Beneath a Scarlet Sky
In early February 2006, I was forty-seven and at the lowest point of my life.
My younger brother, who was also my best friend, had drunk himself to death the summer before. I’d written a novel no one liked, was embroiled in a business dispute, and stood on the brink of personal bankruptcy.
Driving alone on a Montana highway at dusk, I started thinking about my insurance policies and realized that I was worth much more to my family dead than alive. I contemplated driving into a freeway abutment. It was snowy, and the light was low. No one would have suspected suicide.
But then, in my mind’s eye, I saw my wife and sons in the swirling snow and had a change of heart. When I pulled off the highway, I was shaking uncontrollably. On the verge of a breakdown, I bowed my head and begged God and the Universe for help. I prayed for a story, something greater than myself, a project I could get lost in.
Believe it or not, that very same evening, at a dinner party in Bozeman, Montana—of all places—I heard the snippets of an extraordinary, untold tale of World War II with a seventeen-year-old Italian boy as its hero.
My first reaction was that the story of Pino Lella’s life in the last twenty-three months of the war could not possibly be true. We would have heard it before. But then I learned that Pino—pronounced pea-no—was still alive some six decades later and back in Italy after nearly thirty years in Beverly Hills and Mammoth Lakes, California.
I called him. Mr. Lella was very reluctant to talk to me at first. He said he was no hero, more a coward, which only intrigued me further. Finally, after several more phone calls, he agreed to see me if I came to Italy.
I flew to Italy and spent three weeks with Pino in an old villa in the town of Lesa on Lake Maggiore, north of Milan. At the time, Pino was seventy-nine but big, strong, handsome, charming, funny, and often evasive. I listened to him for hours on end while he summoned up the past.
Some of Pino’s memories were so vivid they appeared in the air in front of me. Others were more dimly lit and had to be coaxed into clarity through repeated questioning. Certain events and characters he clearly avoided, and others he seemed to dread talking about at all. When I pressed the old man about these painful times, he recounted tragedies that reduced us both to sobbing.
During that first trip, I also talked to Holocaust historians in Milan and interviewed Catholic priests and members of the partisan resistance. I visited every major scene with Pino. I skied and climbed in the Alps to better understand the escape routes. I held the old man when he collapsed in grief in the Piazzale Loreto, and I watched the agony of his loss ripple through him in the streets around the Castello Sforzesco. He showed me where he last saw Benito Mussolini. In the great cathedral of Milan, the Duomo, I saw his shaking hand as he lit a candle for the dead and the martyred.
Through it all, I listened to a man looking back at two years of his extraordinary life, growing up at seventeen, growing old at eighteen, the ups and downs, the trials and triumphs, the love and the heartbreak. My personal problems, and my life in general, seemed small and insignificant in comparison to what he’d endured at an unfathomably young age. And his insight into life’s tragedies gave me a new perspective. I began to heal, and Pino and I became fast friends. When I returned home, I felt better than I had in years.
That trip led to four more over the course of the following decade, allowing me to do research on Pino’s tale between the writing of other books. I consulted with staff at Yad Vashem, Israel’s main Holocaust remembrance and education center, and with historians in Italy, Germany, and the United States. I spent weeks in the war archives in those three countries and in the United Kingdom.
I interviewed the surviving eyewitnesses—at least those I could find—to corroborate various events in Pino’s story, as well as the descendants and friends of those long dead, including Ingrid Bruck, the daughter of the mysterious Nazi general who complicates the heart of the tale.
Wherever possible, I have stuck to the facts gleaned from those archives, interviews, and testimonies. But I learned quickly that due to the widespread burning of Nazi documents as World War II ground to a close, the paper trail surrounding Pino’s past was scattered at best.
I was also hampered by a kind of collective amnesia concerning Italy and Italians after the war. Legions of books have been written about D-day, the Allied campaigns across western Europe, and the efforts of brave souls who risked their lives to save Jews in other European countries. But the Nazi occupation of Italy and the Catholic underground railroad, which was formed to save the Italian Jews, have received scant attention. Some 60,000 Allied soldiers died fighting to free Italy. Some 140,000 Italians died during Nazi occupation. And still, so little has been written about the battle for Italy, historians have taken to calling it the “Forgotten Front.”
Much of the amnesia was caused by Italians who’d survived. As one old partisan fighter told me, “We were still young and wanted to forget. We wanted to put the terrible things we’d experienced behind us. No one talks about World War Two in Italy, so no one remembers.”
Due to the document burning, the collective amnesia, and the death of so many characters by the time I learned of the story, I have been forced in places to construct scenes and dialogue based solely on Pino’s memory decades later, the scant physical evidence that remains, and my imagination fueled by my research and informed suspicions. In certain instances, I have also comingled or compressed events and characters for the sake of narrative coherence and have fully dramatized incidents that were described to me in much more truncated forms.
As a result, then, the story you are about to read is not a work of narrative nonfiction, but a novel of biographical and historical fiction that hews closely to what happened to Pino Lella between June 1943 and May 1945.