Beneath a scarlet sky, p.28
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       Beneath a Scarlet Sky, p.28

           Mark Sullivan

  boot-packed path.

  The sun finally broke through. A strong breeze was blowing out the last of the clouds when Pino reached the plateau, gasping in the bitter air, focused not on the grandeur of the place but on Casa Alpina. He felt so desperate at the sight of the refuge that he ran the length of the plateau and rang the bell on the porch as if it were a fire alarm.

  In his peripheral vision, Pino picked up four armed men coming around the side of the building. They wore red neckerchiefs and pointed rifles at him.

  Pino threw up his hands and said, “I’m a friend of Father Re.”

  “Search him,” one said.

  Pino went into a panic over the documents he still carried in his pockets, one from General Leyers, and the other from Mussolini. The partisans would shoot him just for that.

  But before the men could reach him the door opened, and Father Re was looking at him. “Yes?” he said. “Can I help you?”

  Pino pulled off his cap. “It’s me, Father Re. Pino Lella.”

  The priest’s eyes went wide, first with disbelief, and then with joy and wonder. He threw his arms around Pino and cried, “We thought you were dead!”

  “Dead?” Pino said, fighting back tears. “What made you think that?”

  The priest stepped back, stared at him, beaming, and then said, “It doesn’t matter. What’s important is that you are alive!”

  “Yes, Father,” he said. “Can I come in? Talk to you?”

  Father Re noticed the partisans watching. He said, “I vouch for him, my friends. I have known him for years, and there is not a better man in the mountains.”

  If that impressed them, Pino didn’t notice. He followed Father Re down the familiar hallway, smelling Brother Bormio’s bread baking, and then hearing men moaning and talking in low voices.

  More than half of the dining hall at Casa Alpina had been converted into a field hospital. A man Pino recognized as a doctor from Campodolcino was with a nurse working on one of the nine wounded men lying in cots arranged by the fireplace.

  “Members of the Ninetieth Garibaldi,” Father Re said.

  “Not Tito’s boys?”

  “The Ninetieth drove those hoodlums out of the valley months ago. The last we heard, Tito and his crew were scavenging and robbing on the road to the Brenner Pass. The cowards. The men you see here are all brave souls.”

  “Is there somewhere we can talk, Father? I’ve come a long way to see you.”

  “Oh? Of course,” Father Re said, and took him to his own room.

  The priest gestured to the small bench. Pino sat, wringing his hands.

  “I wish to confess, Father,” he said.

  Father Re looked concerned. “To what?”

  “My life since I left you,” Pino said, and he told Father Re the worst of it.

  He broke down four times describing General Leyers and the slaves and Carletto Beltramini cursing him while his father lay dying, the decimation ceremony at San Vittore Prison, the machine-gunning of Tullio Galimberti, Mimo’s ridicule of him, and leaving the graveyard that morning under the dead eyes of the severed heads.

  “I don’t know why these things are happening to me.” Pino wept. “It’s just too much, Father. Too much to see.”

  Father Re put his hand on Pino’s shoulder. “It sounds like too much to me, too, Pino, but I’m afraid it’s not too much for God to ask of you.”

  Bewildered, Pino said, “What’s he asking me to do?”

  “To bear witness to what you’ve seen and heard,” the priest said. “Tullio’s death should not go in vain. The murderers in Piazzale Loreto should be brought to justice. Those Fascists this morning, too.”

  “Seeing them butcher the dead . . . I don’t know, Father . . . It makes me question my faith in mankind, in people being good deep down, not savages, not like that.”

  “Seeing those things would make any man question his faith in mankind,” the priest said. “But most people are essentially good. You have to believe that.”

  “Even the Nazis?”

  Father Re hesitated, and then said, “I can’t explain the Nazis. I don’t think the Nazis can explain the Nazis.”

  Pino blew his nose. “I guess I want to be one of those men out there in the dining room, Father. Fighting openly. Doing something that matters.”

  “God wants you to fight in a different way, and for a greater good, or he would not have put you where you are.”

  “Spying on General Leyers,” Pino said with a shrug. “Father, other than meeting Anna, the last time I felt really good about myself was here at Casa Alpina, helping people get over to Val di Lei, saving lives.”

