The young mother, a glamorous aristocrat in her early twenties, simply arranged her two boys for their afternoon nap when the Gestapo slammed loudly at her door.
She, the Contessa Fey Pirzio-Biroli, was wanted for interrogation, they told her. She must go with them immediately and leave her sons behind – Corrado, four years old and Roberto, two.
It would only take a few days, they reassured her and in the meantime her toddlers, both with blue eyes and blond hair, would be taken to a children's home.
To her horror, two SS & # 39; nurses came in, sturdy blond women who, without the slightest hint of gentleness about them, grabbed the boys by their small wrists.
Although her heart was full of fear, Fey managed to stay calm for herself. & # 39; Mama will follow you very soon, & # 39; she calmed down, helping them put on their coats. & # 39; But first you go for a nice walk. & # 39;
Contessa Fey Pirzio-Biroli did not see her two sons, Corrado, four years old and Roberto, two years old, almost a year after she was deported by the Gestapo in December 1944.
Until the war changed everything, Fey & # 39; s was a fairy-tale existence. At a ball in Rome, she fell in love with the sparkling Italian cavalry officer, Count Detalmo Pirzio-Biroli, and in 1940, at the age of 21, married him and went to live on his vast ancestral estate
Corrado felt the lie and gave way to panic as he threw himself back and tried to escape. He struggled and screamed as he was dragged away with his little brother, out of sight.
And that terrible moment in December 1944 was the last thing she would see or hear for almost a year. In the coming months, during which she went through interrogation, imprisonment in one grim concentration camp after another and the constant threat of death, her greatest fear was that she would never see her dear boys again.
Fey was one of millions of people whose lives were destroyed by World War II.
With the recent D-Day anniversary, we have rightly celebrated and remembered what soldiers had to endure during that terrible conflict. But the number of civilians who had suffered – torn from their homes and families, imprisoned, starved, slaughtered – was much, much greater.
The extraordinary story of Fey – epic, emotionally charged and full of insights into the human heart and the power of love – is told in poignant but moving detail in a new book, The Lost Boys, by historian and TV documentary maker Catherine Bailey.
Until the war changed everything, Fey & # 39; s was a fairy-tale existence. She was a high-born German, granddaughter of the great Prussian admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, on her mother's side, and daughter of Ulrich von Hassell, a distinguished diplomat.
A tall, imposing figure, von Hassell took his beautiful daughter to Italy, where he was the ambassador of Germany for six years and orchestrated the relationship between Hitler and his co-dictator Mussolini. On a ball in Rome, she fell in love with the sparkling Italian cavalry officer, Count Detalmo Pirzio-Biroli, and in 1940, at the age of 21, married him and went to live on his vast ancestral estate in the northeast of the country. It had its own castle, where her sons were born.
By that time her father had been disappointed with Hitler, disgusted with his persecution of the Jews, and with his loyalty to the Nazis surveyed, he was fired as an ambassador to Rome. He returned to the parental home in the Munich area and joined the small, shadowy internal resistance movement aimed at assassinating the Fuehrer.
Fey & # 39; s army officer-husband was also at odds with his country's regime. He went into hiding as an anti-fascist and went to the partisans, the underground army that fought with Mussolini.
Matters became more acute when in September 1943 the Allies invaded Italy from the south and Mussolini fled. For a few euphoric days, the war seemed to be over – until the Germans occupied north of Rome and resumed fighting, more bitter than ever when Hitler's forces took revenge on the Italians to surrender.
Fey – with her partisan husband who now works in Rome for the free Italian government – stayed with her boys on the family estate, forced to share the house with German soldiers billeted on her. Somehow she managed to secretly exchange letters with her absent husband and he even occasionally made clandestine visits to his family.
She was the daughter of Ulrich von Hassell, the German ambassador to Italy, who orchestrated the relationship between Hitler and his co-dictator Mussolini
For ten months she successfully walked over this cord – until July 1944 and the failed conspiracy to assassinate Hitler in his Wolf & # 39; s Lair headquarters. The bomb left by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg exploded and wounded his target, but Hitler survived. He launched a terrible witch hunt for the conspirators.
Fey & # 39; s father, Ulrich von Hassell, who was involved with his close associates, was arrested, tortured, tried in a kangaroo court and hanged, smuggled slowly on a wire hung on a meat hook, his death captured on film camera for the pleasure of the Führer.
