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Beneath a Scarlet Sky, Page 39

Mark Sullivan

  open, closing it after Leyers had climbed in. He locked the safety on the Thompson, handed the weapon to Carletto, and got behind the wheel.

  In the back, the general was handcuffing himself again to the suitcase.

  “Why didn’t you kill him?” Carletto said in disbelief.

  “Because I want him to kill me,” Pino said, started the Fiat, and put it in gear.

  They took off, sliding in greasy mud that soon caked the sides of the car. They drove cross-country to the north before finally meeting up with a two-track road that led downhill through switchbacks and long traverses that put them parallel to the Brenner Pass road above the town of Bressanone/Brixen. The German army column choked the town and the route ahead for more than a mile. Nothing was moving.

  Gunshots sounded below. Out the window, bouncing along on the two-track, Pino looked toward the front of the column and saw why it had all but halted. There were six or seven pieces of heavy artillery at the head of the line. Many of the mules that had pulled the cannons through Italy had finally given up; they stood their ground and refused to work any longer.

  The Nazis were whipping the mules, trying to get the artillery pieces out of the way so the rest of the column could get by. The mules that wouldn’t pull were being shot and dragged to the shoulders of the road. The last cannon was almost out of the way. The Nazi caravan was about to retreat on.

  “Go faster,” Leyers ordered. “Get in front of that column before it blocks us.”

  Pino downshifted and said to Carletto, “Hold on.”

  The track was drier here, and Pino was able to double and then triple his speed, still parallel to the convoy, almost to the head of the snake. A kilometer farther on, the lane met another crude route that dropped downhill seven hundred meters to the Brenner Pass road where it passed through the village of Varna/Vahrn and no more than one hundred meters from the cannons and the dying mules.

  Pino downshifted and slid them neatly into a track that headed steeply downhill. He floored the accelerator. The Fiat bounced and flew down the last flank of the mountain even as the last cannon cleared and the Panzer tanks at the head of the German column fired up and began to roll once more toward Austria.

  “Get ahead of them!” Leyers shouted.

  It took everything Alberto Ascari had taught Pino to keep the car from flipping or rolling. He chuckled madly as he barreled them down the last stretch to the road even as the first Panzer built speed.

  But then, out of nowhere and a mile to the south, a US Mustang P-51 fighter plane dive-bombed and opened fire on the Nazi column, strafing its way up the line.

  The general must have understood the physics of all that was involved now because he began to shout, “Faster! Faster, Vorarbeiter!”

  They were neck and neck with the tank, which was some eighty meters from blocking the intersection. The Fiat was one hundred and ten meters from the Brenner Pass road but closing faster as the Mustang flew closer, letting loose machine gun fire every few seconds.

  Forty meters shy of the road, Pino finally hit the brakes and downshifted, which hurled the Fiat into a series of wild muddy zigzags and then up on two wheels, with the Panzer right there, before they shot off an embankment and landed in front of the tank. They skidded, went up on two wheels again, and almost flipped before Pino got the Fiat righted and accelerating.

  “Soldier coming up out of the tank!” Leyers yelled. “He’s at the machine gun!”

  Pino had widened the gap, but the distance was still child’s play for a heavy-caliber machine gun. The shooter could cut the Fiat apart like cheese. Hunched over the wheel, Pino held the accelerator flat against the floorboard, expecting to take a bullet to the back of the head.

  But before the Nazi could open fire, the US fighter came round the bend, strafing up the neck and head of the German column. Bullets rattled off the Panzer armor and ricocheted off the road right behind the Fiat. Suddenly, the shooting stopped, and the plane banked off.

  They rounded another bend and were out of the Germans’ sight. For a moment there was stunned silence in the car. Then Leyers began to laugh, pounding his fists on his thighs and on the suitcase.

  “You did it!” he cried. “You crazy Italian son of a bitch, you did it again!”

