Mark Sullivan’s historical/biographical novel Beneath a Scarlet Sky won a thumbs-up by my beloved book club a few months ago. It is based on the true story of a great Italian guy, Pino Lella, who played a part in the Allies’ success in northern Italy. Pino, who is now about 90 years old is an unsung hero of World War 2. At seventeen years old, Pino and his little brother are sent to a Catholic boys camp in the Alps on the border between Italy and Switzerland because their hometown of Milan was being bombed. The boys summered at this camp and were close to Father Re who ran it. Father Re had taught all his campers to hike in the mountains, so when Pino arrived to escape the bombing, he immediately had Pino recondition himself to the altitude and endurance difficulties. Father Re was helping Italian Jews escape over the Alps into Switzerland, and guess who became his key guide? Yep, it was Pino who took dozens of Jews, including a pregnant woman over the treacherous mountain route to safety. Pino’ son said later that “the missions gave [his dad] an identity, a meaningful purpose, and an opportunity to lead. And like many 17 year-olds, with reckless abandon, he thrived on the excitement and adventure of it all.” You’ll have to read Sullivan’s book to learn how Pino at the age of 19 becomes the driver of one of Hitler’s key generals in Italy, Hans Leyers- and becomes an Allied spy at the same time! You can’t make this stuff up!
I am fascinated by this General Hans Leyers, who oversaw the slave labor camps in Italy where millions of Italian citizen/slaves perished under the harshest of conditions. The Nazis called it Vernichtung durch Arbeit- extermination by labor, part of Hitler’s Final Solution. Albert Speers oversaw all the Nazi labor camps and technically Leyers answered to Speers. Leyers claims to have never answered to Speers, only to Hitler himself. Let me just cut through to the chase about this bad apple- Leyers is not tried at Nuremberg for war crimes. He serves 23 months in an Allied POW camp, but Sullivan says no records of his interrogation exist. Leyers testifies against Speer and cuts his own deal with the Allies. Speer serves twenty years in Spandau Prison. Sullivan says Leyers was “so devastatingly good at burning his way out of history” that there are no records left testifying to his role in perpetrating war crimes against Italians and the Allies. How does this happen? One clue is a lesson Leyers teaches Pino about doing favors for people as a means of survival. Leyers says, “Doing favors…they help wondrously over the course of a lifetime. When you have done men favors, when you look out for others so they can prosper, they owe you. With each favor, you become stronger, more supported. It is a law of nature.” So what favors has Leyers been doing while in Italy? Apparently a lot because Leyers spends the rest of his long life in Germany remodeling his wife’s inherited estate and building his local parish church building located on the road named after him!
Italian author and historian Michele Battini calls Leyers avoidance of justice “the missing Italian Nuremberg” which is the title of his book. Battini writes that the Allies intended a trial of German war crimes in Italy but investigations stopped in 1946 with very few people prosecuted. He says the Italian government was complicit in stopping the planned trials because it was hoping that the Fascist war crimes in the Balkins would be forgotten. Basically European governments and the ruling class in Europe were let off the hook for their parts in Nazism and their collaboration with Hitler when it suited their purposes. Battini writes of the “divided memory” and “collective amnesia”of these countries and cultures.
How does someone like Pino live with the trauma and tragedies of this war? Read what his 89-year-old-self said to Mark Sullivan not too long ago, “Life is change, constant change, and unless we are lucky enough to find comedy in it, change is nearly always a drama, if not a tragedy. But after everything, and even when the skies turn scarlet and threatening, I still believe that if we are lucky enough to be alive, we must give thanks for the miracle of every moment of every day, no matter how flawed. And we must have faith in God, and in the Universe, and in a better tomorrow, even if that faith is not always deserved.”
Yad Vashem in Israel named Father Luigi Re the “Righteous Among the Nations” for his role in saving Italian Jews.