Beneath a scarlet sky, p.29
Beneath a Scarlet Sky, p.29Mark Sullivan
When Pino had seen the four to the cardinal’s library and watched Father Bonnano fetch them blankets and hot tea, he said, “I should go, My Lord Cardinal.”
Schuster studied Pino, and then walked him out of earshot of the refugees.
“I don’t know what to make of your General Leyers,” the cardinal said.
“I don’t, either. He changes every day. Full of surprises.”
“Yes,” Schuster said thoughtfully. “He is full of surprises, isn’t he?”
Polar air continued to pour down out of the Alps on relentless bitter winds that blasted Milan through the end of January and on into early February of 1945. General Leyers ordered the seizure of staples like flour, sugar, and oil. Riots broke out in the long lines that formed for the remaining food. Diseases like typhus and cholera thrived in the unsanitary conditions caused by the bombardment. They were near epidemic in large parts of the city. To Pino, Milan felt like a cursed place, and he wondered why its people were being punished so heartlessly.
The weather and Leyers’s ruthlessness bred hatred throughout northern Italy. Despite the frigid conditions, while wearing the swastika Pino could feel the heat of rage building in every resentful Italian face he passed. Tics of disgust. Twitches of rancor. Spasms of loathing. He saw all those reactions and more. He wanted to shout at them, to tell him what he was really doing, but he stayed true, swallowed the shame, and went on.
General Leyers turned erratic after saving the four Jews. He would work at his job at his normal frenzied, sleepless pace for several days, and then grow despondent and get drunk in Dolly’s apartment.
“He’s up one minute, down the next,” Anna said one afternoon in early February as they left a café down the block from Dolly’s. “One night, the war’s over, the next, the fight’s still on.”
Snow coated Via Dante, and the air was frigid, but the sun was shining so brightly for a change that they decided to take a walk.
“What happens after the war?” Pino asked as they neared Parco Sempione. “To Dolly, I mean?”
“He’s moving her to Innsbruck when the Brenner Pass road opens,” she said. “Dolly wants to go now by train. He says it’s not safe. Trains are being bombed up on the Brenner. But I think he just needs her here, just like she’ll need me there for a while.”
Pino’s stomach fell. “You’ll go to Innsbruck with Dolly?”
Anna stopped by the long, wide, and deep depression in the snow that marked the ancient moat that surrounded Castello Sforzesco. The fifteenth-century stone fortress had been hit during the bombardment of 1943. The medieval round towers to either end were in ruins. The tower above the drawbridge had damage that showed like black, scabbed wounds against the snow.
“Anna?” Pino said.
“Just until Dolly’s settled,” Anna said, studying the bombed tower as if it held secrets. “She knows I want to come back to Milan. And to you.”
“Good, then,” Pino said, and kissed Anna’s gloved hand. “There’re at least fifteen meters of snow up high. It will take weeks to clear that road.”
She turned from the castle and said hopefully, “The general did say it could be a month once the snow stops, maybe more.”
“I pray for more,” Pino said, took her in his arms, and kissed her until they both heard the flapping of wings and broke their embrace.
Big ebony ravens were flushing from the bomb holes in the fortress’s central tower. Three birds flew away croaking and squawking, while the largest one flew in lazy circles above the wounded spire.
“I need to get back,” Anna said. “You do, too.”
They walked hand in hand down Via Dante. A block from Dolly’s building, Pino saw General Leyers coming out the front door and heading toward the parked Fiat.
“Got to go,” Pino said, blowing her a kiss before sprinting to meet Leyers. He opened the Fiat’s door saying, “A thousand pardons, mon général.”
The general bristled at him. “Where have you been?
“Taking a walk,” Pino said. “With the maid. Where can I drive you?”
Leyers looked like he wanted to lay into Pino, but he glanced through the window and saw Anna approaching.
He let out a long breath and said, “Cardinal Schuster’s quarters.”
Twelve minutes later, Pino pulled the Fiat through the arch into the chancellery courtyard, which was crowded with vehicles. Pino managed to park, got out, and opened the general’s door.
Leyers said, “I may need you.”
“Oui, mon général,” Pino said, and followed the Nazi across the snowy courtyard and up the exterior stairs to Cardinal Schuster’s apartment.
General Leyers knocked, and Giovanni Barbareschi answered the door.
Had the young seminarian escaped again? Leyers showed no sign of recognizing the forger who’d survived the decimation ritual at San Vittore Prison. But Pino did, and was mortified more than ever to be wearing the armband and the symbol of Nazism.
“General Leyers to see His Eminence.”