  Pino hated that he’d done it. He’d fully expected to die in the trying, and now that he was putting distance between them and the retreating Nazis and gaining ground on the Austrian border, he didn’t know what to do. He seemed destined to get General Leyers out of Italy, and he finally surrendered to the task.

  The twenty-four kilometers of road between Bressanone/Brixen and Vipiteno/Sterzing climbed to the level of the snowpack, which looked granular, wet, and névé, but still deep. When they met fog again, it was hard to tell where the snow ended and the air began. Cut off by the German column behind them, the Brenner Pass road was deserted and wound up into patches of thicker cloud and mist. Their pace slowed to a crawl.

  “Not far now,” Leyers said after they passed through Vipiteno. He pulled the suitcase back up onto his lap. “No time at all.”

  “What are you going to do, Pino?” Carletto asked, drinking again. “What’s this all been for if he just gets away with the gold?”

  “Major Knebel says he’s a hero,” Pino said, feeling numb. “I guess he goes free.”

  Before Carletto could respond, Pino downshifted and braked hard, entering a hairpin turn on the last climb toward the border. A low wall of snow blocked the way, and he had to slam on the brakes and come to a full stop.

  Six rough-looking men wearing red scarves stood up from behind the snowbank, aiming rifles at them from point-blank range. Out of the forest on Carletto’s side, another man appeared holding a pistol. An eighth man stepped out of the trees to Pino’s left. He was smoking a cigarette and carrying a sawed-off shotgun. At first glance, even after a year, Pino knew him.

  Father Re had said Tito and his men were robbing people on the Brenner Pass road, and now here he was, strolling Pino’s way.

  “What have we here?” Tito said, coming up alongside the open window, the sawed-off shotgun leading. “Where do you think you all are going on this fine May morning?”

  Pino had his hat pulled down over his brows. He held out the envelope and said, “We’re on a mission for the Americans.”

  Tito took it, opened it, and looked at the paper in a way that made Pino think he couldn’t read. He stuffed the letter back in the envelope and tossed it aside. “What’s the mission?”

  “We’re taking this man to the Austrian border.”

  “That right? What’s in the suitcase he’s got handcuffed to his hand?”

  “Gold,” Carletto said. “I think.”

  Pino groaned inside.

  “Yeah?” Tito said. He used the muzzle of the shotgun to push Pino’s cap up higher so he could see his face.

  After a second or two, Tito laughed scornfully and said, “Isn’t this perfetto?”

  Then he jabbed Pino’s cheek with the shotgun muzzle, opening up a gash below his eye.

  Pino grunted with pain and reached up, feeling blood already flowing.

  Tito said, “Tell your man back there to unlock that handcuff and give me that suitcase, or I am going to blow your head off and then his.”

  Carletto was breathing heavy and fast. Pino glanced at him and saw his friend was shaking with alcohol and rage.

  “Tell him,” Tito said, and jabbed Pino again.

  Pino did, in French. Leyers said nothing, didn’t move a muscle.

  Tito shifted the shotgun barrel toward the general.

  “Tell him he’s about to die,” Tito said. “Tell him you’re all about to die, and I’ll take the suitcase anyway.”

  Pino thought of Nicco, the innkeeper’s dead son, jerked on the door handle, threw his weight against the door, and slammed it against the left side of Tito’s body.

  Tito stumbled to his right, slipped on the snow, and almost went down.

  A pistol fired from the
backseat of the Fiat.

  The man standing by Carletto’s door died of a bullet through the cheek.

  Tito got his balance, shouldered the shotgun, and tried to swing it at Pino, screaming, “Kill them all!”

  The next second seemed endless.

  Carletto pulled the trigger on the Thompson and blew out the Fiat’s windshield; at the same moment General Leyers fired a second time, hitting Tito square in the chest. As Tito fell, his shotgun went off, blasting the Fiat’s lower-quarter panels with buckshot. Carletto’s second machine gun burst killed two of the six remaining men in Tito’s gang of smugglers and highwaymen. The other four were trying to get away.

