Floriana Betello was a young girl when Italy joined the Second World War on the side of the Germans. Here she tells a story of fascism, war, her family’s support to those escaping the Germans and her eventual migration to Australia. There she married Virgilio Panozzo, whose own family had helped escaping prisoners.
The full story follows, in two versions. The version in the first window below is the original scanned version of the story. In the second window below is the transcribed version in plain text.
I was born in Arsiero, a small town in the Valdastico area of the province of Vicenza, northern Italy.
I was the second to last of six children, comprising five girls and one boy: Elda, Lidia, Maria Angela, Luigi, myself and Giovanna.
My father, Nereo Betello, was from Casale sul Sile (Treviso) and my mother, Anna Brazzale, from Caltrano (Vicenza). They met during WW1 and were married in Caltrano in 1920. After the birth of their first child they moved to Arsiero.
My parents ran a haberdashery shop which provided a good income for the family, so much so that they could afford to send all their children to boarding school after they had completed their primary education in Arsiero.
I do not remember very much of my childhood apart from going to school six days a week and attending the “sabato fascista” ( fascist Saturday) every Saturday afternoon, when we had to wear the fascist uniform and listen to propaganda from our teachers as well doing some simple physical exercises. Our uniforms consisted of a short black skirt and white blouse with black shoes and white socks.
On December 18th, 1935, all the married women of Italy were “asked” to give their wedding ring to the Homeland. As a replacement they were given a steel ring with an inscription stating they had given their own ring to the country. My mother had to comply in order to avoid the shop being boycotted by the fascist administration of the town. Interestingly, after the war the police force inspected the homes of the organisers of these forced “donations” and found many large, glass containers full of gold wedding rings.
On June 10, 1940, Italy entered the war as a German ally.
Things soon changed and life became harder by the day. We all had to contribute to the war effort and little girls were taught to knit warm clothes for our soldiers on the front. Some of these young girls were encouraged to correspond with a soldier of their choice, becoming what were called “madrine di guerra” (godmothers of war).
I wrote to a young soldier from a small town in a valley near Arsiero. When he returned from Russia in 1942 he visited me in my classroom and brought me a present: it was a book called “Lisa Betta” written by Giuseppe Fanciulli, an author of children’s books.
All food supplies were immediately rationed and rapidly became scarce but if you had the money to pay exorbitant prices you could still get almost anything you wanted.
People soon stopped spending as much as in the past and those who relied on trade such as my family were to suffer the consequences.
In 1943, some Jewish people who had managed to escape the German persecution in central Europe arrived in Italy. A group came to Arsiero and some of them moved into our house – with my father’s permission they lived in the attic.
We hardly saw them because they only left the house at night and it was forbidden to go up to the attic. According to the laws passed by the fascist government, any Jews had to be reported to the authority and were allowed to move only within the boundaries set by the local authorities.
When my sister Giovanna and I asked about who those people were our parents told us that they were our distant relatives in need of a place where to stay because their home had been destroyed during an air raid. Our parents were afraid we would say something which could have led to their and my parents’ immediate arrest. We were only 11 and 12 years of age. My sister Elda, an accomplished pianist, would often entertain German soldiers on the ground floor while the Jewish family hid upstairs in the attic.
On September 8th, 1943, the Italian government surrendered and left Rome to seek refuge in southern Italy. Soon afterwards all the Jews disappeared from my town including those living in our attic. They left without even saying goodbye. We never heard of them again until after the war when my father was walking down the main street of Vicenza where he saw one of them, a Slovakian called Markus whom we had called Marco.
When my father approached to greet him he replied that he did not remember him. My father was very upset by Marco’s reaction after all he had done for him, risking his own life and that of our entire family to save him and his family.
In order to survive many people used their savings which quickly ran out. The fighting was still far away and it did not worry people as much as the shortage of supplies but by the end of 1943 things were to change dramatically.
In 1943, the allies occupied North Africa and soon after landed in Sicily and Calabria.
Italy was divided in two – the south was occupied by the allies struggling to find their way to the north. The centre and the north were occupied by the Germans. The revived fascist party under the leadership of Mussolini (who had been rescued by the Germans from his isolation at Majella, a mountain mass in the central Apennines) formed a republic under the sponsorship of Hitler.
Following the surrender of September 8th most Italian soldiers serving in Italy and in the occupied countries of Europe were captured by the Germans and taken to Germany where they were to replace the Germans at the front.
Many Italian soldiers in Italy removed their uniforms and wore ordinary clothes in the hope of avoiding capture by the Germans who were patrolling the cities and countryside. I remember my mother giving one of my father’s suits to a young man who was trying to get back to his family in southern Italy – we do not know whether he made it home.
The younger men who had managed to make it home organised themselves into groups forming a fighting force called Partigiani, “partisans”.
My brother Luigi had not been drafted as he was too young but he became a runner and courier for one of the main partisan groups stationed in the nearby mountains. There was always the risk of being caught as the Germans had several well-paid spies among the population.
One night Luigi went out with a friend “armed” with my mother’s rolling pin and in search of a town fascist considered to be a dangerous spy. They found him in a dark alley and gave him a good beating, leaving him to nurse his bruises.
The next day this event had become the talk of the town. My father, a very honest person but sometimes a little too trusting, immediately came into the kitchen after hearing about it from one of his customers. He said that those responsible for such an atrocious act were nothing but criminals, not realising his own son had been one of the perpetrators.
