Como to Chiasso – Trying to Escape the Holocaust

Alberto Ascoli

Alberto Ascoli in 1919 when at the age of 29 he undertook a tour of hydro-electric plants in the mountains. From the CDEC Library

On the 17th September 1943 Alberto Ascoli crossed into Switzerland from Como to Chiasso along with his wife and three children. They thus managed to avoid arrest and deportation to a Nazi-run extermination camp.  Alberto, 53 years old at the time, had been educated at the Politecnico di Milano as an electrical engineer. He later gained a doctorate  and went on to become Director of Supplies for Edison before being dismissed and classed an enemy of the state under Mussolini’s anti-Semitic laws of 1938.  He and his family returned safely to Milan on the 3rd May 1945. 

Luigina Ascoli and Guido Levi

His sister, Olga Luigia Ascoli (better known as Luigina), and her husband Guido Levi went to make the same crossing six days later on 23rd September. The elderly couple had moved from Milan a year earlier to avoid the mounting number of bombing raids on the city. They had been living at No. 28 Via Volta and had, up to two weeks earlier, no intention to seek safety in Switzerland. Luigina had recently told relatives that ‘We aren’t going to move, we are old, they won’t do anything to us’. 

Levi-2021

Plaque inserted in the pavement in front of Guido Levi’s home on Via Castel Morrone, Milan. These plaques are placed around Europe outside the homes of those murdered in the Holocaust. This initiative was introduced by German artist Gunter Demnig as a means of confronting those who deny the Holocaust. The German name for these plaques is ‘Stolpersteine’. Those for Guido Levi and his wife Luigina Ascoli were laid on 29th January 2021 during the Covid lockdown.

Ascoli-2021

Once Mussolini had been overthrown, the official Italian government signed a peace treaty with the Allies (the  Italian Armistice) on 8th September 1943. This was immediately followed by the Nazi occupation of all parts of Italy not yet liberated by the Allied armies making their way up from the south. Como itself was occupied by the Nazis on 12th September 1943.  The Nazis then reinstated Mussolini as head of a puppet fascist state.  From this date on, the future for both foreign and Italian Jews in Italy turned decidedly worse. While previously Jews had suffered severe discrimination effecting their livelihoods, they now faced a persecution risking their very lives – so much so that Luigina and Guido had decided to follow Luigina’s brother’s example to expatriate. They set out on that fateful morning of the 23rd by trolley bus to Maslianico – the town just outside of Cernobbio on the border with Chiasso. There they had alighted at the town hall to wait in the nearby Giardinetto Hotel for a good moment to make the crossing. But they were both taken prisoner by a Nazifascist border militia, the 2nd Legion ‘Monte Rosa’ Brigade, and held temporarily in Como’s San Donnino prison.

swiss border parco spina verde

Remains of the fence marking the Swiss border in the Parco Spina Verde to the west of Como. While it was easy to cross the border here, it was also easy to police it. Many therefore chose to cross over Monte Bisbino just to the north of Como accessible from Carate, Moltrasio or Cernobbio.

1938 Race Laws

Prior to September 1943, no foreign or Italian Jews had been deported from the country although Mussolini had introduced  anti-Semitic race laws back in 1938 and life for Jews had been getting progressively difficult. Many foreign Jews had previously migrated to Italy from France, Germany, the Balkans and Eastern Europe. In fact Italy had placed no restrictions on immigration prior to March 1938 although foreign Jews were only given six months within which to organise their onward emigration and were not permitted to work. They faced severe hardship unless they had the means for further emigration. Most had sought to enter the USA, Brazil or get permission to enter Switzerland. But from the moment the Nazifascist state was constituted, the fascist authorities joined their Nazi allies in effecting the policy of deportation to Nazi-run extermination and labour camps. The Italian authorities were fully aware what fate awaited those they were deporting.

DifesaRazza

Using stereotypical caricature, this Nazifascist poster summarises the restrictions imposed by Mussolini’s 1938 Race Laws.

When the armistice was signed on 8th September, all previous prisoners of war and political enemies of the fascists were released from prison. But the almost immediate German occupation of the northern and central part of the country left this mass of released prisoners of war, anti-fascists and demobbed soldiers anxious to escape either to the liberated zones to the south or over the Swiss border to the north. To their number must be added those Jews who now fully recognised the severity of Mussolini’s anti-Semitism and the risks to life of remaining within Nazi occupied territory. One of the easiest of the routes into Switzerland was via Como.

Bellinzona internment camp

Male refugees were placed alongside ex-Prisoners of War in Bellinzona’s internment camp if they managed not to be turned back by the Swiss authorities.