  Carletto threw open his door and ran after the fleeing men. One of them was hit already and stumbling. Carletto shot him as he ran by in pursuit of the last three, screaming hysterically, “You partisan bastards killed my father! You killed him and broke my mother’s heart!”

  He skidded to a halt and opened fire again.

  He hit one man in the spine and dropped him. The other two turned to fight. Carletto mowed them both down dead.

  “Paid in full!” Carletto screamed wildly. “Paid in . . .”

  Shoulders sagging and shaking, Carletto began to weep. Then he went to his knees and sobbed.

  Pino came up behind him and put his hand on his friend’s shoulder. Carletto jerked around, crazed. He pointed the barrel up at Pino and looked ready to shoot.

  “Enough,” Pino said softly. “Enough, Carletto.”

  His friend stared at him, and then broke down all over again. He dropped the gun and stepped up into Pino’s arms, bawling. “They killed my papa, and they made my mama want to die, Pino. I had to take revenge. I had to.”

  “You did what you had to do,” Pino said. “We all did.”

  The sun began to burn through the clouds. It didn’t take them long to clear the snow and move the bodies from the road. Pino went through Tito’s pockets, thinking about Nicco, until he found the money clip stolen from him two New Year’s Eves before. He looked at Tito’s boots and left them, but picked up the envelope with their papers. Pausing at the driver’s door, he peered into the backseat where General Leyers still sat, still holding a US Colt M1911 pistol, just like the one Major Knebel carried.

  Pino said, “We’re even. No favors owed.”

  Leyers said, “Agreed.”

  In the last eight kilometers toward Austria, Carletto acted like someone head shot. He sat there empty with no spirit in his skin or bones. Pino was not much better. He drove on because it was all he could do. There was no thinking at the wheel for him now, no grief, no shell shock, and no regret, just the road ahead. A little more than three kilometers from the border crossing, he punched on the radio and tuned it to dance music and static.

  “Turn that off,” Leyers snapped.

  “Shoot me if you want,” Pino said, “but the music’s staying on.”

  He glanced in the rearview, saw his own defeated eyes and the general staring back at them in victory.

  American paratroopers and two Mercedes-Benz sedans waited at the border crossing in a narrow, forested valley. There was a Nazi general in uniform, whom Pino did not recognize, standing there by one Mercedes, smoking a cigar and enjoying the building sunshine.

  This isn’t right, Pino thought as he pulled the Fiat to a stop. Two paratroopers came toward him. Pino opened the envelope and scanned the paper inside before handing it to them. It was a letter of free passage signed by Lieutenant General Mark Clark, commander of the US Fifth Army, at the behest of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander.

  A redheaded paratrooper nodded to Pino and said, “Showed a lot of moxie and grit to get him up here, safe and sound. The US Army thanks you for your help.”

  “Why are you helping him?” Pino said. “He’s a Nazi. A war criminal. He worked people to death.”

  “Just following orders,” the GI said, glancing at the general.

  The second soldier opened the backseat and helped General Leyers out, the suitcase still handcuffed to his wrist.

  Pino climbed out. The general stood there waiting for him. He held out his free hand. Pino stared at it a long beat, and then reached out his own.

  Leyers shook his hand hard, and then pulled Pino close, and whispered in his ear.

  “Now you understand, Observer.”

  Pino stared at him in disbelief. Observer? He knows my code name?

  General Leyers winked, released his grip, and whirled in his tracks. Striding away, Leyers never looked back. The paratrooper opened the backseat of one of the waiting cars. The general disappeared inside with the suitcase while Pino gaped after him.

  Behind Pino, in the Fiat, the radio turned to a news bulletin that Pino couldn’t make out for all the static. He just stood there, Leyers’s last words to him spinning in his mind and adding confusion to his despair and defeat when not an hour ago he’d had such homicidal clarity, sure that vengeance was his and not the Lord’s.

