Annie Laura Smith
On August 23, 1944, Adolf Hitler issued an order to the new commanding General of Paris, Dietrich von Choltitz. This order set forth Hitler’s final decision on the fate of Paris.
Paris must not fall into the hands of the enemy, or it if does, he must find there nothing but a field of ruins.
For the last four years, Pierre Dumay has fought with the French Resistance against the hated Germans. He has learned how to make the Germans pay for the deaths of his brother and mother. Now fate has put him in the position where he must work with a German general to save Paris.
Thursday, March 23, 1944, Rome, Italy
Would the priest call this murder?
Stefano Cavadoni waited at the top of the hill of the Via Rasella, at the intersection to the main thoroughfare, Via Quattro Fontane. He listened for the unmistakable sound of the German column’s hobnailed boots on the cobblestones and the soldiers’ raucous singing of Huft, Mein Mädel as they marched through the narrow streets.
Since Tuesday, Stefano had scouted the German Bozen SS Battalion march down the Via Rasella. This new anti-Partisan police group was en route to their barracks at the Interior Ministry by way of the Via Quattro Fontane. Today his mission was lookout for the resistance attack on these German troops of the 11th Company. This despised day of spring held special significance for all Italians — Benito Mussolini and his cohorts had founded the Fascist movement in Italy twenty-five years earlier on March 23, 1919. Although forced to resign as Prime Minister in 1943, Mussolini had established a breakaway government in northern Italy under the protection of the German troops.
The Partisan leader, Pietro Morante, placed a rubbish cart in the middle of the street, positioning it so the German column would have to march around it. Four mortar shells were carefully hidden in this cart. While Stefano watched Pietro’s efforts at the bottom of the hill, his gaze was drawn to the windows of his mother’s nearby apartment. Stefano had lived on the Via Rasella all of his sixteen years. What would this resistance action mean to his family? What reprisals would the Germans take?
From his vantage point at the top of the hill, Stefano saw the column of German soldiers, in their olive-green uniforms, march confidently toward him. The noise of the soldiers’ boots and strident voices echoed down the avenue. Their arrogant stride, backed by their ever-present machine guns, matched their guttural singing of Skip, My Lassie, performed specifically to elicit Italian anger. Stefano casually raised his cap to Pietro, signaling the column’s approach.
Pietro puffed several times on his pipe before he used the hot tobacco embers to ignite the booby-trapped container. At the top of the hill, he blended in with Stefano and other pedestrians. When a large explosion shook the area, Stefano looked over his shoulder and cringed at the sight of dead and dying soldiers–their bodies torn and mangled. Surviving Germans raked the buildings along the street with bullets from their submachine guns. Stefano joined the others then, running down the Via Quattro Fontane, fleeing for their lives.
Stefano and Pietro didn’t stop running until they made it back to the Partisan hideout on the Via Mercede. There they collapsed on the marble kitchen floor of the old stone house and caught their breath.
“We-we-won’t be hearing-from-that column again,” Pietro panted. Stefano nodded, too breathless to speak.
A fellow Partisan, Pasquale Rossi, burst into the room. His eyes wide with fear, he cried, “The Germans are taking them! All of the people who live on Via Rasella!”
“What?” Pietro shouted. He jumped to his feet. “Why them?”
“They think the bomb came from one of the apartments,” Pasquale explained.
Stefano’s heart sank as he thought of his mother and his many other friends living on the Via Rasella. And where was his brother Leonardo? Was he safe in Florence?
Stefano didn’t know exactly what his brother was doing because all Partisan activities were secretive. If he needed to know about Leonardo’s work in Florence, someone would give him the details. Otherwise, he’d just have to hope and pray his brother was safe.
“Those civilians didn’t even know of our plans!” Pietro protested, anger rising in his voice.
“That doesn’t matter,” Pasquale said. “With the German reprisal system, someone always has to pay.”
“Stefano, go back to Via Rasella and see what’s happening,” Pietro ordered.
Stefano agreed at once. He was fearful for his mother and anxious to know how she had fared. “But, how?” he asked. “The checkpoints will be more restrictive.”
“Take your bicycle and some vegetables for your mother. You shouldn’t be under suspicion even though you live on the street. You weren’t at home during the bombing.”
Stefano got his bicycle out of the shed in back and took an assortment of vegetables from their Partisan supply, loading them into his bicycle basket. He pedaled back to Via Rasella and stopped at the top of the hill. He surveyed the chaos below.
