The following is a text from an essay by Camilla Brunelli and Gabriella Nocentini, published in the second volume of IL LIBRO DEI DEPORTATI – Deportati, deportatori, tempi, luoghi (Mursia, 2010) edited by Brunello Mantelli.
It is well known that under Nazi occupation the civilian population in Tuscany suffered great hardships. The devastating total war brought slaughters and massacres, and Tuscany was to suffer the highest number of casualties of all Italian regions. To this one must add the victims of deportation – a further way of terrorizing an already exhausted population.
From December 1943 to September 1944 there were many politically motivated arrests. These prisoners were then deported to Nazi concentration camps that were run by the SS (and must be kept distinct from the camps for military internees, which were controlled by the Wehrmacht, or from the forced labour camps under the direct management of companies). In most cases, the arrest and deportation of “political prisoners” was defined as Schutzhaft, i.e. arrest and detention of suspects “for the protection of the people and of the state”. This was based on a law passed as early as 1933 by the Nazi regime in order to preventively deport to concentration camps their political opponents (at first fellow Germans) considered to pose a danger to the Reich’s security.
The political deportees either born in Tuscany or arrested in the region number about 1000. They were taken in custody according to the arrest procedure then in force and sent to concentration camps. This procedure was employed since early 1944 by the SS and German police in Italy, who worked hand in hand with the Italian Social Republic authorities in charge of repression, and was directed mainly against three categories of political deportees: actual partisans, persons suspected of supporting them, draft evaders. People who had taken part in forms of civil resistance, such as the great strikes in urban and industrial areas, were also included. In Tuscany, and notably in the area comprising Florence, Prato and Empoli, most of the arrests occurred during the roundups that followed the general strike of March 1944.
The general strike saw the participation of tens of thousands of workers in all of occupied Italy and is considered an outstanding event in European Resistance, a form of unarmed Resistance. This massive participation was due mainly to people’s discontent with the ongoing war, because of the deprivations, the grim living conditions and the lack of food, and also to their anger at the way Nazi occupying forces were robbing the land of its human and its productive resources.
In Florence the workers of many factories, including the main ones such as Officine Galileo, Pignone, Richard-Ginori, Manetti & Roberts, and the women employed at the Manifattura Tabacchi, the cigarette factory, all went on strike. In Empoli and in the nearby towns it was mostly the workers of the glass factories, in Abbadia San Salvatore the miners. Workers went on strike in Cavriglia (near Arezzo), in the areas around Pistoia and Pisa, in Leghorn and in Piombino; in Santa Croce sull’Arno it was the tannery workers, in the Mugello and above all in Prato the textile workers, as that was the prevailing industry in the district,
In Tuscany, as in Northern Italy, the general strike was followed by a harsh repression: the roundups were sometimes aimed at the strikers, but more often than not indiscriminate, leading to the arrest not only of the workers who had gone on strike, but also of those who had not, and of employees, professional people and even unsuspecting passers-by.
In the province of Florence, which at that time included Prato [now a separate province], several hundred people were arrested: they were picked up in the streets, taken from home or directly from their workplace, and conveyed to Piazza Santa Maria Novella in Florence, to a large building that had formerly been a school, the Scuole Leopoldine, where the SS proceeded to register them. On the morning of 8 March the square was crowded with people looking for their relatives. In the afternoon, most of the people who had been detained were put on lorries and taken to the nearby central train station, also called Santa Maria Novella, where they were made to enter cattle wagons. The wagons were then sealed and started on their journey towards Germany.
The transport arrived at Mauthausen, in Austria, which at the time was annexed to the Third Reich, on 11 March. It carried over 330 men rounded up in Tuscany in the aftermath of the strike – only a few dozen survived. It is an indication of how furious both the German occupiers and their Fascist collaborators were that the detainees, even those arrested indiscriminately, suffered the worst possible treatment, i.e. deportation to the concentration camp system under direct SS control, and not to the milder forced-labour camps. The great majority were interned in Mauthausen, a camp that because of the harshness of treatment, all too often resulting in death, barely differed from an extermination camp.
Workers’ mobilization in the strikes of March 1944 marked a success for the Florentine Resistance. It drew new life from it, staging important actions in April and May, which reached their climax in June and July, when the Comitato Toscano di Liberazione Nazionale [Tuscan Committee of National Liberation] began to pave the way for the town’s liberation. The risks and problems involved were very serious indeed, in the face of the German and Fascist repressive machinery.
It is in this context of increasing Resistance activity and growing Nazi-Fascist repression that June 1944 saw a surge in arrests, detentions and deportations. The transport that left the transit camp at Fossoli (near Modena) on 21 June and arrived at Mauthausen on 24 June was second only to the one of 8 March as to the number of deportees born and/or arrested in Tuscany. Many of them had spent time in jail, at the “Murate” in Florence, before being transferred to Fossoli prior to their deportation.
Among the deportees of 21 June were many well-known Tuscan anti-Fascists, like Enzo Gandi, Giulio Bandini, Marino Mari and Dino Francini, who had been arrested in his office at Banca Commerciale in Florence. Also on this transport were Marcello Martini, Guido Focacci, Angelo Morandi and Salvatore Messina. They had all been captured by Nazi forces that, acting on a tip-off, had raided a building in the Piazza D’Azeglio in Florence, from where this group maintained secret radio contacts with the Allies. This famous incident of Italian Resistance is known as the Radio Co.Ra episode.
Summing up, political deportation in Tuscany saw the sacrifice of many anti-Fascists and Resistance fighters, some renowned, some less so. At the same time, roundups and arrests were indiscriminate, and did not always take into account how far the captured person had actually been involved in hostile activities against the Fascist regime. This emerges most clearly from the already mentioned transport of 8 March 1944 from Florence, the one with the highest number of deportees from Tuscany. The occupation forces, as a matter of fact, used deportation as a deterrent, to keep people from engaging in further acts of overt struggle against the regime or of civil opposition. At the same time, they intended to effect a mass transfer of workforce for use as slave labour in the Third Reich’s war industry.
The arrests were mostly carried out by Italians, i.e. by the men of the GNR [National Republican Guard], who appear to have been responsible for approx. 90% of arrests. In many cases there is proof that Carabinieri, who had been incorporated in the GNR, were also involved. This confirms that Fascist authorities were collaborative to a high degree, and this was crucial for the very success of deportation.
At Dachau, and even more so in the concentration camp complex of Mauthausen, with its dozens of sub- camps (the final destination of most political deportees from Tuscany), conditions were extremely harsh and the mortality rate therefore very high. The average survival time did not exceed eight months. In many cases those deemed “unfit for work” underwent selection and were sent to the gas chambers.
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