Since publishing his father’s memoirs last year, John Davison has continued to search for information about the people in northern Italy who protected Norman Davison and arranged for his safe passage to Switzerland.
This spring, Anne Copley told John that she had discovered a Web site dedicated to the resistance history of Vigevano—La Resistenza a Vigevano—and John’s subsequent contacts with this historical group led to a Vigevano newspaper’s research and publication of a two-page story on Norman’s rescue and the brave Italians who risked their lives to protect him.
L’informatore‘s report, translated into English, is below.
Courage and gratitude
L’informatore (The Informer), April 22, 2010
Commentary (“Coraggio e gratitudine”)
by Margherita Natale
We want to tell you a beautiful story, of those who, in the midst of so much misery and penury, keep true human values in their hearts. In a society which rewards highest the scramble for worthless honours and tin medals, here’s this book, written by an Englishman—Norman Davison—dedicated to a group of citizens of Vigevano who, in October 1943, saved him and his friends from raids by the Germans in the woods of Ticino, and arranged for their safe passage to Switzerland.
This was an episode we had not heard of, as it had been kept private by relatives of those who had taken part in the adventure. Their reserve and modesty is a sign of their honor.
The book was published in 2009 by his son, John, who found—in an old suitcase—letters, documents, and a manuscript diary in which his father detailed all the events of his imprisonment, which began in Libya in ’39 and ended in ’44 with escape from a labor camp near Sforzesca (October ’43) and safe passage to Switzerland arranged by a several residents of Vigevano.
In recent months, John Davison sent a copy of the book to our city, along with a request for our help in locating these residents or their relatives so that he might express his gratitude. Our newspaper, informed of the case, has done research and identified almost all of those who took part in the episode. Most are dead, but children and grandchildren are living who had either been told of the event or were young during that season of struggle and generosity. From a forgotten place in his house, one of them brought to us a “certificate of recognition for helping the Allied armed forces,” signed in 1945 by the famous General H. R. Alexander, supreme commander of Allied Forces in the Mediterranean.
John Davison will be in Vigevano next August: we hope that our city will receive him with the same spontaneity and sympathy that was shown by Giovanni Bellazzi and his family, Gigi Pistoia and his wife, Lidia Stoppino in Giotto, and the gentle but brave Teresina Andreanna, said Rosina, who greeted John’s father long ago in October 1943.
Click on the image above to see an enlargement of the two-page spread from l’informatore. Below are the individual articles and the text of the articles translated into English.
Heroism without medals
A book dedicated to the Vigevanesi who, in ’43, allowed prisoners to escape
“This book is dedicated to the men and the women who risked their lives and those of their families out of kindness and humanity, asking for nothing in exchange: Giovanni Bellazzi, farmer, Sforzesca, Gigi Pistoia, Vigevano, Lidia Stoppino, member of the resistance, Vigevano, Teresina Andreanna ‘Rosina’”
The Cararola house where, in October ’43, Giovanni Bellazzi cared for and hid the escaped English prisoners from the Sforzesca labor camp.
Giovanni’s cousin Gigi Pistoia
With Teresina on the train to freedom
After Norman Davison’s death, his son John discovered a manuscript in which his father tells the story of his imprisonment and his rescue by the Vigevanesi.
Norman Davison was born in Sheffield [England] to a well-to-do family in 1913. His life was calm and happy until 1938, when he enlisted in the army. The following year he was married to Irene, and soon after he was sent to military action in North Africa. He was captured and imprisoned in Libya. For many years he was transferred from one concentration camp to another, spending the greatest amount of time in Tripoli and later in Servigliano, Italy. In the summer of 1943, he and some of his fellow prisoners were loaded onto a full train and transported to various Italian cities, where Italians waited to transport them to forced labor camps.
Norman’s stop was in a small town in northern Italy which he had never hear of: Vigevano. It was the summer of 1943, and the prisoners were taken about four miles from the town station to a country village that Norman describes in detail: Sforzesca. There the captives were watched not by hordes of German guards, but by simple farmers. The Brits slept in a large room with two rows of beds. They were fed three times a day and in the evenings they passed the time with village residents.
Norman described the Sforzesca standard of living as absolutely the best during his years of imprisonment. During the day the English prisoners were taken to work at various farms. Norman and its friend Gerry, who had been with him since their days in Tripoli, worked for different “masters of the land,” as he calls them in his memoirs. But of everyone he met, the one who left an indelible mark in his mind was Giovanni Bellazzi, “farmer” of the Cararola dairy farm. When the workers arrived for their first full day, Norman explained, Bellazzi welcomed them with open arms and a large reassuring smile. In the months they spent together, Bellazzi talked to the young Englishmen as if they were family rather than prisoners. He introduced them to his wife, parents, the servants—including his right-hand man Giorgio—and the neighboring Buscaglia family. During the last months working at Sforzesca the boys got to know another tenant who they called signor Ronchi, probably the manager of the Ronchi farm, Battista Ottone. Surely the most important characters the Englishmen met there were “Rose,” Teresina Andreanna, a twenty-year-old of great courage, who worked in the Bellazzi home, and Gigues Pistoia, Giovanni’s cousin.
