THE CERTIFICATE OF MERIT
Every once in a while, as we come across more information on Rossano’s history, we have to stop and verify the information we’ve been given … we’re sure that you’ve seen, in other circumstances, that what the movie studios may have printed about the stars in their movies, may not have always been accurate.
We have already seen, in a few instances, how information printed in “Movie Star Biographies” could be completely wrong – the item about both of his parents being murdered by Mussolini’s fascists, for instance, and the “Knight of Paragonia” item being incorrectly spelled, sending us on a wild-goose chase for over a year, trying to pin down what it was!
Another item we felt we needed to verify was the mention made in a movie press book, about his resistance work in Rome during World War II being “decorated by Eisenhower”.
All it takes is one over-zealous publicist in a movie studio to take one thing and turn it into another. We wondered if U.S. Presidents — or Generals, which Eisenhower would have been, at the time — made a habit of “decorating” foreign citizens for their assistance during wartime, no matter how brave or honorable that assistance was.
It turns out that they do … and, in Rossano’s case, they probably had. In this case the “zealous publicist” was right.
We found the most wonderful book, written in 1995: A Vatican Lifeline: Allied Fugitives, Aided by the Italian Resistance, Foil the Gestapo in Nazi-Occupied Rome, 1944, by William C. Simpson, [Leo Cooper Books, London]. In fact, if you’re interested in reading a wonderful account of one British Officer’s experience with the Italian Resistance, we can’t think of a better book to recommend. It isn’t a “war” story … it’s an “Italian citizenry to the rescue!” story – exciting, heart-stopping and heartwarming at the same time.
The book begins with the author, a captured P.O.W., leaping off the back of a German transport truck to freedom and trying to make it back to the Rome, to meet the arrival of the Allied Forces which – at this point – are still battling the German forces in Southern Italy. Until they arrive, he has to remain in Rome, working with the Italian resistance.
By the end of the first chapter, you want to jump on the next plane to Italy and personally hug almost every Italian you meet. The Italian Resistance, which still celebrates their moment of victory once a year, was a wide-spread and phenomenal effort: innumerable numbers of Italians throughout the entire country who were literally giving up their own food, housing and (in many cases) lives to help the Allies, right under the noses of the Germans and their Italian Fascist counterparts. There is no mention of Rossano, but you wouldn’t expect there to be: judging by everything Rossano has said, he worked with a group affiliated with Cinecittá, and this author worked directly with the Vatican. For the safety of everyone concerned, Resistance operatives rarely knew any other operatives even within the same organization — or at least, not until afterwards, each one working within the same small, well-trusted group. You do read about his group indirectly: at one point the author is on the receiving end of a small group of escapees from Cinecittá, and mention is made of the large numbers of other people who escaped from incarceration there – THAT would have been Rossano’s group at work! But the story certainly does give you an extensive and heartwarming background to the sort of work he did, during the War.
Favorite moment: an escaped Allied soldier is hiding out in a woman’s house, in a small Italian village, when the German forces arrive and begin searching the homes for escaped prisoners. The escapee, dressed in Italian clothes, leaps out a window, runs into an alley, and runs right into a German soldier. Thinking quickly, the woman runs after the escaped prisoner, catches up with him and proceeds to beat on him with her fists, shrieking at the top of her lungs. Then she tearfully tells the German that she’d caught her alcoholic, no-account “husband” trying to sneak out of the house for a drink. The German lets her drag him back in without another objection. Another life saved by the quick-thinking Italian Resistance, with a little humor thrown in!
Another moment you “get the feeling” Rossano might have been nearby: the author is snuck into an opera by his hosts, a glittering event. The opera being performed is none other than “Tosca” – the story of a young resistance operative (Cavaradossi) during the occupation of Rome by Napoleon. For obvious reasons, the opera is even more wildly popular than ever at this time … most Romans easily saw the connection between that occupation by a hostile force (the French), and the current one (German).
It was definitely a brave anti-Fascist statement Rossano had made, when taking on the role of Mario Cavaradossi in 1942 film of the operatic story. A year had passed since that film was released. Rossano was a huge star at the time, and this particular opera was, according to the author, attended by the glitterati of Rome … including a large contingent of occupying German SS military big-wigs.
The reason we suspect that Rossano might have been there: the star of the opera was well-known tenor Beniamino Gigli – who had starred with Rossano himself in “Ritorno” in 1940, and “Silenzio, si gira!”, released in 1943 – the very same year that this book opens.
