the storycurator
stories about real life and creativity

a blog by jan doets


An insatiable curiosity has often led me along tortuous paths into unknown worlds and put me in touch with extraordinary people, dead or alive. It was no different in the case of Iacopo Antonio Antonini (Giacomo, ‘Gino’,  September 18, 1901,Venice, Italy – June 16, 1983, Froxfield, United Kingdom).

This cosmopolitan Italian left Italy at the age of 13, and remained an expatriate until his death. He was a gifted writer and literary critic, practicing his craft in three countries concurrently, from 1924 on: The Netherlands, Italy and France. Since 1933, when Hitler’s rise to power made him and his future wife Maria “Moussia” Sila-Nowicki leave Berlin (see article 40 and those preceding), he carried out these activities from Paris, where he also represented  some Italian publishers.

The above picture of 1948 shows him standing at the far left (the photograph was scanned from his personal album, the caption is in his own handwriting). Sitting in front of him is the Italian author Alberto Moravia, his friend since 1926, who is flanked by the French poet and writer Jules Supervielle and Jean Paulhan, the French writer, critic and publisher who was also the director of the French  literary magazine Nouvelle Revue Française. Also in the picture are  the French writer Marcel Jouhandeau; Suzanne Tezenas, host of literary salons like the one shown; Georges Poupet; Jean Denoël, a medical doctor influential within the publishing house of Gallimard, who was the brother of the editor Robert Denoël (murdered in December 1945; he was the editor of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, amongst others) and Guido Piovene, an Italian journalist and writer.

Some twenty years ago, one of my sons, then a student, gave me a book to read which he had found on a table in an antiquarian bookshop in Amsterdam. A collection of ten intriguing short stories, titled The Condottiere, by the Dutch writer/diplomat F. C. Terborgh, pseudonym for Reijnier Flaes (1902-1981). Having spent a large part of my life overseas, I was attracted by the various atmospheres evoked by the author, which I suspected was  related to unusual personal experiences in faraway places. Soon thereafter, I had read Terborgh’s complete oeuvre.

In 2000, I had the good fortune to be welcomed by his son, also named Reijnier Flaes, at his home at The Hague (as I entered his house he said: ‘my parents gave me that name from a lack of imagination’). We have remained friends ever since. He gave me the opportunity to decipher his father’s diaries for the period 1930-1950. Decipher indeed, because they were written in what the French would call a ‘patte de mouche’, an extremely small handwriting. As of today, I have stored three thousand days of his diary, and hundreds of documents and photographs, in a computer database. The project, which took me five years, was well worth the trouble. His diaries, covering three of the most eventful decades in the history of Europe, are full of intriguing adventures and descriptions of unusual persons. One such person was Gino Antonini.

The diplomat Flaes, the son of a Dutch navy officer and a German mother,  preferred adventurous postings instead of those coveted by his more career conscious colleagues. He feared that in places like Washington or London, there would be no time to explore people and places, nor the leasure to write about them. The Dutch Foreign Office provided him with what he wanted and more. He arrived in Spain in March 1933, just in time to be involved in the Spanish Civil War. From there, he was posted to Peking in 1938 – shortly after it was occupied by the Japanese.

In 1942, in an exchange of Western diplomats with their Japanese counterparts, he was evacuated via Lourenço Marquez to wartime London and thence to Lisbon, city of spies and refugees in transit, where he stayed from 1943 until 1946. From 1946 until 1950, he lived and worked in a devastated Warsaw, involved in the chasing of war criminals and the repatriation of displaced persons, while being an on-the-spot witness of the communist takeover.

At a later stage, he would become Dutch ambassador to Argentina (1953-1958), Mexico (1958-1963) and Portugal, where he retired in 1967, having built a house, which he called A Giralda, in Linhó, Sintra.

In March 1935, while in Madrid, he gave hospitality to Giacomo Antonini, son of an Italian father and a Dutch mother who was, as was Flaes, a friend of the important Dutch poet Jan Slauerhoff. Slauerhoff, by profession a ship’s doctor, was sick and lodged temporarily  with the Antoninis in their home in Paris. He had asked Antonini go to Tangier in Marocco, to wind up his general practice he had started in that city only a short while ago. He had written to Flaes asking if Antonini could stay with him for a few days on his way to Algeciras. The curious Flaes accepted gladly.

The two men liked each other from the start. On the way back from Tangier to Paris, Antonini stayed nine days with Flaes in his Madrid residence, and they established a very close friendship which would end only on February 26, 1981, the day when Flaes died in Portugal. There was a strong affinity between these two men of letters, in part from having had similar experiences during their youth.

Both of them had been placed in a school in the Netherlands at the age of about 13, feeling ill at ease in a country where they they still had to learn to speak and write the language properly. Flaes, son of a German mother and a Dutch father had come from Germany. Antonini, son of an Italian father and a Dutch mother, had come from Italy. Antonini would never live in Italy again, apart from a very short spell in 1924/26  fulfilling his military service followed by a brief stint as correspondent in Rome for a Dutch newspaper. Flaes would never live in the Netherlands after leaving university. Both strongly felt themselves   to be displaced persons in their own country – ‘cosaques des frontières’, ‘border cossacks’, an epithet coined by Flaes in an interview shortly before his death.

The two friends and their wives saw each other frequently, both before and after the Second World War, mostly in Paris. Sometimes, Antonini visited Flaes at his posts abroad, for example in Norway and Portugal. In June 1938, in Switzerland, he became the godfather of Flaes’ second son. In September of that year, it was planned, in an arrangement later agreed to by the Dutch Foreign Office, that Antonini would accompany Flaes’ two little sons and a Swiss nanny to Peking in February, 1939. It would be timed so that Flaes  and his Swiss/Dutch wife, Marguerite de Herrenschwand, would meet up with their children in China after completing a tour of many months in the Dutch East Indies. In the meantime, the children would be under the care of their grandmother in Switzerland.

Reijnier Flaes and his elder son Reijnier (3 years old), photo taken by Antonini in Worb, Switzerland, September 1938, on the day he became the godfather of Flaes’ other son, Eric.

While in Batavia, Flaes was advised to call off the plan, because of the uncertain situation in China. In November 1938, also the political situation in Europe worsened. In the end. the nanny did go to China with the children, but without Antonini. I have reason to suspect that in the original plan, Antonini would have been accompanied by his wife Moussia and stepdaughter Natasha, and from China they would have proceeded to the United States.  I know from the Memoirs of the famous pianist Alexander Borovsky, who was of Jewish descent, that his former wife Moussia had announced to him already in 1938 that she planned to  leave for the United States with their daughter Natasha immediately, were Hitler to declare war, invading Poland (the country in which her closest relatives lived) and threatening France.