Barbareschi stood aside. Pino hesitated, and then walked past as the seminarian studied him, as if trying to place him. Pino prayed that it wasn’t in the yard at San Vittore Prison. Barbareschi had to have seen Leyers there, though. Had he seen the general try to stop the decimation? They entered Cardinal Schuster’s private library. The cardinal of Milan stood behind his desk.
“Kind of you to come, General Leyers,” Schuster said. “Do you know Signor Dollmann?”
Pino tried not to gape at the other man in the room. Everyone in Italy knew him. A tall, thin, elegantly built man with unnaturally long fingers and an intense, practiced smile, Eugen Dollmann was often in the newspapers. Dollmann was Hitler’s translator whenever the führer came to Italy, or when Mussolini went to Germany, for that matter.
Pino began translating to Leyers in French, but Dollmann stopped him.
“I can translate, whoever you are,” Dollmann said with a flip of his hand.
Pino nodded, backed up toward the door, wondering if he should leave. Only Barbareschi seemed to notice he did not. Dollmann rose, extended his hand, and spoke to Leyers in German. The general smiled, bobbed his head, and replied.
In Italian, Dollmann told Cardinal Schuster, “He’s comfortable with me translating. Shall I ask his driver to leave?”
The cardinal peered past Leyers and Barbareschi toward Pino.
“Let him stay,” Schuster said, and then gazed at Leyers. “General, I am hearing that if there is a retreat, Hitler means to scorch the earth and lay waste to Milan’s few remaining treasures.”
Dollmann translated. Leyers listened and then spoke rapidly back in return. The interpreter said, “The general hears the same things, and he wishes to tell the cardinal that he disagrees with the policy. He is an engineer, a lover of great architecture and art. He is opposed to any more unnecessary destruction.”
“And the new field marshal, Vietinghoff?” the cardinal asked.
“The new field marshal, I think, can be persuaded to do the right thing.”
“And you are willing to do the persuading?”
“I am willing to try, Your Eminence,” Leyers said.
“Then I bless your efforts,” Cardinal Schuster said. “You’ll keep me informed?”
“I will, Your Eminence. I must also caution you, Cardinal, about your public pronouncements in the days ahead. There are powerful people who are looking for a reason to have you imprisoned, or worse.”
“They wouldn’t dare,” Dollmann said.
“Don’t be naïve. Or haven’t you heard yet about Auschwitz?”
At that, the cardinal looked weakened. “It’s an abomination before God.”
Auschwitz? Pino thought. The work camp where the red cattle cars went? He flashed on the little fingers sticking out the side of the boxcar. What had happened to that child? To all the others? Dead, certainly, but . . . an abomination?
“Until next time, Your Eminence,” Leyers s
“General?” the cardinal called after him.
“Take good care of your driver,” Schuster said.
Leyers glanced hard at Pino, but then seemed to remember something, softened, and said, “What else could I do? He reminds me of my late nephew.”
Pino kept thinking about that word, that place, that OT work camp as he drove General Leyers to his next appointment at the Fiat factory in Turin’s Mirafiore district. He wanted to ask Leyers what the abomination was, but was too frightened to ask, too scared to see how he might react.
So Pino kept his questions to himself, even when they went into a meeting with Calabrese, the Fiat manager, who looked unhappy to see Leyers again.
“There’s nothing I can do,” Calabrese said. “There have been too many sabotages. We can’t run the line anymore.”
Pino was sure Leyers would explode. Instead, Leyers said, “I appreciate your honesty, and I want you to know that I am working to make sure Fiat is protected.”
Calabrese looked unsure. “Protected from what?”
“Total destruction,” the general said. “The führer has called for scorched earth if there is a retreat, but I am making sure the backbones of your company and your economy survive. Fiat will go on, no matter what happens.”
The manager thought, and then said, “I’ll tell my superiors. Thank you, General Leyers.”
“He’s doing them favors,” Pino said later that night in his aunt and uncle’s kitchen. “That’s how he does things.”
“At least he’s helping Cardinal Schuster to protect Milan,” Uncle Albert said.
“After looting the countryside,” Pino said hotly. “After working people to death. I’ve seen what he’s done.”
“We know you have,” Aunt Greta said, seeming preoccupied. For that matter, his uncle was, too.
“What’s wrong?” Pino asked.
“There was disturbing news this morning on the shortwave,” Uncle Albert said. “About a concentration camp in Poland called Au-something.”
“Auschwitz,” Pino said, feeling nauseated. “What happened?”
