Walter Marx was born on February 27 1926 in Heilbronn, a small German city of 60,000 inhabitants. Like all of the 1000 Jewish citizens who lived in the city at the time, Walter had to escape Germany to avoid the consequences of its anti-Semitic laws. And like that of many other Jews who eventually crossed the Italian borders to flee Nazi persecution, his life was saved by the courageous and compassionate acts of an Italian ‘angel’, one of the many civilians who risked their own personal safety to protect that of a stranger.
The name of Walter’s ‘angel’ is Maddalena Giraudo and Walter paid her a personal tribute on April 2006, when he presented her with the title of ”Righteous” for her heroic actions during the Second World War on behalf of the Jewish community of Turin.
Walter was only 9 years old when he fled his home and set out on a journey that would take him across Luxemburg and France to Italy. In 1935, when Germany’s anti-Semitic policy reached its climax and made the conditions of the Jewish population unbearable, Walter was forced by his parents to abandon his town, after repeatedly being beaten up and insulted by his German schoolmates and teachers alike. He took refuge in nearby Luxembourg in the house of his aunt and uncle. His parents, left to bear the consequences of the Nazi’s ethnic cleansing, were soon forced to relinquish control of their business. On Kristal Nacht their house was raided and Walter ’s father arrested by the Gestapo. He was eventually released and reunited with his mother and together they managed to escape Germany and join Walter in Luxembourg. However their new refuge did not remain safe for long: Germany’s plan of expansion led to the invasion of Luxembourg and the survival of Walter and his parents was once again threatened unless they could escape to a neutral territory where the Germans had no control. Once again the Marx family set off for a new journey – this time in the unoccupied part of France.
Despite the family’s hopes of safety within the French borders, events took a sharp turn for the worse. ”My father was arrested by the French police and deported to Majdanek concentration camp in Poland”, replies Walter, when I asked him why he left France to end up in Italy. ”My mother and I learned that Jews in the Italian occupied part of France were protected by the Italian army so that neither the French nor the Germans could arrest them. We traveled to Nice (in the Italian zone) where we were assigned to a forced residence with approximately 1000 other Jews in St. Martin-Vesubie, a village high in the Alps close to the Italian border. When Italy signed an armistice with the Allies, the Italian soldiers packed up and retreated across the mountains back to Italy and we followed them expecting to find the Allies on our arrival there… We crossed the Alps by foot, in a 2-3 day journey with men, women, some carrying babies and children carrying suitcases and bags in what some described as a ‘biblical exodus’… I was 17 years old”.
Walter, his mother and his cousin arrived in Borgo San Dalmazzo in September 1943. Not knowing where to take refuge they eventually found accommodation in a small hotel. It was there that Walter met Maddalena (known by friends as Nella) for the first time. She was the daughter of the hotel owners and the two soon became friends. ”When we arrived in Italy after our exhausting climb through the Alps, my mother and I were looking for a place to rest and we found a vacancy at the ”Cavallo Rosso” in Borgo San Dalmazzo, the inn owned by Nella’s parents. This is when I first met Nella. It was around September 12th, 1943”.
Walter and his mother’s relatively peaceful stay on Italian soil however did not last very long and their idea of following the retreating Italian army through the Alps proved to be a bad decision. Borgo San Dalmazzo soon capitulated at the hands of the German troops and on September 18th a decree was issued forcing all foreigners to present themselves at the ‘Caserma degli Alpini’ before 6.00 pm that night, or else they would be shot together with the people who hid them. Walter and his mother with some 350 other Jews presented themselves at the designated location which had been turned into a concentration camp and were immediately arrested by the SS. His mother and the other inmates of the camp were soon transported to Auschwitz but Walter, having suffered a severe spinal injury during labor work in the camp, was sent to a nearby hospital instead. The accident proved to be a fortunate event. Not only was Walter spared that first attempt at deportation, but his prolonged stay at the hospital delayed his capture and ultimately ensured his survival.
Pressured by the SS who kept enquiring about Walter’s recovery and suitability for deportation, the hospital director advised the young man to flee the town immediately, and Walter eventually succeeded in eluding the German police and escaping from the town. After a failed attempt to find a suitable refuge, however, Walter decided to go back to ‘Cavallo Rosso’, Maddalena’s hotel, given that the young woman had been visiting and comforting him throughout his permanence at the hospital. Nella welcomed the man with no thought for her own safety, and despite the fact that Germans officials occupied the hotel on a daily basis she hid him for more than two weeks in one of the hotel rooms, feeding him and protecting him at the risk of her own life and that of her family.” It was especially dangerous since the Germans and the Fascists came to eat and sleep at the inn all the time,” Walter remarks; but Maddalena was so ”unselfish, so eager to help.”
After a few weeks of this secluded existence within the pension walls, Nella escorted Walter 10 miles away up in the nearby mountains to meet with the partisans. ”I felt no discrimination and the population was anti-German… several Jewish families, Italian and those that had come from France were protected by the partisans.” It was 1944 and Walter joined the resistance initially with the duty of managing paperwork and soliciting food from Italian farmers and later working undercover as an Italian interpreter for the SS. His gathering of critical intelligence allowed the partisans to capture an Italian spy sent by the Germans to locate the secret headquarters of the resistance.
Walter stayed with the partisans until the end of the war. An only child, he was the only person of his family to survive the holocaust; his grandfather died in the concentration camp of Theresienstad and both his father and mother never returned from Maidanek or from Auschwitz. ”Being a survivor of the holocaust,” says Walter, ”you have dual feelings; you are happy to have survived but you also have a certain feeling of guilt…on the other hand it gives a certain satisfaction that I fought the evil that caused the death of my family and friends”. As a survivor of the most cruel and savage time in European modern history, Walter has offered his testimony in both temples and schools and has collaborated with the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation to produce educational material on the values learnt from such a tragic experience. Nella, like many other Italian civilians and clerics often forgotten by history, embodies all those values of selflessness, generosity, civil courage and sacrifice whose promotion in our society is vital to create a more just and tolerant world. ”It is the triumph of good over evil” says Walter. ”People like Nella are heroes. They should be celebrated and serve as examples to others”.
”Have you seen her since the war?” I asked Walter. He replied that on two occasions he went back to the little Italian town of Borgo San Dalmazzo to search for her and the eventual encounter with his savior was a moment of overwhelming joy: ”30-40 years ago I went with my wife and 3 children to Borgo San Dalmazzo to look for Nella, but could not remember her full name. I remembered only the ‘Cavallo Rosso’ but could not find it because it did not exist any more. In September 1998 I traveled to Cuneo following an invitation from the city to participate in the festivities celebrating the 800th anniversary of the founding of the city… [there] I delivered a speech in Borgo San Dalmazzo on the occasion of the unveiling of a monument thanking the people of the region for having assisted and saved Jewish families during World War II. It was during that speech when I mentioned the daughter of an innkeeper who had saved my life, that Nella, who was by chance in the audience, came to hug me on the podium… We had not seen each other for 55 years. We have been very close since. She has stayed in my house in Roslyn, and both my wife and I have gone to visit her every year.”
After the war Maddalena got married and had 3 daughters. In 2006 she was recognized by the Israel community of Turin for her extraordinary heroism during the dark age of Fascism. In an interview to the New York Times during her visit to New York in May 2000 she told the newspaper: ”Risking my life for Mr. Marx and other Jews in danger was something that came ”dal cuore” or from the heart. Helping him has remained one of the most important events in my life.”