As I will show in more detail later, the Antoninis did indeed make a serious attempt to flee Europe together in June 1940. Moussia and her daughter were successful (as was Borovsky, who reached the United States a bit later, by way of Argentina). Antonini, however,  was refused a US entry visa, despite several attempts to obtain one at US consulates in Genoa, Paris and Berlin.

Flaes and Antonini kept in continuous touch with each other from 1934 until 1981, except in the period 1941-1945. Antonini is mentioned throughout Flaes’ diaries, which he called his ‘mnemotechnical notes’. The diaries provide an excellent timeline.

Terborgh’s title story ‘The Condottiere’ was inspired by a gouache painting of the same name which he bought in 1937 from Lisbon, by telephone, from a dealer in Brussels, having seen a reproduction of it in a Dutch newspaper. At that time he was officially  stationed in Spain but, due to the Civil War, residing in Lisbon and Saint-Jean-de-Luz (France).  The painting shows a lone rider, in a Mediaeval Italian setting, painted by the Belgian Petrus van Assche. In 1938, Flaes  brought it to Paris for framing, which took longer than expected – it was Antonini who went to collect it while Flaes was on his way to China.

The painting hung in the dining room of Gino Antonini and his wife Moussia throughout the war and later in The Bee House, in Froxfield near Petersfield, among the beautiful rolling hills of Hampshire, England – where Antonini and his third wife Karin Barnsley chose to retire in 1966. Karin gave the painting to my friend,  Flaes/Terborgh’s son Reijnier, who in turn  gave it to me in  2005.

Since then, it has been on the wall right next to my writing table and I sometimes wonder if the border cossack on the painting emanates mysterious inspirations to me.

(to be continued)

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Antonini’s study in the Bee House in Froxfield, England, left as it was when he died in 1983. The painting of The Condottiere can be seen to the right of the window. Picture taken during my visit with Karin Antonini in February 2001.

Keen to learn more about Giacomo Antonini, I visited his widow Karin for two days in February, 2001. Karin, née Barnsley,  was married to him from 1961 until his death in 1983.  During many intensive hours, she told me with love and  enthusiasm about Gino, about his youth and his career, and about his former wife Moussia, whom she had known personally before her premature death of a brain tumor, in 1959.

Karin showed me Moussia’s and Gino’s photo albums, gave me samples of their handwriting and gave me additional help in every way possible – as she had done in 1987, a few years after Gino’s death, for a Dutch biographer, Ronald Spoor, who has written about Antonini in the ‘Biographical Dictionary of the Netherlands’.

Later that year, she wrote to me that since their retirement in 1966, when they moved from Paris to England, Gino had been writing down some reminiscences for her and their son Niccoló. She added: “In 1979, he dictated to me his memories of the war and the period immediately thereafter, as he was still too upset to write them down himself. I have copies, you can come back and read them, if you wish.”

She had placed these memoirs, and his extensive literary correspondence of about three thousand letters with writers and publishers since 1930, in an archive in Florence. She had entrusted the Literary Museum of The Netherlands at The Hague with some 170 private letters from Flaes to Antonini, written in the period 1935 – 1981. Those letters were still under embargo.

I did not go back to England to read the memoirs, but I have been keeping in friendly occasional touch with Karin, by letter or telephone, until today. In the past months, she let me publish most of the superb photos which illustrate my previous 41 articles in this series.

The Antonini whom I came to know, first  from Flaes’ diaries, then from Karin, and more recently from the glowing accounts of the Polish painter André Dzierzynsky,  a frequent guest of the Antoninis  between 1960 and 1983 and still a close friend of Karin today (Moussia’s nephew, see article 5) is :  a well educated, cosmopolitan, sympathetic gentleman of letters with a passionate love of opera and most of all: a man very loyal to his friends.

Therefore, I was stunned and confused when I came across, only a few months ago, a recent book in Italian by the journalist Roberto Festorazzi. It is called ‘The secret of The Conformist’ (Il Segreto del Conformista, Rubbettino, Soveria Mannelli, 2009), and deals with a dark episode in Antonini’s life, the full details of which he may  well have kept secret, to a varying extent,  from his bosom friend Terborgh and from the two women with whom he was married successively:   Maria “Moussia” Sila-Nowicki and Karin Barnsley.


According to Festorazzi, Antonini has, from January, 1935 until the end of May, 1937, given information about Carlo Rosselli, the head of an Italian expatriate anti-fascist organisation based in Paris and London : Giustizia e Libertà,  to the OVRA The OVRA was a department of the Italian Political Police (Opera Volontaria di Repressione Antifascista which means: ‘Voluntary action to suppress antifascism’).

Carlo and his brother Nello were brutally murdered on June 9, 1937 in the Atlantic resort town of Bagnoles d’Orne, by a hit squad of the French ultra-right organization La Cagoule.

Festorazzi also claims that Antonini was the real-life model for Marcello Clerici, the protagonist of Alberto Moravia’s novel “Il Conformista”, The Conformist, on which Bernardo Bertolucci based his famous film with the same title. In this story, Clerici is asked to go to Paris to infiltrate the anti-fascist organization of his former professor Quadri, who is finally murdered in much the same way as the Rosselli brothers in 1937.

Festorazzi’s book is based on his research in Italy’s Central State Archive in Rome  and on perusal of Antonini’s extensive personal archive in Florence (Fondo Giacomo Antonini, Archivio Contemporaneo “Alessandro Bonsanti”, Gabinetto G.P. Vieusseux), to which he was given full access by Mrs. Karin Antonini, whom he warmly thanks in his Preface.

The last chapter of the book is an Epilogue in which Festorazzi describes a conversation with Karin, who told him about her happy twenty-two years of married life with Gino, about his youth, and about his previous marriage with Moussia. However, he does not mention having talked with her about the actual subject matter of his book, which he calls a biography: ‘Vita di Giacomo Antonini’.

Karin is a very open person, most cooperative with all who are interested in the work of her late husband, and I hold her in the highest esteem. She is 86 years old now and, unfortunately, having some health problems. A few weeks ago, she told me during a telephone call that she had only recently read parts of Festorazzi’s book (she is fluent in Italian, unlike me) and that she found it painful to read.

She told me that Antonini’s inclusion, in 1946,  on an Italian list of police spies was based on lies and false accusations from one or more jealous former colleagues (a claim which Antonini himself maintained until his death in 1983).

