It was two or three days into my holiday in Bologna with my family that I noticed the small marble plaque on the outside wall of the building abutting our hotel. And this was not just because we were spending every awake moment thinking about what to eat next in Bologna. We were, of course. The Italians don’t call Bologna ‘La Grassa’--the fat one--for nothing. Is there another city in the world where such a high proportion of restaurants rate 4 out of 5 stars or better on Google?
But this little plaque is no bigger than a couple of paperback novels placed spine to spine. It is white with a black border and has no more than five lines of text on it.
Di Anni 25
Caduto il 20-09-1944
I Compagni Del Rione
Not only is the plaque quite small, but it is also mounted high up on the wall between a barred window and a small mailbox. Unless you look up as you walk past under the portico, there is little chance you’d spot the memorial to Walter Stefani who died in 1944 aged just 25.
And even if you did spot it, the chances are you really wouldn’t care. There are bigger, brasher, more luminous things to look at in Bologna.
But I was suddenly taken by this young man. Who had died during the second world war. And was some kind of partisan. Who was Walter Stefani, I asked the lady who manned the hotel reception. She shrugged her shoulders. He must be one of the boys the Germans shot during the war she said.
So I googled him up. One Walter Stefani was a writer from Vicenza had just died recently. Not him. And another Walter Stefani was a plastics entrepreneur. Not him.
And then I finally found him. Walter Stefani. On the ‘Storia E Memoria De Bologna’ website, a portal on the ‘history and memory’ of Bologna run by the city municipality. Walter Stefani. Son of Ernesto and Ida Zani; born on 2 December 1919 in Sasso Marconi, a town 17 kilometres southwest of Bologna.
There is precious little about Walter Stefani available online. And the little there is mostly in Italian. Running the handful of sources through Google Translate tells the story of a simple man who went out in a blaze of heroic glory. Walter Stefani was a young man who was a fan of Bologna FC in his childhood. For several years, according to more than one source, he was Bologna Football Club’s ‘first mascot’. It is unclear what this means. Regardless Stefani was associated with the club when it was going through its brightest patch. They became national champions twice in the late 1920s. And then after the establishment of the Serie A, they won four more times before the onset of World War 2.
Stefani was a delivery boy or a bellboy, or both, at the outbreak of the war. Then on the 1st of May 1944, he joined one of the many Italian resistance groups that sprung into action following the 1943 armistice between the Kingdom of Italy and the Allies. The Germans responded to this perceived treachery on the part of their erstwhile allies by turning on Italian troops and eventually invading and occupying Italy. All over the country resistance and partisan groups began to sprout up and engage the Germans. Bologna became one of the main cauldrons of this resistance and witnessed some of the most significant engagements between German troops and resistance fighters anywhere in Europe. And as the Allies took Rome and marched northwards, these resistance fighters were further motivated to do their part in undermining German resistance.
Stefani himself joined one of the most storied partisan groups that functioned in the Emilia-Romagna region around Bologna. Called the Stella Rosa (Red Star), it later became known as the Stella Rosa Lupo brigade after its leader Mario Musolesi aka ‘Lupo’ or the wolf. The charismatic Musolesi had put together the brigade from a ragtag group of fighters with diverse political beliefs and even some Allied POWs who had been freed from captivity.
Surely the most remarkable of these fighters has to be Sad Singh, a Sikh officer from New Delhi. Attached to a tank regiment in the British 8th Army, Sad Singh had been captured by the Germans during the Allied invasion of southern Italy. But Singh escaped, hid aboard a train from Florence to Bologna and then joined Stefani’s Red Star Lupo brigade. Perhaps he fought shoulder to shoulder with Walter Stefani.
If Lupo’s fighters were looking for a chance to hurt the Germans they soon got it. In August 1944 the Germans drew up a defensive line in the Monte Sole regions south of Bologna. This was precisely where the Red Star Lupo fighters were ensconced. The Germans knew they had to neutralise the partisan and resistance fighters in order to keep their lines intact. But what they eventually carried out was nothing short of a war crime: a massacre of the villages of the Monte Sole. Of the 2000 population of these villages the Germans killed some 800 including h216 children, 316 women and 142 ‘elderly people’.
According to one website that studies the history of the Monte Sole atrocities, these massacres have “been transformed by public memory into an epic history of the Resistance. The extreme violence against the people of the region employed by Nazi Army, the complicity of local Italian fascists and the role played by the partisans have been transformed into a collective public myth: the martyrdom of an entire people for the sake of the liberation of Italy.”
Walter Stefani himself did not die in Monte Sole. Instead, he was captured and taken prisoner. Then on 20th September 1944 Stefani along with ten other prisoners were taken to a shooting range on the Via Agucchi, to the northwest of Bologna not far from where the airport is located today.
Twenty-five year old Walter Stefani was executed. Four days later a local newspaper reported his execution and declared that all eleven victims had confessed to acts of terror against German soldiers. Stefani’s remains are interred at the Ossuary Monument to the Fallen Partisans, inside the monumental Certosa Di Bologna cemetery complex.
Today there is a plaque outside a house on a narrow little alley in Bologna that reminds us of the supreme sacrifice young Stefani made for his country and his beliefs. His life as a partisan was short. He signed up in May 1944 and he was dead just four months later. On 21st April 1945, Bologna finally passed into Allied hands.
When we read great histories of the Second World War, or indeed any great endeavour, we are often swayed by the portraits of the great men and women. The presidents and generals and dictators and emperors. The lives of the small men and women often pale in comparison. Walter Stefani is no Eisenhower.
Thevarthundiyil Titus, Anand Hingorini and Ratnaji Boria are but minnows next to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Yet if they hadn’t been amongst the first 80 to march alongside Gandhi, his Dandi March may have hardly become the turning point in Indian history that is.
But this is not just a matter of remembering the forgotten. Small plaques outside obscure homes on narrow alleys are also objects of empowerment. They remind us that sometimes giants stand on the shoulders of minnows.
Walter Stefani helped defeat fascism.