I was born in Roncolo di Quattro Castella on the 21st of May 1921. We were a family of farmers, but our roots were different. My grandfather had been studying to become a music teacher until the age of 20 and had founded the band of Vezzano. My grandmother was the daughter of the town-clerk of Vezzano, a post that he held as he took part in the struggle for Italian unification, along with his brother, Baroni Radighieri. My grandparents had both studied a lot more than farmers would have normally done. For instance, my grandmother would, as a woman, read the newspaper every day, which my father always referred to as an example, regarding the importance for a woman to also be cultured. They got married shortly after turning twenty... so young... they couldn't find any work so they got into farming. My father’s generation was the only one involved in farming only until they were older and got involved in other things.
The fascist regime didn’t even spare us children. Our school organized a contest for the best drawing. I was good, I was really good at drawing. And look at the irony of fate: I drew a very nice sheaf with a beautiful laurel wreath. To paint it, I mean, to color it with crayons if you don't have the hand for it... I mean, if you're not careful, it won't turn out well... but actually it turned out to be very beautiful and it was selected as the best drawing of our elementary school in Castelnovo di Sotto. We were called to the Ausoni theatre for the award ceremony. The podestà was supposed to come hand out the prizes. They were present, since the entire fascist heirarchy was present at every event, giving out awards to the children... i was the last one to be called since I had earned the top award in the entire school. They called me, I went up the stairs and was up on the stage... and there stood Doctor Ganassi. This I should state because he was a family friend and I, even all of us, would bring him milk from a cow that I'd practically raised, since he had a young son but couldn't manage to raise him... all of his children died as infants and so we would bring him this milk. And he said: “Oh, you don’t belong to the Piccole Italiane?” I answered: “No, my father didn’t sign me up”. "Well, then we won't give your your award" and he sent me back. A ten, eleven year-old girl... how can you explain to her that... how can she understand that there is more worth to a membership card than her ability to work, to study, to be good, etcetera? I went home crying. My mother was feeding the pigs. Poor thing.. she found herself... I said, "This is your fault. I didn't get an award because you didn't get me the membership." So she gave me a good slap and told me, "At least now you have something to cry about." Perhaps she found it difficult to respond to me in the moment since parents were really careful about talking to us kids. because children could easily let something slip, even with others... and you couldn't... i mean... if you said something bad about the fascists, there was the risk and the danger, if you expressed it outside of your home, that your parents would be punished. And because of that, even when they spoke in the stables, they would say, “Ragasol, vueter guai s’adgiv quèl”, which meant "children, be careful, you shouldn't talk about anything that you hear at home". Through this, ever since we were children, we knew that we had to keep quiet, that it was dangerous for us and our family to do certain things. Then I came to Reggio. Our family moved to Reggio since the boys were studying... That is, my brother had gone to high school at a boarding school in Parma and they were starting... There was a need to move closer to the city. They bought a house on Dalmazia Street and my life changed completely. coming from the traditions, the farm life, which was based on conservatism, the traditionalism, having to be careful about what you said... and the women were constantly being treated like nobodies. In fact, I used to be told even in my own home, "Shut up. You are a woman." And my mother, poor woman, thought this was right. Here, I instead started meeting women that went to work and Dalmazia Street was a street where the working-class elites of the city lived. There were factory technicians, gas technicians, water technicians. They were a very bright, mature and well-prepared group of working class people. We moved there in 1938; I had just turned 17. We had a restaurant with a bar. Although I was quite young, I was very curious. I had always been like that. The older men liked me. They started to explain to me what I had known only in general terms. What fascism really was, the real reasons behind its existence, for it was only violence and ignorance to me at that time. These men were generally Communists and Socialists. I began to understand and to see things from a different point of view that attracted me more. I had made friends with the young men who came to our bar. When they left for war I became their communication point. They were writing from Africa, from France, from Russia, asking for news about each other. I started to have a broader view of the war, compared to those who only had letters from their relatives.