My discovery first made me cross-check some factual details of Festorazzi’s story against those from other books, written by professional historians:

Mimmo Franzinelli: I tentacoli dell’Ovra, Bollati Boringhieri, Bologna,1999
Mauro Canali: Le spie del regime, Società Editrice il Mulino, Torino, 2004.
Mimmo Franzinelli: Il Delitto Rosselli, Arnoldo Mondadori, Milano, 2007
George Talbot: Alberto Moravia and Italian Fascism: Censorship, Racism and Le Ambizioni sbagliate,  Modern Italy Vol. 11, No. 2, June 2006
Joel Blatt: The battle of Turin, 1933-1936: Carlo Rosselli, Giustizia e Libertà, OVRA and the origins of Mussolini’s anti-Semitic Campaign, Journal of Modern Italian Studies, 1:1, 22-57, 1995

The first three sources all agree that a supplement to the «Official Gazette» of Italy of July 2, 1946 listed some eight hundred Italians who were fiduciari (‘trusted persons’, meaning that they gave information) of the Italian political police and/or the OVRA  between the late 1920s and 1945, and that  Antonini was nr. 607 on that list. Individuals could appeal against their inclusion. Antonini made such an appeal but it was dismissed.

The Italian historian Mimmo Franzinelli writes that  Giacomo Antonini, whom he calls ‘L’ineffabile Antonini’, was probably blackmailed into giving information by Vincenzo Bellavia, OVRA’s ‘capozona’ (area chief) in Paris. Bellavia obtained information from about fifteen such fiduciari in France, mainly in and around Paris, including the Italian writer Dino Segre (novelist’s pseudonym Pitigrilli), since 1930, and Jules Rakowski, an inspector of the French Sûreté, since 1928. Bellavia , according to Franzinelli, would have given  Antonini the choice between: ‘cooperate with me or lose your freedom the moment you set foot in Italy’.

For two years, Antonini contributed to Rosselli’s  newspaper Giustizia e Libertá with literary articles, writing a column ‘L’Europa Letteraria’ under the pseudonym Giorgio Lovati. Carlo Rosselli trusted him completely and even sent Antonini on important international missions to London and Berlin.

At the time of the murders, Antonini was spending a few weeks in Amsterdam, residence of his mother’s family, his former Dutch guardian and most of his literary friends.

It was concluded by the French Sûreté, already before the end of 1937, that the Rosselli murders were not committed by Italian agents but  by La Cagoule. This was also the conclusion of a Paris court during the 1948 trial of the murderers (all French nationals, who had been released from prison by the Vichy government in 1940).

However, after the war, it was discovered that in March 1937, representatives of Ciano’s Italian Foreign Office and agents of the Italian Secret Service had been in secret contact with La Cagoule, in Monte Carlo. La Cagoule was offered Italian arms in exchange for murdering Carlo Rosselli.

Giacomo Antonini and Alberto Moravia were friends from 1926 until at least Antonini’s retirement in England, in 1966. Karin Antonini remembers having met  Moravia and his wife Elsa Morante several times, together with her husband, in 1960-1962. The question if Antonini was Moravia’s model for Marcello Clerici, the protagonist of Moravia’s Il Conformista, is intriguing indeed, because the Rosselli brothers were Moravia’s cousins. Moravia was born Alberto Pincherle. His father, a Jew, was the brother of  Amelia Pincherle, the mother of the Rosselli brothers.

Moravia, who was very critical of the pre-fascist and fascist Italian bourgeois society and after the Second World War would represent the Italian communist party in the European Parliament, is nevertheless known to have strongly disapproved of the activities of his cousin Carlo Rosselli. In his view, Carlo was a ‘socialiste de salon’, rich enough to be able to afford criticizing the Italian political situation at a safe distance, namely abroad.

Moravia, who had to earn an income within Italy,  believed it was more courageous and effective to criticize Italian society from within, not from outside his country, while trying to live with the facts of life, i.e. the presence of a fascist regime. When his second great novel “Le Ambizione Sbagliate” came out in 1935, it ran into immediate trouble with the regime.

In his book Moravia (1966), Professor Giuliano Dego quotes Moravia writing about his problems in early life: his long illness ( in his early youth, he was  in bed five years with a tubercular infection of the bones) and Fascism.


“I attribute considerable importance to the illness and to fascism, since, because of them, I had to suffer much and did many things that I otherwise would not have done. It was what we are forced to do that forms our character, not what we do of our own free will.”

Running ahead of my story, I believe that Il Conformista is not about Antonini alone. The main protagonist represents, collectively, also Moravia himself and so many other Italian writers who were in a similar situation at the time. That may be a reason that Moravia never condemned his friend for a possible involvement in the death of his cousins, an involvement which he might not have known about or suspected in 1937 but certainly learned about after the list of informers was issued in 1946.

In view of the gravity of Festorazzi’s conclusions, I took a second opinion from a professional in the field, who helped me to better understand the details of the Italian text and confirmed to me that Festorazzi indeed used the correct sources  in the Central State Archive in Rome.

In order to try and understand the mystery why Antonini decided to cooperate with the OVRA, I reviewed all I know about Antonini from my many different sources, including all references mentioned above, and placed this information on a common timeline – as will be seen in the following chapters.

Alberto Moravia

(to be continued)

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Much is known about Giacomo Antonini also from Dutch sources. His biography is included in the ‘Biographical Dictionary of the Netherlands’ (in an article written by Ronald Spoor) and he figures in recent biographies of many important pre-war Dutch authors, most of whom were his friends, such as Jan Slauerhoff, Eddy du Perron, Menno ter Braak, Jan Greshoff, Simon Vestdijk.

Until the early 1930s, he was an important contributor to several Dutch literary magazines (De Witte Mier, Den Gulden Winckel, Critisch Bulletin, Forum and Groot-Nederland, the latter a magazine for the common language area of The Netherlands and Flanders). From 1926 until 1928, he was literary correspondent in Rome for the important Amsterdam newspaper Het Algemeen Handelsblad.

From 1933 onwards, when his and Moussia’s apartment in Paris was a meeting place for Dutch authors,  he wrote articles about French, Italian and Russian literature in the  Dutch magazine Critisch Bulletin and several other Dutch periodicals. From 1936-1940 he was correspondent and  ‘forward observation post’ in Paris for the literary pages of the important Dutch newspapers Het Vaderland, De Groene, and De Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant.

