Last 27th January was Holocaust Memorial Day in both UK and Italy – and even though Como Companion is behind schedule on this, I would like to mark the event by looking at the heroic activities of one particular group who saved the lives of both Italian and foreign Jews by assisting their escape into neutral Switzerland – guiding them on the so-called ‘viaggi della salvezza’.
The group was the Guardia di Finanza – the customs officers whose job was to patrol the borders to prevent smuggling. The Guardia di Finanza had long-established barracks along the peaks of the mountains where guards recruited from all over Italy were billeted to patrol the border. They thus had a permanent presence along the mountain borders and a detailed knowledge of the different paths and passes. Research has now revealed how many of these barracks actively assisted Jewish refugees escape into Switzerland from the moment their lives came under threat following the Italian Armistice in September 1943. One outcome of instituting Holocaust Memorial Day in Italy in the year 2000 has been the increased research into the role taken by various Italian organisations and individuals in helping Jews to safety. The branch of the Guardia di Finanza managed out of Milan under the leadership of Colonel Alfredo Malgeri, which included all of the barracks along the Como border, stands out for particular heroism, and some of the individual guards have now been posthumously honoured both in Italy and in Israel for their altruism.
The main national organisation for assisting Jews was known as DELASEM (Delegation for the Assistance of Jewish Emigrants). It operated in Italy from 1939 until 1947 and is credited with assisting around 9,000 escapees but unfortunately could not prevent the ultimate death of up to 7,680 Italian Jews during the Nazi-fascist occupation from 1943. Many Northern European Jews who had sought refuge in Italy prior to 1943 were interned in the southern part of the country and thus survived when the allies liberated them in 1942. Those in the north had to turn to DELASEM and to the bravery of individuals, as for example Tour de France Champion Gino Bartali, to assist them in gaining safety. Bartali is credited with saving up to 800 lives and his story along with that of the families of some of the survivors from central Italy is recounted in a lovely documentary entitled ‘My Italian Secret’.
So what was life like for Italian Jews during the fascist regime? Until Mussolini decided to ally himself with Hitler, he had shown no interest in developing racism as a populist strategy maybe partly because Hitler’s Arianism excluded the Mediterranean people in its pseudo-scientific theory of racial superiority. The fascist axis alliance brought a change of attitude and with that the introduction in 1938 of the Italian anti-Semitic Racial Laws. These laws did not at first threaten the lives of Jews directly but they were insulting, demeaning and led to economic and social hardship. They were not applied consistently and the state’s attitude seemed full of contradictions as with the apparent financial support given to DELASEM in certain regions. But it all formed part of the stifling arrogance that personified the fascist authorities and their regime with its regular recourse to bullying. But this already nasty environment turned deadly the moment the Italian state, under a royal decree, dismissed Mussolini and soon after on September 8th 1943 sought an armistice with the allies who had just launched their initially successful landings in the south. The Nazi response was to occupy north and central Italy, rescue Mussolini from imprisonment on Gran Sasso and set him up as head of the puppet fascist RSI (Socialist Republic of Italy). This caused a mass clandestine exodus from occupied Italy across the borders in Lombardy from Varese, Como and the Valtellina into Switzerland, as well as elsewhere. These refugees included allied prisoners, antifascists, ex-members of the Italian army , young men seeking to avoid conscription, and, most importantly Jews who now for the first time faced deportation to the concentration camps in Austria, Germany and Eastern Europe to face forced labour and death.
A 35 year old Sardinian customs officer called Salvatore Corrias, having survived a dangerous retreat from Yugoslavia following the September 8th armistice, reported for duty at the Cernobbio headquarters of the Guardia di Finanza on 1st January 1944. Marshall Rossi, already an active partisan, briefed all newcoming officers on the role of the Cernobbio Guardia di Finanza in assisting refugees to cross the border on Mount Bisbino into Switzerland. He asked all to consider their conscience and decide if they too would assist the refugees. Salvatore and many of his colleagues agreed to help. He then left to join the patrol in Bugone, just along the mountain crest from Bisbino, where he was delighted to meet up with Francesco Pisano, a Calabrian who had served with Salvatore in the Balkans. Francesco commanded the small Bugone contingent. These two with other comrades set out to provide the last link in the refugees’ ‘viaggi della Salvezza’ by guiding them to safety over the border.
The active role played by the Guardia di Finanza in assisting Jews, ex-POWs and antifascists across the border has been researched and testified to by a number of witnesses including some famous names such as Carlo De Benedetti, the wealthy industrialist and one-time chairman of the Olivetti company. Carlo De Benedetti’s family, being Jewish, first escaped into Switzerland in October 1943 via Moltrasio but Carlo, who was only 13 years old at the time, remained hidden by a relative in Brianza. However, when things got too dangerous, he was entrusted to the Guardia di Finanza who smuggled him across the border at Chiasso so he could rejoin his family.
Like Pisano, Corrias and Marshall Rossi , many customs officials also became full-time members of the resistance such as Marshall Paolo Boetti who commanded the Chiasso and the Murelli barracks, at Torriggia just past Laglio. He was a member of the ‘Fiamme Verdi’ Voluntary Brigade of Alta Brianza commanded by Luigi Sartirana who provided the following citation in September 1945: ‘…that he [Paolo] collaborated up until his arrest in May 1944 in the clandestine smuggling of allied prisoners of war and Jewish refugees in the border zone between Moltrasio and Carate Urio , and to be more precise, in the area under the control of the Murelli barracks under his command.’ His eventual arrest occurred on 10th May 1944 when he was caught carrying 325,000 lire across the border at Chiasso for a Jewish refugee, Vittorio Levi who had previously made the crossing to safety in Switzerland. He was transported to the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in Austria to undertake forced labour. He finally made it home following the camp’s liberation on the 4th May 1945. On 15th June of last year he was posthumously awarded the ‘Medaglia d’Oro al Merito Civile’ for his humanitarian role.
