In a small, immaculate restaurant at the foot of one of the many stunning mountains around Lombardy, the woman serving us flexes a muscle. Only days before the great Elsa Pelizzari had been in for lunch. “She is strong, so strong” appears to be her only English. She also recounts everything Pelizzari had for lunch. The strong woman Pelizzari had eaten a hearty lunch.
We’re taking Pelizzari on a short drive today. She is almost giddy, chatting at breakneck speed about the Englishmen in the backseat, the glorious snow that caps her mountain retreat and the lunch she will later have with an old friend.
Now in her 90th year, Pelizzari is somewhat glamorously, wrapped warmly in Northern Italian chic. She exudes warmth and charm in equal measure and a glorious pride in her country.
She carries the memories of not just the battle glorious, but the memories of the violence meted out on her fellow villagers by fascists. She also recalls the misery of school. She had been ostracised because she was deemed to be from a ‘Bolshevik’ village. Born under fascist rule, fascism was all she ever knew until she was old enough to see for herself its brutality. Near the foot of her driveway is a post remembering a local man murdered by fascists in the run up to Mussolini’s march on Rome.
Pelizzari was recruited to the Green Flames at fourteen by the mysterious, almost mythical priest, Don Angelo Bianchi. The priest had taken advantage of the high esteem the church was held by fascists to radicalise chosen youths in his charge to antifascism. Those from ‘Bolshevik’ villages like Pelizzari quickly warmed to the task. From inside the (permitted) Catholic youth club, Pelizzari and a chosen few were issued instructions for the passing of messages and supplies to the resistance.
Pelizzari smuggled bank documents and travel passes for the resistance- a task that nearly saw her shot in the last few days of the war. Arrested and questioned by the suspicious German SS, she says she cannot speak of the things they did to her.
In April 1945 Pelizzari was again arrested and stuck on a lorry destined for Germany and certain death. Her tears captured the heart of the German driver, himself wholly aware of not just Pelizzari’s fate but Germany’s also. Shouting “raus” at Pelizzari, he let her out by the side of the road, saving her life.
When we arrive at the home of Commander Gino Boldini it’s easy to see that like Pelizzari, Boldini is held in high esteem. His daughter provides homemade cake and a pot of tea but there is a surreal moment that stops play briefly, because upon entering Boldini’s home, the force of nature that is Elsa Pelizzari breathlessly addresses him as “Comandante”. We witness the great and enduring respect the partisans give to one another.
The two sit beside one another and take in a long silence, staring peacefully and with great contentment out of Boldini’s grand bay windows at the snow covered mountains.
Now 96 years of age, Boldini is one of the last surviving Partisan Comandante in all of Italy.
As an Italian soldier during the war, Boldini was stranded in Yugoslavia when Italy signed the armistice with the Allies in 1943. Upon surviving the perilous journey back to his village outside of Brescia in Northern Italy, he joined the Garibaldi (Communist) Brigades.
The communists charged Boldini with setting up an internal police unit. Having been a Carabinieri (policeman) before and during the war, he was left relatively unmolested by the Nazis, which allowed Boldini to go about resistance business almost completely undetected. He was quickly promoted to a Commander because of his brilliance.
The task of the police unit Boldini led was to round up and arrest fascists. It was during one such raid that Boldini was shot in the mouth. Remarkably, the bullet hit a molar which saved his life.
The old friends relax on the couch and drink their tea. A winter sun lights their wrinkled thoughts. Commander Boldini fears Italy could easily slip back into fascism. Even with his great friend Pelizzari visiting schools and reminding school children of Italy’s dark past, he worries what the future holds. Do they have any regrets, and would they do it all again? Pelizzari laughs. The Commander slowly removes his glasses and stares straight into my face. He has no regrets; and yes, he would do it all again.
Translation undertaken by a comrade from ANPI Brescia.