Arturo DiMartino’s Italy is in ruins at the end of WWI. Its politics splintered. Its economy tattered. Its social fabric shredded.
Italians blame their weak leaders and demand their overthrow. Mussolini steps onto the political stage and his populist views and spirited charisma captivate the country. Arturo joins Mussolini’s political campaign and begins a long political career under the Fascist Regime. Rewarded for his loyalty and political instinct, the National Fascist Party appoints him to the most powerful office in Sicily’s Trapani Province.
But, when Il Duce tries to expand Italy's influence through military force, Arturo pushes back. His resistance starts a series of perilous events. The Blackshirts, Mussolini’s enforcers, issue an ultimatum—leave Italy or die.
Three generations of the family face one crisis after another. From life-threatening and near-death experiences to unwavering love and humorous episodes, Escapes is an insight into the tenacity and resilience of the human spirit. Based on a true story, it also exposes little-known facts about Italy's role in ending WWI and why the Great War’s aftermath led Italy to side with Germany in WWII.
“Escapes is so interesting I forgot I was proofreading and kept on reading! Unable to talk with my deceased Italian grandparents, the adventures of Arturo and his family will have to fill in the blanks.”—Gilda Vincent
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.58(d)|
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Sicily, Early September 1938
Vincenzo was unusually quiet as he sat with his family at the dinner table. He ate slowly, taking unhurried spoonfuls of soup. He lingered, holding his empty spoon momentarily between mouthfuls, staring blankly at his soup bowl. He spoke not a word. The usual, light-hearted conversation at the dinner table was absent. Neither his children nor his wife, Gina, ignored his silence.
Puzzled by his aloofness, and perturbed by her husband's silence, she tried to get his attention by asking him, "Is something bothering you?"
With his raised spoon held still above his soup bowl and eyes fixated, trancelike on it, he didn't respond.
"Vincenzo! What's wrong?"
Startled by her loud retort, he snapped out of his daze and answered, "Nothing, Gina, nothing at all."
"You stared into space when you first sat down. Now you're staring at your plate, not saying a word. What are you thinking about? You're acting weird tonight."
"I'm sorry. I'm bothered by what I overheard today. I'll tell you about it later."
He now acted more naturally and ate at a normal pace.
"Great soup as usual, Gina."
"Thanks, I'm glad you like it."
"I always do. You make the best pasta fagioli in Sicily. Too bad our son doesn't like it as much as I do."
"It's not that I don't like it," answered their son, Roberto. "Mama makes other things I like better. Pasta fagioli isn't my favorite, but this one's okay. It's not bad at all."
"Mama's a good cook, huh, Roberto?"
He answered his sister's question with an affirmative nod while slurping a spoonful of soup. After he swallowed it, he said, "Mama, this is pretty good. Are you sure this is pasta fagioli?"
"I doctored it a bit. If your father didn't have a good job, we'd be eating plain bean soup without sausage and vegetables. I doubt it would taste as good without them. Thank your father for being a good provider."
"For what?" answered his father, oblivious to the conversation of his son and wife.
With dinner finished, the two preteens helped to clear the table. They started their homework while their mother washed the dishes. Vincenzo sat on a rocking chair in the front room. He began to read the newspaper he bought on his way home from work. It was a daily routine after work. He'd stop for bread at the bakery and buy the current edition of the newspaper. After dinner, relaxing in his easy chair, he'd usually light his pipe and read.
This evening, however, he couldn't focus on the paper. Distracted by the day's events and thinking about his friend's fate, he stared at the newsprint but didn't read it. His pipe remained unlit.
Several hours later, the children went to bed, and the couple retired to their bedroom. He sat on the edge of the bed half-undressed and once again began staring into the distance.
"What is it? Why are you acting so strange tonight?
"Today, I overheard a plan to get rid of Arturo."
"That shouldn't come as a surprise. He's been bucking the regime for some time. Everyone knows it."