And we know Rossano attended the opera in general – if you’ll recall, this is where fashion designer Angelo Litrico first met his first important customer.
But first a little history. In July of 1943, Allied forces landed in Sicily and captured the entire area. On July 26, 1943, the King of Italy, Vittorio Emmanuel II, dismissed Mussolini and turned over power of the Italian State to Marshal Pietro Badoglio, whose first act as Prime Minister was to create the first government NOT run by Benito Mussolini in decades, and then send notice of an unconditional surrender on behalf of of Italy to the Allied forces.
[At left, a page from the Italian newspaper. Translation: “The Dismissal of Mussolini: Badoglio Head of the Government. A Proclamation From The King”, Corriere della sera, 26 June 1943]. All graphics courtesy of “Tra guerra e Resistenza”.
Everyone expected the Allies to arrive in force within a matter of days or weeks and take over. In fact, most Italians were all set to cheerily greet the arriving Allies with banners and celebration. What they didn’t expect was Germany sending its army south to meet the Allies head-on and basically “stealing” the surrendered Italy from the advancing Allied Forces … which is what happened as this story opens.
The Resistance Movement, although it existed in varying degrees of success since the formation of the Fascist Government, grew in strength and resolve between the time of unconditional surrender by Badoglio and the Allies’ final triumphant arrival in the country that had been surrendered to them.
Germany, since the dismissal of Mussolini, no longer considered Italy a friendly nation; in retaliation for the betrayal, they sent their most potent and sadistic armed forces to keep the surrendered Italy out of Allied hands. Rome, at this time, was filled with German SS troops, and the dreaded Gestapo. Assisting them in their work were the Fascist soldiers, who celebrated when the Germans arrived, and harbored a deep and abiding hatred for the Italians who had cheered the overthrow of Mussolini, and the Resistance groups who had celebrated his downfall. This was an enormously dangerous time for anyone known as an anti-fascist. On March 22, 1944, a bomb exploded on Via Razella, killing 33 German soldiers. On March 24th, Germany retaliated against Italy for the bombing by emptying three prisons of Italians, including many who were only being held for questioning, and murdering ten Italians for every one German killed in the explosion — 330 prisoners and 5 witnesses, dumping the bodies (some were still living) in the Ardeatine Caves in Domitilla, to the southeast of the city, and sealing the mouth of the caves shut. The slaughter horrified and outraged so many Italians that, except for a very few Fascist hardliners, the vast majority of them, publicly or not, awaited with even greater impatience the arrival of the advancing Allied forces, after the Ardeatine massacre.
The arrival of the Allies to liberate Rome did not take only a few weeks after their takeover of Sicily, as expected, but over a year. As Allied troops finally did approach Rome, the Germans retreated, to the great joy of the Italian population. A large breakout occurred at the Regina Coeli prison on June 2nd as the Germans retreated, and as Rossano describes being arrested seven days before the liberation of Rome, and then of simply “walking out” of prison as the Allies advanced, this may have been the incident he was involved in, Regina Coeli being quite near his home at the time. If so, you’ll get some idea of the horrible conditions he had to face, as an inmate, in this book – however briefly – an experience he shared with the author – and it’s also chilling to realize how close he might have come to being one of the victims of the Ardeatine Massacre, a mere two months earlier, as a large number of those victims came from Regina Coeli. The breakout occurred literally as the long-awaited Allied forces finally approached the Eternal City:
“On Via Scialoia, in the faint moonlight of 4 June’s early hours, people poured out of buildings and scurried towards Via Flaminia, whence came the rumble of heavy trucks. As we started to run, a dark monster shot up sparks from the roadway. … But, as more of these tanks lumbered past the mouth of Via Scialoia, there could be no doubt. Still hardly believing, we ran to Piazza del Popolo. Into the immense circular piazza poured column after column of tanks, guns, trucks and jeeps. Barely illuminated by the first struggling light of dawn, hundreds of cheering Romans converged from all points … Everybody, everybody was cheering.
“Aye, Monsignor”, my voice was swallowed up. “They’re here!”
[From A Vatican Lifeline: Allied Fugitives Aided By the Italian Resistance Foil The Gestapo In Nazi-Occupied Rome, ’44, [William C. Simpson, Leo Cooper Books,London.]
