I completed reading this book nearly 45 days back and just created a draft post to review it and forgot about it. But haven’t forgotten the book. Its strange that such a powerful story was missed out during and just after the second world war. It is a true story of Pino Lella, a normal Italian teenager who is shows incredible courage and resilience during one of the darkest hours of history, WWII.
During WWII, 60,000 Allied soldiers lost their lives fighting to free Italy and 140,000 Italians died during the Nazi occupation … this was news to me because somehow I assumed that with Mussolini being part of the Nazi camp Italians were on the side of the Axis forces. Reading this book helped me rectify my wrong notions. Normal Italians resisted the Nazis and hated them for the Jewish massacre.
Pino Lella’s family lived in Milan. When their shop is bombed, Pino’s father insists that he go to Casa Alpina and study at Father Re’s monastery. Once Pino reaches there, Father Re involves him in the Catholic underground railroad movement helping Jews escape over the Alps. Just before leaving Milan Pino meets Anna, and falls in love with her. Except for knowing her first name, he has no other information and after several months of not meeting her, he loses all hope of ever seeing her again. When Pino turns 18, he returns from Casa Alpina, and in an attempt to protect him, Pino’s parents force him to enlist as a German soldier, a move they think will keep him out of combat.
But Pino gets injured and by some strange stroke of luck is recruited to become the personal driver for Adolf Hitler’s left hand in Italy, General Hans Leyers, one of the Third Reich’s most mysterious and powerful commanders. During his stay at Casa Alpina, Pino gets to learn driving from Alberto Ascari who goes on to become a world famous race driver. When Pino goes to General Hans Leyers house to drop off his stuff, the door is opened by Anna who works as a maid for General Leyers’ mistress.
Pino becomes a spy for the Allies inside the German High Command and helps the Italian resistance movement by giving information of ammunition factories etc as he visits them with General Leyers. His being a spy is kept a secret, known only to his parents and his uncle,his younger brother and friends misunderstand him and treat him like the enemy. Anna and Pino meet regularly and fall deeply in love and begin dreaming of a great life after the war. He confides in Anna about his being a spy after she discovers him stealing the key to the General’s valise. Finally the Allied forces enter Milan and Italy is about to be freed when Pino’s love story comes to a tragic end. General Leyers’ mistress and Anna are shot dead for being Nazi or Nazi supporters and Pino ends up watching it. He is not just heart broken but feels he acted as a coward by not standing up for Anna. General Leyers is helped by the Allies to escape and even ends up having a road named after him in Berlin. Pino is never able to understand that but he lets that go.
After the war, Pino goes to the US as a ski coach for the Italian national team but doesn’t return to Italy. He becomes a Ferrari salesman, a skiing instructor and hobnobs with the Hollywood celebrities, marries a couple of times and is now living in Lesa, Italy. He is 90 years old. What an amazing life he has had ! And the author, Mark Sullivan deserves a special mention for bringing this story out so poignantly. Just couldn’t stop reading the book. I am sure I will read it a few more times because it is epic and engrossing with many lessons for life. The book is being made into a movie and thats fitting.
Here’s Pino’s summary of life …. a true hero speaks “…. We never know what will happen next, what we will see, and what important person will come into our life, or what important person we will lose. Life is change, constant change, and unless we are lucky enough to find comedy in it, change is nearly always a drama, if not a tragedy. But after everything, and even when the skies turn scarlet and threatening, I still believe that if we are lucky enough to be alive, we must give thanks for the miracle of every moment of every day, no matter how flawed. And we must have faith in God, and in the Universe, and in a better tomorrow, even if that faith is not always deserved.”
Starting with thanks to Mark Sullivan for bringing Pino Lella’s life to the world through this book. And Pino Lella, thanks for sharing your life with us. Can’t say anything more.