Monday, July 26, 2010

Mafalda of Savoy, Marie-José's Tragic Sister-in-Law

Here is the first of five installments of a grim, but deeply moving Italian documentary on the tragic fate of the lovely Mafalda of Savoy, Princess of Hesse. The 42-year-old mother of four met a grisly death at the Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwald at the end of August, 1944. The program retraces the story of her last days, drawing on the testimony of biographers and relatives of the princess, most notably her second son, Heinrich of Hesse and her niece, Maria Gabriella of Savoy, a distinguished historian of the Italian royal house.

Cheerful, cultured, brave and kind-hearted, Mafalda was the second of the four daughters of King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and his Queen, Elena of Montenegro. She inherited her mother's piety, charity and love of music and the arts. She was also the favorite sister-in-law of Italy's last queen, Marie-José of Belgium, consort of Umberto II. In their youth, the Savoy princesses were considered potential brides for Marie-José's brothers, Princes Leopold and Charles of Belgium, but nothing came of these ideas. Instead, in 1925, Mafalda married Prince Philip, Landgrave of Hesse. (His father, Prince Frederick Charles, had been briefly elected King of Finland in 1918).

Unfortunately, Philip of Hesse would later become a fervent Nazi, attaining high rank in Hitler's regime. With his Italian connections, he acted as an intermediary between Hitler and Mussolini. Nonetheless, he supposedly also aided Jewish friends to escape to the Netherlands. Furthermore, during the Second World War, according to his own testimony, he conspired for peace, with his brother-in-law, Umberto of Savoy. He would eventually fall from Hitler's favor. Mafalda, for her part, too frank and open-hearted for her own good, never hid her antipathy for Hitler. The feeling was mutual; Hitler deeply mistrusted the princess, suspecting her of working against the war effort. He called her "the blackest carrion in the Italian royal house."

Her doom, however, was sealed by her father's separate peace with the Allies, which so enraged Hitler. It was also sealed by her own innocence and generosity. Braving the dangers of travel in wartime, she had insisted on leaving her Italian relatives, with whom she was staying, to comfort her sister Giovanna, Queen of Bulgaria, who had recently lost her husband, King Boris III. (Rumors have flourished that he had been poisoned at Hitler's orders, but this has never been proven). On her journey home, after Boris' funeral, she heard the news, from the Queen of Romania, of Italy's armistice with the Allies of September 8, 1943. (Her father had not, apparently, warned Mafalda of the imminence of the armistice, prior to her departure for Sofia. It is speculated that he was afraid to betray a secret of state, or that he still hoped his daughter would return in time to flee to safety with the rest of the family). Yet, again, forgetful of herself, despite the perils of arriving in Italy, an easy prey for Nazi vengeance on the Savoys, she insisted on proceeding to Rome to attend to her children, then in Vatican custody. (The rest of the royal house, meanwhile, had fled the capital). In Rome, the princess fell into the cruel, cynical trap set by the Nazi high command. Lured to the German embassy, under the pretext of an urgent appeal from her husband, she was arrested and forcibly deported to Berlin for interrogation. Some weeks later, she was transferred to Buchenwald.

Despite the horror of her surroundings, Mafalda behaved with great courage and charity, sharing her food with other prisoners and becoming a source of sad consolation for her fellow sufferers, especially the Italians. Horribly wounded in an air-raid, and treated with neglect and brutality by the camp's medical staff, she died, after several days of agony. Her final words, to two compatriots, had been this touching message: "I am dying, remember me not as a princess, but as an Italian sister."


Anonymous said...

What a tragic story.

May said...

Indeed it is. I'm glad this didn't happen to Leopold III and family-- at least they were not taken to a camp, and survived their deportation/imprisonment in Germany.