“A Castle in Wartime,” by Catherine Bailey is a true account about the Italian and German Resistance during World War II. It is a powerful, well-written story that reads like fiction.
The main character is Fey. Her father, Ulrich von Hassel, was a diplomat of Prussian heritage. He was assigned as ambassador to Fascist Italy. Fey’s husband, Detalmo Pirzoi-Biroli, was an Italian aristocrat. Both become involved in the Italian and German resistance to Hitler and his madness; they knew full well the risks involved.
Fey and her two small boys live quietly at her husband’s estate in northern Italy, near the Swiss /Austrian border. She thinks she is relatively safe. The SS occupy the castle because the Germans now control northern Italy. It is a very difficult situation because she is of German ancestry and is married to an Italian. For a while, Fey manages to live somewhat peacefully with her boys.
Her father, Ulrich, is deeply involved in a plot to kill Hitler. However, the plan is foiled. The Gestapo appear on Fey’s doorstep while her husband is active in clandestine actions in Rome. In September 1944, nine months before the end of the war, the SS arrest Fey and her boys. Fey is sent to prison; her sons, ages three and four are sent to an orphanage deep in the German forest. Here, they receive new names and identification papers.
The story continues to unfold as Fey’s father is arrested. Her husband cannot be in communication with her. They don’t know one another’s whereabouts. Her husband does not know the children have been separated from her. Fey winds up with other prisoners. She and the others are prisoners of blood kin, or political prisoners. They have been arrested because family members have been arrested by the SS. Eventually, the prisoners number 137.
They have very little information about the war and even less about where they are headed. Fey hears that her father has been executed, but that is not confirmed until the end of the war. The prisoners think they might be going to the Eastern front, which is terrifying. They are constantly moved from place to place, camp to camp, jail to jail.
By February 1945, the Allies are advancing and things are unraveling quickly for the Germans and Italians. As the finale of the war approaches, the prisoners are then placed in exquisite quarters on the grounds of Dachau, somewhat hidden from the camp. They are fed well and left alone, used as bargaining chips in the surrender—an offer refused by the Allies.
This story does end well. Needless to say, everyone suffered emotional and psychological trauma, known as PTSD today. In this riveting book, the author used primary sources such as diaries, first hand family accounts, and surviving records from the concentration camps and the SS.
The brutality and sadism of the Gestapo and the SS made the book difficult to read. The chaos and suffering at the end of the war also was very troubling. You feel everyone’s complete exhaustion—the number of displaced and missing persons staggering. Many children were never found and were adopted by other families.
Fey was eventually able to forgive the SS soldier who lived at her estate and had her and her boys arrested. Victor Frankel’s book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” became her bible and helped in her healing.
While “A Castle in Wartime,” is not light reading, it is important we know these histories. It is also a testament to humankind’s basic decency and goodness. When great evil raises its head, there are many quiet and unassuming people who will risk everything to make the world right again. This book is witness to that.