On September 8, news of Badoglio signing the armistice arrived. Italy had dissolved its alliance with the Germans and united with the Allies. From that point contact with the English prisoners was undesirable in a city like Vigevano that had become an operating base of the “Jerries,” as Norman called them. Bellazzi hid the boys at his house, taking care to provide them with all they needed to survive.
One day Norman made a night trip to Vigevano, accompanied by Gigi Pistoia who wanted Norman to meet his wife. Norman recalled vividly that the bicycle trip was about four miles and that he kept his head down the whole time to avoid detection by the Germans. When the situation became riskier, the young Brits were taken to a nearby forest for a few days. Gigi and Giovanni ensured they had the necessities: food, clothes, etc. One night Gigi and Giovanni brought a girl named Lydia Stoppino to speak with the Englishmen. She explained in English that she had contacts with the National Liberation Committee base in Rome, and she asked them to follow to the capitol where the Allies had been for a long time. Norman and Gerry thank their trusted friend, but decide to wait for a better opportunity. After a few days Giovanni told the boys that the moment had come for them to go because the situation was becoming too risky.
Accompanied by Teresina, they cycled to Abbiategrasso. There they successfully evaded the police and caught a train to Milan. The three then boarded a train to Como. In Como they were hidden by friends of friends from Sforza. In the autumn of 1943, Norman and Jerry crossed the Swiss border, and they remained in Switzerland for nearly a year. They were able to return to England in October 1944.
They risked everything, but were silently proud of their compatriots
The children of activists talk about the silence of their fathers
During the Nazi occupation, they hid prisoners and helped them to escape. If discovered they would have ended up directly in front of a firing squad, or carried off in a truck. It is due to the modesty of true heroism or absolute commitment to confidentiality that the protagonists in the British soldiers’ escape rarely told what they had accomplished—even to their children.
“The few things I do know my mother had told me,” says Mariella Bellazzi Bottani, daughter of Giovanni Bellazzi, the Cascina farmer of Cararola who secretly housed Norman Davison and the other British former prisoners-of-war. Mariella Bellazzi now runs a pharmacy with her husband Claudio Bottani and is the first person that we were able to identify in the attempt to reconstruct this history. Her father died in 1984 at the age of 76. Has had always been a farmer, first at Cararola and then at Cascina Roverino. Had been an infantryman, but avoided the war because his was one of the few working families, and at that time working on the land was more valuable than ever. “I know that he housed these young men, hid them, and then helped them escape. But he never told me anything. Nor had his cousin Gigi Pistoia and his niece Rosina Giapponi, who had moved to the farm with her mother to escape the bombing.” Even surveyor Carlo Alberto Pistoia, who retired a few weeks ago, and was born before the war ended, knows little. He is the son of Gigi Pistoia and has trouble tracking things down when he searches for any trace of actions taken by his father. “I know he received a certificate of commendation from General Alexander.” A few days later he brought to the office a yellowed paper he found after a long search though his father’s memorabilia—digging through drawers in an old chest. It is a statement—published here—by the commander of Allied Forces in Europe, “in gratitude and recognition” for having saved those British soldiers. But Pistoia had not put it on display, even hanging in his living room.
“Of those events I know very little, only what my mother, Maria Busi, told me,” says Carlo Alberto Pistoia. The community of Vigevano was very close to those English boys and helped them in every way. They took extreme risks. They were hidden in the woods all day and then to amuse them in the evening they brought them into town, to the cinema, but recommended they keep quiet because if they spoke and they knew only English, it would be the end. “Gigi Pistoia died in 1995 at the age of 88. My mother, who was totally and clearly my father’s accomplice in these undertakings, passed way in 2006, at 94 years of age.” The stories of Giovanni Bellazzi and Gigi Pistoia are emblematic of the period in which so many of the people of Vigevano, and the Italians in general, without hesitation helped the Partisans, the Italian soldiers who did not adhere to the RSI [the Repubblica Sociale Italiana led by Mussolini] or Allied prisoners. This also was the Resistance.
The document reads:
This certificate is awarded to Pistoia Gigi de Gandenzio as a token of gratitude for and appreciation of the help given to the Sailors, Soldiers, and Airmen of the British Commonwealth of Nations, which enabled them to escape from, or evade capture by the enemy.
Supreme Allied Commander,
Certificate of the General
After the war, Gigi Pistoia received from the Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, British General Harold George Alexander, a “certificate of recognition and gratitude for help given to members of the Allied armed forces that had enabled them to escape or avoid being caught by the enemy.”