In these newspapers, before the war, he wrote reviews of French literature and interviewed , amongst others, Paul Léautaud, Marcel Jouhandeau, Jean Paulhan, Jean-Paul Sartre, Gertrude Stein, Robert Brasillach, Henry de Montherlant en André Malraux (who had dedicated his La Condition Humaine to their common  friend the Dutch writer Eddy du Perron). Even a few years before his death, he contributed some articles to a Dutch newspaper, one of which was an Hommage to his deceased friend, Reijnier Flaes, the Dutch writer F.C. Terborgh, who died in february 1981.

The magazine Den Gulden Winckel of September 1931 opened with a three-page article by Antonini, titled “New Italian Prose”, in which he discussed works by young italian authors, like Riccardo Bacchelli, Alessandro Bonsanti, Giovanna Manzini, Mario Soldati, and Giovanni Comisso. His commentary on Alberto Moravia is very balanced:

“In my opinion, the most important young writer is Alberto Moravia; we only have his debut novel “Gli Indifferenti” (1929, ‘Time of Indifference’) and some short stories published in magazines, but that is sufficient for the moment. His novels and his short stories reveal an extraordinary mastery of style and choice of theme. The publication of “Time of indifference” has upset many in Italy, the critics found the subject and the way it was treated ‘unsympathetic’, they reproached Moravia for being immoral and called him a ‘destructive spirit”.

I believe that today, this book would not have scandalised anyone in France or Germany. The raw and slightly awkward realism of Moravia resembles the ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ (German expression: The New Realism). His deliberate  indifference towards life would encounter more understanding in Germany than in Italy, where such a merciless depiction of bourgeois family life, rotten to the core, as we find in his book, is the opposite of all well-meaning but artificial attempts of the old-fashioned bourgeois morale, kept upright and defended in books and newspapers.”

How could it happen that an Italian became so close to the Dutch literary scene? Karin Antonini was the first to explain this to me, in 2001.

Count Giacomo Antonini was born on September 18, 1901 in Venice, in a ‘palazzo’ in the San Giobbe area, facing the ‘Canale di Cannaregio’, next to the ‘Tre Archi’ bridge. Today, this palazzo houses a hotel. His father was Count Alfredo Antonini (1876), descendant of an illustrious Venetian family. His mother was Augusta Roberta Kool (1863), descendant of a liberal Amsterdam patrician family. Count Alfredo was a handsome officer, retired,  of  the Bersaglieri. They married in 1899. Their first-born daughter Sofietje Elvira, died when she was two months old. Giacomo was born one year later, in 1902.

Augusta, thirteen years older than Alfredo, was the director of a Protestant boarding school in Venice. Speaking four languages, she had widely travelled and had lived in London from the age of 18, before she met Alfredo.

Alfredo was a real gentleman, elegant, generous, cultivated, intelligent. He and Augusta received illustrious persons in their soirées, like the German chancellor Bernhard von Bülow and the Dutch Prime Minister Abraham Kuijper. Alas, Alfredo had  a passion for women (who, in turn,  found him irresistible) and gambling.

In 1913, he had an affair with the wife of a French composer who managed to convince him to finance her husband’s opera with Augusta’s money. The opera flopped and Alfredo tried to recoup the loss of his wife’s money by gambling with the scant remainder of her fortune. This resulted in total failure and Augusta left for the Netherlands with her almost 13 year old son.

Alfredo also left Venice and went to Brussels, where he gave private Italian language lessons. It took him only a few months to start an affair with the wife of the man who had helped him to get him established and who furthermore had given him a room in their house. She was not his only mistress, and jealousy all around caused an enormous  scandal.

The family Kool decided that this was more than they could stomach. They paid Alfredo’s debts on condition that he  would go to the United States, never to come back. So he went. The records of Ellis Island show that he entered the United States on March 24, 1914 on the steamship Lapland coming from Antwerp. ‘Profession: Teacher’.

Karin told me that Giacomo never forgot his father, whom he admired in many ways and had given him an Italian identity. In 1927, Giacomo sent his father his first book, “Il Romanzo Contemporaneo in Italia , with the dedication: ‘To my beloved father who abandoned me”. This hurt the feelings of his  father who replied: “When you are older, you will understand”.

In turn, this hit Giacomo hard, because his first marriage, to Hetty Marx, had run into major difficulties almost from the start. He did not reply to his father, an omission he would regret all his life. In 1931, he received a letter from the United States, from a woman called Edna Ray Thomas. She wrote to him that his father had always loved him and that he had just died of cancer, penniless, in a New York hospital. She had him buried in the tomb of her family.

Back in Holland in 1914, Antonini’s mother became the Director of a Protestant hospital “Bethesda”, in Tiel, a small town 30 miles east of Arnhem. The almost thirteen-year old Giacomo was put in a boarding school in Doetinchem, just East of Arnhem, where he quickly learned Dutch; he was enrolled in the Gymnasium in Arnhem. Subsequently, he studied Italian and French under professor Romano Guarnieri in the University of Amsterdam. In Amsterdam, he lodged with his guardian, Tyo van Eeghen, a well-known Amsterdam patrician, which later caused Eddy du Perron to tease him, saying: “You say that you are Italian, but in my eyes you are just another patrician from one of those large canal houses on the Herengracht (the ‘Canal of the Gentlemen’).”

Romano Guarnieri put Giacomo in touch with the Dutch author  Jan Greshoff (1888-1972) , at that time Editor-in-Chief of the local newspaper Arnhemsche Courant, who gave him the chance, when he was not yet 22 years old, to publish in his literary magazine De Witte Mier (‘The White Ant”). It was the start of a friendship which would last until Greshoff’s death. Karin Antonini showed me a booklet by Greshoff, Dichters in het Koffijhuis (‘Poets in the Coffee House’), a collection of amusing stories on foreign authors with fictitious names,  published in 1925 under the pseudonym Otto P. Reijs, in which Greshoff had written: “to Gino, the most loyal of loyal friends.”

In 1924, Giacomo had to interrupt his studies in Amsterdam for a year, in order to fulfil his Italian military national service. He served in Venice, with the Reggimento Pontieri e Lagunari del Genio, the Italian sappers. At that time, many Italians saw Mussolini, in power since 1922, as the redeemer of Italy. So did Giacomo, who wholeheartedly  re-identified himself with his compatriots, after an absence of more than ten years.

A 1924 issue of De Witte Mier includes an article by him, titled “Benito Mussolini, the author”, in which he writes that Mussolini, “known in the Netherlands both as the ‘Duce’ who has completely renewed and rejuvenated Italy, and as the eminent statesman who brought Italy back to the front row of European nations “ had not forgotten his old love, literature.