  “Well,” Father Re said, “I’m no expert, but I have to believe you’ve saved the lives of many Allies with the information you’ve risked your life to provide.”

  Pino hadn’t thought of it that way before. Wiping away tears, he said, “General Leyers—from what I’ve told you, do you think he’s evil, Father?”

  “Working a man to death is the same as shooting a man to death,” the priest said. “Just a different choice of weapons.”

  “That’s what I think, too,” Pino said. “Sometimes Leyers can seem like anyone else, and the next he’s like a monster.”

  “From what you’ve seen and told me, I’d say you’re going to cage the monster someday, make him pay for his sins on earth before he atones for them before God.”

  That made Pino feel better. “I’d love for that to happen.”

  “Then you will. Have you really been inside the chancellery in Milan?”

  “Once,” Pino said.

  “And to Mussolini’s villa at Gargnano?”

  “Twice,” Pino said. “It’s a strange place, Father. I don’t like going there.”

  “I don’t want to know. But tell me more about your Anna.”

  “She’s funny, and pretty, and smart. She’s six years older than me and a widow, but I love her, Father. She doesn’t know it yet, but I plan to marry her after the war.”

  The old priest smiled. “Then refind your faith in mankind in your love of Anna, and build your strength through your love of God. These are dark times, Pino, but I really do sense clouds wanting to lift and the sun wanting to rise on Italy again.”

  “Even General Leyers says the war is all but over.”

  “Let’s pray your general is right about that,” Father Re said. “You’re staying for dinner? You can spend the night, talk with the wounded men, and I have two downed American pilots coming tonight who could use a guide to Val di Lei. Are you up to it?”

  Americans! Pino thought. That would be exciting. A climb to Val di Lei might be good for his body, and helping two Americans escape might be good for his soul. But then he thought of General Leyers, and what he might do if he found out Pino had been driving all over northern Italy with a dead body in the backseat of his staff car.

  “Actually, Father,” Pino said, “I should go back. The general might need me.”

  “Or Anna might.”

  Pino smiled at the mention of her name. “Or Anna.”

  “Which is as it should be.” Father Re chuckled. “Pino Lella. A young man in love.”

  “Yes, Father.”

  “Be safe, my son. Don’t break her heart.”

  “No, Father. Never.”

  Pino left Casa Alpina feeling as if he’d been cleansed somehow. The late afternoon air was fresh and biting cold. The crag of the Groppera stood out like a bell tower against a cobalt sky, and the alpine plateau at Motta seemed once more to Pino like one of God’s grandest cathedrals.

  Hurrying from the motor pool shortly after dark, Pino felt like he’d lived three lifetimes in a single day. When he entered the lobby of his apartment building, he found Anna standing there, joking with the sentries.

  “There you are!” she said, looking like she’d already had her first glass of wine.

  One of the sentries said something, the other laughed, and Anna said, “He wants to know if you know how lucky you are.

  Pino grinned at the SS soldier. “Tell him I do. Tell him when I’m with you, I feel like the luckiest guy on earth.”

  “You’re sweet,” she said, and then translated.

  One of the sentries raised an eyebrow skeptically. But the other nodded, perhaps recalling the woman who made him feel like the luckiest guy on earth.

  They never asked for Pino’s papers, and he and Anna were soon riding in the birdcage elevator. When they passed the fifth floor, Pino grabbed her and they kissed passionately. They broke when the elevator reached their floor.

  “So you did miss me?” Anna asked.

  “Ridiculously,” he said, and took her hand as they exited.

  “What’s wrong?” she asked as he worked the key into the lock.

  “Nothing,” he said. “I just . . . I just need to forget this war again with you.”

  Anna put her hand gently on his cheek. “That sounds like a wonderful fantasy.”

  They went in, shut the door, and did not leave for nearly thirty hours.

  Pino pulled up in front of Dolly’s ten minutes early the following Monday morning. He sat there for a few moments, savoring his memories of the hours spent alone with Anna, when time had seemed to stand still, when there was no war, only pleasure, and the giddy happiness of blooming love as triumphant and joyous as Prince Calaf’s aria.

  The rear door of the Fiat opened. General Leyers climbed in, valise first, wearing his long gray wool business coat.

  “Monza,” Leyers said. “The train station.”

