In the June 22 issue of The Jewish Voice, I reviewed “Road to Valor” (Crown, 2012), a celebration of the life of the world class Italian cyclist, Gino Bartoli (1914-2000).
The deepest drama of that narrative unfolds in the telling of Bartoli’s clandestine work with the underground resistance in response to the Nazi invasion of northern Italy during the autumn of 1943. The Nazis threatened the lives of all Jews under their control – foreign or native-born. Bartoli risked his life by serving as a courier of forged documents providing fake identities for Jews in Nazi-occupied Italy.
This summer, I read a second book concerning a young Italian Catholic who risked his life saving Jews trapped in Nazi-occupied Italy. Mark Sullivan’s “Beneath A Scarlet Sky” (Seattle: Lake Union Publishing, 2017) tells the story of Pino Lella during the last two years of World War II. In contrast to “Road to Valor,” Sullivan informs his readers that his book “is not a work of narrative non-fiction, but a novel of biographical and historical fiction that hews closely to what happened to Pino Lella between June 1943 and May 1945.”
In the fall of 1943, 17-year-old Pino finds himself at Casa Alpina, an Alpine retreat center and school for Catholic boys in northern Italy, a world away from bombed-out Milan. In addition to his academic studies, Pino learns that Father Re, head of Casa Alpina, has been preparing him, through rigorous mountaineering training missions, to escort Jewish refugees over a steep Alpine ridge and into the safety of neutral Switzerland. After meeting in the chapel with Father Re and accepting this dangerous but lifesaving assignment, “Pino left the chapel believing that he’d entered it as a boy and now exited it having made the decision to become a man” – a man who lives his life con smania, with passion – the leitmotif that sings throughout the narrative.
In extended conversations with the Jews he was helping escape the Nazi terror, he begins to learn of the incomprehensible horror of Hitler’s “Final Solution.” One of the refugees alerts him to the evil of Binario Twenty-One, “where they take every Jew they catch in Milan. Platform Twenty-One in the central station. They put them into cattle cars, and they disappear, bound for…no one knows. They don’t come back.”
After months of guiding small groups of Jews through the Italian Alps into Switzerland, Pino’s contribution to the cause of freedom takes a bizarre turn, proving the adage that truth is stranger than fiction. Through twists of circumstance that even the most gifted novelist could not invent, Pino, now 18, winds up as the driver for Major General Hans Leyers. As the second most powerful German in occupied Italy, Leyers is responsible for armaments and war production in areas of Italy under Nazi control, a task he accomplishes through the use of slave labor. Pino, now Vorarbeiter Lelle, spends almost all of his working hours with the general, wearing a Nazi uniform, swastika visible to all.
What makes Pino’s position as driver for Leyers so dangerous is that he is spying for the Allies, regularly reporting the goings-on of the German High Command to his aunt and uncle, who are in the resistance. Should Pino’s duplicity be discovered, he would be summarily executed.
In some ways, however, Pino’s emotional stability, his soul, is in even greater jeopardy than his body. His Nazi uniform offers him one type of protection, but this same uniform is the source of immense pain. It drives away his closest friends, even his brother Mino, when they chance to see him in it, for Pino does not dare to disclose his double life. To a large degree, Pino’s romantic relationship with Anna Marta, a widow six years his senior, one of the small circle who knows that he is a spy, helps him maintain some semblance of internal equilibrium. Anna Marta inspires in Pino the desire to keep on living con smania, with passion.
Adding to Pino’s barely repressed emotional turmoil is his growing ambivalence toward Leyers, whom he comes to hate as a cold-hearted monster and yet to respect as a man doing his duty and – in his self-rationalizing way – remaining a loyal husband and father. As Pino muses, “Maybe he had a conscience when it came to certain things and not to others.”
This story does not end happily. The loose ends are not tied up in pretty bows. The scales of justice do not balance. “Anna Marta took a bullet to her heart…crumpled back against the wall and died in the dust,” as Pino watched helplessly when a partisan firing squad executed her for the “crime” of being Leyers’ maid.
The Allies found Leyers more useful alive than dead. He was released from prison in April 1947, lived a comfortable life for the next 34 years, dying in 1981, a month shy of his 85th birthday. “All the evil and savagery done in northern Italy in the last two years of the war was kicked into a legal hole, buried and forgotten.”
As of this writing, Pino Lella, age 92, is living an hour north of Milan. When he was in his late 80s, he agreed to tell his story to Mark Sullivan, whom you can meet in person on Saturday evening, Oct. 6, at 7:30 at Temple Emanu-El in Providence. Sullivan will be discussing his passionately narrated and profoundly informative book, “Beneath a Scarlet Sky,” which will be available for purchase. The program is free and open to the public.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at email@example.com.