Torelli was an old antifascist living in our house. He was persecuted and had been in jail. One day he told me he wanted to talk to me. “The things you’re doing are very important; we were quite surprised by you”. He was referring to what I had been doing with Maria Montanari and my cousin. We were in a strong and combative group of friends, who shared the same ideals, the same feelings towards life. The Germans had already officially announced that those who helped soldiers and dodgers to escape would be sentenced to confinement in concentration camps or executed. What we were facing wasn’t a joke. Torelli went on: “You must try to keep everything that a clandestine army might need, because we want to get people to fight to send away the Germans and the fascists”. We started to take things out. Before I talk about this, I will tell an episode which was really crucial for my decision to go on and take part in the Liberation struggle. Three or four days after September 8th, the air-raid warning went off. We fled on our bicycles. After a while we went back home, since we didn’t hear anything and the warning had stopped. As I arrived at the beginning of Dalmazia street, as we always fled towards Codemondo or the Canalina, the SS were standing in front of the houses. In front of my house there was a space we called the “palace”, where we used to put tables and chairs in the summer. As I got there, a German unit with a machine gun told me to stop. I replied: “It’s my house!” The soldier just told me: “Halt, raus!”. I didn’t understand any German, but “raus” meant go away, leave. I told him: “That’s my house; I have to fix dinner for my brothers”. Again, he replied: “Raus, schnell, schnell!” and pointed the gun at me. I quietly went back with my bicycle and met Maria, who had the same thing happening to her. It’s not the fear of the gun, it’s realizing that you’re absolutely nothing to them. These men in uniform, who looked like cockroaches, who spoke a language you didn’t know because they weren’t even from your own country, not only could keep you from going inside your home, but also had the power to kill you. You were nothing to them; you were less than a bug. It’s shocking. Maybe we weren’t prepared for this, but it was the reaction of a young girl who by then had already suffered from bombings, from seeing soldiers being captured. The older men, who had fought in the First World War, were talking about concentration camps. My father used to tell us that we had to feed my brother otherwise these beasts would let him die of hunger. We had to help them. You suffer terribly from these things you’re facing. In the end they are just like you. You don’t know what their future will be, you risk your own life to help them. We went on the street as we saw a soldier and we escorted him out of danger, since there were road blocks everywhere. Our old men even carried them on the crossbar of their bicycles for a while, so that they could rest a little and stay out of trouble. You realize immediately that it’s something terrible. That the antifascists were right in what they were saying. Still, until then, we hadn’t been helping people for political reasons. We were rather doing it for humanitarian principles: as a woman, you saved another woman’s son, that’s what got us to face danger, too. From that moment, however, I realized that it had to be something conscious. I never pulled myself out anymore in regards to all the things I was asked to do.
At home, my father took care of the problem of ammunition. Since he bottled wine, we had crates full of bottles in the cellar ready to be delivered. He had made holes in the crates where he would stuff the ammunition. Then he closed them. Our kitchen was right over the cellar. The cellar had a vaulted ceiling with an empty space between the vaults. My father had taken off some tiles in the kitchen over one of these spaces. We hid our weapons, guns and everything else there. Then we’d put the tile back and cover it with a chest of drawers. It was really hard to notice the hiding-place. Torelli at a certain moment told me: “Laila, what you’re doing is not enough. You do so much for the partisans and for us, but you need to think about what your future will be”. I replied: “Well, let’s just hope it will be a little bit better than now”. He said: “If you agree, organize a meeting with all the women you work with and I’ll get a communist leader to come”. To us, communists and socialists were just the same, what did we know about politics? We had never got involved in it. With fascism, you could only read what they gave to you, and you didn’t even have the right to make comments. So before we did this meeting I met Paolo Davoli, who explained how important it was for women to discuss their future. After the war, women would take part in elections and have the same rights as men. That was great for us. At that point we understood that we could change our future, that we had to be more than partisans, acquire consciousness about our role. But we were really so ignorant, it was sad. I set up two women support groups, we did two or three meetings. This worker came, I think he was a mechanic of the factory Bloch.
