When journalist Roberto Mazzoli discovered the story of Erich Eder and Alfredo Sarano, he immediately thought the story “looked like a movie-script”. The two protagonists are German military officers sent to fight in Italy during the Second World War and the secretary of the Jewish community in Milan, Italy’s second largest city. Mazzoli has told the story in the book “Siamo qui, siamo vivi” (“We are here, we are alive,” soon to be translated into English). Now, thanks to producer Arman Julian, the book will be made into a film.
“I have always been intrigued by human behavior under the circumstances of war,” Julian says, “but up to now,” he admits, “I have never produced a World War II film.”
The destinies of Eder and Sarano crossed paths under a terrible bombardment in the cellars of a Franciscan convent in Mombaroccio, a small village near Pesaro, an Italian town on the Adriatic Sea.
“I’m going to use the actual locations where the action happened in the spring and summer of 1944, to make this motion picture a large cinematic experience,” Julian Arman promises.
According to historical records, the convent dates back to when St Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) was still alive. Today it is called “Beato Sante” after Giansante Brancorsini, a friar who lived there most of his life and died in 1394 with a solid reputation for sainthood.
At the end of August 1944, the whole area of Pesaro and Mombaroccio was involved in the battles between the German army and the American, Canadian, British and Polish troops who were slowly moving up along the Italian peninsula, pushing the Germans back north.
Roberto Mazzoli is very passionate about history, lives in Pesaro and knows the “Beato Sante” very well. Some time ago, during a visit there, a friar gave him a text written several decades earlier by another friar, about a man who came from Germany to Mombaroccio by bicycle in 1953, to fulfil a vow.
That man was Erich Eder, who in 1944 was just 20 years old and commanded the German soldiers charged with defending Mombaroccio. The townspeople still remember that when Italy was occupied by the Nazis, the convent gave refuge to more than 300 people, including many Jewish families, thanks also to the support of the Bishop of Pesaro, Monsignor Porta. But no one remembered the name of the brave German soldier who decided not to denounce them or do them any harm, risking his own life.
First of all, Mazzoli decided to look for the rescued families. The search was not easy, but one day he opened the webpage of an Israeli site about the sisters Matilde, Vittoria and Miriam, owners of the restaurant “Il Pastaio” in Tel Aviv and winners of an Italian cooking prize. The sisters were talking about the Second World War and the danger of death they had escaped in the area around Pesaro.
Thus, he immediately tried to contact the elderly ladies. They were the daughters of Alfredo Sarano, who had moved from Italy to Israel many years before. “They gave me their father’s diary, jealously guarded as a family heirloom,” Mazzoli shares.
At this point there was enough material to write the whole story. But a premise is necessary on who was Alfredo Sarano. Born in 1905 in Turkey to a family of Italian Jews, he arrived in 1926 in Milan as a student, and later was appointed secretary of the Jewish Community of Milan, with 15,000 members, the largest in Italy. But the situation became difficult for all Italian Jews when the leader of Fascism, Mussolini, promulgated the so-called racial laws in 1938, which introduced severe discrimination in daily life against Italian Jews. And Italy’s alliance with Hitler’s Germany did not bode well.
It was Sarano who hid the registers he had compiled with all the names and surnames of the Milanese Jews, so that they would not be found by the Germans who had invaded Italy on September 8, 1943 and started to deport thousands of Italian Jews to extermination camps. That decision probably saved the lives of many Jews.
Then, a few days later, Sarano left Milan to take refuge in Pesaro and then in Mombaroccio with his family. Only the farmer who rented them a room and the Franciscan guardian of the convent, Father Raffaelli, knew they were Jews. The family lived in fear daily of being discovered at any moment. There was no shortage of adventures and dangers that were narrowly avoided, not least because the Saranos continued to celebrate Jewish festivals and observe Jewish rituals and precepts.
In 1944 Erich Eder, born in PfarrKirchen (a small village in Catholic Bavaria), arrived in Mombaroccio together with 150 German paratroopers. He immediately understood that he was dealing with some Jewish families, first of all the Saranos, but decided not to report anything to his superiors. He assured Father Raffaelli that for him, the Jews “were refugees like the others.”