Swiss Immigration laws did not recognise the right of asylum for racial motives until July 1944 and had officially denied entry to all males over the age of sixteen from September 1938. In reality the Swiss authorities in Ticino would allow entry to those ‘in grave danger of their lives’ if they felt they had the capacity to house males in the Bellinzona internment camp and place females within those households prepared to receive them.  In the period immediately following the Armistice and the Nazi occupation of Como (from 9th to 16th September 1943) the border at Chiasso remained unguarded and 14,000 people entered Canton Ticino. 

The Nazi authorities immediately recognised the importance of the Como to Chiasso border and by 18th September had set up ‘Grenzwache’ (Border Control) contingents in Como and in other border provinces such as Varese and Sondrio, They actually occupied the Chiasso border crossing on 20th September and prevented passenger trains from continuing any further than Como. From this point on, all migration to Switzerland would have to be clandestine. 

view to moltrasio

Looking back on the road up to Monte Bisbino. Moltrasio is in the foreground with Carate Urio behind it.

The main clandestine routes over the border were in the Province of Varese although the area from Brienno, Moltrasio, Carate Urio, Cernobbio up to to Monte Bisbino and across to Sagno and the Valle di Muggio was much used particularly by the ex-prisoners of war and Italian deserters. The CLN (Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale),  the anti-fascist opposition, had set up clandestine routes using local smugglers for years during the fascist regime as a means of allowing people and propaganda to move freely in or out of Switzerland. They established a degree of assurance about the price and reliability of those smugglers approved by them to guide escapees across the border. Many of the local border control police (the Guardia di Finanza) also assisted those seeking to make a clandestine crossing over the mountains. Many other local priests and other individuals aided those seeking to escape. 

Valle di Muggio from Bisbino

Looking down from the summit of Monte Bisbino across to the Valle di Muggio in Switzerland with Monte Generoso (also on the border) in the background. Crossing into Swiss territory was no guarantee of safety since many seeking to expatriate were returned across the border by the Swiss authorities.

On 30th November 1943 Mussolini’s Ministry of the Interior passed a decree calling on the police to arrest all Jews irrespective of nationality, to place them in concentration camps, and to seize all their worldly possessions. But in Como the  2nd Legion ‘Monte Rosa’  hadn’t waited for this official order.  The group boasted to the local Prefecture that they had arrested 58 Jews in the initial period of persecution from September to December 1943, and had even increased this to 137 by the end of February 1944. Within that same period (from September 43 to February 44) 117 locals had been arrested for ‘aiding and abetting’ expatriation. The fascists had used a number of techniques to achieve these results including infiltrating the rescue groups by posing as Jews seeking asylum. Those arrested included Primo Mazza who used his trattoria in Brunate  – the ‘Volta’ – as a base for organising clandestine border crossings. While many individuals like Primo Mazza, including local priests and partisans were assisting escapees, there were others all too keen to denounce their Jewish neighbours out of spite or in exchange for the monetary rewards on offer by the fascist state. 

Villa Locatelli, Cernobbio

Cernobbio-Villa Locatelli

Villa Locatelli is on Cernobbio’s lakefront. The SS also occupied Villa Carminate further uphill towards Rovenna.

Right from the start of their occupation with a few notable exceptions, the Nazis were happy to leave the hunt and capture of Jews to the Italian fascist authorities while they took responsibility for organising the deportations to extermination and labour camps in Eastern Europe – the most common destination being  Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Nazi administration of the Holocaust was characterised by a gruesome charade of quasi-legalistic bureaucracy through which detainees were processed.  Under the authority of the German SS, they established an office in Cernobbio to administer the processing of detainees across the western half of their occupied territory. This office – the Grenzbefehisstelle West – was run by Captain Joseph Votterl, who was later to play a critical role in facilitating the peace negotiations between Karl Wolff, Head of the SS in Italy, and Allen Dulles, Head of the American Secret Service  – the OSS. 

Villa Carminati

Villa Carminati

Cernobbio offered the ideal location with its proximity to the Swiss border and at the foot of Monte Bisbino – one of the main routes for clandestine crossings. Within Cernobbio, Votterl’s group occupied two buildings, Villa Carminate and Villa Locatelli. Joseph Votterl who had emigrated to the United States in the 1920s before returning to Germany, was in fact a double agent working  for the Americans while also administering the Nazi policy of exterminating Jews. His role was to determine the fate of those Jews brought to his office by the Italian fascist police and militias.