After singing the praise of Mussolini’s journalistic efforts of the past, ‘his simple, angular and concise style’, he says that Mussolini belongs to a new generation of young persons who have had enough of literature as a separate entity within an ivory tower, and wish to see literature as part of every day life, as  the spiritual expression of what lives in the heart of the people, alive, thus creating invigorating interest and enthousiasm.

He ends the article with the following words about Mussolini: “He, by his seriousness, his austerity and his energy, is a personality of whom we, sons of Italy, may be justly proud. He has no need for praise and fame, he does not seek nor covet those. Is not his highest fame being a son, a really good son, of the old and now rejuvenated Italy?”

It is evident that young Giacomo himself, just having recovered the sense of Italian identity his father gave him, equally wished to see himself as a really good son of Italy. The following photograph was placed full page next to his article, with the  agreement of Greshoff who, during the early few years of Italian  fascism, also believed that Mussolini had saved Italy from chaos and poverty.

In 1931, Antonini had distanced himself a bit more from the regime, as we could already notice in his review of Moravia’s debut novel.

(to be continued)

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At the end of 1925, after completion of his military service, Antonini went to Rome, where he was correspondent of the important Amsterdam newspaper ‘Het Algemeen Handelsblad’ for two years.  Greshoff introduced him to the Dutch writer Arthur van Schendel, who lived in Florence and spent his summers in the Swiss town of Ascona on Lago Maggiore. Ascona, at that time, was a favorite hangout of the European artistic crowd. Van Schendel introduced Antonini in those circles.

For a while, Antonini lived there in a kind of commune, living in a house known as ‘Casa Stella’. It was in Ascona that he met and married on May 3, 1926, Hetty Marx, twelve years his senior. They had one son, Marco Antonini. However, the marriage would not last long.

Antonini, a hard worker and a voracious reader, soon wrote two books: Il Teatro Contemporaneo in Italia (1927, ‘Contemporary theatre in Italy’, written in Rome), and Il Romanzo Contemporaneo in Italia (1928, ‘The contemporary novel in Italy’, written in Ascona). Both books, lovingly dedicated to Hetty Marx, put him on the literary map in Italy, where he was soon invited to write for  literary magazines such as ‘Solaria’. His focus, however, continued to be in the Netherlands.

Having left Hetty, he returned to Amsterdam and graduated from Amsterdam University in December, 1930. He then followed a new love, Asta von Friedrichs, to Berlin, where he started to write film scripts for Tobis Tonfilm and Fritz Lang, while continuing to write articles for two Dutch literary magazines, Den Gulden Winckel and Critisch Bulletin, on Italian, French and Russian literature, reviewing books and their authors. In 1929, he had published his third book, on the French theatre. Soon, he contributed to the French magazines Mercure de France and le Salon Littéraire.

In 1931, in Berlin, he met Maria “Moussia” Sila-Nowicki, married to the Russian concert pianist Alexander Borovsky (see the previous articles). Giacomo and Moussia started to live together in Berlin at 16, Salzburgerstrasse in January, 1932 and stayed together until the death of Moussia parted them on August 2, 1959. Theirs was a happy marriage which will be discussed further in articles to come.

When Hitler came to power, they left for Paris, virtually penniless. Both Giacomo’s divorce from Hetty and Moussia’s divorce were very complicated; both divorces were finally concluded, in 1937 and 1936 respectively, in Riga, Latvia, where they were married on 2 September, 1937.

In Paris, Antonini fell back once more on his former contacts in the Netherlands. In 1930, he had made the acquaintance of the Dutch writer Eddy du Perron, who had liked his article on André Gide in Den Gulden Winckel. Through du Perron he made, or renewed, the acquaintance of Dutch writers passing through Paris such as Jan Slauerhoff, Menno ter Braak, and Simon Vestdijk.

Eddy du Perron and André Malraux in Bretagne, 1932

The Antoninis had established themselves in Auteuil, at 6 rue Corot, a cheap ‘meublé’, a rented furnished appartment next to Notre Dame d’Auteuil, taking in paying guests from time to time. Eddy du Perron and his wife lodged with the Russian family Nossovich at the nearby rue d’Yvette, prior to moving to the rue Erlanger and from there to the Boulevard Murat where his friend André Malraux lived.

This particular quartier, now part of the 16th Arrondissement, was the favourite dwelling place  of Russian émigrés. Antonini and du Perron would meet each other almost every morning at the Café Le Murat, at that time a meeting place for many émigré Russian, German and Italian writers, like Yevgeny Zamyatin, Carlo Levi and Ernst Erich Noth.

At the Café Murat, in February 1935, so one month after he had first met Vincenzo Bellavia (also in the Café Murat?), du Perron introduced Antonini to Slauerhoff who also lodged with the family Nossovich and subsequently lodged with the Antoninis. In March, Antonini went to Tanger to liquidate Slauerhoff’s medical practice, making the acquaintance with Terborgh in Madrid, as mentioned in a previous article.

It was from Paris, from 1933 onwards, that Antonini first began to build up his career as a literary critic outside the Netherlands, by establishing a personal network in Italian and French literary circles, among writers and publishing houses alike. This can be seen in his correspondence, kept in the Fondo Giacomo Antonini  in the Archivio Contemporaneo “Alessandro Bonsanti”, Gabinetto G.P. Vieusseux, in Florence. An astonishing treasure of  some three thousand letters exchanged with with prominent Italian and French authors and publishing houses. The complete inventory can be downloaded from the Internet:

However, his main, if meagre, source of income continued to be from his work for the Dutch literary scene.  His contribution to the Special Issue of the Critisch Bulletin of February 1934 deserves an extensive quote.  In this issue,  nine Dutch writers expressed their great concern about the rise of Fascism and anti-Semitism in Europe, discussing the relationship between literature and politics in Germany, the Soviet Union, France, and Spain. In this context, Antonini wrote about ‘Literature and politics in Italy’. Three separate articles were devoted to  “The German-Jewish Tragedy”.


Antonini placed his views against the background of Italian politics and literature of the 19th and early 20th century. He lamented that after the grandiose literary past of Italy, the nineteenth century did not have much to offer, with some notable exceptions:  the novelists and poets  Leopardi, Foscolo, Manzoni, Verga, Carducci, Fogazzaro, Pascoli and d’Annunzio. He then gave the following revealing, at times ironic, comments about the situation after the First World War:

“The arrival of Fascism in Italy, which did not only change the form of government, but the entire Italian state as well, brought about yet another change. Political infighting in daily and weekly newspapers was abandoned for good. Just like all other Italians, writers simply had to accept the accomplished fact of the fascist revolution. All that was expected from them was that they would give their loyal support to national reconstruction. As long as they did not meddle in politics in a spirit hostile to the new government, they remained free to write and print what they wanted and deemed to be good.