Uncle Albert said that by the time the Russians got to Auschwitz on January 27, parts of the camp had been blown up and the records burned. The SS men who ran the camp had fled, taking fifty-eight thousand Jewish prisoners with them as slaves.
“They left seven thousand Jews behind,” Uncle Albert said, his voice choking.
Aunt Greta shook her head, distraught. “They evidently looked like human skeletons because the Nazis had been trying to work them to death.”
“Didn’t I tell you?” Pino cried. “I’ve seen them do it!”
“This is worse than what you described,” Uncle Albert said. “The survivors said that the buildings the Nazis blew up before leaving the camp were gas chambers used to poison Jews, and a crematorium to burn their bodies.”
“They said the smoke covered the sky around the camp for years, Pino,” his aunt said, wiping at tears. “Hundreds of thousands of people died there.”
The fingers, the little fingers waved in Pino’s mind, and the mother of the sick girl, and the father who’d wanted his son saved. They’d gone to Auschwitz just a few weeks before. Are they dead? Poisoned and burned? Or are they slaves retreating toward Berlin?
He hated the Germans then, every last one of them, and especially Leyers.
The general had told him that Auschwitz was an Organization Todt work camp. They build things, he had said. Like what? Like gas chambers? Like crematoriums?
Shame and revulsion poured through Pino at the thought that he’d worn the OT uniform, the same uniform worn by people who built gas chambers to kill Jews and crematoriums to hide the evidence. In his mind, the builders of those camps were as guilty as whoever ran them. And Leyers had to have known. After all, he had Hitler’s ear.
By the time Pino and General Leyers reached the village of Osteria Ca’Ida on February 20, 1945, they had been driving for hours. The last twenty minutes had been spent spinning in greasy cold mud up a steep road to a high promontory that looked southeast toward the medieval fortress of Monte Castello, some three kilometers away.
Pino had been to the spot several times the prior autumn, so Leyers could study the castle from afar to better understand how to fortify it. Monte Castello loomed eight hundred meters above a road that led north toward Bologna and Milan. Controlling that road was essential to holding the Gothic Line.
In the last month, the castle, along with the battlements Leyers built at the towns of Belvedere and Della Toraccia, had held off the Allied attack four times. But now, on a pale, frigid morning, Monte Castello lay under siege.
Pino had to cover his ears to the whistle and thunder of the artillery shells falling in and around the castle. The blasts felt like hammer blows in his chest. Each hit threw gouts of debris and flame that gave way to uncoiling clouds of oily smoke, which rose, billowed, and blackened the pewter sky.
Pino shivered and watched as Leyers, bundled in a long wool overcoat, used his field glasses to scan the battlefield, and then looked away to the southwest across a series of ridges and mountains. With his bare eyes, Pino could see an army of men about five kilometers away moving over the dull-white and dun winter hills.
“The US Tenth Mountain Division is fighting for Della Toraccia,” General Leyers said, handing Pino the binoculars. “Very well trained. Very tough soldiers.”
Pino used them and saw fragments of the battle before Leyers said, “Glasses.”
Pino handed them quickly back to the general, who peered through them southeast past the base of Monte Castello. Leyers cursed, and then chuckled sardonically.
“Here,” he said, handing Pino the glasses. “Watch a few black bastards die.”
Pino hesitated, but then looked through the binoculars, seeing troops of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force charge across open ground at the base of the mountain’s southwest flank. The first line of attacking soldiers was forty meters out from the base when a man stepped on a land mine and was blown apart in a haze of dirt, smoke, and blood. Another soldier stepped on a mine, and then a third before the battlefield came under withering German machine gun fire from above, pinning them down.
But Allied cannons and mortars continued to pound the fortress. By midmorning, there were breaches in the walls on both sides of the castle, and the Brazilians kept coming, waves of them that finally crossed the minefield, made the base of Monte Castello, and started a deadly climb that would last for hours.
General Leyers and Pino stood there in the cold the entire time, watching the Tenth Mountain Division conquer Della Toraccia and, in hand-to-hand combat, the Brazilians take Monte Castello around five that afternoon. The mountainside was cratered when the Allied cannons stopped. The castle lay in smoking ruins. The Germans were in full retreat.
General Leyers said, “I am beaten here, and Bologna will be lost in a matter of days. Take me back to Milan.”
The general sat in silence the entire ride back, head down, scribbling on a pad of paper and rifling through documents in his valise until they pulled to the curb outside Dolly’s building.
Pino carried his valise, following Leyers past the old crone in the lobby and up the stairs. General Leyers knocked at the apartment door. Pino was surprised when Dolly answered, dressed in a black wool dress that fit her snugly.