That rolling pin now hangs on a wall of our lounge room as a souvenir of my past.
Our home became a refuge for some of the partisan leaders. My father was always asking Luigi who they were and without fail my brother’s response was: “He is one of my professors at college.” Once again, my sister Elda would play the piano for the German soldiers without them ever realisng my brother was upstairs discussing strategies with other partisans.
The situation became even more serious after August 1944. At that time the Germans were employing all the men of working age in the Todt, the German body responsible for the construction of a new line of defence, the Blau Linie, the last before the allies could enter Germany from the south. My brother had to join as did all other partisans as it was impossible to survive through the winter without work.
Soon afterwards, approximately fifty Ukrainians of the 263rd Ost Batallion marched down my street, Via Riva, and remained stationed in Arsiero. Their job was to capture any partisans who were hiding in the forest.
The town was now full of soldiers: those of the Wehrmacht who were protecting the work of the Tod , the Ukrainians and the fascists.
One day a German soldier who was a member of the Todt went for a horse ride. One hour later the horse returned alone. The body of the soldier was later found with a gunshot to his head. He was taken back to Arsiero where the population disapproved wholeheartedly of this cowardly act but fortunately no action was taken by the Germans.
The fascists and the Ukrainians would frequently raid homes in search of partisans and the Germans realised they were facing defeat. The workers at the Todt were simply waiting for the war to end. Some left and joined the partisans and after the winter the Germans and fascists launched extensive assaults on the rebels. Soon afterwards the German front collapsed and soldiers began abandoning post in the hope of getting back home. The last Germans to leave Arsiero blew up a railway, killing a young man on his way to buy some flour. He had returned home only 18 months earlier after fighting on the Russian front.
Radio London said the Germans needed to be stopped from fleeing as they had stolen many treasures from Italian museums but, when the partisans attacked, the Germans retaliated: for every German soldier killed the Germans killed 10 partisans.
A terrible act of revenge took place in Pedescala, a small town only a few kilometres north of Arsiero. As retaliation for an unknown number of Germans killed, the Germans slaughtered 64 people including women and children, burning their bodies and most of the village.
My father went to Pedescala after this tragedy along with the parish priest Mons Campi and the town doctor, Dr. Costalunga. He spent the next few days at home in shock, never uttering a word.
After practically destroying Pedescala the Germans moved on to another smaller nearby town called Sette Ca’. My brother Luigi was there and he told his story when he was interviewed by the American War Crime Commission on June 27th 1945 in Arsiero.
He was stopped by the Germans while walking towards the church of a small nearby village called Forni and was taken with a number of other people to Sette Ca’ where they were forced to camouflage the German trucks parked nearby.
They then had to surrender their documents and were stripped of their watches and jewellery. They were packed into a small room and once the door had been locked the Germans threw in hand grenades and soon afterwards opened machinegun fire through the windows. People started to fall over – an old man with blood gushing from his neck fell on top of Luigi, protecting him with his body. Luigi felt a strong pain in his ankle and realised that he had been hit by hand grenade shrapnel.
He somehow managed to climb the stairs to the floor above with a couple of other men and when he saw smoke coming from below he realised that the building was on fire. The Germans outside were shooting at the legs of anyone inside who was still alive.
From the upper floor he managed to get out through a small window and he jumped down into a pond of water and mud. A German sentry saw them walking away from the area and gave the alarm but by then it was too late – they had managed to escape.
Nineteen people were killed that day.
Luigi returned home but it took him a long time to recover from that traumatic experience.
As soon as the war was over it was time to find work and start rebuilding what the war had destroyed. All industry in the area had been almost completely destroyed and work was hard to come by. But with eight in our family and nobody working, the shop could not support us all. Credit had been given to many customers during the war but most of this was never paid off so we were forced to close the shop.
At that time many young people from our area were migrating to Australia. My mother had a brother who had migrated to Adelaide, South Australia, in the early 1920s and he offered to help Luigi migrate too. The plan was that the rest of the family would follow if things went well for him.
Luigi left Arsiero in October 1950 after my sisters Maria Angela and Lidia had both married.
On May 23, 1952, Elda, Giovanna and I left Italy on the ship Neptunia to settle in Adelaide after our uncle had paid our fares.
In May 1954, Elda married and soon afterwards our parents arrived in Adelaide where we bought a cottage in the suburb of Hackney.
In September 1956, Virgilio Panozzo arrived from Tresche’ Conca (Vicenza). We had met and dated in Italy before I received approval to migrate to Australia and had since kept up correspondence until he too migrated. We married on May 6th 1957 and bought a house in the same area.
My brother Luigi was one of Virgilio’s best men at our wedding as they had attended the same school and been friends since before the war.
In 1963, Virgilio completed his university education graduating as an architect. He was the first Italian to graduate in Architecture in Australia.
In February 1959, Maria Angela arrived from Italy with her husband and their two children.
We have been blessed with four children and are the proud grandparents of eleven.
With only Lidia remaining in Italy and her having passed away some years ago, the Betello family have practically become an Australian family.
I have since visited Italy with my husband many times. In 2015, we spent a weekend in Arsiero where I wanted to see the church where I had been baptized and hear once more the sound of the church bells that accompanied me throughout my life there.
[Image of the village of Arsiero]