The Girl from Bologna
Love Lost and Redemption Spanning Time
Bologna, Italy, 1944, and the streets are crawling with German soldiers. Nineteen-year-old Leila Venturi is shocked into joining the Resistance after her beloved best friend Rebecca, the daughter of a prominent Jewish businessman, is ruthlessly deported to a concentration camp.
In February 1981, exchange student Rhiannon Hughes arrives in Bologna to study at the university. There, she rents a room from Leila, who is now middle-aged and infirm. Leila’s nephew, Gianluca, offers to show Rhiannon around but Leila warns her off him.
Soon Rhiannon finds herself being drawn into a web of intrigue. What is Gianluca’s interest in a far-right group? And how is the nefarious head of this group connected to Leila? As dark secrets emerge from the past, Rhiannon is faced with a terrible choice. Will she take her courage into both hands and risk everything?
An evocative, compelling read, “The Girl from Bologna” is a story of love lost, daring exploits, and heart wrenching redemption.
War crimes against women
I smooth the cover of the bed in my guest room and check that everything is as it should be for the arrival tomorrow of the exchange student from the UK I’ve agreed to host. Rhiannon Hughes, twenty-one years old, an undergraduate at Cardiff University. I frown, hoping I’ve done the right thing. But, since I took early retirement from teaching last year, I’ve been a little lonely. If only ill health hadn’t forced me to give up the job I loved. I miss spending time with young people; my favourite nephew, Gianluca, seems too busy these days for his aged aunt. When I heard that Unibo, as the Studiorum is known now, was looking for people to offer rooms for foreign students to rent, I impetuously took advantage of the opportunity. Except, now I’m not so sure I’ll cope. I’m supposed to provide breakfast and dinner for the girl and help improve her Italian, but my energy levels are so depleted these days I fall asleep at the blink of an eye.
I make my way down the corridor that divides the piano nobile of our palazzo in two. Papà’s legal practice used to be on the ground floor, but now it’s rented out to a hairdresser. The top floor is for storage. Back in the day, it accommodated a cook and a housemaid, but no longer. I manage the cooking on my own, and a cleaner comes in twice a week.
Taking a deep breath, I step into my book-lined study. This is where I used to spend the afternoons, marking my pupils’ essays, preparing lessons, and researching. When I first retired, it was wonderful to have more time to myself, to catch up on reading for pleasure, to be able to enjoy just sitting and doing nothing. But nature abhors a vacuum, and my mind, no longer occupied with work, soon began to be filled with memories—fleeting at first then increasingly tangible.
When a bomb, planted in the first-class waiting room, destroyed the west wing of Bologna station last August—an atrocity attributed to right-wing terrorists—I started to remember with ever greater clarity what happened during the German occupation four decades ago—those terrible times I’ve tried not to think about ever since. My declining health has led me to fear I won’t live to a great old age. What purpose has my life served? Will I die without leaving a trace of who I once was?
I’ve attempted to write everything down but have found holding a pen for any length of time tires me. After wracking my brains, I hit upon the idea of buying a cassette tape recorder. My speaking skills have been honed by years in the classroom; it shouldn’t be too difficult to dictate my memoirs. I won’t publish them; I’ll leave them with my papers for posterity.
Just last week, I read William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun in translation. His words, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past,” resonated with me. It’s true; the past is never past. I can no longer bury what happened; I can no longer forget. Evil has come to Bologna once more. The fascists have raised their ugly heads again. With a shudder, I remember that man with the pockmarked face, the man I’ve always thought of as my nemesis. I bought a Beretta pistol—I learnt how to shoot one during the war—and now I keep it fully loaded, hidden in the cupboard by my front door.
Bitter bile rises in my throat. I swallow it down and open the drawer of my desk. I began to dictate my memoirs yesterday, describing the disastrous bombing of Bologna on September 25th, 1943, when the planes came without being sighted in time for any warning sirens. Over nine hundred people lost their lives in that raid, many of them caught in unprotected buildings or even out on the streets. Images of the dead baby and the young girl who died in front of me are so vivid in my head they could have occurred yesterday.
With a heavy sigh, I take out my Philips recorder, press play, and listen. My voice sounds cracked with emotion, rasping almost. I pour a glass of water from the carafe I placed on the sideboard earlier and take a sip. Then I clear my throat, pick up my microphone, and speak.
For the first week or so of the Nazi occupation, Bolognese fascists kept themselves out of political life. But when Hitler made Mussolini the puppet ruler of La Repubblica Sociale Italiana, i fascisti bolognesi became ardent members of the Duce’s reformed anti-monarchist Republican Fascist Party. The repubblichini, as we scathingly called them, started working hand in glove with the crucchi, our depreciative word for the Germans.
I tried to keep a low profile and focus on my literature studies at the university, aiming to live as normal a life as possible given the circumstances. But soon it became impossible to ignore what was going on.
