Ines Figini’s testimony of her time served as a slave labourer in the Nazi concentration camps has usually been recalled on Holocaust Memorial Day. This year I used that date to tell the story of the Sormano village priest, Don Carlo Banfi, who aided the escape in 1944 of Jewish migrants from deportation to Germany, by leading them to safety across the Swiss border on Mount Bisbino. With reference to the Holocaust, Ines’s story rewards the retelling as a reminder of how the most unsuspecting Italian citizens could also become victims of the Nazi-Fascist regime. Additionally the qualities of humanity and decency displayed by Ines, alongside her fortitude and her survival instinct that saw her through a set of intolerably stressful situations, are equally worth celebrating on this particular anniversary of International Women’s Day.
In March 1944 Ines Figini, the 4th of 5 children, was 21 years old and living in the modest family home in Via Tommaso Grossi, Como. She had started work at 16 in the Tintoria Comense after completing elementary education. The Tintoria Comense was one of the largest silk thread and cloth weaving factories in Como. It would later take on dyeing, printing and finishing and combine under the name Ticosa. As the saying went before the war, if you worked at Comense you could guarantee to put bread on your table.
At the start of the war in 1938 there were 318 silk spinning and weaving businesses in the Province of Como employing up to 30,000 people with a further 22 businesses specialised in fabric dyeing and printing who employed a further 6,500. But the war deprived these businesses of their markets in USA, UK and France so that by August 1940 8,000 employees had been dismissed and a further 14,000 had their work suspended (what is known in Italy as Cassa Integrazione). This had risen to 13,000 and 20,000 respectively by the end of 1940. By this time, the Italian industrial economy had, to all intents and purposes, been put to the service of the German wartime one. The first Italian workers had left Como in 1939 to work for Volkswagen and this figure had risen to 5,000 by 1941. These were mostly voluntary labourers but Germany was to rely on up to 20% of its workforce consisting of slave labour with the majority coming from Russia and Poland.
By 1943, resistance to the Fascist regime was building up – on May Day of that year, a red flag was unfurled provocatively above Como at Brunate and then on 25th July, following the arrest of Mussolini, the fascist authorities left Como and the opposition political parties were able to meet openly for the first time. This euphoric period was however very brief since the Nazis moved to occupy Italy and to establish the illegitimate fascist puppet state known as the RSI.
By 14th September Paolo Porta had re-established the Casa del Fascio in Como and by 18th September, martial law had been introduced with a black out and curfew from 8.30pm to 6.00am. The first calls were made for armed partisan resistance.
Conditions of life and work deteriorated markedly over the following period with industrial unrest and resistance growing. The clandestine labour unions tried to organise a general strike for the 1st March 1944 but plans were thwarted by the network of spies and informers set up by the Nazi-Fascist state. Workers were even further taunted when the local fascist boss Paolo Porta was believed to have declared that workers only needed a single slice of bread and an apple a day to live on.
‘O tutti, o nessuno!’ (All or No-one)
So on the 6th March 1944, as Ines arrived at the gates of the Comense factory at the start of her 8.00 am shift, the word went round to stop work at the blast of a whistle at 10.00 am. When the whistle sounded, Ines and the majority of her co-workers duly stopped work. Police were summoned and when Ines and the others sought to leave the factory at 12.00 for the lunchtime break, they found the gates locked against them. Before the gates were allowed open, the police commissioner read out the names of those who were believed to be the strike organisers and told the crowd that these people would be sent to German labour camps. The gates then opened and the workers filed out for the lunch break but as Ines passed the police commissioner, she instinctively stood up for the arrested strike leaders by declaring their arrest was unfair since they had all obeyed the strike call so they should either all be arrested and sent to Germany or else none of them should be deported. These words would determine Ines’s fate although she was unaware of any immediate repercussions. However there was a knock at the door at her family home that midnight.
That knock on the door in Via Grossi led to Ines being carried off to the local police station where she was put in a cell with two other women workers from Tintoria Comense – Celestina Tagliabue and Ada Borgomainerio. She stayed there for two nights before being transferred to the Palestra Mariani which was being used to group antifascists, Jews and partisans prior to deportation to Germany.
‘Torno subito!’ (Back soon)
On 14th March, Ines, Ada, Celestina and a further five women from Lecco who had also been imprisoned for striking, were taken to San Giovanni Station at 5.00 am and put on a train for Bergamo where they were housed in army barracks for the next three days. Here Celestina, who suffered from a serious kidney ailment, was returned home since she was deemed unfit to undertake the onward journey to Germany – a consideration not extended to any of the Jewish deportees. Ines, Ada, the strike leaders and the other Jewish and anti-fascist detainees were then marched in a column five wide through the streets of Bergamo to the railway station, with the local population passing food and clothing to them. They were then placed in goods wagons to set out for an unknown destination and an uncertain future in Germany, although Ines was still convinced she would just be employed like all the other voluntary workers who had previously left Como.
Little did Ines know that she was not destined to be employed as a regular employee in a German factory but that she would be imprisoned as a slave labourer in some of the most notorious ‘lager’ within the German Reich. She was not to return back home to Como until 25th October 1945 having traveled across the Reich as follows:
- By train from Bologna to Vienna on 17th March 1944.