  Light snow began to fall when Pino put the Fiat in gear, feeling angry that Leyers was going after his stolen gold again, bringing more of it into Switzerland.

  Pino could already see his day unfolding in front of him. He would spend it parked at the border above Lugano, freezing the hours away while the general did secret business. When Leyers returned from the train yard, however, he told Pino to drive not to the Swiss border but instead to the central train station in Milan.

  They got there around noon. Leyers would not let Pino carry his valise, and he shifted the heavy load from hand to hand as they walked to that rattletrap train of faded-red cattle cars, sitting in the bitter cold of Platform 21.

  Pino had prayed he’d never see the train again, but there it was, and he walked toward it with dread, pleading with God not to let him see tiny fingers waving through the slats in the boxcars. But he could see naked fingers from thirty meters away, dozens of them, and of all ages, beckoning for mercy while voices inside shouted for aid. Through the slats in the boxcar, Pino could see that most of the people were no better dressed than the people he’d seen in the same cars the September before.

  “We’re freezing!” a voice shouted. “Please!”

  “My daughter!” another called. “She’s sick with fever. Please.”

  If General Leyers heard their pleas, he ignored them, and went straight for Colonel Rauff, who stood there waiting for the train to pull out along with ten members of the Waffen-SS. Pino pulled his hat down over his eyes and hung back. The two SS soldiers closest to Rauff had German shepherd attack dogs on short leashes. Leyers looked unimpressed by them and said something calmly to Rauff.

  After a moment, the Gestapo colonel ordered the guards to move away. Pino stood in the shadow of an iron post and watched the general and Rauff have an intense argument, which went on until Leyers gestured at his valise.

  Rauff stared at the general quizzically, then at the valise, and back to Leyers before he said something. Leyers nodded. The Gestapo colonel barked an order at the SS guards. Two of them went to the rear cattle car, unlocked it, and slid back the doors. Eighty people, men, women, and children, were crammed into a space meant for twenty cows. They were terrified and shivering.

  “Vorarbeiter,” General Leyers said.

  Pino made no eye contact with Rauff as he crossed to Leyers. “Oui, mon général.”

  “I heard someone say, ‘My daughter is sick.’”

  “Oui, mon général,” Pino said. “I heard that, too.”

  “Ask the mother to show the sick girl to me.”

  Pino was confused, but he turned to the people in the open cattle car and translated.

  A few moments later, a woman pushed through the crowd, helping a pale, sweating little girl about nine years old.

  “Tell her that I am going to save her daughter,” General Leyers said.

  Pino balked a moment before translating.

  The woman began to sob. “Thank you. Thank you.”

  “Tell her I will get the girl medical help and make sure she never comes to Platform Twenty-One again,” the general said. “But the girl must come alone.”

  “What?” Pino said.

  “Tell her,” Leyers said. “And there is no argument. Either her daughter is saved, or she is not, and I’ll find someone more agreeable.”

  Pino didn’t know what to think, but told her.

  The woman swallowed but said nothing.

  The women around her said, “Save her. Do it!”

  At last, the sick girl’s mother nodded, and Leyers said to the SS guards, “Take her to my car, and wait with her there.”

  The Nazis hesitated until Colonel Rauff shouted at them to comply. The girl, though weak and feverish, went hysterical when they took her from her mother’s arms. Her shrieks and cries could be heard throughout the station while Leyers ordered the rest of the people out of the boxcar. He walked in front of them, looking at each in turn before stopping in front of a girl in her late teens.

  “Ask her if she wishes to be brought somewhere safe,” Leyers said.

  Pino did, and the girl nodded without hesitation.

  General Leyers ordered two more Waffen-SS guards to take her to his car.

  The general moved on, inspecting, and Pino couldn’t help remembering how he had graded the slaves at the stadium in Como that first day Pino drove for Leyers. In minutes, General Leyers had picked two more, both boys, both in their teens. One boy refused, but his father and mother overruled him.

  “Take him,” the man said firmly. “If he’s safe, he’s yours.”

  “No, Papa,” the boy said. “I want to—”

  “I don’t care,” his mother said, crying as she hugged him. “Go. We’ll be fine.”