But even that wasn't enough for the crazy Hitler. With more revenge, he demanded the heads not only of the plotters, but also their families. And then the Gestapo came before Fey, took her into custody and waved her precious children away.
She worried endlessly about how they slept and whether they could cuddle together. & # 39; I feel only half a person without them & # 39 ;, she noted. She was one of the 17 special prisoners, all related to the plotters. Strangely enough, they were not executed or even tortured, but to their surprise treated well, properly housed and fed.
For what purpose they were being held was a concern. What horrible end did their captors have in store for them?
For five weeks she was in a hotel in a forest on the eastern border of Germany. One of her fellow prisoners was Claus von Stauffenberg's older brother, Alex, a charming, well-read man, whom she felt attracted to.
She fell unashamedly in love with him and he with her. He would be her mainstay in the difficult months ahead. And they were difficult. Soon they were moving again, driven in trucks and trains, now ominously in the hands of the SS instead of the Gestapo.
They arrived at the Stutthof concentration camp near Danzig in northeastern Germany, a huge complex with 60,000 prisoners.
& # 39; You, & # 39; the SS commander said to them, & # 39; are the Sippenhafttlinge (literally, family members of prisoners). You all have relationships involved in the attempt to murder the Fuehrer. & # 39; They would wait, & # 39; he added, & # 39; until your destiny is decided. & # 39;
The question was in the air – what decision would that be? This soon became clear: their lives depended on the spectacled Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, the personified evil as the head of the SS.
As the war approached its endgame and the Third Reich was about to collapse, Himmler hoped to secure his own future by using his controversial hostages as negotiating chips with the Western Allies of Great Britain and the US.
However, the events went fast, with the relentless Red Army of Stalin from the east. Stutthof was evacuated in the brutally cold first weeks of 1945.
In July 1944, after the unsuccessful plot to assassinate Hitler at his headquarters in Wolf's Lair, von Hassell, along with his close associates, was implied, arrested, tortured, tried in a kangaroo court and hanged
Now crammed into cattle trucks, they headed west through rubble and bombing, the front line with the Russians just a few miles away. Suddenly through Berlin they ended up in Buchenwald concentration camp.
To ease her fear, Fey constantly thought of her boys. & # 39; If they were still alive, I could only hope that their situation was better than mine. & # 39;
But even in this place of horror, she and her fellow prisoners were treated well and they were allocated quite a quarter of an hour. Here too they met more detainees with a note selected as Himmler's hostages. Known as the Prominents, they include the heads of conquered governments, such as former French leader Leon Blum, and Jack Churchill, a captive British command whose Nazis mistakenly believed it was related to Winston Churchill.
They were now 137 in total. Some had their children with them, raising Fey & # 39; s hope for a short moment. But there was no sign of Corrado and Roberto.
The odyssey never seemed to end. They were taken away again, always one step ahead of the advancing Allied armies, now heading south towards the Alps and the rumors of the last Nazi route.
They stopped at the Dachau concentration camp, each concerned with the threat that they could be gassed, shot or hanged any time. American planes were buzzing and friendly forces were only miles away, but their ordeal was not over yet.
Again they were evacuated, in trucks, around Munich, in Austria and an SS-run labor camp on the outskirts of Innsbruck.
They left here on what would be the last leg of their journey – but also the most dangerous. Himmler's attempt to try the Allies failed. Churchill and the Americans had refused a deal, which meant that the hostages were no longer of use to him.
Orders were issued for their SS guardians to remove them, and they were driven further into the Alps by snow, to a remote mountain hotel. Here the Prominents, including Fey, came to an end.
It didn't happen. It was now the end of April 1945; Hitler was dead and the formal surrender of the Third Reich was days away. Partisans were in the area, and so was a group of American soldiers.
After heated discussions, in which the lives of the prisoners hung in the balance, their 50 SS guards dropped their weapons and fled. The ordeal was over. Fey had survived.
That also applied to Alex von Stauffenberg. For the first time they could be alone together and opened up to each other in their feelings.
& # 39; Without him I could not bear the thought of a future, & # 39; she later recalled.
She promised to break up with Detalmo, the man she hadn't seen for a year and a half and started a new life with Alex.