To thwart the invasion, a National Liberation Committee was established by antifascists in Milan. They tasked the Bologna branch with directing urban guerrilla partisan actions and taking on the role of a covert government.
Gruppi di Azione Patriotica sprang up in cities throughout the north. Born on the initiative of the clandestine Communist Party, the gappisti started attacking the Nazis and fascists openly. It didn’t take long for violence to erupt. And my quiet, studious life was about to change.
The partisans had set up a secret workshop to package explosives. On 15th December, they exploded a bomb in the headquarters of a German cartographic department. Shortly afterwards another guerrilla bomb destroyed a brothel frequented by Nazi officers. Prostitutes were and still are a fixture in the seedier parts of the city. When Paolo told me what had happened, I hoped none of those women had died. My sweet boy couldn’t tell me whether they had or not. But when the gappisti placed a bomb in Ristorante Diana, under a table usually reserved for the German military, it exploded and killed two innocent civilians. It was time for the partisans to alter their tactics.
Three days later, the Commander of the German Security Service brought forward the curfew to six pm, fined the city five hundred thousand lire, and promised a one hundred thousand lire reward to anyone who could help identify the perpetrators of the attacks. Many Bolognese, impoverished by the war, took advantage of such rewards throughout the twenty months of the German occupation to spy and report on the partisans. But still our freedom fighters were prepared to risk everything.
On the morning of 26th January 1944, I remember, Eugenio Facchini, commissioner of the Bolognese branch of the Republican Fascist Party, was shot dead by gappisti while climbing the stairs of the Casa dello Studente—the student canteen in Zamboni Street where he liked to have lunch. After the assault, the fascists established a self-styled military court which summarily tried ten antifascists who were in the prison of San Giovanni in Monte. The next day they were executed by firing squad. It was the start of a reign of terror in Bologna. I would come to look fear in the face while I lost loved ones and battled my nemesis.
And, as if that wasn’t enough, we were still subjected to bombing by the Allies. The first raid of 1944 took place on 29th January. Thirty-nine American B-17s, again aiming for the railway marshalling yards, dropped tons of bombs that missed their target and fell on the city. I was at the university with Rebecca. The wail of the warning sirens sent us racing with our classmates to the nearest shelter. Afterwards, we learnt that the bombs had reduced over one hundred buildings to rubble, and that they’d killed or wounded many innocent civilians. We wept when we heard that the Archiginnasio, situated in the centre of Bologna and one of our most important university edifices dating from the 16th Century, had also received a direct hit.
Another raid occurred on 22nd March, when two hundred civilians died after the Leopardi street air raid shelter collapsed due to being struck by a stray bomb. On 7th April, the Allies managed to hit their target but explosives fell on the outskirts of the city as well. Three further raids caused little damage but, on 13th May, Bologna was attacked by over two hundred aircraft; they dropped an estimated three hundred and eighty tons of bombs on the central station and the marshalling yards. But they also struck the city, causing damage to myriad buildings, killing more than one hundred people and wounding over two hundred others. Hotel Brun, in Ugo Bassi Street, was reduced to rubble. The southwest corner of the Town Hall, near the Basilica of San Petronio, was destroyed. The Maggiore Hospital, filled with doctors and patients, received a direct hit. Many Bolognese had mistaken the raid for the daily ten o'clock air drill and had gone about their business as usual.
That was the final drop that overspilled the glass as far as my parents were concerned. Papà decided to take Mamma to Asiago in the Veneto mountains, where we had a holiday house to escape the heat of Bologna in the summers. He tried to persuade me to go with them, but I didn’t want to miss any of my university classes. Papà wasn’t an authoritarian father; he let my brother and me make our own decisions once he’d considered we were old enough. Daniele promised he would keep an eye on me; he still lived at home then. Mamma wasn’t happy to leave me but, like most women in the 1940s, she deferred to her husband. He insisted on their going. Mamma was suffering from her nerves, hadn’t been sleeping properly for months and had lost so much weight she’d become frail and sickly. I’ll never forget her distraught face as Dani and I waved her and Papà off in his Fiat 1100, the car in which I’d learnt to drive. ‘The Allies will liberate us soon,’ he said. ‘We’ll be back before you know it.’
Built-up emotion strains my throat. I push the stop button and take a sip of water. What I’ll describe next hangs heavy on my heart—the inciting event that changed everything, converting me from an observer to a participant. I press record and, in a flat voice to prevent myself breaking down, I resume my story.
Siobhan Daiko is a British historical fiction author. A lover of all things Italian, she lives in the Veneto region of northern Italy with her husband, a Havanese dog and a rescued cat. After a life of romance and adventure in Hong Kong, Australia and the UK, Siobhan now spends her time indulging her love of writing and enjoying her life near Venice.