Bloody corpses and body parts still littered the streets. German soldiers were forcing residents from their apartments. Older people futilely struggled and small children wailed in fear. The Germans had made the people walk from Via Rasella across the Via Quattro Fontane, and then lined them up along the gates of the Palazzo Barberini. The bedraggled group stood forlornly there with their arms held over their heads.
When he reached his family’s apartment building, German and Italian soldiers along with Italian police continued to harass residents without mercy, pointing their submachine guns at the crowd.
Stefano recognized General Mälzer, the German general who had taken command of the stunned remnants of the column, who screamed orders that the entire block be demolished.
“We will learn who is responsible. The Gestapo has its ways,” the General promised in his cold voice.
The German Consul Möllhausen stepped close to the German general, and by gestures, seemed to be pleading with him not to do such a dire thing. Stefano’s heart sat in his throat. His eyes widened in fear as he watched the growing chaos.
A German guard approached him, raised his rifle and ordered, “Achtung! Warum sind Sie hier?”
Stefano stopped abruptly in front of the door of his mother’s apartment and explained why he was there. “I went to the vegetable market for my mother.” He pointed to the potatoes, carrots and radishes in his bicycle basket. He hoped his rapidly beating heart wouldn’t give him away. “What happened here?”
“Your Partisan swine killed our soldiers,” the German soldier answered in broken Italian. “Go–Get out of our way!” He pushed Stefano aside with the butt of his rifle.
Just then Stefano saw his mother being herded down the street by a German sergeant. Her arms were raised over her head. She looked so small and helpless. Instinctively, he moved toward her, then he saw her face. Her dark eyes blazed, and her expression set, she shook her head, warning him off. The sergeant pointed his gun at her.
“Move,” he ordered and gestured for her to join the group already held at the Palazzo Baberini gates.
Stefano agonized over what he could do to help her and the others. The old woman at the corner blessed him at his surprise gift of the vegetables. He slowly pedaled back to the Partisan hideout. He leaned his bicycle against the back of the house and entered the kitchen.
“There are many Germans dead,” he told the group at the house on Via Mercede. “But the others are rounding up all of the residents of the apartments, my mother included. What are we going to do?”
Pietro slammed his fist down on the table. “We didn’t anticipate this. I thought they would come looking for us. But to take the people of the Via Rasella—How could we be so wrong?”
“So, how do we help those people?” Pasquale asked. “The Germans may murder them all, and they didn’t even know about our attack on the column.”
“Mama certainly didn’t know about our plans,” Stefano said, his eyes blazing in anger. He didn’t think he could hate the Germans any more than he did after they killed his father. German soldiers caught Signore Cavadoni with the Partisans who had destroyed a train carrying ammunition and troops to Monte Cassino the previous December.
“We can’t help,” Pietro said at last, shaking his head. “To do so would compromise future missions.”
Not help? Stefano was stunned. What good was their Partisan work against the German occupation of Italy if innocent civilians were killed in the process?
“Can we at least get word to the Pope?” Pasquale asked. “He might intervene.”
“We can try,” Pietro replied, “but there probably isn’t much he can do. These reprisals come from Berlin. Hitler isn’t too interested in the desires of the Papacy.”
“I’ll take the message,” Stefano offered. He had worked in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana before the German occupation, and knew his way around Vatican City quite well.
“The library Prefect at Vatican City knows me, and perhaps will be willing to get this message to His Eminence.”
Pietro scribbled a quick note. “I’m asking the Pope to demand the release of the civilians immediately. Be sure you are at home by 5:00 rather than 9:00 tonight.”
“Why four hours earlier?” Stefano asked.
“We’ve learned from one of our Partisans at Headquarters that the Germans have changed the curfew to 5:00 p.m. because of our bombing.”
“No food, no fuel, and now no time,” Pasquale grumbled.
Stefano put the note in his jacket pocket, retrieved his bicycle and pedaled rapidly toward Vatican City. When he wound his way around parked German armored cars, the soldiers pointed their machine guns menacingly at him and any others who came too close. He neared an entrance to the Vatican, and stopped the bike when he saw German Wehrmacht sentries at the entry point. How could he get by them? And what if they took the note he had for the Pope?
He moved the note to his wallet and pulled out an earlier pass that had been issued to him when he had worked in the Vatican Library. He hoped the guards wouldn’t look too closely. The date had been deliberately smudged just for such an emergency as now. He clutched the pass in his hand as he slowly rode toward the sentries.