However, that was easier said than done. When Detalmo came looking for her and promised his immortal love, her conscience would not allow her to reject him, as she later wrote: & # 39; My heart broke in a thousand pieces for Alex and I sobbed and sobbed. & # 39 ;
It was the mother in her who won the argument. There were the boys to think about, if they could ever be found. And that was an all-powerful & # 39; if & # 39 ;. Europe was flooded with 25 million refugees, half of whom estimated the Red Cross, orphans, lost in the chaos.
Fey had no idea where Corrado and Roberto were arrested. Where can she even start hunting?
Fey and her husband stayed together until his death in 2006. She died in 2010, at the age of 92. Pictured: The couple in November 1940
She suspected that they had been given new names and could be everywhere – Germany, Italy, Austria, completely out of her reach in the Soviet bloc, when the shutters in the post-war looting of the loot reached the Eastern European defeat.
It didn't help that she and Detalmo were in Italy. Classified by the Allied authorities as former warriors, their travel abroad was banned. The boys were also categorized as & # 39; enemy children & # 39 ;.
In Rome, where her husband was now a civil servant, Fey printed hundreds of leaflets with photos of the boys, begging for information, but it was like throwing stones at the sea. All international organizations were bombarded with so many requests that we knew it would take years for someone to look into the case of the Pirzio-Biroli children. We were left with the sinking feeling that, with each passing week, the chances of finding them diminished.
& # 39; They were lost, maybe in the east, maybe without a name, and there was nothing we could do. & # 39;
She was in despair, suffering from panic attacks, and was afraid that & # 39; I was 25 and my life was over & # 39 ;.
It was her mother, Ilse, who, although she still mourned her husband hanged by Hitler, came to the rescue. From her home outside of Munich, this formidable matriarch followed all the clues she could find about SS-run children's homes.
One brought her to an orphanage near Innsbruck, a large house with a Gothic tower in a pine forest. At the door she presented photos of the boys to the head nurse – and the miracle happened.
& # 39; Well, these are the Vorhof, Conrad and Robert brothers, & # 39; the nurse exclaimed. & # 39; They are here! & # 39;
Ilse was taken to a dormitory where 30 children were in bed, taking their afternoon nap, her grandchildren in between. & # 39; Their little blond heads protruded under the bedding & # 39 ;, she remembered. & # 39; They looked like angels. & # 39;
She gently asked Corrado: & # 39; Don't you remember your grandma? & # 39; And he put his arm around her neck. & # 39; Can we go home now? & # 39; He said.
But Fey & # 39; s death struggle was still not over. Three months passed before she and Detalmo were allowed to travel to Germany, and only after special permission from an American general he met at a diplomatic party. They drove to her mother's house and waited for the boys to return from a walk with Fey & # 39; s older sister, Almuth.
Fey & # 39; s own words describe the glorious finale of this epic story in wartime.
& # 39; We sat down to drink tea as if it were the most normal thing in the world, but we couldn't stop staring at the door, wondering what we would find after a year apart. Do we have to hug them or do we have to commit ourselves more formally? We decided to do the latter to see how the boys reacted.
& # 39; After a while we heard footsteps and the door flew open. The children stood there in front of us and there was complete silence. I tried not to cry terribly hard.
& # 39; Then Almuth gently leaned over Corrado and whispered: & # 39; Do you recognize that person? & # 39; He blushed and immediately said: & # 39; Yes, it's mommy. & # 39;
& # 39; Almuth, pointing to Detalmo, asked him: "And do you know that man there?" Corrado looked with wide eyes and hesitated for a moment. Then he said excitedly: "Yes, it's Daddy!" And hurried to him, grabbed Detalmo's pants and put his feet on Detalmo's shoes, something he had always done when he was younger.
& # 39; Robertino walked over to me, climbed on my lap and sat down without saying a word. He held it in my arms and seemed the most valuable thing in the world. & # 39;
Of all the countless individual tragedies that the Second World War surrendered, it certainly had a happy ending. The boys put their bad memories aside, had a good career and still live in the & # 39; 70.
Fey and her husband stayed together until his death in 2006. She died in 2010, at the age of 92.
The Lost Boys by Catherine Bailey is published by Viking, £ 20. © Catherine Bailey 2019. To purchase a copy for £ 16 (20 percent off) call 0844 571 0640. Offer valid until 6/7/19, p & p is free with orders over £ 15.
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