He told me: “Listen, we need someone to bring what we need to the mountains, especially ammunition and weapons. Do you think you can do it?” I said yes. The Ferrari brothers at the time had a butchery near the D’Alberto movie theatre. Two brothers were in the mountains with the partisans of the Don Pasquino detachment, another one was with the fascists. I asked them what they’d do to this brother once the war was over. They replied: “He’s with the fascists because we sent him. He was a fascist and they were glad to take him, so now he sends out some weapons for us. When we tell you where to go, just go there and he’ll hand you some stuff”. The meeting point was a hotel behind the Riunite pharmacy. I would go there, go inside and wait for him. He’d arrive, hand me a small package, we’d say goodbye and leave. Generally he’d bring handguns. If there were only two handguns, I’d carry them alone. I had a big breast and they would fit perfectly right in the middle… I’d strap them to my waist and by bicycle I would get to Cerresola, to Currada, where I met Marco (Sergio Beretti’s battle name). Sometimes I brought ammunition, other times salt, etc. One day Maria Montanari’s cousin, who worked at the Reggiane plant, had managed to bring out an airplane radio-transmitter. It was big, and it was at my house. It wasn’t a normal radio-transmitter. It had a button you had to press, and during the war it was the one the armies had. So we had to bring it to the mountains. Maria and I agreed on the following plan. I’d go to the mountains by train. I’d get the Reggio-Ciano train at the station, put my bicycle on the coach and get on. Maria was supposed to look at where I was sitting, and come inside. We’d pretend we didn’t know each other. She would put the package in front of me, at the end of the compartment, and leave. They often checked the suitcases. We figured that if they found the package, nobody could have told whose it was. Everything went alright until San Polo, where the train was surrounded. The fascist police started searching. They looked all over the place, under the seats, inside the packages and suitcases. But they didn’t notice my package. It was covered with some newspapers. When I arrived in Ciano I left the bicycle at the station and followed the Enza river. Then I asked them to come pick up this damned radio, because it was almost a 5 km walk from Ciano to Cerresola. It wasn’t a very nice journey with that thing. I had no chance of getting through the police blocks, so I solved the problem that way.
They came around a week after they had arrested them, still in August. I was questioned for a whole day. In the morning I was interrogated by the chief of UPI and by one of the commissioners, I think it was Dr. Cocconi. He was the cousin of the second-in-command of the central headquarters of the partisans operating in the mountains. I was questioned very harshly. They were accusing me. I was denying, claiming that I had gone there only to get some eggs, that a man had asked me for my ID card and I didn’t even know who he was. This went on for two or three hours. Then they said they were going to put me face to face with the man who had taken my ID card. They brought this man inside, he was in plain clothes but all dressed up, wearing a tie. I knew that partisans were tortured, and since he hadn’t been tortured… So he began to tell what I had done, saying that my brother was a partisan and I had gone there to pick up a gun. At that point I just lost the light of reason. That was my luck, since I reacted in a very aggressive way: “You’re a scoundrel, I went to pick up a gun? When I got there you asked me for my ID card, you took note of my name, and as you saw I lived in Reggio, you said you knew my brother…” I had to say this, since my brother had already gone to the mountains, it could have saved me. “You told me I had to bring a gun to him, but how could I say no to you? You had a gun, I only had a basket of eggs in my hand”. I was very mean. So he said I was right, and took back what he had stated. They asked me to sign the minutes. I couldn’t tell what they wrote on it. My cousin and I signed. Then they told us we could go home, but they wanted to speak to us again the following morning. So I said: “Listen, I’m afraid to stay at home. Every night I go to San Bartolomeo to my cousin’s, she’s the local fascist secretary. Can I go there?” My cousin said the same: “I usually go with her, or to my mother’s, would you let us go there?” They told us we could. I got home and Mafaldo Chiessi, who was also an antifascist and in charge of communications between Reggio and Milan, told me: “Are you joking? You can’t stay here. Tomorrow they’ll torture you. Today was only the beginning. Things will be different tomorrow, trust me. Don’t think that they won’t come to get you. After what happened you must run away”. My poor father at some point said: “I have four children, but I have to admit I don’t know them. I never thought that you were…” That’s because we had been working in absolute secrecy. Even my boyfriend didn’t know what I was doing and his mother or his brother-in-law never told him. Secrecy was vital in order to survive; there was no other value but this. My father went on: “So now you’ll leave, too. I have a son who’s been away for a year now, and I don’t know where he is and if he’s alive. As for the other one, I have had no news for the last three months. He came home for a while but I don’t know where he is now”. There was no communication with the families from the mountains to the valley. “Now you’re going away, too, and I’ll stay home with your sister, a ten year old girl. But I think that you made the right choice. At least you’ll have a chance to save and defend yourself, unlike us who will end up like mice trapped at home. Just remember that your father thinks a lot of you”. That was what my father told me.
