This article on Ginevra Bedetti Masciadri in part commemorates International Women’s Day (March 8th), but also is intended to throw light on someone who needs to be counted within the pantheon of Como’s famous women.
As we are currently witnessing in Ukraine, warfare inflicts a set of extreme moral and physical pressures which bring out the best and the worst in humanity, as during the war initiated by the Mussolini dictatorship which developed into the civil war following the nazi occupation of Northern Italy from September 1943. Ginevra was just one of those heroines of the resistance movement in Como who displayed immense physical courage and total commitment at great personal risk to helping those declared enemies of the state. She was however perhaps unique in her ability to play on many of the stereotypes of class and gender to stay safe while taking extraordinary risks for the benefit of others.
Ginevra was born in to a well-to-do liberal, free-thinking family. Her father, a renowned local socialist politician, had once declared himself to be ‘an anti-fascist before even fascists existed.’ Her mother played an active part in the local Red Cross aiding those injured in the First World War who, on the occasion of the return of the wounded from the front line, turned the family home into a veritable factory for producing bandages and sheets. Ginevra duly inherited her sense of duty, energy and generosity as well as her practical sense and organisational capacity.
When Italy entered the 2nd World War in 1940, Ginevra had noted how the soldiers sent off to fight in Albania and later to Russia ‘left with few clothes, scarce equipment and above all, without any enthusiasm.’ She set about organising the collection of unused garments and reworking them into clothing for the soldiers. This initiative required the enrolment of many of her friends and acquaintances amongst whom she would later take the lead in organising safe passage for those seeking safety across the border in Switzerland. For now she needed to ensure her gesture of charity was not immediately blocked by the local fascist administration. This she achieved by first obtaining the approval of the local military garrison and the Red Cross. All the objections of the fascist party were thus neutralised, much as they disliked an initiative of this sort emanating from the party’s political opponents or the fact that it highlighted how the newly enlisted troops were so badly equipped.
The appearance of political naivety alongside acute diplomatic sense formed an essential part of survival for those members of the social elite like Ginevra who operated visibly against the state’s aims and values. Within the framework of her anti-fascism, she remained ideologically apolitical, averse to any form of committee work but resolutely committed to action. Although she went on to perform countless errands in support of the opposition Committee for National Liberation (CLN), she never aligned herself explicitly to any of the political groups within it. What is more, she never took part in any committee deliberations preferring always actions over words.
Life was hard enough under the fascist dictatorship for progressives. It became harder still for Jews following the passing of the Racial Laws in 1938, and for everyone else once Mussolini decided to declare war on France and Britain in 1940. Yet still worse was to come following the armistice on September 8th 1943 when the Germans occupied Northern Italy reinstating Mussolini as head of a puppet republican fascist government. From then on, all Jews no matter what their nationality feared for their lives and the nazifascists tyrannised all political opponents. Yet whatever steps they took to increase repression only caused more civilians to aid the opposition either by joining the partisan groups, supporting them or undertaking strikes and acts of sabotage within the workplace.
Ginevra’s very first patriotic act took place on the eve of the nazifascist occupation back in September 1943. She organised a group of friends to break into the Carabinieri barracks on Via Lambertenghi and capture all the arms held there. She then managed the distribution of these arms from her lodgings on Via Rubini to the nascent partisan bands being set up in Moltrasio and at the far end of the lake in Domaso. From this moment on, Ginevra was totally committed in many different ways to supporting the resistance movement and in helping those seeking to escape across the border into Switzerland to safety. She became one of the principal ‘go to’ contacts in Como for those Jews, political opponents, allied ex-prisoners of war or men avoiding draft into the fascist militia, all seeking safety over the border in Switzerland. Her lodgings on Via Rubini became a clearing house for hundreds fleeing out of Italy and for receiving those couriers from Switzerland with money and documents supporting the opposition political parties (CLN) and the partisan bands.
Conventional warfare is predominantly conducted by men but clandestine partisan warfare requires the active support of the local civilian population. It has been estimated that up to five civilians were needed to keep a single partisan in active combat. And most of that civilian group was made up of women, particularly those who took on the dangerous work of a ‘staffetta’.
