Stories of Jewish families rescued from capture and deportation by Italian citizens during World War II abound. Many of the protagonists of these heroic actions are to be found amongst the Italian partisans rebelling against their government’s anti-Semitic policy and some of the local clergy working independently from the Vatican. Some of those heroes who risked their lives hiding entire families inside their humble walls were farmers; others were members of the State bureaucracy who, taking advantage of their privileged position worked laboriously to obtain false documents and ensure new identities for the refugees persecuted by the Germans.
Alfredo Pallavicini was one of these heroes; not a partisan nor a priest but a man who used his influence and privileged social status to save dozens of Jewish women and children from the concentration camps during the months following the Allied liberation of the south. During this dramatic period, anti-Semitic persecution in the still German occupied northern territory (which included the city of Rome) intensified dramatically. In an attempt to carry out what the Nazi labeled ”The Final Solution”, thousands of Jewish families were arrested and sent to Germany and Poland.
Gabriella Pascolato, daughter of Alfredo, now in her nineties and residing in San Paulo, Brazil, recounts how her family who had been landowners for generations, owned vast estates throughout Italy with lands stretching from Piedmont to Tuscany and Lazio. Her father Alfredo, she says, was owner of 12 successful sawmills by the age of 14, and in the first 3 decades of the 20th century, his influence and wealth increased further throughout the Italian territory, borne out of the vast quantities of grapes, wheat and olives produced from his vast lands. Given that her family had to manage properties across North and Central Italy, and thus often divided its time between the various mansions owned across the country, young Gabriella decided to move to a more stable existence in Florence at the age of 12. There she attended college and then university, and her father and mother would visit her on a few occasions throughout the year.
In 1937 Gabriella moved to Venice to complete her languages degree and there married Charles, a renowned lawyer. In 1939 the Racial Laws were enforced through all Italian territory and many of her Jewish friends from university as well as her husband’s colleagues had to flee the country and took refuge over the Alps in nearby Switzerland. ”Many of the wealthy Jewish families with whom I was in contact eventually escaped to Switzerland. They all succeeded in saving themselves because their influence reached into the Venetian region and consequently they managed to obtain the documents necessary to ensure their survival… It was the less affluent Jewish people I believe who had less opportunities to flee the country at that point,” says Gabriella.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to establish the background of the Jewish women and children who found safety inside Gabriella’s property in Buon Convento, near Siena in Tuscany. The majority of them reached the farm at night, coming on foot from nearby cities like Florence, and Siena. ”Our family name and our estate were very well known around Tuscany and I believe a rumor was going around about my father hosting refugees inside his mansion’s walls… So many came, many women and children came and asked for help…We would not question too much about their journey or where they came from… you see, in those dangerous times, the less questions you asked the better. You just wanted to keep it discrete as much as you could, in case the news of their hiding became public amongst the other villagers… you never knew whom you could trust…” remarks Gabriella.
Gabriella was 25 and had just moved back to the family farm in Siena from Venice with her children. Her husband, and two brothers were all sent to fight in the war and she therefore shared the family’s 14th century estate solely with her 2 parents and a few maids. ”We had so much space in our property that we were hosting everyone who wanted to find a safe refuge. If anyone in town got suspicious about these new individuals living in our property we would pretend that they were all new servants or farmers working the land,” recounts the Italian lady. Disguised as employees of the farm, Jewish refugees remained hidden in the villa for more than a month. Just a few weeks after the Allies invasion of Rome, troupes of SS, escaping from their enemies in the Southern region took control of the house and for a week the German persecutors lived side by side with the persecuted Jews. Hidden in the roof of the mansion the refuges were secretly assisted by Gabriella’s mother throughout SS occupation of their property. She attended the Germans during the day and at night, risking her life and that of all her family she went up to the roof to feed the women and children who had begged for help.
When the Germans left and the families of refugees were finally able to regain their freedom after the war, Gabriella was not there to witness it. She in the meantime was crossing France and Spain with the hope of embarking for South America with her children and husband who, together with her brothers, had survived the war.
Gabriella arrived in Sao Paulo, Brazil, at the end of 1944, and there she started a fashion house. Her mother and family sold their properties and lands throughout Italy four years after the war, as political unrest was beginning to swipe over the Italian territory, and moved to Brazil to join her daughter.