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More than 200 foreign Jews who had been interned in the small Italian town of Aprica not far from the Italian–Swiss border fled successfully from almost certain annihilation in 1943. Research in archives in Italy, Switzerland and the United Kingdom helped to establish how this escape was achieved and how it was organized. Some of those who escaped have even told me their tale. There were other questions to answer. Who were these people? Where had they come from? Why were they in Aprica? How were they interned? Where did they cross the border? Furthermore, explorations over several years have established just which paths they had used to reach the Swiss border.
Two events recounted in the book underline the urgency and drama of this flight.
A Swiss border guard reported that early in the morning of 12 September 1943 at an altitude of 1830 metres high in the mountains on the Italian border but in Swiss territory he encountered 72 Jews who had been interned in Aprica. He ordered them to retrace their steps and return. Most refused to move and declared that they wished to remain even at the risk of being shot. The guard, although armed but faced with about sixty unarmed civilians, had to admit defeat. All he could do was to escort them to the nearest Swiss Border Post.
Benno Ragendorfer was the only one of the internees who failed to find safety in Switzerland. His son Johan saw what happened to him.
‘On 11 December at the Tirano Railway Station, my father, mother and sister were arrested by the [fascist] Militia.’ All three found their fate in the gas chambers of Auschwitz two months later. Johan, having arrived safely in Switzerland the day after his parents’ arrest, was asked by the interviewing Swiss officer what would happen to him if he were to be sent back to Italy. His reply showed that he had no doubt of the fate awaiting his parents and sister: ‘We would immediately be put in a Concentration camp and immediately shot like our friends.’
The archival material and other sources, much of it in Italian, German and French provides the firm factual underpinning of the book, but the lay reader will enjoy my informal approach.