  When the SS soldiers had led them away, Leyers nodded to Rauff, who ordered the others back into the cattle car. Pino felt overwhelming dread watching them board the train, especially the mother and the father of the last boy chosen. They kept looking back over their shoulders before climbing into the boxcar, as if for one more glimpse of their lost love and joy.

  You did the right thing, Pino thought. It’s tragic, but you did the right thing.

  He could not watch when they shut the cattle car door, barred, and locked it.

  “Let’s go,” Leyers said.

  They walked past Colonel Rauff. The general’s valise sat at the Gestapo chief’s feet.

  When they reached the Fiat, the four taken off the train were inside and shivering. Three were in the backseat, and one in the front. Two SS soldiers were guarding them. They didn’t look happy about it when Leyers dismissed them.

  The general opened the rear door and looked in at them, smiling. “Vorarbeiter, tell them my name is Major General Hans Leyers of the Organization Todt. Ask them to repeat that, please.”

  “Repeat it, mon général?”

  “Yes,” Leyers shot back, irritated. “My name. My rank. The Organization Todt.”

  Pino did as he was told, and they each repeated his name, rank, and the Organization Todt, even the little sick girl.

  “Excellent,” the general said. “Now ask them who saved them from Platform Twenty-One?”

  Pino felt strange but did as he was told, and the four dutifully repeated his name.

  “Have long and prosperous lives, and praise your God as if today were Passover,” Leyers said, and shut the car door.

  The general looked at Pino, his breath billowing clouds in the
frigid air. “Take them to the chancellery, Vorarbeiter, to Cardinal Schuster. Tell him to hide them or get them to Switzerland. Tell him I’m sorry I couldn’t bring him more.”

  “Oui, mon général,” Pino said.

  “Pick me up at the telephone exchange at six p.m.,” he said. He turned and walked back into the train station. “We have much to do.”

  Pino watched Leyers go before turning back to the car, trying to decipher what he’d just seen occur. Why was he—? What was he—? But then, he decided, none of it mattered. Getting these four to the chancellery was the important thing. He got into the car and turned it on.

  The sick girl, Sara, cried and moaned for her mother.

  “Where are we going?” the older girl said.

  “The safest place in Milan,” Pino said.

  He parked the Fiat in the courtyard of the chancellery and told them to wait inside. Then he climbed the snowy staircase to the cardinal’s apartment and knocked.

  A priest he did not recognize answered. Pino told him who he was, whom he worked for, and who was in the car.

  “Why were they in the boxcars?” the priest asked.

  “I didn’t ask, but I think they’re Jews.”

  “Why did this Nazi general think Cardinal Schuster would ever get involved with Jews?”

  Pino looked at the priest, who’d gone stony, and felt outraged. He pulled himself up to his full height and loomed over the priest, a slight man.

  “I don’t know why Leyers thought that,” Pino said. “But I do know that Cardinal Schuster has been helping Jews escape to Switzerland for the past year and a half because I helped him do it. Now, shouldn’t we ask the cardinal what he wants done?”

  He’d said this all in such a threatening tone that the priest shrank and said, “I can’t promise you anything. He’s working in his library. But I’ll go—”

  “No, I’ll go,” Pino said. “I know the way.”

  He brushed past the priest, went down the hall until he reached the library, and knocked.

  “I asked not to be disturbed, Father Bonnano,” Schuster called from inside.

  Pino tore off his hat, opened the door, and stepped through bobbing his head and saying, “I’m sorry, My Lord Cardinal, but it’s an emergency.”

  Cardinal Schuster stared at him curiously. “I know you.”

  “Pino Lella, My Lord Cardinal. I drive for General Leyers. He got four Jews off the train at Platform Twenty-One. He told me to bring them to you, and to say that he was sorry there couldn’t be more.”

  The cardinal pursed his lips. “Did he now?”

  “They’re here. In his car.”

  Schuster did not say a thing.

  “Your Eminence,” Father Bonnano said, “I explained that you cannot personally be involved with such—”

  “Why not?” Schuster said sharply, and then looked to Pino. “Bring them inside.”

  “Thank you, My Lord Cardinal,” Pino said. “One girl is sick with fever.”

  “We’ll get a doctor. Father Bonnano will see to it. Won’t you, Father?”

  The priest seemed unsure, and then bowed deeply. “At once, Your Eminence.”

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