“Well,” he said, sipping his dark coffee. “Maybe you got an exclusive peak into his inner torment? Maybe you got to see what made him change his mind?”
I wish I had. I wish I could know. I imagine it could have been one of these three scenarios:
1. Arturo twisted and turned all night long. He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t eat. He didn’t want to breathe anymore. Each gasp of air just reminded him of the life force he would soon have to take away from his butcher and friend down the street. These people had never done anything wrong; in fact, they were model citizens whom he praised for following the country’s orders passionately.
Pushing back his thin sheets, he dragged his feet out of bed to get a glass of water. Tomorrow, he would call in sick.
2. Arturo inspected his list. The next family he had to round up lived a corner away from him. He shook his head and sighed. It seemed like every person he was ordered to take into custody was someone who knew him, or his family, or his hometown. He couldn’t escape the fact that the people he was sending to the camps were people he knew.
Stop it, he scolded himself. These aren’t people. If Mussolini thinks they’re less than human, then I should too.
He was the Prefect, the second-in-command, and he would not disobey orders today. He—
Across the street ran a screaming girl. Wailing incoherently, she begged the OVRA police officer to take her back to her mother. Smirking, one of Arturo’s men yelled that they would be reunited soon enough and tossed her over his shoulder.
Arturo and the girl only made eye contact for a few seconds before he turned away and broke down in soundless sobs.
3. Arturo felt sick to his stomach. He’d just had one of the best lunches of his life, and he knew he had gone too far. He shouldn’t have had that extra forkful, but he had to keep going, and he had to eat just a little bit more.
Looking around at the vacant restaurant, he wondered what would happen to the little shop once his men got ahold of its Jewish owner. Would someone else swoop in and take over? Or would it just fall to ruin, like many of the other vacant stores in Rome?
As Arturo was wiping his face, he watched the owner sweep behind the counter. He whistled as his mind wandered, oblivious that Arturo was still even there. Arturo began to smile, just a little bit, when the owner’s wife tiptoed in and gave her husband a quick kiss on the cheek. Their eyes were twinkling as they gazed at one another.
Running out of the restaurant, Arturo threw up his entire meal right there onto the pathway. How was he to arrest that old couple in only a few days? How was he to separate them, when they still were so much in love? How was he going to live with himself the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that…?
I don’t know why Arturo changed his mind. I don’t know what moment, if any, made him realize that he could no longer go along with Mussolini’s fascist ideals. I can’t tell you if it was a dramatic flash of light, or if he cried, or if he just always knew that he would have to put a stop to the craziness around him one day. I wish I knew, and I wish I knew him better.
That is what I imagine, because what else could make a man who religiously followed Mussolini’s orders snap? The whispers that my family tells are only that: whispers, rumors, hints of a life that is so fascinating to me, but one I cannot access. I have only these murmurs on which to base my story.
I do know that it was around this time that something inside of him snapped. I know that he could no longer look at Mussolini as a colleague—or maybe even a friend—but saw him as a villain.
There are rumors about what Bocchini did from 1938 through 1940. Many Jews never saw concentration camps because he would not allow it. For two years he was able to get by without anyone else suspecting. Perhaps some papers got “lost.” Or maybe that train, for some strange reason, never arrived to take them away. Using his influence, he delayed the deportation of many Jewish families as much as possible.
Yet by 1940, people began to take notice. Bocchini was known for always being organized, for never letting any of his men slip up, and for always getting the job done. So then, why was he slacking now?
He started to openly question Mussolini’s laws. With other Italians, he pondered their effectiveness. Criticizing the fascist state in any such way usually meant OVRA would appear on your doorstep, but what does a person do when his boss is the one imparting these treacherous notions?
Word spread, gossip flew from one spider to another, and before long Mussolini himself started to hear about these doubts his friend Arturo was having. Rumors that he questioned Jewish banishment and encumbered their exile swirled around and around in his office.
But this was Arturo Bocchini, his second, his right-hand man! This was his prodigy, the only employee still with him from the very beginning. What was to be done?
There are two versions of what happened on November 20, 1940. Two versions of that same day, that same moment in history. Two accounts that don’t fit together and never will. Two stories told from two different sources, two different types of people. One my family swears by, and one a historian swears by. To this day, there is no definite answer about which is accurate.
A colleague of my dad’s (who is well versed in World War II history) once exclaimed that there is a statue of Arturo in a little village somewhere in Italy. It’s this that makes me want to close my eyes and imagine staring up into his carved face. Or, at least, try to envision what others think when they pass by the statue on their way to work, to the bank, to the grocery store. What goes through their minds as they gaze up at someone who might have my nose, or my ears? Do they smile as they pass by my relative or sneer?
Arturo Bocchini was lying on his back. The pain seemed to escalate with every breath he sucked in and every twitch of his eyelids. His family quietly prayed and cried around him. He couldn’t speak, but he was still conscious enough to realize that he didn’t have a lot of time left.
The stroke came out of nowhere, and he knew he would not recover. He knew this was his last day on earth, his last thought, and the last time he would ever see the beautiful blue sky.
He was on the job when it happened, and he never saw it coming. Maybe if he had taken those vacations, or slept longer, or ate healthier, he wouldn’t be on his deathbed right then and there.
It was November 20, 1940.
Arturo Bocchini trembled as he crossed the street. Everyone around him seemed so calm, so relaxed, but he couldn’t stop his fingers from quivering in his pockets. Each step he took made his heart fall into his bottomless stomach. Why was Benito calling him in on his one day off? Did he suspect anything awry?
Of course not. I’ve covered all my bases.
Walking up the steps to the Palazzo Venezia, he hoped he wasn’t getting fired. Perhaps they finally realized the number of his arrests were down. Perhaps they were about to demote him. Shaking his head, he couldn’t accept that after fourteen years as the head of the secret police he might have to start at the beginning.
Numbly, he walked the familiar path to Benito’s office. The door to the balcony was coming up on his right, and he longed to go outside, drink a little, laugh a little, and just be someone else, just for today. Instead, he headed to Benito’s office. Forgetting to knock, he walked right in and sat across from his boss.
Benito smiled. “Sit down, friend.”
Arturo felt beads of sweat along his forehead. “Is everything alr—”
“It’s hot out for November, isn’t it? Have some wine with me to cool off. You look like you’re burning up.” Benito reached to his left and poured two small cups of red wine from the bottle that was sitting on his desk. Sliding the cup over, he raised his own to clink with Arturo’s.
“To fourteen years together, my friend.”
“To fourteen years.” Arturo downed the refreshing drink and then cleared his still-dry throat. “So why did you—”
He coughed. Twice. Three times. His chest was so tight, so tight, he couldn’t see straight. His eyes were bleeding, they must be, everything was red, dark red, black, no colors, no light. All he could hear, over and over again, was: “To fourteen years together. To fourteen years together. To fourteen years….”
It was November 20, 1940.
What do I swear by? I know which truth I believe in. I didn’t know Arturo. I don’t know him, but I believe in his story, his tale, and his goodness of heart. I believe that November 20, 1940 is a day to mourn, not to celebrate.
Kathryn Bockino is a junior English (Creative Writing) major at SUNY Geneseo. While she knows that someone like Elizabeth Bennet would make a great best friend, she can’t let the idea of Voldemort go. He might be crazy, but she likes to give hugs, so in a parallel universe they could balance each other out. If that doesn’t work, there’s always the chance that she’ll discover Narnia one day.