Guido Levi and Luigina Ascoli, the elderly couple arrested in Maslianico on 23rd September 1943, were taken to Joseph Votterl’s offices in Villa Locatelli for interrogation. The Nazi administration of the Shoah in Italy was complicated by the varying nationalities of those detained and by the need to consider if not respect any rights these nations claimed towards the repatriation of their own citizens. Votterl’s group served to provide this semblance of respect for the law and to confirm the Italian fascist state’s right to seize the possessions of those arrested. The group in Cernobbio may also have been responsible for organising the transport of deportees from Milan to Auschwitz. After their interrogation at Villa Locatelli, Guido Levi and Luigina were transferred to Milan’s San Vittore prison. Votterl then sent a letter to the Prefecture in Como dated 2nd November 1943 stating that they could proceed to seize all  the couple’s possessions in their Como home on Via Diaz and at their main Milan residence at Number 12, Via Castel Morrone. 

Binario 21

binario 21

Platform 21 – the underground platform at Milan’s Stazione Centrale where deportees were loaded into cattle trucks for the five or six day journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is now a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.

At Milan’s Stazione Centrale the underground track used to load and unload mail bags was converted for loading cattle trucks with human cargo destined for the Nazi extermination and labour camps. The so-called Binario 21 (Platform 21) was deemed perfectly suited for this as it was out of sight of the local population. The very first convoy to leave Binario 21 was made up exclusively of Jews destined for Auschwitz. It was named Convoy No. 5 and left Milan on 6th December 1943 with 155 deportees, picking up a further 95 with stops at Verona and Trieste. The convoy arrived in Auschwitz five days later on 11th December. Out of those 250 deportees, only six would survive.

Luigina Ascoli and Guido Levi were among those 250 deportees on Convoy No. 5.  They were killed on arrival at Auschwitz. Also on board was Guido’s brother, Pacifico Levi. Pacifico was 76 at the time – 15 years older than Guido. He was also killed immediately on arrival. There is no record of when Pacifico was arrested but he alongside his brother and sister-in-law had been detained in Milan’s San Vittore prison. 

Luigi Del Monte

Gigi Del Monte

Luigi Del Monte, from the Archives of the CDEC

Luigi Del Monte was another Jew deported on Convoy 5 from Binario 21. He with his wife, Anna Levi, their two children Ugo and Mirella and Anna’s father Giuseppe and his two sons (Anna’s brothers)  Samuele and Guglielmo had all left their home town of Napoli to re-establish themselves in Milan in 1942.

giuseppe levi

Giuseppe Levi

The entire family then moved to Moltrasio, alongside many other Milanese, seeking to avoid the regular heavy allied bombardments and to be near the border in case of the need to expatriate in a hurry. But the Germans arrived too soon for them to escape when they interrupted the family dinner on 26th October 1943. Anna and the two children evaded capture by rushing out the back door of their home and hiding overnight in a dense grotto at the rear of their garden. Luigi, his father-in-law and Anna’s two brothers were arrested and taken to Milan’s San Vittore prison with Luigi subsequently deported alongside those other 154 Jews loaded into the cattle trucks on the 6th December destined for Auschwitz-Birkenau. He would never return home.

Nor would his father-in law and Anna’s two brothers fare any better but their deportation was delayed until they were placed in a convoy leaving the Fossoli Concentration Camp on 16th May 1944 to arrive in Auschwitz seven days later. None of them survived. What caused the delay to their deportation was the fact that all three held Portuguese passports in spite of Anna’s family being Greek in origin.

samuele levi

Samuele Levi

Some foreign embassies in Nazi occupied territories, particularly the Spanish and Portuguese, had issued some passports in a humanitarian gesture to assist Jews facing Nazi deportation. The Spanish and Portuguese had offered some nationality rights to those who could claim ancestry links to the Sephardic Jews expelled from the Spanish peninsula back in the 15th century. There were some cases where foreign embassies had managed to intervene and safeguard expatriation for a number of Jews using this means. Giuseppe had acquired such passports for his family from the Portuguese Embassy which had also moved out of Milan to occupy the same house as Luigi to avoid the heavy bombardment.  It was down to Captain Joseph Votterl in his headquarters at Villa Locatelli to adjudicate on whether Portuguese citizens of Jewish origin should be shown any leniency and if so to judge the validity of the passports issued to Giuseppe and his sons. Votterl established that the family was not Portuguese and would thus face deportation.  He communicated his judgement in the letter shown below to the Como Prefecture. In this he confirms that the fascist authorities could go ahead and seize all the family possessions. 

votterl letter

Letter from Joseph Votterl to the Como Prefecture sealing the fate of Giuseppe, Samuele and Guglielmo Levi.