In other parts of Italy, many German soldiers did not hesitate to kill Jews as soon as they discovered them, when it was not possible to deport them. But there were also gestures of humanity. Mazzoli recounts how a Jewish family of displaced persons in Urbino, not far from Pesaro, were greeted with a cordial “Shalom” by a German who had understood who they were, but did them no harm.
At the end of August 1944, the home of the Sarano family was chosen by the Germans as the headquarters of Commander Eder. But on the evening of the 25th, when the bombardment of the area began, everyone had to take refuge in the cellars of the convent. That was the decisive battle for the liberation of Mombaroccio and the surrounding area.
In that cellar, under the bombs, Jews, Germans, displaced persons and friars found themselves together. While the others recited the Our Father, Alfredo Sarano recited the Shema aloud. The bombing lasted a whole day, until the evening of the next day, when a German soldier came running in and started talking to Eder. Then Eder ordered his soldiers to prepare to leave the convent and retreat immediately, so as not to risk losing contact with the rest of the German army.
At that point, Alfredo Sarano saw the German commander approaching Father Raffaelli to ask for a blessing. In his diary, he wrote: “in that moment, we forgot the tragic situation in which we found ourselves and were moved by the sight of that soldier who, as a believer, invoked divine salvation through the priest.”
We know Eder’s words to Father Raffaelli from another source, the account of Eder’s visit to Mombaroccio in 1953, after the war had ended: “I don’t know if I will be able to return to my homeland, but if I do you will receive my letters; but if you don’t receive anything, it means I will be dead. In that case, I ask you to write to my mother and tell her that her son, before dying, stayed at this shrine and kept in mind, until his last hours, the teachings he received as a child”.
Of the 300 people who found refuge in the convent cellar, not one died, despite the harshness of the bombardment. On August 27, 1944 Mombaroccio was freed from Nazi occupation.
Several decades after these events, Mazzoli decided to search for information about that unknown German soldier. Not even the German Embassy in Italy was able to help him. Hope was almost gone when suddenly one of the many letters sent to Germany reached one of Eder’s sons, who immediately replied. The father had died in 1998, after another return to “Beato Sante” in 1990. “Commander Eder’s three sons,” Mazzoli recounts, “were completely unaware of the heroic gesture made by their father, just as the Sarano family knew nothing, not even the name, of the man who saved them.”
In 2016, thanks to Mazzoli’s work, the Sarano and Eder families met for the first time in Mombaroccio, during a moving public ceremony. “Since then, the descendants of the savior and the saved have met several times, and a strong bond of friendship has been born,” says Mazzoli, who in the meantime has presented his book at various events. “Everyone is struck by the protagonists who seem to come straight out of a novel: Alfredo Sarano, secretary of the Jewish Community of Milan who hides the lists of 14,000 Jews, saving them from the Shoah; the German Catholic officer who made a vow to the ‘Beato Sante‘ together with his friar friends and after the war went back to dissolve it because miraculously over 300 civilians were saved after 36 hours of Allied bombing of the convent… At the end of the story, what remains is the great teaching of the righteous, those who choose to risk their lives to save others.”
The last meeting to be told is the one between Mazzoli and Julian. “Last spring, I was visiting my dear friend, the movie composer Michele Mucciacito, in Pesaro who told me about the book and introduced me to Roberto,” Julian says. “I guess we both, Roberto and I, immediately were able to see the story translated into the big screen,” he adds. “It was amazing how quickly we saw eye to eye and fell in love with this project.”
Julian also met Eder’s family: “they welcomed me in Munich with open arms,” he says, “I was planning to visit the Sarano family in Israel, but due to COVID-19 restrictions we will go visit them in March 2022.” In any case, “they have given me all their love and blessing for this project.” Filming of the movie will begin in 2023. It will be “a story of the ultimate good of human behavior,” the producer remarks, emphasizing these “men and women, led by faith, were willing to sacrifice their lives to help others to stay alive.”
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