Of course one could find between the literary people, then and now, both the more and the less convinced admirers of the new form of government. However, so far, one cannot speak of a “fascist literature’ in the area of pure belletrie. The “new literature”, which I highlighted a few times in the past, here and elsewhere, has remained totally apolitical until today. This goes for both prose and poetry, although of course it has been attempted to represent the new reality in novels and short stories. These attempts have so far not led to the creation of a novel which one could classify as an important work of art.

Fanatical adherents of the new form of government have of course tried to interfere violently in this state of affairs. Disregarding the poor results of such efforts, they have pointed at Russia, where at the start of the “Five-year plan” also the writers were mobilised, with the imposed task to glorify the objectives and results of this plan. Mussolini’s wisdom has managed to divert this danger from Italian literature. Those who wish for a direct interference of the government in literary life, according to the recipes of Germany and Russia, met with his strong disapproval.

Mussolini’s speech at the fiftieth anniversary of the “Union of writers and publishers’ has been crystal clear in this respect. Having expressed his wish that poets, novelists and stage writers may find their inspiration in the magnificent events of the recent years, he has stressed the need of writers to focus their efforts towards creating a work which reflects their mood and which is as pure an art form as possible. Thus, Mussolini gave the Italian writers a guiding principle: on the one hand a participation in the social and political life of this time, but on the other hand an individual representation of this life, with the creation of a work of art being their only objective.”

I believe that these moderate and quasi-apolitical views reflect accurately Antonini’s convictions around the time that he was recruited by  capozona Bellavia, in January, 1935. While still an admirer of Mussolini and wishing to see a good side to what he must have thought was a benevolent censorship, his literary yardstick was quality, not political correctness – as we have also seen in article 43, in which I quoted his positive review of Moravia’s Gli Indifferenti.

So, why did Giacomo Antonini agree to become an informer? And : why did Bellavia recruit him ?

Antonini came from a background of education and privilege. He was already in his 20s when Mussolini’s came to power. He will have seen through the populist rhetoric and to have had ambivalent feelings about Fascism: welcoming on the one hand its preservation of order while probably deploring the populism.

Bellavia must have distrusted him from the start. He knew that Antonini was a long-time expatriate Italian, surrounded by anti-Fascist friends, a cosmopolitan who had left Berlin with his wife in 1933,  because of their fear and dislike of Hitler and anti-Semitism. In his reports, made directly to Arturo Bocchini, the head of both  the State Police and the OVRA in  Rome, he always referred to Antonini  as L’emarginato’, the banned outsider, a term he strictly reserved in his reports for those he viewed as despicable, anti-Fascist expatriates like the Rossellis.

So why ?

(to be continued)


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Giacomo Antonini in Toledo, Spain, picture taken by his new friend, the Dutch diplomat and writer Reijnier Flaes, (pseudonym F.C. Terborgh), 23 March 1935

“Hindsight is the most exacting science”, someone once said to me. Indeed, the main danger for an historian who tries to understand what caused someone to decide, in a distant past, to choose a wrong path, is to interpret his move with the knowledge of what happened later. So I shall try to understand Antonini’s situation in January 1935.

I repeat: he came from a background of education and privilege. He was already in his 20s by the time of Mussolini’s accession to power. He will have seen through the populist rhetoric and to have had ambivalent feelings about Fascism: welcoming on the one hand its preservation of order while probably deploring the populism.

His Dutch friends knew he was apolitical and had fairly objective views on fascism in Italy, as I demonstrated with his articles for Dutch literary magazines. He was not a member of the National Fascist Party of Mussolini, at that time. So, seen in that light, his collaboration would seem to be inexplicable. However, the evidence in the Central State Archive in Rome is irrefutable.

Taking into account all I know about Antonini, I conclude that the main reason he agreed to become an OVRA informer, in January 1935, was very mundane: he could not resist the money he was offered. It is known that many fiduciari cooperated not out of strong political convictions, but because the OVRA paid well.

Since 1933, Antonini’s financial situation was desperate. He and Moussia (used to a life of luxury), had come penniless from Berlin, they lived in a small rented apartment in Paris where they had to take paying guests to make ends meet and they were  both facing problems to arrange their respective divorces.

Antonini’s divorce was the most problematic. Hetty Marx was uncooperative and in 1935 reluctantly agreed to a legal separation only. Moreover, in Italy and Switzerland (their marriage had taken place in Ascona), an expeditious divorce was impossible.

Karin Antonini told me, during my visit in 2001, that there were only two countries where Antonini could obtain a divorce at reasonably short notice: Hungary, requiring him to be a local resident for at least one year, and Latvia. Latvia required a minimum residence of half a year and allowed interim travel outside the country. So Antonini chose Latvia and first stayed there, as I know from Flaes’ diaries, during two months in the summer of 1935. In January of that year, however, he still had no idea of how to finance that costly expedition to Latvia.  Bellavia’s offer was most welcome.

It seems that Antonini did not see too much wrong in Bellavia’s proposition, he simply needed the money, and he would be serving a patriotic purpose. As I am writing these words, I am thinking of Hannah Ahrendt’s expression:  « The banality of evil » . ‘Someone ambitious, used to authority, thinking he has to do his duty, incapable to clearly distinguish right from wrong, follows orders without thinking any further. Of course this does not exonerate such a person, his deed is unforgivable, he is guilty.’ Moravia had a similar person in mind, he called him « The Conformist ». But Antonini, I think, could distinguish right from wrong and must have lived with a guilty conscience for the rest of his life.

As I mentioned before, Bellavia must have viewed Antonini with some distrust. He knew that Antonini was a long-time expatriate Italian, who had left Germany with his wife in 1933,  because of their fear and dislike of Hitler and anti-Semitism. No doubt the OVRA knew that most of Antonini’s friends were foreign anti-Fascists.

It is therefore not astonishing that in his reports, made directly to Arturo Bocchini (the head of both the State Police and the OVRA in  Rome), Bellavia always referred to Antonini  as L’emarginato’, the social outcast, a term he strictly reserved in those reports for people he viewed as despicable, anti-Fascist expatriates like the Rossellis. So why did he recruit Antonini, at the risk of enlisting a double agent?

I think that the OVRA took the high risk decision to go for Antonini for precisely the reasons which made him so suspect in their own eyes. They urgently needed an informer ‘in pectore’ of Giustizia e Libertá (GeL). Carlo Rosselli and his colleagues well knew that they were continuously running the risk of being infiltrated, but they would not so easily suspect someone with Antonini’s background and reputation.

