Matilde Bassani Finzi
1918 – 2009
Matilde Bassani Finzi was born in Ferrara, Italy on December 8, 1918. Her family was anti-fascist and from her early childhood she was exposed to opinions that opposed the regime and Mussolini. Her cousin, Eugenio Curiel (1912–1945), a well-known anti-fascist activist, had a great deal of political influence on her. Consequently, from childhood she lived her life along two parallel but contradictory tracks: as a pupil in the government school she was continuously exposed to fascist propaganda, while the atmosphere at home was the complete opposite and, together with her brother, she often joked about the authorities and fascist functionaries.
Bassani Finzi’s father, a language teacher, was dismissed in 1922 or 1923 because of his anti-fascist opinions. The family moved to Ceva in the Piedmont region, but had to leave in 1924 when the fascists defeated the socialist party in the local elections. The family then moved to nearby Asti, where they spent five years. Bassani Finzi’s father succeeded in making a living at temporary jobs, but was each time dismissed for his anti-fascist views. In 1929 the family returned to Ferrara. Bassani Finzi became friendly with Giorgio Bassani (1916–2000), a well-known figure in the local Jewish community who worked with young people, motivating them toward anti-fascist views. During her university studies Finzi joined anti-fascist groups and served as a courier, transporting the local underground newspaper between Ferrara and Padova.
After the race laws were enacted in 1938 Finzi began to teach Jewish students, preparing them for the government examinations. On occasion this activity aroused the suspicions of the police, who feared anti-government meetings. In 1941, when the Jewish school in the city was established, she joined the teaching staff and expressed her political views to the students. She invested a great deal of effort in her work because, as she said various times after the war, she placed supreme importance on educating these young people, who had been humiliated by the antisemitic laws. She believed that the Jewish school must assist the Jewish students who had been expelled from the government schools and restore their lost self-confidence and self-esteem.
In the summer of 1942 Bassani Finzi was conscripted for forced labor by order of the fascist government. She was put to work in a factory, packing potatoes for export to Norway and Sweden. Finzi secretly placed slips of paper in the potato sacks that read: “We are Italian Jews put to forced labor in order to be humiliated.” In addition, she constantly tried to avoid work in order to show her opposition to the regime.
She continued her activity in anti-fascist groups and, together with Giorgio Bassani, organized parlor meetings and helped distribute newspapers and newsletters. In June 1943 she was arrested for this activity and held for forty days, during which she endured prolonged interrogation and abuse, but never broke down. Inter alia, she conducted a hunger strike and also held an “air strike,” refusing to go outside for her daily “hour of fresh air,” in order to express her opposition.
After Mussolini’s fall on July 25, 1943, Bassani Finzi was released together with all the political prisoners. Immediately upon her release she contacted the Resistance groups, who began to organize in case Germany should invade Italy, which it did on September 8, 1943. After avoiding arrest by the Germans at the beginning of October 1943 she traveled to Rome, where she joined the partisan group Comando Partigiano Supremo (the Supreme Partisan Command), which belonged to the socialist party. Her activities in this setting were extremely varied: she maintained contacts with fascist groups and gave secret information to the partisans; she was active in writing and distributing anti-fascist and anti-Nazi newsletters and newspapers; she stole flashlights and medicines from the Germans on the pretext of activity for the Red Cross; she obtained assistance for Jews and Allied soldiers hiding in the city; she passed orders, information and weapons throughout the city and outside it to groups of fighters; she negotiated with the German authorities for the release of the commander, Aladino Fovoni, who had been arrested and was later murdered by the Germans. During one of her activities in April 1944 she was caught by the SS as she left the Vatican, where she had sought sanctuary on behalf of Jews. She succeeded in escaping, but was wounded in the leg by German gunfire. She reached a safe house and was transferred from there to receive medical treatment. After the city was liberated in June 1944 she was active on behalf of the partisans in Rome and those who arrived from other places. This activity was organized by Ulisse Finzi, who later became her husband, as part of the Supreme Partisan Command.
In addition, Bassani Finzi volunteered for the Psychological Warfare Branch, which was in charge of psychological propaganda in areas still under German-fascist rule. This propaganda was organized as part of the L’Italia Combatte (Italy Fights) project, which included radio broadcasts and newspapers dropped from airplanes (both of which bore the name Italy Fights). This activity enabled significant cooperation with the Allies, which also affected contact with other partisan groups in the unliberated areas. In August 1944 Bassani Finzi was mobilized for another operation of most vital importance. She crossed the front lines and smuggled weapons to the Bruno Buozzi partisan group in Florence, which was at the height of a decisive battle for the liberation of the city. She published sketches on the operation in an essay in the newspaper Il partigiano (The Partisan).
After the liberation of Italy Bassani Finzi received citations from the Italian government and from Allied forces. After the war she continued to work for the ideals in which she believed: freedom, democracy and equality for women. In one of her sketches, before she went out on an especially dangerous mission, she wrote: “I feel that apathy is foreign to my nature. Living in apathy is the only hell I believe exists.”
Today Bassani Finzi lives in Milan with her family. She has given her personal archive of the Holocaust era to Yad Vashem for safekeeping.
Matilde Bassani Finzi died on March 2, 2009.
Matilde Bassani Finzi died on March 2, 2009.