The barracks of the Guardia di Finanza, whilst being singularly inhospitable and lonely locations for most of the year, were perfectly placed to assist refugees. The individual customs men also had detailed knowledge of the different paths and hiding places thus enabling them to avoid the attention of the German army or Blackshirt (brigade nere) patrols.
Bisbino and Bugone were particularly suited to the customs men’s humanitarian work due to its isolation and the network of old first world war defences for which only the guards had detailed maps. But these barracks were just the last link in a network of assistance such as that set up by DELASEM. In particular the local priest in Cernobbio, the much respected Don Umberto Marmori, played a crucial part in this network. He was imprisoned for his activities and tortured causing his health to fail and precipitating an early death. His replacement, Don Abramo Levi, maintained Don Umberto’s tradition of assisting refugees. He in turn was later arrested by the fascist regime. The one thing that helped so many strangers to circulate relatively safely in the small towns along the Como lakefront was the fact that they were full of Milanese escaping the heavy and relentless aerial bombardment over their city by the allied forces.
The Nazi authorities finally lost patience with the scale of the clandestine activities of the Guardia di Finanza and on 28th August 1944 set up an exclusion zone banning them from the border area and compelling them to abandon barracks such as those at Murelli and Bugone. Francesco Pisano and Salvatore Corrias now became full-time members of the ‘Artom’ Partisan Brigade. Salvatore did however ensure that he kept the keys to the Bugone barracks and the building continued to be used to house refugees awaiting the best moment to cross the border.
Salvatore had in the meantime met a girl from Moltrasio called Margherita and they formed a close bond together. Margherita and her brother were also active in the resistance. Salvatore continued to assist refugees and ex-POWs as well as acting as a messenger for the partisans maintaining communications with, for example, the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) located in Lugano and run by Allan Dulles who would later become head of the CIA. The OSS played a crucial role in financing the partisans based on Bisbino and those under the command of Captain Ricci in the Val d’Intelvi.
It was on the return from a mission to escort an allied prisoner of war across the border that Salvatore, on a sunny Sunday morning on the 28th January 1945, was finally taken prisoner by the vicious ‘Banda Tucci’ blackshirts. Having resisted offers of leniency in exchange for information on his companions of the ‘Artom’ brigade, he was shot stood against the large beech tree outside the Bugone barracks. His companions were unable to retrieve his body until the following May by which time the war was then over. His body is buried in Moltrasio’s municipal cemetery alongside other colleagues and a plaque on the chapel down on the lakeside states how Salvatore was ‘shot by enemies of the country because they desired a free Italy in a just world.’ It was left to Margherita to write back to Salvatore’s mother in Sardinia to inform her of her son’s death at 36 years old and one year on from his arrival at Lake Como.
Francesco Pisano maintained armed resistance to the fascist regime as commander of a group of up to 50 partisans who undertook a series of heroic actions along the western shores of Lake Como including an attack on a blackshirt barracks in Argegno and on a weapons store belonging to the Province of Como in Laglio. He laid down arms in June 1945 and then died young, but of natural causes, at Moltrasio in 1953 at the age of 40. Margherita herself died a few years back but she and Salvatore did have a daughter who, I was informed locally, used to come back in the summer months until recently to stay in her mother’s mountain house above Moltrasio.
The humanitarian role undertaken by officers of the Guardia di Finanza has been honoured publicly as research continues to reveal the extent of their contribution to the ‘humanitarian corridor’ set up by organisations like DELASEM and priests like Don Umberto.
The individual sacrifice of Salvatore Corrias was recognised in 1952 and 1956 with two ‘Croci al Merito di Guerra’ and in 2006 by the Italian State’s award of the ‘Medaglia d’Oro al Merito Civile’ and by Israel with the award given to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust – the ‘Righteous Among Nations’. Throughout the occupation of Italy 5192 customs officers of the Guardia di Finanza were captured and imprisoned by the fascist state and 236 died in concentration camps.
Thanks are due to Captain Gerardo Severino, Director of the ‘Museo Storico della Guardia di Finanza’, for the valuable research he has done on the role of the Guardia di Finanza and the effort taken by him to research citations testifying to the acts of bravery and altruism performed by agents such as Salvatore Corrias. Let’s hope that none of us are ever called upon to resist such inhumane barbarity as was the Holocaust but if so, let’s hope we can find the same courage and instinctive humanity as demonstrated by Salvatore and so many others at that time. However let’s also try to avoid complicity in any future form of ethnic cleansing through the sort of apathy and compliance that initially tolerated the imposition of the Racial Laws.
Postscript: Rifugio Bugone is now managed by a delightful young couple with a new baby and they would be delighted to welcome anyone looking for good mountain food at the end of a brisk walk in the mountains (or by a 4×4). Call 031 0350027 or email for booking to firstname.lastname@example.org. Murelli is also open to the public. Call mobile 335 8434493 or email email@example.com