“Achtung!” one of the sentries said, stepping in front of the entrance. “What business?”
Stefano braked his bicycle at the order to stop. “I work in the Vatican Library.” He wiped a trickle of perspiration from his brow with his sleeve. He hoped the guard would think it was from exertion, not fear.
He handed the sentry the pass to the library, and waited for the guard let him pass.
“You are Stefano Cavadoni?” the guard asked suspiciously.
The guard looked him over, handed back his pass, and waved him through.
He rode his bicycle a short distance and a Swiss Papal Guard, dressed in the traditional colorful uniform, stopped him, saluted and held his halberd aloft.
Stefano looked at the halberd–the part spike, part battle-ax mounted on a six-foot handle–and swallowed hard.
“You must report to the Vigilanza,” the Swiss Guard ordered, still standing smartly at attention.
Stefano was quite familiar with the requirement to obtain a written pass from the Vatican police before entering Vatican City. Rather than showing his old pass that had gotten him by the German sentries, he decided to get a new one for another Partisan to use.
The Swiss Guard relaxed his stance, stepped aside and allowed Stefano to go to the police station.
“Your name, please. An appointment with whom, sir?” the officer at the desk asked, peering at Stefano over thick-rimmed glasses.
“Stefano Cavadoni–I need to see Prefetto Roatta at the library.”
The officer phoned the Prefect and said, “Stefano Cavadoni is here to see you, Prefetto.” The officer listened briefly, hung up the phone and then wrote a pass for Stefano. “The Prefect will see you now.” He gave the pass to Stefano.
Breathing more easily, Stefano entered the northeast main gateway to the Vatican City grounds, the Porta Sant’Anna. He rode by St. Anne’s Parish Church, the barracks of the Swiss Guards and the Papal Post Office. He parked the bike when he reached the building housing the library, and entered. It seemed like an eternity since he had worked here amidst the world’s greatest collection of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. The library also held Incunabula, the rare and fragile books printed before 1501 in Europe.
He paused when he walked through the Sistine Hall of the library that glorified writing and the reign of Pope Sixtus V. He looked at the richly frescoed walls and ceiling. For the first time, the beauty of the frescoes from the sixteenth century failed to provide a peaceful haven for him. In here, usually it was hard to think about the German occupation outside of the Vatican City walls. However, he hastened today–his mission involved the safety of his mother. I hope I will be able to work at the library again after the war when my Partisan responsibilities were over.
He knocked on the door to Prefetto Roatta’s office and faintly heard the greeting, “Entri!”
He found Prefetto Roatta sitting behind his desk, working on a manuscript. The Prefect looked up at Stefano with an expression of alarm.
“What brings you back to the library, Stefano?” He put down his pen.
Stefano retrieved Pietro’s note and handed it to the Prefect.
After the Prefect read the note, he shook his head. “I don’t know what the Holy Father can do,” he said sadly. “This is probably out of his hands.” Then he saw the crestfallen look on Stefano’s face. “But we can try.”
“Thank you, Prefetto. We’ll pray for the Holy Father’s intervention.”
With a heavy heart, Stefano left Vatican City and rode back to the Via Rasella. Partisan activities seemed to cause more problems for the civilians instead of helping to free Rome from the German occupation. But what else could they do?
When he reached the Via Rasella, he was surprised to see the civilians, who had been rounded up, heading back to their apartments. He hurried to his mother’s apartment and found her sitting at the window. Her brown eyes were tearful as she looked out on the avenue.
“Mama, are you all right?” he asked, rushing to hug her.
“Sì…Ma per quanto tempo?”
Stefano knelt by his mother’s chair and took her hand.
“I’m so relieved you’re all right, Mama. I don’t know how long it will be, but our liberation will come. The Partisans didn’t mean to harm anyone here. They didn’t think the reprisals would be for those here. But the Allies are coming soon…” He paused and asked, “How did you get home?”
“The Germans turned us over to the Fascist police. They released most of us after questioning us. They knew we weren’t involved.”
The Partisans would have to continue their work. But at what cost? Even Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of England, had said, “Rome must starve till freed.”
Stefano looked at his frail mother. The Germans’ strict rationing allowed only three and one-half ounces of bread and seven ounces of cheese per day, and only three and one-half ounces of meat per week. It was barely enough to keep them alive. They lived mainly on vegetables, most of which Stefano scavenged from behind the hotel restaurants that catered to the Germans. Even if he had some money from his work with the Partisans, he was reluctant to buy from the black market sellers. These unscrupulous countrymen hoarded food and other scarce items and then sold them at greatly inflated prices. One of the leaders of the black market even lived in his mother’s apartment building.