But back to the “decoration by Eisenhower” … on September 29th, in Malta, Badoglio and General Eisenhower signed additional protocols of the Armistice, which enacted full political-military control by the Anglo-Americans over the Italian territory they now occupied. Italy then declared war on Germany, joining with the Allies in pursuit of the fleeing Germans. But that is another story for another time. We’ll let William Simpson himself finish the story for you:
[To the right,“Armistice! Hostility ceases between Italy, England and the United States”, Corriere delle sera, 1944]
“Two days after Rome’s liberation on 4 June, 1944, from Allied bases all over Britain ‘Operation Overlord’ sprang the mightiest invasion force in history to land in Normandy, thus opening a major western front against the Third Reich. Already on Hitler’s eastern front, Soviet counteroffensives were forcing the entire German line to pull back, from the Gulf of Finland to the Crimea. In the Pacific theatre American naval air and ground forces had turned the tide against the Japanese. The remaining Axis partner, Republican Fascist Italy, was of no more military significance than its puppet leader, Mussolini, sitting powerless in Sa1ò in Lombardy. Ultimate Allied victory was in sight, even if much struggle and sacrifice still lay ahead.
On Friday, 24 May, 1946, almost two years after Allied armour had rolled into Rome, the audience in the Teatro Adrianno, the largest indoor theatre in Rome, hushed as the British High Commissioner in Italy, Sir Noel Charles, began to speak. All the seven hundred guests who filled the theatre had sheltered Allied escapers during the nine months of Nazi rule.
Arc-lights for newsreel cameras illuminated the wide stage supporting three tiers of British, American, South African and French diplomats, Allied military brass and a select core of very special Italians. In good Italian, the Commissioner expressed the British Government’s gratitude to every guest present. In aiding hundreds of Allied fugitives here in Rome, and keeping them free from enemy re-capture, they had voluntarily undertaken grave risks – the dangers of imprisonment, torture, confiscation, and of forfeiting life itself. These risks they had assumed without thought of recognition or reward. Beneath the centre microphone, a red light confirmed that his voice was issuing simultaneously from radios throughout Italy.
As Sir Noel finished amid applause from every corner of the vast auditorium, the American Chargé d’Affaires, seated in front of me on the dais, rose to the microphone. His supplementing words of commendation were warmly received and, in the ensuing applause, the theatre lights went up. Guests came on stage by name to receive an engraved Certificate of Merit from the hand of the diplomats, or from American Admiral Ellery Stone, or British Brigadier Alban Low, Rome Area Commander, or South Africa’s General Théron. To expedite the process, fifty officers of the Allied Screening Commission, manning draped tables set up in each pre-planned seating section of the theatre, expanded the chain of presentations.
The ceremony was over. The theatre had cleared. At a reception in the spacious backstage area, with a bar and waiters serving champagne, public figures and modest artisans mixed together.
The hundred special guests now chattering at the reception were those who had been most deeply involved, those who had undertaken the greatest risks time and again, during these long interminable months of Gestapo terror. Judging by the ascending decibels of champagne chiacchiera, they were enjoying the occasion. Yet the atmosphere fell short of gaiety; rather it reflected an intensity of emotion as experiences, still too starkly recalled, drew this diverse group into a unique common bond. They were recounting shared crises and perilous moments which, while never enunciated as such, had generated within each of them a self esteem of knowing they had voluntarily performed brave acts on behalf of total strangers in need, acts which had aroused within them qualities of boldness and quantities of courage which might never otherwise have been tapped.
Reticent and dignified, Sir D’Arcy Osborne, the British Minister to the Holy See, understood. When those delicate months in the Vatican had ended in June, 1944, it was he who had persuaded General Sir Harold Alexander, the Supreme Allied Commander of the Italian campaign, to devise some way of acknowledging the debt owed to so many gallant Italians.”
Even without knowing exactly how the “Certificates of Merit” were signed, it’s certainly likely that, as a Supreme Commander in the European theater during World War II, and the man who co-signed the additional Armistice protocols with Badaglio, Eisenhower’s signature was on the Certificate, along with the others.
Next step: to see if we can lay our hands on a copy of this certificate, and to see if Regina Coeli was the prison Rossano was jailed in.
[For this book – highly recommended! – and other books on the Italian resistance, click here. And if any of our readers are in fact World War II veterans who might be able to provide first-hand accounts of any of the events related here (or who were personally involved in the Italian resistance) we would
[At right, “Esultanza popolare per la caduta di Mussolini (26 luglio 1943)”/ “Popular exultation over the fall of Mussolini”]
Film & Theater Awards
Selected Newsletter Articles
Related Reading Material
“The Never Ending Serial”
Created by the Rossano Brazzi International Network