After a while of walking, a partisan patrol came towards us. They were from the Rosselli detachment. Rosselli was one of the local partisans. Then we reached the detachment. There, the commander started talking to us. He wanted to know why we went to the mountains. We explained to him what had happened. And the situation changed again. A different reality hit us. We didn’t only have to learn to fight, as the commander told us: “From this moment you’re not men or women anymore, you’re partisans. You’ll do what the others do, share things with us and sleep in the same rooms, share our meals and all the tasks we must carry out, like patrolling the area. You should learn to handle weapons, know how to care for them, load them, and how to use them. You’ll mount guard and take part in the patrols. Little by little you’ll become combatants. Here you have the same rights and obligations as everyone else. Nobody should put you into trouble and you should behave so that nobody else ends up in trouble because of you”. At night, at first they had given us a room which was full of bedbugs. We had to run out of it as we couldn’t sleep because of the bites. So the first night I slept with them I was between De Pietri, a partisan from Reggio and a young Sardinian carabiniere who had refused to follow the Germans’ orders and went to the partisans. We chatted all night long. They asked me about things in the city and I asked them how we should have behaved, etc. I really became aware of the differences. At home, there was no way you could sleep next to a man! Women were vital to the partisans. They could go where men could not. Men had failed to report for military service. Everywhere they went, even if they were young, they were taken, searched and sent out to concentration camps at the least. As women, we did not have to be in the army or with the fascists. We could move in a way they weren’t allowed to. We took care of things like printed materials, propaganda, weapons. When a GAP or SAP unit had to move in the lowlands, for example if the Rosselli detachment, based in Cavandola, close to Canossa, had to go to Quattro Castella, or carry out an action on the Emilia road, it was a woman partisan who would lead the way for the group. We were called dispatch riders, but we would lead the way to see what was ahead and then go back to report. This was really important.
As a partisan I chose the battle name Laila. I would be Anita for my friends, but I was only known as Laila with the partisans. At times with people I didn’t know or whom I met for the first time. It was my battle name. The names we were given increased our chances of survival. If one was arrested and talked under torture, he handed out the name he knew, not being your real name. Many saved themselves this way. I had chosen the battle name Laila because I read a lot and had found out about this princess in a book on the Aztecs. Her husband was an Aztec prince, the commander of a unit fighting the Spanish invaders. As he was killed in battle she took his place. Laila was the first name of a woman fighter, so I thought it would be right for me to choose that name. She was a combatant, and I chose a name that would reflect what I was doing.
There were more and more women in the mountains by then, because some had been arrested and tortured. When they were in danger they went to the mountains to the partisans. The public opinion started talking about what women would be doing there, ill-minded. I had to clash with this idea, too. I had been on the Barazzone with the detachment for a month when they told me to go to Cerresola, as my boyfriend Nanzio Corrada was waiting for me. I went to meet him and as soon as I saw his face I understood that a storm was brewing here. He told me right away that I had to leave with him. I asked him why, since I had run away in order not to be executed. Did he think it was right for me to go back home? He continued, “We’ll get married, then you’ll come to Varese and nobody will look for you”. “So you think that if we get married, hand out the information they need, they’d let me go to Varese? Would you be happier if I’m tortured? You’re really joking”. I added, “I took this decision, why should I leave now?” To which he replied: “If you stay here, you’re not worthy of raising my children”. That was really it, I couldn’t take it anymore. In the past we had already argued over the role of the woman in the family. I couldn’t tolerate being considered as a nobody. I couldn’t stand the fact that a man would marry me only to have a maid and someone who would give birth to his children. That he would then be the one in charge. It was often a matter of discussion, even with my father, although he was a very democratic and open-minded person who understood certain issues. My boyfriend didn’t. I told him: “Giving birth to a child for a man is just a matter of seconds. I share my life with him for nine months. He lives in me, I’m the one who feeds him, who looks after him and gives him a chance to live. And you tell me that I have no decisional power, that I can’t say how he should grow up?” His reply was simply that it’s up to the man to take decisions at home. So I told him he could go home and be the man of the house there, while I’d go back to the mountains, because that was the choice I had made. It wasn’t an easy decision, after so many years of engagement. Staying with him was what I had envisioned for my future. Now I put an end to it. I also had to take into account that I might have no other chance to get married. After such a long engagement one was considered a widow. It would be difficult to find a young man willing to marry me. But I didn’t feel like starting a family with a man who had such principles.
