Last week I went to Pallanza on Lake Maggiore with my friend Betta. Her mother is visiting from Canada and was there at the family home where her two sisters live. A few days before the trip, I was chasing Morgan around and ran into a wall, stubbing my toe badly. I was pretty sure it was broken because you just know, but I didn’t go to the hospital since all they can do with a toe is confirm that it’s broken, give you a prescription for a big, dumb looking orthopedic shoe and tell you to take it easy. By the time I got up north, my foot was quite swollen, I guess from all the walking around in train stations, and Betta’s cousin, a nurse, dragged me to the local hospital where we waited for a couple of hours for a doctor to confirm that it’s broken and tell me to take it easy. I picked up the big dumb shoe on my way into Pallanza.
I’ve been to Pallanza numerous times over the years. There’s lots to do, including exploring the islands in the lake, checking out the palatial residences of the various Richie Riches that summer here and enjoying a lakeside aperitivo. This visit was somewhat less active than usual due to the aforementioned toe issue and because both Betta and I had to work most of the time.
But something very weird happened. I’ve been re-reading Benevolence and Betrayal by Alexander Stille, a great book about the experiences of five Jewish families under fascism in Italy. The first part of the book tells the very interesting story of Ettore Ovazza, a Jew from Turin who was a committed fascist. He came from a wealthy banking family and was highly regarded in Italian society. Ovazza volunteered to fight in World War I, he participated in the March on Rome, he founded a Jewish fascist movement and met with Mussolini, whom Ovazza idolized. When Hitler came to power, his anti-Semitic views began to influence some leading Italian fascists – although not yet Mussolini who remained pretty quiet on the subject of race. This led Ovazza to even greater feats of fascism – as if to reassure Mussolini of his complete loyalty. He established a newspaper, La Bandiera Nostra (Our Flag), which was basically all about the importance of Jewish nationalism and how Zionism was a bad thing.
Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 greatly angered the Brits and the French and pushed him ever closer to an alliance with Germany. Anti-Semitism in Italy grew apace. Still Ovazza stayed loyal to the regime, convincing himself that anti-Jewish measures were needed to make Hitler happy and that making Hitler happy was the best way to ensure that Italy would be on the winning side of the inevitable war in Europe. Even after the racial laws were passed in 1938, he was convinced that Mussolini would never harm Italian Jews.
Problem was, Mussolini got fired in July 1943. His successor Badoglio negotiated an armistice with the Allies. two days after the armistice was announced on 8 September, the Nazis had seized control of most of Italy.
His also fascist but far more realistic brothers having fled the country, poor old Ettore took his family to a ski resort in the Italian Alps, planning to head to nearby Switzerland if it became necessary. Somehow – there are various versions of the how – the SS found the family there and took them to their headquarters at a commandeered girls’ school in Intra. It was October 10. That evening, the Germans took the Ovazzas to the basement and shot them. They burned the bodies in the furnace.
Sad, horrible story. But here’s the weird thing. When I was reading the last pages, Betta came in and said, “We’re going to Intra to go shopping. Wanna come?” I had just finished reading about Intra and it turns out I was 15 minutes away from the place! It gets weirder when you realize that Intra has only two streets. Anyway, we went to the school and saw the plaque.
Later, I quizzed Betta’s mom and aunt about the resistance movement in the area. It’s a hilly region with many places to hide and there were lots of partisans around here back in the day. More on that another time.
Sidebar. In 1939, Mussolini merged the two small towns of Intra and Pallanza. His motivation was to save money; interestingly, a similar move is being contemplated currently. Betta wrote a great article for the Times about how Italians are freaking out at the government’s plans to merge towns with fewer than 1000 inhabitants as part of its emergency cost-cutting actions. The mayor of Filettino, a few hours from Rome, has reacted by announcing his plans to establish a principality, with himself as prince. Hee!
Mussolini’s merger resulted in the establishment of a new town – called Verbania – with a single government for ex-Pallanza and ex-Intra. Verbania doesn’t seem to have caught on though: both places still answer to their old names.