The main role of a staffetta was to maintain communication between the different partisan groups. They would convey messages allowing different bands to communicate with each other. They also delivered food, clothing, as well as money and arms. Without them, the individual bands hiding out in isolation from each other in the mountains would have no knowledge of what was happening in the towns and cities, or be able to receive orders or convey reports to or from the political opposition or their military coordinators.
Women undertook this vital role in linking and supporting the partisan bands because they were not so likely to be challenged or mistrusted as they moved around. The nazifascist mentality was traditional and reactionary in terms of the role they saw for women even in conflict. The partisans took immediate advantage of this knowing full well that a young woman cycling from village to village with vital messages for band leaders or hiding a couple of automatic pistols would appear more innocent than a lone man. The ‘staffette’ were quite prepared to play up to whatever stereotype or deploy so-called feminine wiles to circumvent close questioning or inspection at any of the many control points. Yet if caught their fate was the same as that for any active partisan, namely imprisonment and torture and a high risk of summary execution ‘in seeking to escape’.
Ginevra undertook trips from Como to Milan up to three times a week as a staffetta carrying arms and money brought over from the Swiss border for delivery to the heads of the patriot movement. In her own words:
I made trips to Milan at least three times a week, When I went to Milan, I became very skilled at escaping, because they always followed me … In fact, Saletta admitted that for two years they had followed me. In Milan because of the bombing there were gaps between one house and another, with low walls…. I went in one way and I went out the other, went to the hairdresser where there was another exit and they stayed there for maybe four hours waiting to pick me up when I had already returned back to Como, so to speak. I had learned to jump on the trolleybus, on the trams, just when the doors close… leaving my followers behind. ‘From an interview with Ginevra Bedetti Masciadri published in La Memoria che resiste, Como 1988.
(Domenico Saletta was the much feared Vice-Commander of the Como Police).
On public transport she would appear to be a regular middle-class lady sat patiently knitting whilst inside her knitting bag she concealed much-need currency from Switzerland or even possibly two or three automatic pistols.
But her luck ran out on August 8th 1944 when she was arrested by the Vice-Commander of the local police, Domenico Saletta and incarcerated in Como’s San Donnino prison. Her prospects were bleak. Clearly Saletta was aware of her activities in supporting escapees and delivering money and arms to the CLN in Milan but Ginevra had some luck on her side and the help of an unusual guardian angel, General Hans Leyers. Leyers was Albert Speer’s representative in Italy with overall responsibility for directing Northern Italian industry towards the production of arms and wartime materials for the German economy. Ginevra was Hans Leyers’ neighbour in Via Rubini.
Ginevra’s family home had been burnt down in a fascist arson attack prior to the Nazi occupation. She took up residence next door to the sumptuous Villa Rosasco on Via Rubini. This villa had been commandeered from the local silk magnate Eugenio Rosasco who, as an ardent ant-fascist, had fled to Switzerland. His villa was subsequently occupied by General Leyers and his close staff. Leyers’ personal commitment to nazism is unclear but his personal secretary, Bayerlee, was known by the CLN as a passive supporter of the patriot cause. He and Ginevra had worked out a way of signalling when it was safe for Bayerlee to join her to listen to Radio London, an act which was itself a capital offence. For whatever motive, Hans Leyers had granted Ginevra a permit that allowed her to travel for the most part unchallenged. On learning of her imprisonment in San Donnino prison, Leyers ordered Saletta to release her which he duly did.
No sooner was Ginevra back at home than she was rearrested but this time by the German SS and not the local police. Clearly Saletta had decided to sidestep the local SS division whom he saw as untrustworthy in this instant by applying to the SS group in Monza where Ginevra was imprisoned and submitted to repeated interrogation.