As I recovered, they ordered me to go to the brigade command. I was told that they would be grouping together all women in a special unit called “information office”. This unit was to take care of communications within the brigade, with the other units and the outside, and also undertake surveillance, seek information, etc. I went to Vetto and waited for the other women partisans to arrive. The commissioner asked me: “Laila, would you be willing to take charge of the group? You’ll be the one in charge for all the dispatch riders who are part of this unit”. I accepted and we started to work. The problem was there was so much work that we often didn’t even manage to get any sleep. We weren’t only taking care of communications, but also led the way when units had a job to do. When they blew up the Cerresola Bridge, which is 3 or 4 kilometres from Ciano, they asked me to lead the way. There were three units from three detachments, led by Gianni, who told me to go ahead. When I was moving around I was always armed. At night I carried a big gun, which could have easily killed somebody. If I was going in dangerous areas I’d carry a smaller gun, a Beretta six-something, as it was easy to hide. As he saw the gun, Gianni told me: “Laila, what’s that for!” I told him we should agree on a plan: “I’ll go ahead and come back. If I don’t feel like walking back all the way I’ll whistle. That means the way is clear. If by any chance I see an enemy unit and can’t make it back or alert you about the danger, I don’t care if I have to shoot myself in the stomach, as I kept the gun around my waist. They won’t see it the way I’m carrying it. At least I can warn you by firing a shot. That’s the only reason I’m carrying the gun”. He asked me if I was crazy, and I replied I wasn’t: “Don’t you realize I’m responsible for three units?” I’m telling you this to show how reliable we were in our duties, how responsible we felt. I wasn’t the only one: all the women who were taking care of these duties were ready to face danger. We went on working like this. At a certain point there were around thirty of us. Then they split us into two groups. One group took care of political campaigning with the population to gain support, while we went on doing our usual tasks. On the 25th of April I was at the brigade headquarters. I was told to get my unit ready to go back. We had all been waiting impatiently for that moment. I had been in the mountains for nine months, away from my family. I had taught a woman who worked in a restaurant in Vetto the way to my house. Once a week, when she went to Reggio to buy supplies, she’d bring me news about my family and give them mine. I was at the end of my strength. It was because of the way we lived, the shortage of food, the lack of vitamins. My legs hurt so much that before I went somewhere, I had to warm up like horses do before they run. I had a bad inflammation of the gums. Since we didn’t have anything else, the doctor taught us to put a few milligrams of verdigris in the water and rinse our mouth with that to disinfect. After a while a medical student joined us. He gave some vitamin injections to a few of us. The poor girls who did cried desperately because of the pain (he had to give the shots into their backs). That was the way we were living. We were really looking forward to go back home. When they gave me the news I was in Gottano. I sat on a rock just outside town and could see the mountains and woods all around. I recalled all my memories of the partisan struggle and suddenly was hit by sadness. Not because I was leaving that place, but because I had seen too many of my comrades die.
I went back home. I knew I would find the same situation I had left behind. In the mountains I had become another person. I was respected and highly esteemed. Not only because of my stripes, but because of the way I took care of difficult operations. I didn’t want to go back home constantly having to listen to what my father or my brother said. As soon as I got home I told my father I didn’t want to work at home anymore. I wanted to shape my own life, find a job and become self-sufficient. At home I felt repressed. My father agreed. I started working, setting up women sections and the feminist movement. I studied in a party school and was sent to take care of trade-unions. I started to get involved in the movement for the protection of women’s rights. I had decided I would work for all those who had died, to accomplish what they had hoped for. Their dreams were also mine. We wanted a few simple things: a job, a chance to support our families properly, the right to send our children to school, to live in a democratic society, maintain our individual values and at the same time defend the rights of the community. So as soon as I started working for the party, I set up women sections, even if I wasn’t particularly skilled. Women were all coming from the same background I came from. We had to discuss together about our own issues, learn to vote, identify our problems and develop our demands. If we discussed with men, women would not speak out. Having a women-only group allowed us to develop those issues and build up our claims. After the war there was dramatic poverty. The children were on the street. The first thing I recommended was to set up a nursery school. We had one, but it was too small for all the children. In Bainsizza street, with all the working-class housing, a multitude of kids spent the whole day on the streets waiting for their mother to come back from work. They ate only at breakfast and dinner, hardly at lunch. Their families didn’t have enough money for another meal. We wanted to set up the day-care centre, group together the kids who and get them off the streets. We wanted to talk to them, grant them some security and possibly feed them. The Communist Party offered us one of their offices, a small apartment in the working-class area, so we started discussing on how to set it up. The campaign for nurseries was the first major issue together with the right to vote for women and equal payment ecc.
I care about these stories. Not so much for myself. Rather for the benefit they convey to those who listen and want to think about them. It was real life. I’m not exaggerating things, even those episodes that are quite sensational. I rather focus on reflecting on them. It’s all about the 20th century, about the way we lived through it.
Anita Malavasi (1921 - 2011)
1943: Roncolo di Quattro Castella (Italy)
Armed Resistance, Unarmed Resistance, Partisan
144° Brigata Garibaldi »Antonio Gramsci«