Moreover, at the time, OVRA feared that the cover of two of Bellavia’s most trusted agents inside GeL could be blown at any moment, so there was an urgent need for a timely  replacement. These agents were René Odin, an engineer (code name ‘Togo’) and the writer Dino Segre/Pitigrelli (“Pericle’). Both were heavily involved in spying on GeL’s activities in Turin, which finally resulted in a wave of arrests in that city in May 1935.

Bellavia was delighted with his catch.  Proudly, he reported about ‘our new collaborator’, i.e. Antonini, to his boss Bocchini in Rome already on 10 January 1935:

Allow me to relate that the emarginato knows well Aldo Garosci, Nicola Chiaramonte and Anna Pohl as well as Mario Casciani. [...] He knows the republican Flavio Pilla. He knows the painter Filippo De Pisis, Lionello Venturi, Mario Bonfantini, Giacomo Ca’ Zorzi [the writer Giacomo Noventa].”

Antonini’s reports can be found in two different files ( fascicoli ) of the OVRA, today kept in the Central Archive: in the fascicolo of Bellavia, OVRA’s Paris ‘capozona’, and in a fascicolo of his own. He reported mostly to Bellavia but sometimes directly to Rome.

Already on March 2, 1935, just before leaving for Madrid and Tangier (to visit Flaes/Terborgh and Slauerhoff, see article 41 and the picture at the head of this article), Bellavia sent to Rome a report by Antonini about a long discussion with Carlo Rosselli (George Talbot, 2006 , page 136):

“The discussions moved on to Italian literature. Rosselli mentioned the banning of Moravia’s novel ‘Le Ambizione sbagliate’, describing it as a howler (‘grossa corbelleria’) on the part of the regime, because while admittedly the novel runs counter to the directives of the regime, it would have had absolutely no political importance. Letting it come out, according to Rosselli,  would have demonstrated abroad Fascism’s strength and assuredness. But blocking it demonstrates that Fascism is prisoner to the priests because it is they who insist on censorship. According to Rosselli, Fascism has made a martyr of Moravia—an intelligent young man of extraordinary ability—but no danger or exceptional personality—a martyr who becomes a writer– victim of the regime for the rest of Europe, and someone persecuted for non-political reasons. Rosselli concludes that Fascism could not have done antifascism a greater favour than to ban Moravia’s novel.”

Antonini won the complete trust of Carlo Rosselli. In June, 1935, he attended, on GeL’s behalf, a congress of anti-Fascist writers in Paris. In the fall, Carlo Rosselli sent him on important confidential missions to Berlin and London. In the summer of 1935, as said before, he spent two months in Riga to prepare for his divorce from Hetty Marx, this must have been in August and September. He went to London on an important mission for Rosselli also in the spring of 1936.

It so happens that a specimen of Moussia’s handwriting which Karin gave me in 2001, is dated 10th May, 1936, when he was about to return from this second London mission, during which he tried, on behalf of GeL, to establish contact, via  the historian and former editor of “The Times”, Henry Wickham Steed, with Anthony Eden and Winston Churchill.


“My Gine,
This is the last letter before our reunion at the Gare du Nord at 6 o’clock ? on Tuesday. Write to me the precise time of your arrival. I shall come with my brush, my powder, my night gown and we’ll stay at the hotel. I’ll let Natou know and will not say anything to the others. I need you totally for me – I need to lose myself in Paris to find me back in you. We shall appear Wednesday at noon 6 rue Corot va bene?- You will not have time to write – Send a telegram! Gine my Gine – I dream- I think and I wish that our reunion be sweet —–
Yesterday evening I have lived a miracle —-
[On the side]:  Gino I kiss you – I press myself against you – I love you very much – tenderly passionately – I am yours – Mouche”

This sweet letter refers to “the others” and to “Natou” (diminutive of her daughter’s name Natasha, who was almost 12 years old at the time). “The others” may well refer  to Antonini’s literary friends who met every day in the nearby Café Murat (article 44).

Antonini did not hide his heavy involvement with Giustizia e Libertà from his friends at the Café Murat. The best proof of that is that, on one occasion, he introduced one of those friends,  the German writer Paul Krantz, writing under the pseudonym Ernst Erich Noth, a fervent anti-Nazi who lived in Paris in exile, to Carlo Rosselli, who invited him to have a long discussion on politics. I paraphrase from Antonini’s report to the OVRA of that long discussion, held on Monday evening March 15, 1937:

On Monday evening, the presence of the German writer Ernst Erich Noth provided the occasion for a long political discussion. They covered a lot of ground: domestic politics in France, the European political situation, the possibility or probability of a European war, the Spanish civil war, etc. they disagreed on all or almost all these topics. Noth condemned the attitude of the Communists. He doesn’t want to see a war, so he supports the line of Blum’s government on the Spanish question and is sympathetic towards England. His conclusion was that ‘despite all its defects, a French or English type of democracy is the best arrangement. ‘It leaves us the relative freedom, unlike elsewhere, to spend an evening airing different, even subversive, political views without the fear that tomorrow one of us will be hauled off to prison or worse.’ […]

The sentence which I record here in bold letters, is particularly chilling in view of what happened a few months later.

Carlo Rosselli on the right, and his brother ‘Nello’ on the left.

(to be continued)


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Introduction : The summer of 1937
August 26, the Spanish Civil War has been raging for over a year. Italian troops under General Anibale Bergonzoli (‘Barba Elettrica’) enter the town of Santander, witnessed by the adventurous young Dutch diplomat/writer Flaes/Terborgh and his three right-wing journalist friends whom he, in his diary, fondly calls ‘the gentlemen of the World Press’: Hubert Hermans (writing for some Dutch Roman Catholic newspapers), Paul Werner (a Swiss journalist who would later cover the Finnish war and follow the German army into Russia) and the Latvian press photographer Timuszko, of whom I have still to find the details. The four friends followed the Italian army in Terborgh’s car, in a convoy of Italian journalists. In February 1948, he wrote in the margin of a page in ‘The Vision of Peñafiel’, his book which had just been published :

« Howling sounds in the air and explosions to our right. The last few grenades fired from an old field cannon by a Red colonel, the last man to resist, on the day Santander was occupied. They howled above our heads when, in search of the commanding Italian general Bergonzoli, we had strayed into no-man’s land, a few kilometers ahead of the Italian troops. Fortunately, the Reds had already retreated along the coastal roads. »

A year before, Carlo Rosselli fought on the Republican side with his Italian ‘Matteotti Brigade’. His exclamation on Barcelona radio : “Oggi in Spagna, domani in Italia” (“Today in Spain, tomorrow in Italy”), may well have sealed his fate.