Ugo del Monte

Ugo Del Monte became a Professor of General Pathology at the University of Milan. He died in July 2017

Anna, Ugo and Mirella waited until the early hours to climb over their garden’s back wall to take refuge in the nearby home of their elderly neighbour, Emma Ripamonti. Emma kept the family safe until they could reach their second home in the village of Sant’Anna above Argegno a week later. Here they stayed for a further four weeks while trying to organise an escape into Switzerland via Porlezza. This proved too difficult so Anna brought her children back towards Moltrasio where she had the good fortune to meet up with another elderly lady in Carate Urio. This lady’s sons were local smugglers who agreed to guide Anna and the children over the border by Monte Bisbino. So they, as in the case of Luigina Ascoli’s brother, Alberto, found safety in Switzerland and were able to return home to Italy once the war was over.

Conclusion

Fascism is powered by nationalistic enmity of the ‘other’ and in this respect Mussolini’s Italy was no different from Hitler’s Germany. Once Nazi Germany had occupied Northern Italy, Italian fascism’s appeal to a nationalistic patriotism was patently bogus leaving Mussolini entirely dependent on exploiting enemies within to fuel his shrinking populist appeal. And for that the fascists were prepared to sacrifice their own citizens, the majority of whom had been loyal supporters of the regime in former years. The Brigate Nere and the Legions of the National Guard (Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana, or GNR) were very quick to take on the task of hunting down Jews following the Nazi occupation of Northern Italy. The Italian authorities were fully aware of the fate that would await those they handed over to the Nazis for deportation. Beyond the strategy of creating an enemy within, from a moral perspective it hardly matters what else motivated Mussolini’s government to participate so enthusiastically with the Nazis – whether over time it had adopted Nazi racial fanaticism or sought to profit from the seizure of its condemned population’s property and valuables or both. Nor can the fascists excuse themselves by arguing that a much lower percentage of their Jewish population faced murder than those from most other nations occupied by the Nazis. The numbers were only lower due to the shorter time available for the Nazifascists to implement the Shoah on Italian soil and the fact that the allies were gradually gaining control over more of the territory freeing those deemed ‘enemies of the state’  purely due to their race from the risk of deportation. 

via volta

Via Volta, Como. Guido Levi and Luigina Ascoli lived in No. 28 for a year prior to attempting their crossing into Switzerland on September 23rd 1943.

Sources

Francesco Scomazzon, Maledetti figli di Guida, Vi Prenderemo!: la caccia nazifascista agli ebrei. Published in 2005 by Arterigere-Chiarotto Editrice.

CDEC – Fondazione Centro di Documentazione Ebraica Contemporanea

For a recent evaluation of Italian antisemitism in the years leading up to and including the Shoah and why so many Italian Jews chose not to confront the dangers before it was too late, read Shira Klein’s Italy’s Jews from Emancipation to Fascism, published in 2018 by Cambridge University Press and available in English on Kindle.

Local publisher Nodo Libri have recently reprinted Rosaria Marchesi’s account of the fate of Jews in the Province of Como titled Como Ultima Uscita: Storie di Ebrei nel capoluogo lariano 1943-1944.

Further Reading

Thanks to its position close to the Swiss border, its proximity to Milan and as a gateway north over the Alps, Como became the location for some of the most notorious events during the Second World War apart from the actual fighting between the allied armies and the Nazis.

Read Como’s ‘Viaggi della Salvezza’ – In Memory of the Holocaust for some accounts of those who aided Jews and other state enemies escape over the Swiss border, including members of the Border Police – the Guardia di Finanza.

Escape to Switzerland via Monte Bisbino describes the impact of the Race Laws of 1938 and one Jewish family’s experience in crossing over to safety.

Many ex-Italian soldiers, trades unionists and anti-fascists were deported to work in Nazi labour camps. Read Como’s Ines Figini, Auschwitz Survivor – A Celebration for International Women’s Day for the account of this young woman’s arrest and deportation for supporting a strike in Como’s largest silk factory.

Heroism and Disaster in the Vallassina – Holocaust Memorial Day, January 27th describes the heroism of a local priest, Don Carlo Banfi, in aiding escapees.

There had been a long tradition of smuggling along the border with Switzerland and smugglers played a key role in assisting escapees using their knowledge of the mountain paths and how to avoid border patrols. Not all smugglers were honourable and there are cases of some betraying those they had been paid to help. We have written a number of articles about the smuggling tradition including The Romantic Era of Smuggling: A Game of Cat and Mouse on Lake Como and Como and Contraband – A Romanticised Legacy?

Lake Como witnessed the last days of Mussolini and his lover, Claretta Petacci who were killed locally along with other members of the fascist hierarchy before their bodies were carried down to be displayed in Milan’s Piazzale Loreto. 25th April Liberation Day – Como’s Role in the Insurrection describes what happened in and around Como during Mussolini’s last few days.

 

About comocompanion

I am an Englishman in Como, Northern Italy - definitely both a Euro and Italophile with an interest in modern history, walks in the hills and mountains, and food and wine. I favour 'slow' tourism alongside of 'slow' food.
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