  Now you understand, Observer.

  How could he have known? How long had he known?

  “Pino!” Carletto yelled. “Do you hear what they’re saying?”

  The car bearing the general drove away and was quickly gone, heading down the road toward Stubaital and Innsbruck.

  “Pino,” Carletto shouted, “Germany has surrendered! The Nazis have been told to lay down their weapons by eleven o’clock tomorrow morning!”

  Pino said nothing, just watched the point in the road where Major General Hans Leyers vanished from his life.

  Carletto came over and put his hand gently on Pino’s shoulder. “Don’t you understand?” he said. “The war’s over.”

  Pino shook his head and felt tears stream down his face as he said, “I don’t understand, Carletto. And the war’s not over. I don’t think it ever will be over for me. Not really.”


  By the end of World War II, a third of Milan lay in ruins. The bombardment and the fighting had left twenty-two hundred Milanese dead and four hundred thousand homeless.

  The city and its people began to rebuild, burying the past and the rubble under new roads, parks, and high-rise structures. They cleaned the soot of war off the Duomo. They put up a monument to Tullio Galimberti and the martyrs of Piazzale Loreto around the corner from a bank that used to be Beltramini’s Fresh Fruits and Vegetables. The Hotel Diana still stands, as do the chancellery, San Vittore Prison, and the haunted colonnades of the Cimitero Monumentale.

  The towers of Castello Sforezsco were repaired, but bullet marks remain on the inner walls. In an effort to forget the savagery that occurred in the Piazzale Loreto, the Esso station was torn down. So was the building that once housed the Hotel Regina and the Gestapo. A plaque on Via Silvio Pellico is all that memorializes the people murdered and tortured inside SS headquarters. Milan’s Holocaust Memorial is inside the central train station, beneath Platform 21.

  Of the roughly forty-nine thousand Jews in Italy at the time of the Nazi invasion, some forty-one thousand evaded arrest or survived the concentration camps. Many were put on the Catholic underground railroad that ran north along several different routes into Switzerland, including Motta. Others were helped by courageous Italians, Catholics, and clergy who hid Jewish refugees in the basements of monasteries, convents, churches, homes, and even a handful in the Vatican.

  Alfredo Ildefonso Schuster, who fought to save Jews and his city from further destruction, remained the cardinal of Milan until his death in August 1954. A future pope said Cardinal Schuster’s funeral Mass. One of his pallbearers took up his cause for sainthood. That pallbearer became Pope John Paul II, who beatified Cardinal Schuster in 1996. His blessed body lies in a sealed glass case beneath the Duomo.

  Father Luigi Re continued to offer Casa Alpina as sanctuary to people in danger. In the days following the end of World War II, he infamously protected Eugen Dollmann, Hitler’s Italian translator, and refused demands from the US Army to hand him over.

nbsp; Father Re was named to the “Righteous Among the Nations,” an honor given by Yad Vashem, the Israeli World Holocaust remembrance center, to those who selflessly risked their own lives to save Jews. Father Re died in 1965 and is entombed on the ski slopes above Motta, beneath a golden-plated statue of the Madonna said to have been paid for by all the people he’d helped before, during, and after the war. His boys’ school has since been rebuilt as a hotel named Casa Alpina. His chapel is gone.

  The seminarian Giovanni Barbareschi was honored for his heroic actions during the Italian resistance, named to the Righteous Among the Nations, and ordained by Cardinal Schuster. After a long career as a priest, he retired and still lives in Milan, where he keeps a collection of his old forging tools.