"They're not replacing him. I overhead them talking about killing him and his entire family."
"My God, they can't be serious! They'll have hell to pay. His supporters will riot in the streets. Are they crazy? Don't they know this?"
"It sounded serious to me. Who knows what they're thinking. I need to warn him, but it's risky. If I'm caught, they'll threaten us too."
"And if he's not warned, they'll all be killed. He's been your friend for years. Shouldn't you warn him somehow, someway?"
"Maybe there's a way. Let's sleep on it and decide in the morning."
For hours, Vincenzo tossed and turned in bed, awake, staring at the ceiling, thinking of Arturo's plight, trying to decide how to warn him without risking his own safety or that of his family. After several hours of restlessness had passed, he remained awake, still thinking about his friend's dilemma and his own. Unable to fall asleep, he got out of bed at two thirty in the morning, dressed, and kissed his wife goodbye before leaving for Arturo's home. The kiss awakened her, "I'm leaving for Arturo's," he told her.
As he kissed her again, she whispered, "Be careful. Be safe. Don't wake the kids."
"I'll be careful. Go back to sleep; I shouldn't be long."
Vincenzo decided to bike to Arturo's home instead of taking his car. It was only two miles to the DiMartino estate, and the bike would be less conspicuous.
* * *
Maximo, a 150-pound Sicilian Shepherd, slept at the foot of his master's bed. His ears stood up when he sensed someone approaching. His low, soft growl brought Arturo out of a deep sleep but didn't fully wake him. Still half asleep, he dreamed of a growling dog.
The heavy pounding on the front door followed by Maximo's loud, aggressive bark fully awoke Arturo DiMartino and his wife. Startled, he sprang out of bed and slipped into his pants. He left the bedroom, followed by Maximo now running toward the front door in full-attack mode. The whole house woke to the commotion. Shirtless, Arturo hurried to the front door. As he reached for the dead bolt, the pounding resumed, provoking Maximo into another round of loud, aggressive barking. Arturo quieted the dog and cautiously opened the door.
He blocked it with his shoulder and peered through its thin slit, preventing the visitor from entering and Maximo from exiting and attacking. He strained to see in the dim light of the portico light and recognized his friend, Vincenzo, a member of the Blackshirts, the dreaded enforcement arm of the Mussolini regime. He was alone and appeared nervous.
Bringing the dog to heel, he opened it further. He continued to block the opening, keeping the dog inside. Assuming the worst, Arturo asked, "What's wrong? What's going on?"
Vincenzo's low, uneasy, and winded whisper had an ominous tone. It conveyed a grim foreboding. "Quick, we must talk, out of view."
"Why at such an early hour?"
"It's important. The Blackshirts don't know I'm here."
"Go to the back porch. I'll quiet the dog, send the family back to bed, and meet you there."
"Okay, but hurry. I can't risk being seen here."
"Who's going to see you on the back porch at three in the morning? Go around the house. Bring your bike. I'll be there shortly."
Closing and locking the door behind him, he turned to his family and reassured them everything was under control. He sent them all back to bed and told his wife to take Maximo to the bedroom with her. He followed her, grabbed a shirt, and put it on as he hurried through the house to the back door leading to the porch.
"So at this ungodly hour, I suppose you have urgent ... probably bad news, eh?"
"Yes, but it's not good news. The council wants you silenced. Some want you to leave the country. Others want to assassinate you and your entire family. They want to send a strong message to the antifascists. Either way, they want you gone. You've stirred up too much trouble. Too many have been provoked by your resistance against the regime. They can no longer ignore you. The Blackshirts have orders to deal with you."
"How are they going to ... how much time do I have?"
"If they let you leave, one ... two weeks at most. But if they decide on assassination, there won't be a warning. That's why I came tonight after overhearing talk of assassinating all of you. So whatever you need to do Arturo, do it quickly."
"I understand. I won't risk our lives. We won't stay. We'll leave."
As their eyes met, Vincenzo's welled with tears.
