How Italian women used words to fight the Nazis

How Italian women used words to fight the Nazis

I chained up my rusty red bicycle and stepped into the courtyard of the former Conceria Fiori tannery, where the chairs and tables of a beer garden, not yet open for the day, sat empty. I entered the building and made my way to the rooftop, where the Ristorante Piazza dei Mestieri serves homemade pastas and handcrafted chocolates. 

But I hadn’t come for a meal; I had come to learn about the anti-fascist efforts that took place here and throughout Turin, Italy, during World War II.


How Italian women used words to fight the Nazis
View image of Turin was a hotbed of resistance activity after the fall of Benito Mussolini’s government in 1943 (Credit: Credit: RossHelen editorial/Alamy)

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After I explained my interest to the waitress, she grabbed a ring of keys from under the hostess station and motioned for me to follow. She led me out of the restaurant and down several staircases to the basement. A new door cut into the heavy brick foundation opened into ‘The Cave’, a private dining room filled with hundreds of bottles of fine wine.

Seventy years ago, however, this basement room, then concealed at the end of a hidden passageway, housed a printing press used to publish anti-fascist literature – much of which was produced by women.


How Italian women used words to fight the Nazis
View image of The Conceria Fiori tannery’s cellar was used as a hiding spot for resistance printing presses (Credit: Credit: Suzanne Cope)

The end of World War I sparked the rise of fascism in Italy. As it spread across the country, overtaking local economies and suppressing social liberties, opposition grew slowly and steadily in its wake. The fall of Benito Mussolini’s government in 1943 and the subsequent occupation of Italy by Nazi Germany intensified the opposition effort, which by then was known formally as La Resistenza (‘The Resistance’). 

As dusk fell across Turin’s piazzas, and Conceria Fiorio employees – their hands smelling of leather – retired for the night, the covert presses came to life, printing clandestine feminist leaflets and copies of the anti-fascist newspaper La Riscossa Italiana. A take on the name of La Riscossa, the local government-controlled newspaper that printed stories praising Hitler, La Riscossa Italiana featured articles detailing efforts of the anti-fascist movement and reported falsehoods in the reporting of its fascist counterpart.

Anyone caught writing, printing or distributing La Riscossa Italiana could be beaten, arrested or even killed. 


How Italian women used words to fight the Nazis
View image of Anyone caught writing, printing or distributing La Riscossa Italiana could be beaten, arrested or even killed (Credit: Credit: Suzanne Cope)

Publishing an underground paper like La Riscossa Italiana took a wide network of trusted participants, one that Ada Gobetti, widow of the famous anti-fascist philosopher and writer Piero Gobetti, meticulously maintained. Because women didn’t have the right to vote or participate in government activities until after World War II, they were less likely to be suspected of political involvement – meaning they could more easily report on resistance activities and distribute opposition literature. Under Gobetti’s guidance, the women of La Resistenza transported and hid printing presses, wrote articles and disseminated papers.

Gobetti’s diary, initially written in code and later deciphered and published with the title A Partisan Diary, describes the many times she and her fellow staffettas, or female couriers, would sit around the fire at her home at 6 Via Fabro in Turin writing leaflets or making plans for distribution. 


How Italian women used words to fight the Nazis
View image of Ada Gobetti led a group of fellow female partisans, or ‘staffettas’ in publishing and distributing anti-fascist literature (Credit: Credit: Suzanne Cope)

After my visit to Conceria Fiori, I unlocked my bicycle and peddled about 2km southeast of the old tannery to her old address in central Turin. The Gobetti home, which was miraculously never discovered as a partisan meeting point, now houses the Centre for the Study of Piero Gobetti, an archive of the Gobettis’ works, including some of the only remaining feminist leaflets circulated during the war.

I see Ada as one of Italy’s first feminists

“One of the most important things to Ada was solidarity, and she thought education was the way to [create] that,” said Angela Arceri, an Ada Gobetti scholar who works at the centre. “She did that through her publications.” 

Arceri explained that the Italian fascist government taught women that their role was in the home. Gobetti’s adamant involvement of women in La Resistenza allowed them to fight for their own rights.

“I see Ada as one of Italy’s first feminists,” Arceri said. 


View image of Ada and Piero Gobetti’s library now houses some of the only remaining feminist leaflets circulated during the war (Credit: Credit: Suzanne Cope)

As I sat at the heavy wooden table in the centre’s library, gently handling the archive’s collection of La Resistenza publications, I could see the windowsill where Arceri told me Ada would put a potted flower to indicate that it was safe for her staffettas to enter, perhaps to make plans on transporting illicit publications or maybe just for a warm meal. I thought of how much she and her team had risked. Though the papers felt flimsy in my hands, the weight of their importance could not be ignored.

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