  Alberto Ascari, who taught Pino Lella to drive, went on to live his childhood dreams and became an Italian national hero. At the wheel of a Ferrari, Ascari won the World Grand Prix Championships in 1952 and 1953. In May 1955, while he was taking training laps on the Monza circuit, his car somersaulted and crashed, hurling Ascari onto the racetrack. He died in Mimo Lella’s arms. Thousands of people crowded the Duomo and the piazza the day of Ascari’s funeral. Buried next to his father in the Cimitero Monumentale, Ascari is widely considered one of the greatest race car drivers of all time.

  Colonel Walter Rauff, the head of the Gestapo in northern Italy, was believed to be directly responsible for the deaths of more than one hundred thousand people, and indirectly responsible for the hundreds of thousands who died in the portable gas chamber he designed and deployed in eastern Europe before his transfer to Milan. Rauff was captured, but broke out of a prisoner of war camp and ended up in Chile as a shadowy spy-for-hire who became close to the country’s dictators.

  Simon Wiesenthal, the famous Nazi hunter, tracked Rauff down in 1962. The German government tried to have Rauff extradited. He fought it, and the case went to the Chilean Supreme Court. Rauff was freed five months later. He died in Santiago in 1984 of a heart attack. Attended by many former Nazi officers, his funeral was described as a raucous celebration of Rauff, Adolf Hitler, and the Third Reich in general.

  Major J. Frank Knebel returned to the United States, left the army, and picked up his life in newspaper journalism. He was the publisher of the Garden Grove News in California and later the Ojai Valley News. In 1963, he bought the Los Banos Enterprise. Knebel and Pino corresponded on and off until the newspaperman’s death in 1973. Knebel left behind little about the war except for a cryptic note in one of his files that alluded to his plans to write a “never-before-told true story of great intrigue in the last days of the war in Milan.” He never did.

  Corporal Peter Daloia returned to Boston. When he died decades after the war ended, his son was shocked to find a Silver Star for valor for his father’s heroics at the battle of Monte Cassino. It was buried in a box in the attic. Typical of so many, Daloia told no one about his war in Italy.

  Albert and Greta Albanese continued to flourish in business. They made a fortune when Uncle Albert decided to wrap meerschaum pipes in leather and sell them around the world. They died in the 1980s. Their shop at #7 Via Pietro Verri is now Pisa Orologeria, or Pisa Luxury Watches.

  Michele and Porzia Lella ran a series of successful purse and sportswear companies after the war and were active in the fashion district their entire lives. Before their deaths in the 1970s, #3 Via Monte Napoleone, the site of the original purse store, was rebuilt and now houses a Salvatore Ferragamo boutique. The apartment building on Corso Matteotti still stands, though the birdcage elevator has been removed.

  Pino’s sister, Cicci, became as dynamic a businesswoman as her mother. She promoted Milan as a global fashion center and worked in the family business, focusing on the boutiques in San Babila. She died in 1985.

  Domenico “Mimo” Lella was cited for courage fighting for the resistance, most notably for his actions on the first day of the general insurrection. Mimo worked in the family business before founding his own manufacturing company, Lella Sport, which catered to the weekend athlete and outdoor enthusiast. A short, pugnacious, and successful businessman, Mimo married a beautiful fashion model, Valeria, who stood a foot taller than him. They had three children. He built a cabin at Motta beside Casa Alpina that was said to be his favorite place on earth. In 1974, at age forty-seven, Mimo died of skin cancer.

  Carletto Beltramini and Pino Lella were lifelong friends. Carletto became a successful salesman for Alfa Romeo and lived all over Europe. He never married and did not talk about the war for fifty-three years. But in 1998, as he lay ill in the hospital, Pino and an American named Robert Dehlendorf paid him a visit. Carletto recounted the last days of the war almost as a confession. He remembered the wild party at the Hotel Diana and the vengeful look on Pino’s face when he learned they were taking General Leyers to Austria. Carletto remained convinced that Leyers carried gold in his suitcase. He also admitted shooting the highwaymen as they tried to get away, broke down sobbing, and asked God’s forgiveness for the insanity of his acts.

  Carletto died a few days later with Pino at his side.