"Don't worry, we'll be fine, my friend. Give me a sign at the bakery later today if they want us to leave. As busy as it is there after work, no one will notice."
"No problem, after work at the bakery. If they want you to leave, I'll signal thumbs up, death, thumbs down, and if they haven't decided, you'll get no sign at all."
"Okay, thanks for alerting me and risking your own safety. From now on, we shouldn't be seen together."
As they drew closer, Vincenzo stammered, "Goodbye, Arturo. Godspeed."
They came together in a light hug, and each gave the other a couple of reassuring pats on the back. Arturo bade him farewell. "Now get the hell out of here. Godspeed to you too."
* * *
The powerful Sicilian politician Arturo DiMartino, the podesta of the province of Trapani, held the highest political position in the region. He was not surprised by the warning. For some time, he knew the Blackshirts' threat of reprisals was forthcoming; he just didn't know when. Suspicious of the visit, he concealed his doubt to avoid alerting Vincenzo. His instinct told him the visit had not been unprompted but made under orders of the Blackshirts.
Most Italians feared the Blackshirts. Their mission was to enforce obedience to Il Duce's edicts by force and, if necessary, by brutal force. Ignoring their threats would be at his and his family's peril. The cruel and often painful penalties for acting against the fascist state were usually limited to lashings or other forms of punishment. Forcing a frog and castor oil down the throat of an offender tied to a post while in public view was one of the most dreaded penalties — a favorite one of the Blackshirts. Public torture served to deter would-be offenders. It sent a strong message to everyone. Punishments were meted out to assure compliance to the strong-fisted rule of Mussolini's regime. Murder, however, was rare and reserved for the most flagrant offenses.
Arturo knew every member of Trapani's administrative council. He was aware of its radical members who, fortunately for him, were outnumbered by the more moderate ones. With more than twenty years of experience in Italian politics, he had an intimate knowledge of their methods and operations. He knew how orders were conveyed up and down the fascist hierarchy.
With his family safely in bed, he remained on the porch, reflecting on the early morning visit. He overcame the initial fear that gripped him when Maximo barked at the sound of the door pounding. He began his usual methodical evaluation of what had just happened.
Only a friend would be sent to determine whether I would flee or remain and fight. Why send a warning in this manner? If assassination is their decision, why not do it? Why the hesitation? Why the indecision? Why the warning?
He concluded the visit was planned and made under orders issued by the Blackshirts. They wanted to know whether Arturo would leave or stay and fight the regime. He wasn't sure his friend had told him the truth, risking his own safety and that of his family after overhearing talk of murdering his family. No, in Arturo's mind, Vincenzo was sent by the Blackshirts. There didn't appear to be any other plausible reason.
Arturo was certain that Vincenzo's message was meant to persuade his departure to avoid risking the uncertain and problematic backlash from murdering his family. Such threats often succeeded in ridding the regime of noncompliant politicians and antifascist activists. In the past, similar threats made to political malcontents forced them to flee the country. But assassinating an entire family? It was not common.
Vincenzo had to protect his family from possible Blackshirts' reprisals. They knew he was Arturo's friend. He told his boss that Arturo was thinking of leaving Sicily. He did not reveal the truth — that he had warned Arturo. Instead, he advised the council leaders that Arturo had made several remarks in recent conversations. It led Vincenzo to believe he wanted to leave. He remained silent about his visit.
However, what Vincenzo did not know was the conversation he had overheard was no accident; it was done by design. Guido, the head of the Blackshirts, had purposely discussed assassinating Arturo's family within earshot of Vincenzo. It was done to compel Vincenzo to warn his friend. It worked. Guido's question was answered. Arturo would leave with his family instead of staying and risking all their lives. Unknown to Vincenzo, the head of Trapani's Blackshirts had no intention of harming Vincenzo or his family.
"Arturo knows his actions have put his family at risk. He's had enough. He wants to leave."
