Caroline Moorehead

Life & Death in the Susa Valley

Partisan Diary: A Woman’s Life in the Italian Resistance


Oxford University Press 384pp £22.99 order from our bookshop

Ada Prospero was sixteen when she became engaged to Piero Gobetti, the rising young star of the intellectual anti-Fascist movement in post-First World War Turin. Together they embarked on defying Mussolini and his Blackshirts. She was twenty-three when, in 1926, Gobetti died of a heart attack perhaps brought on by the injuries he had received at their hands, leaving her with a month-old son, Paolo. Holding staunchly to her passionate anti-Fascism throughout the late 1920s and 1930s, she eventually joined the partisans rising up to fight the Germans and the Fascists for the liberation of Italy. Now this remarkable woman’s diary of those months of warfare has been excellently translated and annotated by Jomarie Alano.

Ada Gobetti’s diary opens on 10 September 1943, the day on which she saw the first German soldiers enter Turin. An armistice had been signed between General Badoglio and the Allies, and the Germans had rapidly occupied all northern and central Italy down to Naples. She kept it going until the beginning of the insurrection twenty months later, writing cryptic notes in English that only she could read. When the war ended her longtime friend and mentor Benedetto Croce encouraged her to turn it into a book. Helped by her notes and her excellent memory, she started work on a draft which was eventually published in 1956 by Giulio Einaudi, editor of many of Italy’s most famous anti-Fascists, among them Antonio Gramsci, Italo Calvino and Primo Levi.

Not long before the Second World War, Ada, by then a successful teacher, translator, politician and activist for women’s rights, married Ettore Marchesini, an engineer also working in Turin. Highly educated at a time when such a thing was unusual for Italian girls, she was the very opposite of Mussolini’s model woman, not biddable, not house-proud and not a producer of numerous babies. Their flat in Turin became a meeting place for anti-Fascist friends, who came to talk about the future, produce clandestine papers and keep alive the flame of Giustizia e Libertà, the main left-wing non-communist anti-Fascist movement started by Carlo Rosselli in Paris in 1929. As the battle for liberation began, Ada, Ettore and Paolo, now aged seventeen, agreed to join the partisans in the Susa valley, where they owned a house. The area was crucial since the valley provided one of the main routes into France and was fiercely defended by the retreating German forces and their Fascist allies. While Ettore constructed communication links and created false IDs, and Paolo carried out acts of sabotage, Ada travelled up and down the valley, delivering messages, supplies and weapons and acting as interpreter. Later they led a perilous mission across the mountains through deep snow into France, to liaise with the French Maquis, the Free French and the Allies. Ada became the inspector of Giustizia e Libertà’s military command, which had seven hundred men and women in and around Susa.

In her diary, Ada records endless, terrible journeys, narrow escapes and periods of intense danger, along with descriptions of the magnificent mountains during the different seasons. She lived mostly on a diet of polenta and potatoes, and seldom slept in the same place two nights running. There are very few expressions of fear for her own safety. Rather, the diary returns repeatedly to the terror she felt for Paolo, her only child, and her sadness for mothers like herself, who saw many of their sons captured, tortured and executed in the last punishing and barbaric acts of the war. She mourns every one of their deaths. ‘From one day to the next’, she writes sadly, ‘we see young boys and girls transformed overnight into men and women’.

Ada, Ettore and Paolo all survived the war, though Paolo’s health was permanently affected by the months of constant physical hardship. One part of Ada’s duties had been to form and nurture a new women’s movement, both among the partisans and in the country as a whole. It was a task she returned to when the war ended and she was made deputy mayor of Turin and awarded the Silver Medal for Military Valour.

Like many of the main anti-Fascist leaders, she believed that the roots of Fascism lay in the chaos and corruption of the pre-Fascist liberal years, and fervently hoped that peace would herald the creation of a new Italian identity, and with it ‘a new society born … out of our agony’. Like them, she feared that the profound divisions between competing ideologies, kept alive underground and in exile during the Fascist years and papered over during the battle for liberation, would resurface among politicians more anxious to resume a way of life interrupted by Mussolini than to imagine and create a different, better model of governance. She was proved right in her misgivings. The Action Party she helped to form was very short-lived. Italy would change governments eleven times between 1953 and her death in 1968. Ada herself in time became a member of the Communist Party, saying that its views and ideals were closest to her own.

A Partisan Diary is not altogether an easy read. Though the meticulous footnotes make it an invaluable contribution to the literature of partisan warfare, the diary itself is often a long litany of journeys, meetings, encounters with unfamiliar people and comings and goings up and down the Susa valley. But for the reader who is prepared to persevere, Ada Gobetti’s narrative provides a remarkable picture of an often neglected period in Italy’s confused wartime years. And through it all shine her own formidable character and intelligence, along with a moral courage that owed less to received faith than to an affinity with the heroes of an earlier insurrection, the Risorgimento.

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