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Giobbe Armaroli, Angelo Maltoni, Giovanni Pignatti

Righteous from Emilia

Ozzano dell'Emilia

Ozzano dell'Emilia

THE CHAIN OF GOOD 

Tale and testimony reported by Elena Romito, professor of liceo scientifico "Archimede" of S. Giovanni in Persiceto

There are places that do not give back what they have taken and others that give back their lives to those who felt bound to die. Ozzano dell’Emilia is a small city in the south-Eastern outskirts of Bologna where, from November 1943 and January 1945, life and hope were given back to a Jewish family, the Lopes Pegnas, thanks to a network of Righteous women and men, including the former podestà of Ozzano Giovanni Pignatti, his trusted friend Angelo Maltoni, the farmer Giobbe Armaroli and the peasant family of the Orlandis. Thanks to them the Lopes Pegnas escaped the round-ups, avoiding deportation to the German death camps, and above all they found again their humanity in the one of their rescuers. The odyssey of Philosophy professor Ubaldo Lopes Pegna, teacher at the Teachers’ training school of Ferrara, started well before the racist laws of 1938, as reflected in the pages of his bulky unpublished diary entitled as “Io esistevo per il fascismo” (I existed for fascism): at the Grammar school of Grosseto, he refused to comply with the rituals of fascism, did not enroll his kids in the fascist associations, did not wear the uniform and in general he neglected to pay his respects to the regime, as already in his long gone youth in Rome, when in 1922, refusing to salute a fascist pennant, what he got was a blow with a stick on his head. Simply, fascism did not exist for him; he instead existed for fascism and after a series of warnings he was demoted and moved from Grosseto to Ferrara. With the passing of the racist laws, also the odyssey of his and his family, including his three sons, Giuseppe, Ettore and Benedetto, who were expelled from school, as their father. Once lost his post, prof. Ubaldo went to teach at the Jewish school, to work as a clerk in the stationery and perfume shop of his “Aryan” wife Giovanna Vittadini, not subject to the racial persecution. The harrowing truth on the German concentration camps were words by the mouth among the people of Bologna. To avert arrest and deportation, they found shelter first at the Roveri, a peripheral area of Bologna, where they remained for some weeks, pretending they were common displaced people. From there the Lopes Pegnas found shelter on 9 November 1943 in the countryside near Ozzano, in Colunga, thanks to the concern of the former podestà of Ozzano Mr. Giovanni Pignatti, an accountant who was the podestà of the city uninterruptedly from 1925 to March 1943, when he relinquished his post formally ‘for health reasons’, probably instead because he was distancing himself gradually from the fascist ideology (this theory was confirmed also by numerous pieces of testimony of living citizens of Ozzano who talked about his possible involvement in the aid to the local partisans). At the beginning, their hideout would have to be a house owned by landowner Angelo Maltoni, a brotherly friend of Pignatti’s, who was from Cotignola, but then they found it better to split the family into two groups, one living at the home of Giobbe Armaroli’s, formerly Maltoni’s farmer, and another one at the trusted home of the peasant family of the Orlandis. The encounter between Pignatti and Ubaldo Lopes Pegna occurred in an evening of end of September or beginning of October 1943, at the home of the former Podestà in via San Cristoforo in Ozzano. Pieces of testimony were provided by his son Romano who was then 9 years old (who among else remembers hearing his father often whisper something about a certain Jewish professor with his wife) and were then substantiated by the pages of the professor’s diary. So wrote prof. Ubaldo:

“It had become word of the mouth that the Germans, aided by the so-called and pretentious Italian authorities (who otherwise could have given them the addresses? Or say someone was Jewish?) had captured some Jews. Where did they take them? Such a question would now be naive. Surely, there, from where no one comes back. Be it a concentration camp or else, their ultimate fate was Germany. That was their slaughterhouse. (..) Things worsened more and more. The vice-like grip was stronger and stronger; it threatened to hold me, and maybe, us all The wild Nazi beast threatened to swallow us. (..) One morning I heard the baker’s cashier say that the Germans and the carabinieri had gone to the home I don’t remember whether of an old woman or anyone else, a Jew, and had taken her or him away..(…) Repeatedly urged by my elder son, who was urged, in his turn, by the family of a young boy to whom he gave free private lessons within their amicable relationship, and was displaced in a village of the most remote countryside, called Colunga, hamlet of Ozzano dell'Emilia, nearly 12 km away south-East of Bologna. One day, with that very son of mine, I went to see the former podestà of that city, to ask for help, i.e. that he provide us with a shelter, maybe a part of a dormitory, a stable, any kind of shelter. I said nothing to him about our condition when we were at his home: I would do only to a completely trusted person, and only if really necessary. The former podestà, Pignatti, proved very kind, and he was very eager to help us, too, but he told me he could do nothing more as an authority (which was what I wanted), as he was no more in charge and had been replaced, precisely in those days, which I did not know about. He immediately wrote a short letter for a certain Angelo Maltoni, and told me to deliver it to him. Mr. Maltoni from then on would be forever a Guardian Angel”.