- From Vienna on 20th March 1944 by lorry to stay one week in Mauthausen Labour/Extermination Camp in Austria close to the Czech border.
- From Mauthausen by train to stay 8 months until November 1944 in Auschwitz-Birkenau Labour/Extermination Camp in Poland.
- From Auschwitz-Birkenau by train to stay until April 1945 in Ravensbruck Women’s Labour/Extermination Camp, Germany.
- After forced marches and eventual rescue by the Russian Army on the 5th May 1945, recovery in hospital from typhoid and phlebitis at Prenzlau, Northern Germany.
- By train from Prenzlau to Bolzano in October 1945.
- From Bolzano to a centre for refugees at Pescantina and onwards by train to Milan and then to Como on 25th October 1945.
‘Ma questa è una prigione!’ (But this is a prison)
When Ines, Ada and the other women from Lecco arrived at Vienna, they were walked through the corridors of a civilian prison and left in a large room with a bowl of thin soup and provided only with some straw on the floor to sleep on. The following day they were loaded onto a lorry smelling strongly of disinfectant to set out for Mauthausen towards the Czech border. On arrival, Ines and the other women were separated from the other male detainees from Como (whom they were never to see again) and were then put through the concentration camp’s registration process. For this they were stripped naked, showered and then walked in single file for a medical inspection, with the onlooking guards passing lewd comments, before dressing again to be marched on to their windowless cells. Ines still managed to hold on to the belief that she would eventually find her workplace and that her conditions would improve. But her next transfer to Auschwitz-Birkenau left her with no doubt that she was a prisoner and that her employee status was as a slave labourer.
Ines and Ada were given a slice of bread and a dollop of margarine for the day-long journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau. They were locked into an actual passenger carriage rather than the goods wagons used to transport the Jewish detainees. The registration process at Auschwitz-Birkenau included the tattooing of her number 76150 on her forearm as just another act in the process of dehumanisation that had started the moment they had arrived in Vienna. Ines was set to work transporting the human waste from the camp to be spread out on the fields as fertilizer. When the winter gave way to spring, the prisoners were set to digging channels in the clay soil to drain the marshland. Ines also became gradually aware of the truly sinister nature of this labour/extermination camp as she came to realise the source of the acrid smoke arising from the camp’s charnel houses. She also worked out the pitiful fate of the young children she saw set to marching five abreast with each clutching a toy given to them by the guards as they were led to their gruesome end. It is only thanks to the testimonies of prisoners like Ines that we can begin to appreciate the extent of the cruelty and inhumanity inflicted on the detainees in the Nazi death camps. But during this period most of Ines’s attention, energy and ingenuity had to be spent in seeking to survive by staying out of trouble.
After eight months Ines was transferred again – this time to the labour and extermination camp at Ravensbruck which lay 90 kilometres north of Berlin. Ines had had to say goodbye to Ada prior to the journey since Ada had taken ill with appendicitis and was still convalescing in the camp hospital. Ines was loaded into the goods wagons for the long ride west. Ravensbruck was a labour camp designated almost exclusively for female prisoners who were overseen by female guards. The camp provided a slave labour force for the nearby Siemens factories. Ines and her fellow female prisoners were marched in columns to work accompanied by armed guards and Doberman guard dogs. She worked the 12 hour stints in two shifts starting either from 6 in the morning or 6 in the evening. In spite of the long hours of work without even the possibility to sit down, the conditions were better than at Auschwitz if just because she was indoors out of the worst of the weather.
Forced March West
From January and February 1945 it became obvious to Ines and the other prisoners that the Reich was on the retreat as news of the Russian advances came through. The retreat soon developed into a flight west away from the encroaching Red Army. For the prisoners life got harder. In April 1945, Ines was transferred out of Ravensbruck to a smaller nearby camp and the normal daily ration of a loaf of black bread was now shared out amongst eight or ten prisoners rather than five as previously. With the Russians advancing ever closer, the prisoners were gathered together, given minimum rations and set to march west accompanied by the Doberman dogs and armed guards. A soldier was delegated to stay at the back of the column to shoot those prisoners who could not keep up with the rest. One morning, after the march had halted for the night in a country farm, the prisoners awoke to find that their German guards had slipped away under cover of darkness. The war was over and Ines realised her survival instincts had seen her through to the end – if she could now just get back to Como.
’tanto tu torni sempre!’ (In any case, you always come back)
The end of the war resulted in a new set of challenges to test Ines’s spirit of survival. There were about 11 million displaced persons in Germany at the end of the war, most of whom had been employed as forced or slave labour. Many were as eager as Ines to get home but the lack of food and the damage to the basic infrastructure made for a logistical nightmare. Ines’s strong sense of survival had initially paid off well but drinking untreated milk led to typhoid fever and a prolonged period in a Russian-led hospital. Any attempt to return to Italy had to wait until her life was out of immediate danger and she had sufficient strength to walk and sustain the stresses of the journey.