Gas was available for cooking for ninety minutes at midday and only thirty minutes at night. If civilians were not at home during those times, they had to eat their sparse rations cold or uncooked.
Before the war Stefano looked like an athlete–six-foot-two with a muscular body. He almost looked as good as his twenty-two-year old brother, Leonardo. But now, Stefano’s ribs poked through his shirt. When he looked in a mirror, his brown eyes seemed lost in his gaunt face.
“Must I lose my two sons, too?” Stefano’s mother asked. “My beloved Gustavo is already gone.”
“Mama, Leonardo is safe, restoring art in Florence and I’m here. We’ll be fine.”
Maria Cavadoni smiled at Stefano’s reassurance and patted his hand. “You’re such a good son.” She tousled his hair and changed the subject. “Why are you home?”
“I need to get some things from my room.”
He stopped at his desk and picked up the photograph of his girlfriend, Lina Vassalli. His heart quickened when he looked at her bright smile. Her dark eyes seemed to look intently at him, reflecting a happiness that he longed to see there again. The long-black hair complemented an angel’s face.
Lina and her brother Luigi and sister Elena were part of the Partisans, too. They lived in Rome with Elena, who was a nurse in the Intensive Care unit at the Ospedale di Santo Spirito. Signore and Signora Vassalli were not aware of their son’s and daughters’ Partisan activities–yet.
Unfortunately, Luigi had been captured and held in the prison on Via Tasso. So far, torture had not caused her brother to reveal that Lina and Elena were Partisans. Lina kept reminding the others how tough her brother was, fearing as they all did, how much torture he could endure before he would break…how much he would suffer, how much he would reveal. Lina could hide but the Partisans needed Elena to keep working. Prayers were said nightly for Luigi.
Stefano felt the ache in Lina’s heart, and understood when she needed some space, but he longed to hold her and comfort her. He was secretly glad Lina had not been part of today’s operation. He couldn’t bear having her at risk, as he couldn’t think of losing her.
How fortunate it had been that a family friend had suggested that her father hire him for a summer job at the Vassalli vineyards near Montefalco. He vividly remembered the first time he saw Lina. Her lilting laugh had drifted across her family’s vineyard seducing him long before he had ever seen her face. Then one day, as they gathered up edges of the tarp collecting grapes, their eyes met. Those beautiful brown eyes and her captivating smile won his heart forever. Over the past two years his love for her had grown deeper. But now, in their daring work, he could lose her. Death had no favorites. He sighed and slipped Lina’s picture in his pocket.
He had met Luigi then, too. Luigi, a bear of a man, always full of mischief kept them laughing even during the hard work. Through mid-September the three spent long hours harvesting grapes in the Vassalli vineyards. Elena was rarely at the vineyard since her work at the hospital, especially now, gave her little time off.
Turning from his thoughts, Stefano removed three boards from the wall behind his armoire and took out a suitcase radio that had been parachuted into Italy by the Americans. He took the radio along on all of his Partisan missions. The shortwave radio transmitter was his link with London and the Allied forces in Italy. Allied forces had trained Stefano along with other Partisans as a radio-telegraph operator to monitor and initiate covert radio links with London and agents in the field.
He put on the headphones and tuned it to the BBC. Would the BBC broadcast news of their Partisan action on the SS troops? When the radio crackled to life, Stefano heard the sounds of a distinctive British-accented voice along with the familiar chimes of Big Ben. His spirits lifted at the sound of the chimes. It always gave him a ray of hope for freedom.
The reporter said, “The first signs of spring have emerged in the gardens of London. This is in spite of the fact that many of the park and garden areas have been dug up for Anderson shelters. We look forward to blooming flowers by April first.”
Stefano realized that this was a coded message from the American Office of Strategic Services in London sent under the guise of a “personal message” for a parachute drop on April first. This OSS message wasn’t for Stefano’s group but he knew that the airwaves carried messages for all different Partisan groups. A particular Partisan group would know what it meant, and where the drop site would be and that was enough for Stefano.
The announcement was followed by the classical music piece, The Rite of Spring, by Igor Stravinsky. No doubt this was another coded communication. When would the Germans be able to figure out this system of communication? Well, he would worry about that when the time came.
