My mother Fey von Hassell (1919-2010)
My mother Fey von Hassell is descended from an old Hannoverian family. Her father was Ulrich von Hassell (1881-1944), Weimar’s appointed ambassador in Rome (Nov. 1932-Feb.1938); a leader of Hitler’s German opposition, was executed for crimes against the State. Her mother, Ilse was the elder daughter and confidante of Grand-Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the creator and heart of Germany’s Imperial Navy.
In her memoirs “A Mother’s War”, Fey describes her adolescence ending in Rome amongst receptions, balls, riding excursions, as well as the aftermath of the end of the First World War, in which she was born. Soon her family’s and her own fate would change dramatically. Ambassador Ulrich writes in his diary of his distress about Hitler’s abominable Nazi policies that he is unable to prevent.
With the collapse of the Weimar Republic, and the advent of the Third Reich, Berlin is taken over by the Nazi leaders – whom Fey defined, ”unpresentable folks who think they are Gods”. After her father refuses to sign the Pact of Steel, he was dismissed from the German Foreign Office in Rome, without pension and returned with his family to Germany, where he joined the Opposition.
On 8 January 1940, my mother marries Detalmo Pirzio-Biroli, son of the Cavalry Officer, General Giuseppe and Idanna – the only child of Count Detalmo di Brazzà Savorgnan and Cora Slocomb. Fey’s parents had doubts about the wedding because they judged Detalmo’s professional position as insecure, but Ulrich and Detalmo were on the same wave-length and conspired in opposing nazi-fascism, trying to obtain British support for a plot against Hitler in exchange for a honourable peace. The British remain aloof. This does not stop the plot.
The young couple go to live on Detalmo’s estate in Friuli, the Castello di Brazzà near Udine, where Corrado and Roberto are born. The couple devote themselves to the education of their children, and to farming together with the conservation and development of the family property.
After the Armistice with Italy in 1943, the Wehrmacht occupies Brazzà. When it’s Commander learns from the radio that Ulrich von Hassell has been executed, he denounces his hostess and has her picked up by the SS together with her two children. Detalmo, unaware, is in Rome, where he working underground for the Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale as a member of the Partito d’Azione. He notably helps liberate three-thousand allied prisoners and provides false passports to Jews and anti-fascists to escape arrest.
On 20 July 1944, after the failure of “Operation Valkerie” – the most important plot to kill Hitler, (there were 42 attempts in total), – Klaus von Stauffenberg and his associates are charged with crimes against the State, arrested and mostly executed. On Himmler’s initiative, prominent family members of the conspirators are deported as prisoners of kin, without Hitler’s knowledge. Fey and her two sons Corrado and Roberto are among them. They were then forceably removed from her, as she was moved from one Nazi concentration camp to another, including the infamous Buchenwald and eventually Dachau. At Liberation in Spring 1945, lacking instructions from Himmler, the SS in Dachau load the prisoners of kin onto buses (followed by a portable gas chamber) and eventually receive orders to blow them all up. On 27 April, the day of the cease-fire, the prisoners having reached Villabassa in the Dolomites, one of the hostages Colonel von Bonin spots a friend of his across the road, the Commander of the German Southern Army, General Heinrich von Vietinghoff himself, and rushes to meet and hug him, whispering in his ear that urgent help is needed. The General drives off, but soon sends Wehrmacht Major Werner von Alvensleben (the very brother of the SS officer who had declined to help upon Fey’s arrest in Udine), with ten troops to arrest the SS and take the prisoners of kin under his protection to the Hotel Lago di Braeis. After interrogation by the Allied Forces, they are flown to the Allied High Command in Naples and then brought to Anacapri, where my father is reunited with my mother and brings her initially to Rome, and then to Brazzà. Meanwhile, my grandmother Ilse and aunt Almuth go through innumerabile Nazi concentration camps in the search for my brother and me and luckily find us in a Kinderheim in Absam (near Innsbruck, Tyrol) under false names – “the brothers von Hof”. Roberto’s recognition relies on his only memory of Mirko, the name of Brazza’s white horse.