Meanwhile back in Como, with the collapse of the Nazi-Fascist state, there were scores to be settled. Paolo Porta, the fascist leader who had gone a long way to provoke the original strikes at the Tintoria Comense back in March 1944, had decided to accompany Mussolini in the column of German troops who had made their way up the western shores of Lake Como possibly attempting to reach the Valtellina (follow link for more detail). He was captured at Dongo by partisans and executed alongside the other fascist leaders on the Dongo lakefront. The Provincial Police Chief (Questore), Lorenzo Pozzoli, officially handed the city over to the partisans following Mussolini’s departure. He and the sadistic Head of the Political Office, Domenico Saletta, were arrested and put on trial. Pozzoli admitted he had been mistaken to put his faith in the fascists. Saletta tried to pass blame for those he had personally assassinated on to Pozzoli. Both were condemned to execution by firing squad which was carried out on the 23rd April 1945 on the lakefront behind the Terragni War Memorial. The managing director of the Comense factory, Umberto Walter – a person whom Ines had always considered respectful and caring towards his employees – was arrested and also faced the possibility of execution or imprisonment for collaboration in spite of having aided the escape of some Jews and anti-fascists.
He committed suicide on June 13th 1945. The person who had actually signed the order for Ines’s deportation, the Prefect Francesco Sforzolini, had fled Italy in April 1945 for Venezuela and subsequently returned in 1962. He has never since been required to answer for his wartime actions in a court of law. Ines’s parents were still alive although her father was now suffering from ill health. Ada Borgomainerio, Ines’s colleague from Tintoria Comense whom she had left in the Auschwitz Birkenau Prison Hospital, had been liberated by the Russians from the concentration camp on the 27th January 1945 and had returned to Como. All but one of the men deported alongside of Ines failed to return to Italy – they perished in the Nazi concentration camps with the one survivor dying shortly after his return to Como due to the effects of starvation and poor health.
Ines meanwhile was in the Russian-led hospital in Prenzlau, Northern Germany ever since her rescue by the Red Army on the 5th May and from the moment she had contracted typhoid. The prolonged stay in hospital went on to provoke phlebitis in one leg. It was only four months later in October, when her fever had abated sufficiently, that she had strength enough to join a group of Italian IMIs (Italian Military Internees) being repatriated from labour camps to Bolzano. From Bolzano she was transferred to the refugee centre (Centro di Accoglienza dei Riduci) at Pescantina just outside of Verona. Under the selfless care and generosity of the women who ran the centre, Ines gained enough strength to continue her onward journey to Milan and then onto Como. In spite of her pitiful health, Ines would not have anyone forewarn her parents of her arrival. She wanted to walk up Via Grossi unaided and knock on the door of the home she had been deported from 18 months previously.
Ines had always clung on to the belief that she would make it home and it was maybe a degree of luck but also the strength that came from this belief that saw her through the hellish experience of slave labour. But one cannot go through witnessing and living through all the inhumane horrors perpetrated in the concentration camps without suffering a profound mental impact. Many aspects of life returned to normal; Ines went back to work at the Tintoria Comense (subsequently known as Ticosa) eventually retiring as the firm’s fortunes waned. Yet she still had to come to terms with the mental impact of her hellish experiences. After a few years of work, Ines found that the best way to deal with the mental anguish was to return to Birkenau annually for as many years as possible. She found these visits helped exorcise the damage of her painful memories. She also began to forgive those who had deported and imprisoned her – the various sadistic guards she had encountered or the distant unfeeling officers and politicians who delighted in establishing such an inhumane and cruel regime. She forgave them primarily because she could not bear to carry inside the weight of all her rancour. Forgiveness was essential for her own mental well-being.
She was also persuaded by the historians at Como’s Institute for Contemporary History to recount her experiences to groups of schoolchildren. Whilst initially uncertain about this for fear of either a lack of student interest or of her ability to convey the true horror of life in the Nazi concentration camps, she was soon reassured of both the children’s interest and also of the power of her personal testimony of the atrocities she had experienced and witnessed.
Ines is still with us and still telling her story. The link here is to a video of her recounting her experiences as part of a ceremony held in her honour last year at Como’s town hall. The video is in Italian as is the book written of her experience entitled ‘Tanto Tu Torni Sempre’ written by Giovanna Caldara and Mauro Colombo and published by Editore Melampo. Back in 2004 she was presented with the award of Commendatore by the then President of the Italian Republic, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, on his visit to Como.
Maybe it was a degree of naivety that got Ines into trouble that fateful morning on 6th March 1944 but if so, it was a naivety that stemmed from an inborn sense of natural justice and humanity – qualities shown also during Ines’s prolonged incarceration as when she took a great personal risk to visit and comfort Ada Borgomainerio as she lay isolated in the Auschwitz-Birkenau Hospital. Ines’s story is not a testimony to courage in confronting an inhumane ideology through political ideals, nor to the altruism of someone driven by a morality arising from religious conviction – it is though a story of personal courage, fortitude, of someone able to retain the optimistic hope of a better future, of a time when the perverted values of war and oppression would finally be replaced by a return to civility and respect for all humanity. Before long we will lose direct contact with those who lived through the Nazi concentration camps so let us take these final opportunities to express gratitude for their willingness to share what they can for the good of all of us.