My great aunt Iolanda, the unlikely Italian Resistance hero

[Versione Italiana qui]

As Italy prepares for its annual celebration of the anniversary of Italy’s liberation from Nazi-Fascism on 25th of April 1945, I’d like to tell you about a Resistance story I have only recently started to unearth: that of my great aunt Iolanda Beccherle. She doesn’t look like a stereotypical war hero, perhaps. But she was.

Iolanda Beccherle (1901-1973)

I started researching this story only in 2018. This was after my father circulated a booklet he had written, with the history of the Beccherle family, on his mother’s side. A lot of the booklet focused on memories of the second world war. Being now in his 80s, my father still has strong childhood memories of those days. He mentioned in the booklet that his mother’s sister, aunt Iolanda Beccherle had received an award from the British government after the second world war, but neither he nor others in the family knew exactly why.

As an Italian citizen in the UK I was very intrigued, so I set out to find out more. I have meanwhile been in touch with multiple charitable organisations; with descendants of people involved in events in Zevio, the town she was living in near Verona; consulted books and US and UK national archives. Five years later, I have – I think – solved the puzzle. I still have some missing pieces, but today I am writing about what I have found out so far.

Italian women participated in many ways in the Resistance: many were “staffette” carrying information between armed partisan groups, but there also were many women involved directly in armed combat with the Partisans. Plus – as we will see – there were even more who were involved in other forms of resistance. A lot of information about women’s role was however lost because after the war only a handful gained prominence, while the majority returned to the home based role a patriarchical society expected of them.

Iolanda was not among those returning to a traditional role. She had never married, pursued a career as a post office manager (very unusual for Italian women those days) and lived her entire life in a small hotel, later often boasting that she had never cooked a meal and never ironed.! Yet she still chose to keep quiet about what happened.

My aunt Emma Canzi (Emi), who knew her very well, attributes this silence to a natural form of modesty. Helping other people in need was simply what “zia” (aunt) Iolanda did, all her life, Emi said. When Iolanda died in 1973, she was the one who was very surprised to find this remarkable document among her things.

I found out that this is an “Alexander Certificate”. But before explaining what it is, it’s worth understanding what happened in 1943 in Italy.

Chaotic surrender

When Italy’s armistice was announced on 8 September 1943, there were around 80,000 Allied prisoners of war in Italian prison camps. Italian camp commandants received the order from the hierarchy to support the escape of prisoners of war to Switzerland or to the Southern part of Italy in hands of the Allied forces. However, it was at that point becoming clear that the Allies would not move Northward along the peninsula rapidly enough, leaving time for the German army to invade the North of Italy. So many Italian soldiers chose to leave the army and go into hiding, some of them joining the resistance groups that were meanwhile being set up, others heading home. Women from all walks of life spontaneously organised, at this point, to provide civilian clothes, food and shelter to the Italian soldiers who were escaping.

Meanwhile, in many camps, Allied prisoners of war found that the guards had gone and the gate perhaps left open, so despite an order from London to wait, known as “stand fast order” (over which there is some controversy), tens of thousands of soldiers escaped into the surrounding countryside, making this perhaps the largest mass prison escape in history.

Within days, most of Italy had been invaded by German forces, the puppet Republic of Salo’ created, with Mussolini as its ruler again. Salo’ is on Lake Garda, also near Verona.

So the decision that PoWs made to leave the prison camps was the right one, for those who took it. Fortunately, hundreds of Italian families – mostly poor farmers who barely had enough food for themselves – stepped up and sheltered the Allied soldiers. However, it soon became extremely dangerous to do so. The penalty for giving this assistance, if caught, was torture, a concentration camp or execution. In most cases when people were found out, houses and farms were burnt down and livestock killed. This is why many of them were later rewarded with Alexander Certificates (and in some cases monetary compensation).

The camps around Verona held around 3200 Allied prisoners of war, so a large portion of these would have been hiding in the area. Yet Iolanda, as a single woman, could never have sheltered a soldier – everybody in my family was adamant about that. So this became a bit of a mystery for me to solve.

My breakthrough came after I contacted the Monte San Martino Trust, an organisation founded in 1989 by the late Cav. J. Keith Killby OBE. Anne Copley, a trustee of MSMT, advised me, as a first step, to consult the Allied Screening Commission files held in the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington. Thankfully, it was possible to do so by sending an email with some information provided by MSMT – no need to travel all the way to DC! And within just a few days, NARA sent me a document produced by the Allied Screening Commission with my own aunt’s handwriting.

The longer document (above is just the first page) contains a long explanation handwritten by Iolanda and translated into English, about what she had done. “Every week I brought sigarettes, collected money, clothes and medicines for the prisoners of war and engaged in propaganda activities…

This would indicate that Iolanda was part of a network which supported the farmers who were hosting the prisoners. One hypothesis is that being the manager of the local post office meant she knew everybody and everything that was going on in town and who was hosting the prisoners. The reference to propaganda could mean many things, but could (potentially) indicate being involved in sabotage networks such as “Gruppi di Difesa della Donna” (Women’s Defence Groups).

