Andrea Albisetti, born in 1885 and station master of Tradate (a town between Varese and Milan), was a model government employee like many others, as per the image of him that remains. Yet he wouldn’t have held on to his job (or life) long, had the authorities known back then what was just uncovered three days ago. In a nutshell, one of Albisetti’s job responsibilities as station master was to receive the mail that came in from Rome and Milan everyday. During WWII however, the mail happened to also contain the secret arrest orders for dissidents and Jews. Albisetti would simply back light the envelopes by holding them up against a lightbulb, read the names they contained, and simply tip-off those people that same evening before the mail was opened and read by the authorities the following morning, thereby giving those to be arrested the time to leave town and go into hiding.
Albisetti “took his history with him” when he died, so to speak. So how do we know the above? Well, in cases such as these the history is usually lost but it can occasionally be pieced back together by those willing to look at the echoes and ripples which past events always leave behind. (Bravo Federico Colombo!) And those pieces are…
1) Like so many other young Italian men at the time, two brothers from Tradate, Dorligo and Serajevo, were sent off to the Eastern Front in Russia in World War Two. (A heart-wrenching, tangentially-related local story holds that the person who blew the whistle sending the train of the two conscripted brothers off to war was their father.) Only Serajevo returned; Dorligo was decorated posthumously and has been commemorated every year since then by the Tradate Chapter of the National Alpini Association.
2) The incredible story (like all the others) of a “Shoah Violin” found by Carlo Alberto Cerutti, a collector in Turin years ago. The violin’s original owners, siblings Maria and Enzo Segre Levi, were in hiding in a country villa near Tradate during World War Two. Tragically, Maria was caught, deported, and killed at Auschwitz, while Enzo managed to escape but committed suicide after the war. Their father however survived, and many years later he told a group of friends how “a station master read my name through a back lit envelope, and instead of putting me on a train for Milan (which meant San Vittore – the prison – and deportation) he put me on a train in the opposite direction.”
Fact n.3) Alberto Gagliardo was a history teacher twenty years ago at Marie Curie High School in Tradate with a deep interest in local stories such as the one above. He would give his students the task of researching and finding other similar stories, which as energetic and enthusiastic teenagers they promptly did! And lo and behold, a few of these stories contain the mention of a mysterious station master, nameless in all cases, such as the story told by Oscar Stenfeld, an elderly gentleman, to Federico Colombo, the student who conducted the interview as part of his history class assignment. “However, like all the others, Stenfeld too couldn’t remember the name of the station master,” recalls Colombo. The stories simply ended up in a book by Prof. Gagliardo, Jews in the Province of Varese.
Fast forward twenty years to now… Federico Colombo, former student, now 34 years old with a BA in History, teacher at l’Aquilone, a non-profit for disadvantaged youth, as well as current president of the Tradatese Historical Society, receives a request from the Tradate mayor, Laura Cavallotti. She asks him if he would help her with the Tradate Shoah Violin Commemoration planned for February 20th, and so he begins digging through archives and putting material together, including information about the station master whose name nobody remembers.
Nobody remembers the name, Colombo says, “…because nobody had ever made the connection! Anyone who knew the story of the WWII Alpini Albisetti brothers didn’t know about their father or what he had done. And those who knew the stories about the nameless station master, such as the surviving Jews, didn’t know that he was father of the two Albisetti brothers from Tradate who went off to the Russian front.”
So how did Colombo figure it out? “My father was an Alpino,” he says, “and he shared the story of the Albisetti brothers with me. So when I began researching the story of the Shoah Violin for the upcoming commemoration, I remembered that old interview of Stenfeld I had done for Prof.Gagliardo’s assignment, and I simply put the pieces together.”
Image and fascinating story covered by Paolo Foschini e Roberto Rotondo of the Corriere dell Sera.