Keeping Up Appearances
The photo of Ginevra reveals a well-groomed, affluent yet unremarkable middle class lady with her restrained string of pearls – not the typical image of a revolutionary that her interrogators would have had in mind. Ginevra knew how to play up to such class stereotypes and the latent snobbery of her nazifascist persecutors. She insisted on ensuring she looked her best for every interrogation she faced. She had particularly asked her family to send down to her prison in Monza a chiffon blouse and some smart coloured shoes and, so dressed with make up and a dab of perfume, she courageously faced each interview. All to good effect since her interrogators soon began to doubt her links to the resistance and granted her extra comforts within her confinement. But it was the unexpected help of the SS group’s Italian interpreter that allowed her to escape and return to Como. Domenico Saletta was later to exclaim that Ginevra had even managed to fool the Germans.
Who Dares Wins
The super-macho UK special services regiment, the SAS, has the motto ‘Who Dares Wins’ and the same phrase applies equally to Ginevra. On one of her missions travelling by train from Milan to Turin which had been delayed by various air raids, she arrived after curfew with two suitcases containing money, arms and documents intended for her husband’s partisan unit in Piedmont. Playing on her appearance of bourgeois respectability, she approached the fascist militia guarding the station asking them to escort her to a nearby hotel. The gallant militia duly accompanied her carrying the two cases on her behalf.
On another occasion she had been asked to help a young Jewish mother with her son and baby escape to safety across the Swiss border. The mother had been arrested but put into the care of the nunnery in Via Borgovico because of her children. The nuns had called on Ginevra to arrange their escape before the authorities came back to deport them to a death camp. The young baby meant that it was too dangerous for Ginevra to use one of her normal clandestine crossings. The only option open to her was to arrange their transfer to a remote inn in the Piedmont Alps where they could wait out the end of the war. But she needed transport with all private cars requisitioned and fuel strictly rationed. The only solution was to ask the local carabinieri to help her. She knew that either the Lieutenant or the Captain were partisan sympathisers and known collaborators with the CLN. But she did not know which. She went to the Carabinieri barracks and asked to see the Lieutenant but judged by his appearance and manner that he was unlikely to be the partisan sympathiser. So she then asked to talk to the captain and without hesitation asked if he would help her in arranging the escape of the Jewish family. If she made the wrong choice she would face immediate arrest and possible execution. Fortunately her instinct proved correct and Captain Perone provided the transport to Piedmont. The family was saved with all three members surviving the war.
Righteous Among the Nations
On 12th January 2005, the Israeli Ambassador to Italy, Shai Cohen, posthumously awarded Ginevra Bedetti Masciadri the title of ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ – an honour granted by the Israeli state to those non-Jews who risked their own lives to save Jews from the holocaust. The award was given for her actions in saving the mother, Perla Rosemberg and her two sons, Vittorio and Maurizio, as described above. The elder brother Vittorio was thirteen at the time of the escape. He gave the following testimony at the ceremony held in Villa Gallia describing what happened after the family’s arrest in Menaggio:
It was the 8th January 1944 when we were transferred to Como. We were placed in an institution (the nunnery on Via Borgovico) and on 3rd April a Red Cross nurse (Ginevra) came to visit us. Firstly she took away my younger brother Maurizio on the pretence that he had an infectious illness. The next day we found the key in the door to the main entrance. We managed to escape also thanks to the help of a captain in the carabinieri and we reached Settimo Torinese where Ugo Moglia provided us with a safe hiding place.
After the liberation of Northern Italy in April 1945 Ginevra, once reunited with her husband, continued her work with the Red Cross and focused more attention on her growing family. The gradual return to normality caused many that had fought in the resistance, both men and women, to downplay the risks and responsibilities shouldered during the liberation struggle. Ginevra’s outward appearance of a middle-aged, opulent member of the bourgeoisie belied the steely force of her character and her readiness to risk her own life for the sake of others in less fortunate circumstances. Her importance in the liberation struggle was easily overlooked.
The significance of her effort during the war extended way beyond her individual acts of courage and altruism due to the leadership and inspiration she gave to many of her friends and acquaintances. They followed her lead in helping others. It is perhaps a natural instinct to want to put the war years behind us but we should at least try to preserve the memory of those who still maintained the highest standards of humanity during those barbarous years. Ginevra Bedetti Masciadri was definitely one of those.
Roberta Cairoli, Nessuno mi ha fermata, Nodo Libri 2006
Coppeno, G. Como dalla dittatura alla libertà, Como 1989