Italian WWII soldiers who resisted Germany – including one linked to LI – honored in New York
In September 1943, as Nazi paratroopers and SS commandos rescued deposed fascist dictator Benito Mussolini from his mountaintop prison in Italy, elsewhere in Europe, Italian soldiers were faced with a choice: continue to fight for the Germans, or face capture, deportation and detention by Germany. .
As Italy changed sides to the Allies, a fraction agreed to continue fighting alongside the German army, but nearly 650,000 said no – and paid the price. Most would be forced into internment camps and tens of thousands would die, said Stanislao G. Pugliese, Hofstra Professor of Italian and Italian-American Studies.
Nurturing anti-Italian grievances dating back to World War I, the Germans refused to consider these Italians prisoners of war subject to the protections of the Geneva Conventions, labeling them instead as Italian military internees, the enemy combatants of their time.
On Monday, two of these internees with ties to the New York area were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by the Italian Consulate in Manhattan, their families received the medals for what the men did and did not not done in WWII.
“They were starving. They were beaten. They were subjected to forced labor. During two years. And then when the war ended, nobody came to collect them,” said Mary Ann Fusco, whose father, Rosario Castronovo, a longtime painter for Hicksville’s L&L Painting, was honored.
Castronovo – who was imprisoned outside Dresden – later immigrated to the US, became a citizen and went on to paint buildings such as what was then Rockefeller University and the Lipstick Building in Manhattan for society Hicksville, her daughter said.
Castronovo, who later returned to Germany with his family to visit the remains of the camp, died in 2012 at age 91.
Fusco and several other family members, including widow Paola Castronovo, accepted the medal from Fabrizio Di Michele, the Italian consul general in New York.
“A man of principle”
“It is the typical story of a man of principle who did not agree to fight alongside the Nazis after the armistice, and he preferred, basically, to be forced to work and live in the camps. of Nazi internment… starving, witnessed many of his colleagues and friends perish because of the conditions, and yet survived,” Di Michele said, according to video of the ceremony, which was closed to the public.
Monday’s tribute to men – the medal has been awarded by the Italian government since 2006 – is the result of a kind of one-woman campaign by Fusco, who set out to find other men like his father.
“DO YOU KNOW AN ITALIAN SOLDIER IMPRISONED IN GERMANY DURING WORLD WAR II?” read a pamphlet she gave out several years ago.
Among those Fusco found were the family of Giuseppe Maurantonio, who during the war was serving in the Balkans in the Italian army when he was captured by the Germans, said his son Nicholas Maurantonio, 68, of Sag Harbor .
“My grandparents thought he was dead – for two years – no communication, nothing at all,” Nicholas said.
A handwritten diary kept by Giuseppe – which the family brought to the ceremony and handled with care – documents the horrors of that time: extreme cold, his body decaying from neglect, constant hunger and inhumane conditions. During the war in 1945, he was either released or escaped, and it took him five months to find his way back to Italy, his son said.
In 1959, Giuseppe immigrated to the United States and became a shoemaker in the Bronx. He died in 2007 and would have been 101 this year.
A story of mistrust
What happened during the war to Giuseppe Maurantonio and Rosario Castronovo happened in the shadow of World War I, when Italy was part of a treaty of alliance between Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire , and that Italy’s fighting in accord with the alliance was deeply unpopular. Italy managed to evade this obligation and entered the war alongside France and Great Britain in May 1915.
“So there was already this sort of story of what the Germans called the betrayal of the Italians,” said Pugliese, a professor at Hofstra.
And in World War II, Italy did not come in initially, as Mussolini wanted, because the Italian generals were not ready. It wasn’t until June 1940 that Italy finally did, after Germany conquered Poland and was on the verge of defeating France.
“It also looks very bad. So the Germans accepted Italy as an ally in World War II, but they never trusted the Italians,” Pugliese said.
Due to Allied bombings of Italian cities, especially Rome, and the invasion of Sicily from North Africa, the Italian king eventually deposed Mussolini in July 1943.
Between July and September of that year, the king abandoned Rome, the army disbanded, “many Italian soldiers simply took off their uniforms and hit the road and literally marched home, sometimes at hundreds of kilometres,” Pugliese said.
So when Italy signed the armistice with the Allies in September 1943, Hitler was furious and his troops occupied Italy with further animosity because the Germans thought the Italians “stabbed them in the back”, said Pugliese.
Giovanni Frisone, who last year gave a lecture entitled “The Other Resistance: Hitler’s Slaves”, at the Wright Museum of World War II in New Hampshire, said: “The vast majority of Italian soldiers do not did not agree to fight for Mussolini or for Hitler. His own father, Ferruccio Francesco Frisone, was also one of these soldiers, and died in 1973.
Italian internees have been denied compensation by a German fund set up for former slaves and forced laborers during the Nazi era.
Although most Italian soldiers were reluctant to continue fighting with the Germans, not all did.
“The skeleton in the closet is that a small number decided to fight for Germany,” Pugliese said. “One of the dirty little secrets of this whole story is that there were Italians who were fanatically fascist.”