Her eyes were rheumy, as if she’d been drinking. Her cigarette smoldering as she teetered on high heels, she said, “How wonderful of you to come home, General.” Then she looked at Pino. “I’m afraid Anna is not feeling well. A stomach bug of some sort. Best to stay away.”
“Best for all of us to stay away, then,” General Leyers said, backing up. “I can’t afford to be sick. Not now. I’ll sleep elsewhere tonight.”
“No,” Dolly said. “I want you here.”
“Not tonight,” Leyers said coldly, pivoted, and left with Dolly sh
Pino dropped the general at German headquarters under orders to return at 7:00 a.m.
He left the car at the motor pool and trudged toward home, seeing in his mind’s eye the carnage and destruction he’d witnessed that day. How many men had he seen die from his safe vantage point? Hundreds?
The sheer brutality of it ate at him. He hated war. He hated the Germans for starting it. For what? Putting your boot on another man’s head and stealing him blind, until someone with a bigger boot comes along to kick you out of the way? As far as Pino was concerned, wars were about murder and thievery. One army killed to steal the hill; then another killed to steal it back.
He knew he should be happy to see the Nazis defeated and retreating, but he just felt hollow and alone. He desperately wanted to see Anna. But he couldn’t, and that suddenly made him want to weep. He choked back his emotions, forced his mind to put a wall around his memories of the battle.
That wall held as he showed his documents to the sentries in the lobby of his apartment building, and when he rode the birdcage past the Waffen-SS soldiers on the fifth floor, and as he dug in his pocket for his keys. When he opened the apartment door, he thought he’d step inside an empty apartment, fall to the floor, and let it all go.
But Aunt Greta was there already, collapsed in his father’s arms. When she saw Pino, she broke into deeper sobs.
Michele’s lower lip quivered when he said, “Colonel Rauff’s men came to the shop this afternoon. They ransacked the place and arrested your uncle. He’s been taken to the Hotel Regina.”
“On what charges?” Pino asked, shutting the door.
“Being part of the resistance,” Aunt Greta wept. “Being a spy, and you know what the Gestapo does to spies.”
Michele’s jaw began to tremble, and tears dripped down his cheeks. “You hear her, Pino? What they’ll do to Albert? What they’ll do to you if he cracks and tells them about you?”
“Uncle Albert won’t say a thing.”
“What if he does?” Michele demanded. “They’ll come for you, too.”
“I want you to run, Pino. Steal your general’s car, go to the Swiss border in uniform with your passport. I’ll give you enough money. You can live in Lugano, wait for the war to end.”
“No, Papa,” Pino said. “I won’t do that.”
“You’ll do as I say!”
“I’m eighteen!” Pino shouted. “I can do what I please.”
He said this with such strength and resolve that his father was taken aback, and Pino felt bad for having shouted. It had just burst out of him.
Shaking, trying to calm down, Pino said, “Papa, I’m sorry, but I’ve sat out too much of the war already. I won’t run now. Not while the radio still works and the war goes on. Until then, I’m at General Leyers’s side. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it has to be.”
Ten days later, on the afternoon of March 2, 1945, Pino stood by General Leyers’s Fiat, studying the exterior of a villa in the hills east of Lake Garda and wondering what was happening inside.
Seven other cars were parked there as well. Two of the drivers wore the uniforms of the Waffen-SS, and one the Wehrmacht. The rest were in plain clothes. Under Leyers’s orders, so was Pino. For the most part, Pino ignored the other drivers and continued to watch the house with intense fascination because he’d recognized two of the German officers who’d followed General Leyers inside nearly twenty minutes before.
They were General Wolff, head of the SS in Italy, and Field Marshal Heinrich Von Vietinghoff, who’d recently replaced Kesselring as commander of all German forces in Italy.
Why is Vietinghoff here? And Wolff? What are they all up to?
These questions went round and round in Pino’s head until he couldn’t take it anymore. He got out of the Fiat into the lightly falling snow and moved off toward a hedgerow of ornamental cedar trees that flanked the parking area. He stopped and took a piss in case any of the other drivers were watching, and then pushed through the cedars and disappeared.
Using the hedge for cover, Pino got to the villa’s north wall, where he crouched and slunk along, pausing beneath windows to listen, and then rising up to peek through.
From below the third window he heard shouting. One voice roared out, “Was du redest ist Verrat! Ich werde an einer solchen Diskussion nicht teilnehmen!”
Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan / History & Fiction have rating 5.1 out of 5 / Based on82 votes