Thus, the “recommendation letter” from Giovanni Pignatti for the Lopes Pegnas will reveal pivotal to the purpose of their safety, even thug then they would not hide in one of the houses of Pignatti’s friend’s, Angelo Maltoni, but instead in the house of the latter’s ex farmer, Giobbe Armaroli, who ran the farms of the province which bordered with the goods of the Maltoni’s, an one of his peasants, Mr. Orlandi. After their meeting, from prof. Ubaldo Lopes Pegna and Angelo Maltoni made great friends, which developed more and more in the following years. No week went by without a meeting between the two and without Ubaldo calling Maltoni his “guardian angel”. From 9 November 1943, when the Lopes Pegnas arrived at Colunga, their stay at the Armaroli’s and the Podere Morellazzo [in the picture] of the Orlandi family was nearly uninterrupted until January 1945, when they decided to go back to Bologna, where together with many other people from Bologna they welcomed exultantly the Allied forces who on 21 April, freeing the city, freed all the Bolognese people from a nightmare that had lasted over 20 years. Jolanda and Aldo Orlandi, then young children to the peasant family that shared the dulie of hospitality with the Armarolis, remember that twice or three times a year, in the Fifties, the son Giuseppe Lopes Pegna, who had become a municipal doctor, went to see his “rescuers”, recalling the dreadful days of war and the long time spent in the nightmare of being arrested and reported. Very moved, every time he repeated: "It is you who have saved my life. I will never forget it, until I am alive!".

The commemoration of this rescue episode was at the core of the Ozzano City Hall’s remembrance initiatives of 27 January 2008 and sparked some arguments on the local and National newspapers. Some people asked whether the deeds of a fascist podestà could be commemorated by the institutions during a remembrance service due to the memory of the Italian Holocaust victims, and if the memory of those who opted for Good could replace the memory of the offence suffered by innocent Italian citizens, even more so if this Good came from the “other side” of that history. It seems in facts as self-explanatory to somebody that a fascist podestà, by definition, cannot have helped any Jews: the (improper in my opinion) supporting argument is the excerpt of the diary we mentioned, where Ubaldo Lopes Pegna says during their first encounter he did not tell the former podestà he was Jewish. Such an omission, in somebody’s opinion, would diminish his aid gesture, making it less lofty and selfless and thus unworthy of being enumerated among the people who represent the memory of Good in the gloomy times of the Holocaust. No one, unless new document will be unearthed, will ever be able to assess whether the podestà was aware of the Jewish identity of his protégés when he wrote that short letter. We can suppose he had the administrative means to investigate, he had an easy access to the document of his Prefecture, where the family name Lopes Pegna had no secrets, or he had after all the necessary experience to grasp what that surname could hardly conceal and that Ubaldo had certainly not mentioned out of cautiousness: but these are mere suppositions. It is instead a fact that the short letter delivered to the trusted friend Angelo Maltoni, involved in much wider a support network to Jews and partisans in the area of Cotignola [a strange friend, indeed for a fascist podestà], represented the first step towards safety for the Lopes Pegnas, without which maybe their tale would have had a different outcome. Pignatti was the first ring of a chain of good that gave back life and hope to the Lopes Pegnas, and this is why he deserves being remembered, for his proven ability to act following his own con science against his own shaky ideological belonging. If thugthe real motivations of Pignatti’s behaviour is still under scrutiny, spotless is instead the figure of the second intermediary of the hiding operation, Angelo Maltoni. It was him, the trusted friend of the podestà’s, the first to learn about the Jewish belonging of the fugitive. And he was for the Lopes Pegnas the safety anchor in the sea of prevailing dehumanization. He certainly could be fully entitled to enter the list of the Righteous among the nations in Yad Vashem in Israel. So writes prof. Ubaldo regarding Angelo Maltoni:

“Maybe I could have found the accommodation also without his help, as it in facts happened. But the one who gave me the trust I would find it, then, when I was tired and mortified, when, without any trust, you can just do nothing, even more something of this kind, and then one like me the, who more than ever was shy at asking also for licit things, and willing to pay? Who gave me the help and moral aid, then and always, from then on: the really brotherly friendship, his advice, which was his continuing kindness? Who gave me always the best and were becoming more and more necessary, in the raging storm, i.e. in the most difficult moments, and so often took me out of trouble, helping me who I really did not know how I would do… like when he told me to pay attention (him too) going to the shop’s… getting me to understand that I did not have to go there at all? Who, other than my family, pampered me with his dear company, whenever I needed it… Who considered me a man like the others, as I had always been considered (less by the rare anti-Semites, whom I had come across in my life, who thug had not had the courage to express that overtly), being close to me in the darkest times of persecution? Who gave me an opportunity to be a professor again, not only by name, getting a job for me, to help one of his relatives, but at the same time helping me to sort out of that horrible atmosphere and that obnoxious stream of sneer where we were bombed and worse, exposed to any kind of persecution, making me feel, with the memory of my youth, as if I had really gotten young again and forgotten about everything? This lord did and was all this to me, a real lord in his soul and heart, although he was not really very educated, or rather, maybe because of that (and therefore increasing his merit for it), because he was nearer the good and generous nature of the Romagna region. I will always remember that evening of late Autumn in which I went to his with my elder son, taking a long route to avoid walking in front of some German barracks. We had to wait for him as he had not come back again, and once he had welcome us and read our message, I told him I was a Jew and what I wanted from him. I will always remember his rather sturdy building, with a certain defect in one leg, under the light, while we were standing around a table, because it was late. He immediately showed his heart in his face, and sent me to a “corporal” of his (so farmers are called in the Bolognese area) in the countryside, where I was precisely searching for a room and where he had a property with a villa”.

To sum up, the key factor of his gesture of rescue was not only to give shelter to the Lopes Pegnas, but more than that, the restitution of the man’s own dignity, a condition to get back tot rue life, as well expressed by Primo Levi about his friend Lorenzo Perrone, Righteous among the nations. The emphasis on the humanizing function of the rescuer is documented also in the tale about his meeting with Giobbe Armaroli, who was informed about the Jewish identity of his guests from the very beginning:

“…I will simply remember the great and generous heart also of this farmer, in giving me several agricultural goods, and allowing me to use others, including wheat, at very low prices, besides rewarding my elder son very generously for the lessons he gave his two children, a boy and a girl [Giannina], preparing them privately for an exam that would then be passed with great satisfaction. I wish to thank you this farmer, what a weird mix! He bears a name inspiring all patience (the patient by definition) and a surname which is like a rattle of war orders (Giobbe Armaroli) and he himself is no less strange a mix of goodness, and yes, patience. I said I wish to thank this farmer, because thanks to him we did not know anymore what hunger is until the end of the war and beyond; and only those who are fathers can understand the meaning of these words. (..) After some family talk, one morning we decided to take immediately to safety the two elder children to the [Armaroli] family’s, the one of the young pupil of my elder son, who we hoped would not deny them hospitality at least in the first place. I would take them there. Not even the family to whom we were headed know anything about the fact that we were Jews, at least as far as we knew. But now we had to say it, because we were fleeing, and we asked what we asked for that reason. (.…) The young boy’s mother came to welcome us. I told them and asked them what we know and what we needed. She agreed in the most spontaneous and kind-hearted way, saying she would accomodate my two sons in the best possible way. I did not know how to thank her, but I hope this good and kind lady will know, wit her husband, that I will keep eternal gratitude for them and their deed, and the way it was performed. ……Now we had nothing left to do but to take to Colunga the few things that we had at the "Roveri"’s, and go there ourselves”.
If the persecution against rights and lives de facto excluded the Jewish Italian citizens from the moral and social group, in which solidarity and respect rules for the other individuals existed, excluding them from the great human family and relegating them to an existence first as second class citizens and then as sub-humans, the rescuers’ welcoming gestures readmitted the persecuted in the properly human community, that “family of unheeded kind” able to give them back not only the present but also the future. Here is the last diary excerpt about the definitive accommodation of the Lopes Pegnas at the Podere Morellazzo of the Orlandis:

“Eventually we arrived there! Sooner than we had believed (..) we had the name of the peasant: Orlandi. (..) We were there! The peasants, who see everything and everyone from an incredible distance from our point of view, had seen us, and seeing us stop there, they came to meet us and welcomed very warm-kindheartedly, including their dog. We were there! We were in Colunga! (..) We would have to have quite a long stay there, and live nearly together, sharing the life that makes people the closest to each other: the life of danger, which touches the deepest roots of all our being; we nearly felt at home, in a family, a family of unheeded kind, and from this point of view, a family that is closer to us than our true family, based on blood ties. We immediately set out to talk confidentially, as if we had always known each other. And, in fact, we knew each other: weren’t we all men, all brothers, already worn out and suffering because of the war?(..) The table was attended, turning from the grandfather’s right, by three girls, the elder, the younger and the one in the middle, from 22 to 17 or18 years old; at the other end of the table, their mother; in front of the girls, their father, another son, a boy about 11-12, and an uncle, brother to the father, who was a single. This was the family that we got to know and with whom we lived, except for a short interruption, as we we will see, until the first days of January of 1945 (…) So started our life in Colunga. It was, if I am not wrong, 9 November 1943”.

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