The book’s title inspired by the verses W.H. Auden
The title of the book of G. Norman Davison (above, pictured during the war as he guards a German plane shot down by the British in North Africa) is a beautiful line from a poem written by W.H. Auden, entitled “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” another great British poet of the last century. The inscription at the beginning of the book, edited by John Davison, son of the former P.O.W. (published by the Scratching Shed Publishing), is as follows: “In the desert of the heart / Let the healing fountain start, / In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise.” In Italian: “In the wilderness of the heart / Let the gushing fountain heal, / In the prison of his days / Teach the free how to praise.” The poem was written by Auden in 1939, shortly after the death of the Irish poet.
The direct evidence
Giotto Stoppino bought tickets for the train
“My sister Lidia and I took care of British prisoners who had escaped from the labor camps after September 8 and were found hidden in the woods to the south. We reached them by bicycle, and brought them clothes and what little food we could scrape together.
I remember clearly the terror we felt the day we heard the screech of wheels of a German truck on the gravel road in the woods. We hid in the bushes and luckily the truck, after shooting a bit nearby, moved away for good.
The situation for the English in the woods had become very dangerous, so a superior decided to tackle an ambitious project. I myself bought the tickets at the station for the trip to Milan and one night under cover of darkness, we loaded the British on cattle wagons, and then transferred them to the passenger cars. In the group was an Irishman, who was like an Irishman from a John Ford film, and the Germans who occupied the city would certainly have identified him at first glance. In Milan we waited with our other friends and later we learned our protected ones had happily arrived in Switzerland.” (Taken from the publication “25 April 1945 to 1995” edited by Ievve and distributed free with the Informant on April 20, 1995).
A letter from Lidia kept by Norman
Do you remember your Italian friends? I, the one who writes, am the girl with dark hair who stuttered a little English and came to meet you in the woods with Gigi. Much time has passed since the last time I saw you, but I still remember you and all your friends.
I would be delighted to hear from you, whenever you are able. I will be anxious if I do not hear from you. We all—Gigi, my brother, Mariuccia, and I—always speak of you with great interest. I suffered much during the Fascist republic, and I often was at risk of being arrested. My house was bombed twice. I was very frightened and sometimes when I sleep I still dream of those terrible attacks. Gigi has a beautiful baby boy. His name is Alberto, but I call him Norman, in your memory. How is your beautiful wife, my dear friend? You spoke of her so much that I think I know her—she has blond hair and green eyes, as I recall. Sometimes I go in our woods (—do you remember it?)—it’s so nice, especially in September, when many flowers that have grown there cover the ground with their purple blossoms. The place where you eat is still quiet as before. Where are Frank, Jerry, and all the others? I look forward to hearing from you, my dear friend. Will you be kind enough to write me as soon as possible?
Best wishes to you and your lovely wife.
(deceased in 1977)
The memories of Rosina Giapponi
They came to our house to listen to Radio London
Here is the letter that Mrs. Rosina Giapponi, the niece of Giovanni Bellazzi, who now lives in Genoa, sent to our newspaper as a valuable witness.
First, I want to tell you how grateful I am that we both are contributing to the unexpected resurgence of recollecting events of years gone by, but which are still very much alive in our minds and that yet arouse emotion in us. With regard to some details of the events in the book describing former British prisoners who lived for a time at the Cararola farm, my mother and I have clear and intense flashes, which now, thanks to your request, we see in perspective.
At the time (summer ’43) I was eight years old and lived for a few weeks at the Cararola farm with my grandparents. There I could see young people who slept in rooms adjacent to those of my uncles and ate in the large kitchen of the farmhouse. There was with us one whose presence is very important—the young Therese, who was in the service of my grandparents.
I remember on one night (when I was back home with my parents), there was a true expedition, around midnight, of these young people, led by uncle Giovanni, who came to our house in Via Carducci in Vigevano—invited by my father—to listen to Radio London. I remember they really liked the gin that my father had offered to them.
I remember the day of a surprise Fascist raid (I was there [at the farm] with my parents) after the armistice—a search for the Bellazzi family’s illegal guests, whom they had welcomed and protected at their own risk, as prohibitions were then in force. I recall one of the guys was immersed in a barrel full of grapes in the wine cellar adjacent to the farmhouse where we lived. Though I do not remember if it was he or another who was captured and taken away, but it incited fear in us all. The other young Englishmen had fled to a cane field not far from the house and there they were cared for daily by Therese and the uncles.
It would be valuable for you to speak with Therese, who, if she is still alive, might be in a nursing home. They spent a few weeks of fear and anxiety about possible reprisals, until Therese, alone and at great risk, one night accompanied a group of Englishmen to Como (because from there they could pass to Switzerland). Teresina was a truly great girl—brave, generous, and so modest.