"He's been your friend for a long time. How certain are you that he's ready to leave?" asked Guido.
"He's ready. I think a visit from you will convince him."
Because Arturo was known for his obstinacy and shrewd political intuition, the radicals on the council believed he would choose to stay and fight rather than leave; hence, murder was their solution. On the other hand, the moderates believed eliminating the entire family carried risks which they didn't want. They had no desire to instigate a backlash. The reaction could not be easily dealt with. Murdering the entire family of a popular politician was unforgiveable and impossible to justify. The response from Arturo's supporters, both in and out of government, though uncertain, could be more than troublesome; it was to be avoided.
Arturo was well liked and respected. His persistent fights for causes favoring the common man were well known. With many friends and supporters throughout the province of Trapani, murdering his family would likely ignite violent street demonstrations. It was an unacceptable outcome for the local board. The moderates therefore overruled the radicals and voted to force the family's departure rather than murdering them all.
The antifascists, groups of resistance fighters, were in the early stages of organizing. And though they were an annoyance, more so than a real threat to the regime, their ranks grew as did their violent hit-and-run tactics. Their sporadic attacks on government buildings and political gatherings foretold a strong and growing movement opposing the Mussolini regime. Arturo was not oblivious to their methods. He had not become a long-serving and popular politician under Il Duce as a result of sheer luck or stupidity. Thus, he was careful not to become directly connected to them. Nevertheless, the antifascists would likely join the pro-Arturo protesters causing further problems for Trapani's fascist council.
His actions, though troublesome, had not risen to the level which compelled such a heinous act. Convinced the threat of murder was designed to motivate him to leave, Arturo was prepared. But he didn't dismiss the death threats entirely. When Guido reported Vincenzo's observations to the entire council, most members seemed relieved by Arturo's decision to depart. Vincenzo was nowhere to be seen when Arturo went to the bakery that day and the next.
No doubt, once again at the direction of the Fascist. They're sure to follow up with a more formal warning than the one given to me by Vincenzo. I'll soon see if Guido pays me a visit.
Two days later, the head of the region's Blackshirts came to Arturo's office and issued the formal warning. During the visit, to ensure he was not being deceived into sacrificing his family's lives, Arturo sternly asked, "Guido, where the hell do you get off threatening my family? Are you so blinded by your fascist ideology to not realize the uprising you'll cause by murdering us? Don't you know it will fuel the growing fire in the belly of the antifascist movement?"
Mistaking Arturo's belligerence as an act of defiance, which Arturo had intended, Guido replied, "You will all die if you don't leave. If you stay, I can't convince higher authorities to spare you and your family. We'll get rid of all of you and not necessarily in a public execution. And don't think for a moment to go into hiding. One by one, you will be found, and each member of your family will be eliminated quietly with little public fanfare."
"I already know that, but you're also aware that word will spread throughout the province. How can I trust we won't be murdered before we have a chance to leave? What guarantee can you give me?"
"I can only give you my word, but in return, you must give me yours. Swear you will all leave, and I will assure your safety but only if you keep your mouth shut and stop inciting the opposition."
As their eyes met in an unblinking stare, Guido rose from his chair and said, "Prepare to leave." And raising his index finger to his lips, he continued, "Rimanere in silenzio."
Arturo responded, "You have my word. I'll be silent, but I need three weeks, agreed?"
"Sono d'accordo, tre settimane."
After agreeing to give Arturo three weeks, Guido left. Although not close friends, Guido and Arturo knew each other for a long time, even before they became part of the regime. But despite their long connection, Arturo mistrusted the Blackshirts. He needed much less time than the three weeks agreed to by Guido. Knowing the Fascists were provoked and retaliation was likely, he had already prepared a plan; they could leave on short notice. Three weeks was a bonus. It would serve as insurance should Guido's promise be countermanded by his superiors.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Escapes"
Copyright © 2019 Vic DiMartino.
Excerpted by permission of Covenant Books, Inc..
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