Stefano listened for a few more minutes, but there was no mention of the events on the Via Rasella. Why would the Partisan Headquarters not want the world to know of this resistance act?
After he turned off the radio, he carefully placed it back in its hiding place behind the armoire. He would like to keep it at the Partisan’s hideout with Pietro’s radio, but if the location of their hideout was compromised and the Gestapo found the radios, they would lose both of their means of communication.
He thought of the radio set being hidden here in his mother’s apartment. Its discovery probably would mean prison, or possibly death, for himself and his mother, yet he willingly risked it for his Partisan work. But do I have a right to risk my mother’s life, too? He felt he had no choice if the Partisans were to help free their country.
“Mother, I must go.”
“To the Vatican Library?” she asked, unaware that he no longer worked there.
“Sì.” He felt guilty keeping his mother in the dark about his Partisan affiliation. But it was in her best interest not to know about his activities, and for her to assume that he still worked at the library. She also assumed that her son Leonardo’s work in Florence was solely as an art restorer for the Uffizi Gallery.
Stefano’s older brother, Leonardo, was also an active member of the Partisans. He worked in Florence, at the Galleria degli Uffizi, restoring the old masterpieces. His codename, da Vinci, reflected exactly what Leonardo worked for in this war.
He was saving as many of Italy’s priceless artwork as he could from the Germans who were systematically looting the art treasures of Europe. Hitler had established a Commission, the Sonderauftrag Linz, to acquire works of art in Italian collections for his planned world-renowned art museum in his hometown of Linz, Austria. The priceless paintings by the Italian masters such as Leonardo da Vinci were high on the list of acquisitions. The German Art Commission, the Kunstschutz, also took priceless artworks to send to Germany while tasked to “protect all cultural materials”.
Stefano angrily remembered that even some of the Italian Fascists had also looted their own country’s treasures. He also thought about how close they came to losing da Vinci’s The Last Supper. It had been in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan and had survived a bombing of the refectory in 1943. Surely they could protect the other masterpieces from theft by the Führer’s henchmen!
“I’ll see you tonight,” he said, and kissed her cheek.
She smiled and took him by the hand. “Do bring Lina to see me soon. I have missed seeing her recently.”
“I will, Mama. She would love to see you, too.” Stefano squeezed his mother’s shoulder gently and then turned to leave.
After taking a different route to the Partisan hideout, he found Pietro, Pasquale and Lina, pouring over a map on the rough-hewn table in the kitchen.
“Stefano!” Lina ran to embrace him. “I’m so glad you are all right.” Her brown eyes echoed her smile of happiness.
“Sì, amore,” he assured, returning the embrace and kissing her cheek. “The civilians have been allowed to return to their homes.” Stefano joined Pietro and Pasquale at the table. “Mama is back in her apartment. The Germans turned most of the civilians over to the Fascist police and they released them.”
“Yes, we know,” Pietro said. “But the reprisals are gathering other victims.” He absent-mindedly ran his fingers through his graying hair.
“What do you mean?” Stefano asked, fearing again for his mother’s safety.
“Hitler has demanded a severe reprisal for our actions,” Pietro replied, his eyes dark with anger. “Ten civilians to be killed for each one of the thirty-two German soldiers slain.”
Pasquale’s eyes blazed with anger, too. “Why did the Gruppi di Azione Patriottica leadership ask us to bomb the column of German troops? The GAP knew there would be consequences for such a provocative act.”
“Our leadership felt it was dishonorable that there had not been any uprising against the occupation of Rome. I’m sure that they did not anticipate such severe consequences for our actions,” Pietro explained.
Stefano caught his breath. He knew that the Pope had encouraged the Germans to show restraint to ease the tensions in Rome. Pope Pius XII was the first Roman born Pope and felt a connection to Rome that others perhaps would not.
Would His Eminence encourage them now to still honor that request? If he couldn’t, three hundred and twenty innocent Italians would be murdered! Could the Pope successfully intervene on their behalf?
About Annie Laurie Smith
Annie Laura Smith has over 250 publications and is an instructor for the Institute of Children’s Literature. In addition to her published World War II historical trilogy, she co-authored a First Grade Math Textbook for Ethiopia under a USAID grant, and adapted the classic, The Pioneers, by James Fenimore Cooper to Reading Level 4 for the EDCON Publishing Group. She has written a WWII trilogy for OnStage Publishing which details the lives of teenagers in England, France and Italy.