The reunited family moves back to Brazzà, which has meanwhile been occupied by the Allied Desert Air Force Command, who had taken over from the Wehrmacht, placing the German troops in barracks in Brazzà’s garden until further instruction. Fey takes up riding with the Allied officers and personally types her diary which she has kept from 1932 in Rome. Detalmo joins the second Italian Government of Prime Minister Parri as his Chief of Staff. In 1951, the family moves to Rome, where Detalmo is active, first with various post-war governments, then with Enrico Mattei’s ENI and eventually with the European Commission – mostly as Ambassador in Senegal and in Mali. Upon his retirement he becomes a consultant on development and a Professor for African Studies at the University of Gorizia and writes his own memoirs. Corrado becomes a lecturer in economics in The Netherlands, and a development economist in The Sudan until he joins the European Commission in Brussels. During a 35-year career there he serves in Brussels on African affairs, in Washington DC on economic and trade affairs, at one time as Chargé d’Affaires, in Vienna as EU Ambassador to Austria and the UN; and finally as Chief of Staff to Commissioner Fischler for agriculture and fisheries. Upon leaving the Commission, he joins the European Landowners Organization, of which he becomes president. Roberto trains as an architect in Friuli, specializing in the restoration of historic houses after the 1976 earthquake.
Born at the end of the First World War, my mother had to navigate through the vagaries, injustices, and deprivations of war and recostruction in a tormented continent. Injustices and set-backs included the execution of her father, the removal of her children and her experience of the worst of the Nazi concentration camps. She had endlessly to adapt to changing fortunes. After being tossed about through her father’s various diplomatic postings (Genova, Copenhagen, Rome, Belgrade, Rome again and finally Berlin), she went through five concentration camps; her family dispersed by war, reunited in peace, and then dispersed again, mostly for professional reasons; although Brazzà remained the beloved meeting place, regardless of the politics of the day, the economic circumstances and the family’s ups and downs with some internal conflicts causing her notable grief. She took all this with philosophy and strength of character, despite her nerves being occasionally affected since her concentration camp experiences, for which she had earned a German pension.
Her lifestyle had to adjust to the times: from a butler-led staff of thirty or so staff in Brazzà to ‘self-service’ with only temporary help after the war; from the carriage pulled by Mirko for shopping to failed attempts to teleshop; from the telegram, the radio and the duplex telephone with a switch-board assistant, to the fax, the TV and the internet and satellite communications, which she watched with awe, preferring to go to Pagnacco for faxing, photocopying (and sipping the occasional expresso). More generally, Fey moved from Friuli’s rural life to the convivial confusion of the Rome and back. Never was she tempted to repeat Jeremia’s invocation, “Maledictus homo qui confidit in homine”, but like Jeremia, she, an ecumenic Lutheran, believed in God. This helped her throughout to exhibit fortitude and adaptability, tolerance for human weakness, and a unique capacity to laugh and let laugh, however tragic the situation – all of which are basic formulas for empathy and friendship. Her philosophy is contained in a literary and human monument that are her memoirs “A Mother’s War”. RAI Fiction made her odissey into a four-hour TV film in two parts, “I figli strappati” (The Ripped Children), first aired on 7 and 8 May 2006.
My mother is undoubtedly a historic personality, a transnational witness of Europe’s history, predominantly evolving from kingdoms to autocracies and totalitarian governments until they all became democracies. She witnessed how nationalism became an engine of civil wars and how from their ashes emerged as a form of federalism of nation states, a European Union which is above the States and yet in symbiosis with them.
At a time in which we witness a renaissance of religious fundamentalism, nationalism and ethno-phobia with tendencies towards introversion, persecution and intolerance, Fey’s rejection of the prophets of doom and intolerance indicates the way to follow. She did her part to counteract these flaws through her writing, the education of her children towards open mindedness, multilinguism, multiculturalism, travels and tolerance in the hope that history will not repeat itself, jeopardizing once more family lives and human understanding.
© Corrado Pirzio-Biroli and Spazio Brazzà (2013)
 The first editions were in Italian, “Storia incredibile” (1987 and 1989), reissued as “I figli strappati” (2000). The first American edition was “Hostage of the Third Reich (Scribner’s,1989), followed by an English Edition, “A Mother’s War” (Murray, 1990), two paperback editions with the same title by Barclays in the US and Murray in the UK, a German edition, “Niemals sich beugen”, a Turkish and finally a French one, Jours Sombres (Denoël, 1990).