Fascist grand council had deposed Mussolini and made an armistice with the Allies, hoping thus to take Italy completely out of the war. Instead, German forces invaded Italy, now treating the country as an enemy state, and the Allies had to fight long and hard to gain control of the peninsula.

            As soon as the September 1943 armistice was made, perceptive people understood what the Nazi reaction would be. This included the Jewish community who were living as refugees in the north Italian town of Aprica.

These people had fled from Croatia, then under control of the homegrown Croatian fascist Ustashi regime, which was in alliance with the Nazis. Poletti makes it clear that the refugees had been able to reach comparative safety in Italy in the first place, partly because many Italian border guards (on the border with Croatia) were either sympathetic to them in their suffering – or were willing to take bribes to enable them to flee. Once in Aprica, the Croatian Jews had hoped to survive the war unmolested. They were organised in part by the Jewish relief agency Delasem, which had had to work covertly in Italy ever since Mussolini had been foolish enough to pass anti-Semitic laws in 1938.

The fear of deportation to a death camp became more urgent when three Italian Jews managed to escape from Treblinka, made it back to Italy and made known what the camps’ real purpose was. In mid-September 1943, Delasem moved, in collaboration with the priests Cirillo Vitalini and Giuseppe Carozzi. The priests knew that the Fascist militia (MVSM), which sometimes patrolled the border, would be only too willing to turn escaping Jews back and hand them over to the Germans. By contrast the regular border patrol, the Guardia di Finanza whose main purpose was to stop smuggling, contained many officers who had never taken to Fascism in the first place and some who actively opposed it. Treating with two Guardia di Finanza officers in particular, Bruno Pilat and Leonardo Marinelli, the priests organized the unopposed moonlight flit of the refugees into Switzerland. Clearly there is more to the story than this – not least the dangers of the mountain paths and the bureaucratic problems of being accepted into Switzerland – but that is the heart of the story.

            Dr Poletti writes his story in the form of a dossier. He says in his Preamble :

I am a scientist who is used to writing academic papers. I had initially intended this to be another such paper: an objective and dispassionate discourse based on archival records and published accounts, full of references and footnotes. As I worked on the material, however, the characters of the people who were involved slowly insisted on being heard. What was more, some of them have been able to give me their story directly….”

This means there is much directly-quoted testimony from both aged survivors and their children. Some of it is very touching. We hear, for example, Iva Federbusch confess the naivete of some Jews in Croatia when they were first given marching orders:

 “When the Ustashi established camps for Jews in Croatia, the Jewish community sent out a pamphlet explaining how to dig wells in case of water shortage in the camps! My mother and I discussed which blouse to pack for the camp; one that doesn’t need too much ironing.” (Pg.34)

Repeatedly, Poletti attributes the goodness of the two priests to the nature of the men themselves – not to the institutional church in general. Indeed, while he notes that many Italian priests performed similar acts of mercy, he makes a number of waspish comments about the Vatican’s lack of action and lack of leadership at the time of the refugees’ distress. He also confirms what others have noted of Italian officials in the Fascist years – many of them were Fascists only by convention and really wouldn’t have a bar of the Fascist ideology. Numerous acts of kindness and humanity are credited to people who were officially Fascist party members. Of Tenete Comandante Bruno Pilat of the Guardia di Finanza he writes:

It is certain that he carried the Fascist party card. At that time, you did not get to be a brigadier in the carabinieri without one. But as with all members of the armed forces, his oath of loyalty was to the king and the kingdom of Italy. In the chaos, following the armistice, there were no longer orders to follow. He acted upon what he considered to be the best interests of the internees. Not only did he tell them they could go, but he arranged for the men he commanded to assist them.” (Pg.56)

 I enjoyed the direct style with which Poletti told the narrative part of this story, although I do note that this book is as much an assemblage of documents as it is a narrative. Pages are devoted to reproducing passports and official papers; giving thumbnail photographs of all the refugees; documenting with colour photographs a return journey to the area many years later by one refugee, Vera Neufeld; and describing exactly what local geographical features were. If I were to be critical, I would say that it is more the raw materials that have yet to be shaped into a history than it is the history itself.

Even so, I’m very happy to pass on a report in the newsletter of the Dante Alighieri Society, which tells me that the book has been translated into Italian. The Italian edition is prefaced with a letter from the current mayor of Aprica, giving his recommendation that it be put into the hands of all local high-school students.

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