Then Iolanda mentions having offered to help fund a plan for the transport of all the prisoners of war in the local area to a safer placefailed at the last minute because of roundups carried out by the Germans.”

On the initiative of Ferruccio Parri, a special group in the Milan branch of the Committee for National Liberation (Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale of CLN) had in fact started coordinating large numbers of escapes in coordination with the Allies, helping the PoWs long the way with hospitality and food. It’s important to add, as also not very well known, that some of the escaping Allied soldiers were also joining the partisans where they were, while others were first going to Switzerland but agreeing to be parachuted back to help the Italian Resistance. Perhaps Iolanda was somehow helping this effort.

The “infamous” night

In the final part of Iolanda’s Allied Screening Commission document there is a reference to “the night of the infamous roundups” about which she says she “raised the alarm on time, avoiding further victims”. I really struggled to understand what this meant exactly, for some time.

A moving, personal website set up by Giantonio Bonato and his sister Annalinda, grandchildren of Gilio Bonato, a farmer and “helper” from the Zevio area who was awarded an Alexander Certificate, gave me some much needed context.

The “night of the infamous roundup” most likely refers to that between 5 and 6 November 1943, when Nazi-fascists troops arrived in the village during the night and spent hours going door to door, trying to find hidden PoWs. As a result, three Italian helpers – farmers Luigi Ferrari, Attilio and Leonildo Bettili and two prisoners of war – William O’Connell and Linghk Harbajont – both formerly from Zevio POW camp were executed. This is now referred to locally as the Palu’ massacre (Strage di Palu’), one of many war crimes perpetrated by the army of the Republic of Salo’.

Given that hundreds, if not thousands of PoWs must have been hiding in the area, the massacre could have been much worse without the alarm being raised on time.

The memoir of Albert Watson Rhoades, one of the POWs who was hosted by the brave Bonato family, co-written by his grandson Stephen Hewson and including accounts by the daughters of Gilio Bonato, potentially confirms this interpretation. An account by Anna Bonato describes being woken up suddenly one night by noises on the street and having to rapidly warn the Englishmen to run out from the back door into the countryside as the Nazi-Fascist army was around, searching for them. Her sister Adelina Bonato also mentions a woman that was coming to bring clothes and supplies, a Mrs Cisorio, who must have part of the same network of women helpers that Iolanda was part of.

Why did Iolanda never mention any of this?

After the war, most people avoided talking about what happened as everybody had family and friends that had fought and died on opposite sides. Iolanda’s nephew Sofocle, having enrolled voluntarily in the fascist army, had died in 1942 in El Alamein, killed by the Allies. Many of the PoW held in Italian prison camps, those very soldiers that were being helped, had been captured in the North African theatre. In contrast, Sofocle’s brother Focione Melotti, was so traumatised by his years in the Partisans, that he refused to even collect his award after the war, despite having had a crucial role in the liberation of Milan in 1945. One can therefore understand many people’s desire to move on.

And yet, with all the respect I have for Iolanda’s desire to be quiet about her wartime work, I think 80 years later it is important to find out more about these stories, to try to keep them alive. This can help to ensure the contribution of women to the Resistance stops being overlooked as well as the existence of a widespread non armed form of Resistance which was working closely with the Allies.

Focione Melotti, Iolanda’s nephew and my dad’s first cousin, is the young man (just 19 years old!) with a hat and holding a gun, to the right of future President Sandro Pertini who is addressing the crowd in Milan upon liberation. This photo has a history behind it that would require a whole book to be written, which is why I only mention this at the end of story about Iolanda! (Also, in order not to overshadow a woman’s story)
Iolanda in Egypt after the war, where she visited the burial place of her nephew Sofocle (right) who died at El Alamein fighting on the Italian side

Current sources and bibliography

  • ANPI & Institute Nazionale Ferruccio Parri, “Atlante delle Stragi Nazi-Fasciste in Italia”, Strage di Palu’
  • Giantonio & Annalinda Bonato, personal conversations and website.
  • Emma Canzi, personal conversations and video interview, 2018
  • Michelangelo Canzi, “I Beccherli”, unpublished family history booklet, 2018
  • Philip D. Chinnery, “Hitler’s Atrocities Against Allied PoWs, War Crimes of the Third Reich,” Pen & Sword Military, 2018
  • Stephen Hewson, Albert Watson Rhoades, Edith Rhoades, “Memories of War, Letters of Hope”, Hewson Publishing, 2012
  • John Simkins and Anne Copley of Monte San Martino Trust, email correspondence and MSMT website and youtube videos
  • Sir Roger Stanton, Escape Lines Memorial Society, email correspondence and ELMS website, 2018
  • Benedetta Tobagi, “La Resistenza delle Donne”, Einaudi, 2022
  • Malcolm Tudor, “Among the Italian Partisans, the Allied Contribution to the Resistance”, Fonthill, 2016.
  • Wikipedia, various entries linked above
Iolanda (left) with my aunt Emma Canzi (middle) and a friend on Lake Garda in the late 1940s, post-war

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