In his diary, Flaes/Terborgh describes his personal involvement in various Spanish Civil War events. These episodes will be the subject of a separate series of illustrated articles in the future. In his photo archive I found thirty-nine Leica negatives of striking ‘Robert Capa style’ photographs, illustrating the fall of Santander in August 1937 and the battle of Teruel (December 1937-February 1938). The photos, all taken on the Nationalist side, were most probably shot by Timuszko and include the one above, taken during the Italian entry into Santander. The film rolls were cut into separate single negatives and hidden in a folded envelope of ‘Le Bar Basque’, meeting place of diplomats and journalists of both right and left affiliation, in the French town Saint-Jean-de-Luz, close to the border with Spain.

During the Spanish Civil War, with the silent approval of the Dutch government, Flaes was involved in the escape of members of the Sartorius family from Republican territory, and in the escape (October 1936) of Ramón Serrano Suñer, Franco’s brother-in-law. Serrano Suñer escaped, disguised as a woman, from a hospital into a waiting car driven by Flaes’ helper, and was given secret refuge in Dutch Legation premises in Madrid. The famous endocrinologist Dr. Gregorio Marañon, Republican by heart but detesting the violence on both sides, had cooperated in this escape. He then had to flee Spain.

In December 1936, in Paris, Flaes went to visit dr. Gregorio Marañon who had asked to see him, and he took along Giacomo Antonini.


The lifelong close friendship between Giacomo Antonini and Reijnier Flaes blossomed and came to fruition between March 1935 and September 1938, when Flaes left for Peking. Sofar, I have not been able to find any proof that Flaes knew about Antonini’s link with the OVRA, although he must certainly have  known about his friend’s  involvement with Giustizia e Libertà (GeL). In 1936, he wrote in his diary that Antonini considered moving from Paris to London. In this context, Antonini must have told him about his visits to the  GeL headquarters there.

Flaes was a career diplomat and apolitical in the sense that he never voted, never was a member of a political party in the Netherlands and never expressed political views beyond his closest friends. But there is no doubt that his views were very conservative. He was a fierce anti-Bolshevik like the Antoninis, and in his diaries he always referred to socialists as “the Reds”.

He once said that he felt most at ease with people “who were born  before the First World War” like himself, because they viewed the world differently than the generations thereafter. His son once joked to me that, while he himself had  been on excellent personal terms with the socialist Portuguese Prime Minister Mario Soares (also he was a diplomat, but a liberal, serving in Portugal at the time of the Carnation Revolution in 1974), his father, upon his retirement in Portugal, had received a high decoration from the dictator Salazar (and had been decorated before by Juan Peron, when serving in Argentina).

Flaes, his wife Marguerite and the Antoninis saw each other frequently during the period 1935-1938, mostly in Paris where they would have dinner together in the Russian restaurant ‘Moscou’, go to the theatre (examples:  they saw ‘La créature’ by Ferdinand Bruckner, produced by Georges Pitoëff in 1935,  and Louis Jouvet in L’École des Femmes by Molière in 1936). Flaes sometimes took his friend ‘Gino’ out for trips of several days in the French countryside, visiting old cities and castles, discussing literature and politics all the time.

During the very same period, Antonini had frequent encounters with Carlo Rosselli, which he reported in detail to the OVRA, in written form.

The Spanish Civil War broke out on 17 July, 1936. The Spanish Nationalists had already had Mussolini’s moral support since 1934. From November 1936 onwards, he supported Franco with troops, airplanes, tanks and other equipment. As early as August 4, 1936,  Antonini reported to the OVRA in Rome that Rosselli had gone to visit André Malraux, who had just returned from Madrid on a military flight, to discuss forms of participation in the Civil War.  I paraphrase:

“ Rosselli suggested they put together a Red expeditionary corps to deploy in Spain. Malraux rejected the idea arguing instead for aerial bombardment. Rosselli couldn’t understand Malraux’s objections and organised an intervention of his own, organising the ‘Matteotti Brigade’”[Giacomo Matteotti was an Italian Socialist murdered by the Fascists, near Rome, in 1924]

During his campaign in Spain, Rosselli became ill (phlebitis in the legs) and was back in France on January 7, 1937. On January 11, Giacomo Antonini came to visit. He  sent the following report to the OVRA in Rome:

“Yesterday evening I found Carlo Rosselli lying across two chairs. He told me of his misfortunes which included an attack of phlebitis following the humidity and exertions of early November, the recurrence of an old inflammation problem, dating back 25 years, related to an operation he had undergone. The illness had obliged him to leave the front and to spend a month in bed. […] He has now taken medical advice and realises that he needs to spend a period of complete rest. The doctors have told him that in order to avoid future complications he will have to take the time to recover completely. This prospect has shaken his combative morale somewhat at a time when he feels his presence is all the more important in Spain. Leaving the field costs him dearly but after a few days of low morale he is rallying. His wife is insisting that he gets out of Paris. She wants to take him to Montreux but that isn’t possible after his expulsion from Switzerland a few years ago. He wants to go to the Côte d’Azur, but the climate there doesn’t suit his wife. The best place for a rest cure to get over his phlebitis is Bagnoles sur l’Orne, but the season doesn’t begin there until May, so that now they are considering a holiday in Sweden. They haven’t made up their minds yet”

This report from Antonini contained his first mention to the OVRA of Bagnoles d’Or and he kept the OVRA informed thereafter. In a report dated 15 May 1937, he wrote that Rosselli was planning to wind up GeL’s  journal and replace it with another publication. He added:

“On Sunday May 23 , Rosselli should leave for Bagnoles d’Orne for a three-week cure. I thought it best to suggest that I might come up to visit him.”

The Rosselli brothers were murdered on June 9. Their bodies were found two days later. Carlo’s wife Marion only heard about the death of her husband on the 14th. Also Bellavia was unaware of what had happened until a few days later. On 9 June, the day  of the murders, he wrote from Paris to Rome:

“Allow me to report that the emarginato has written to our collaborator [i.e. Antonini], who had said he would visit, to put it off for the next few days as his brother Nello had come to stay from Italy. Rosselli asked our collaborator to keep secret Nello’s arrival. I have agreed with our collaborator that he will visit in a week’s time, a visit which has been well planned and which will shed light on the provenance of the famous press releases from the Ministero of Press and Propaganda […] as set out in my earlier report”.

At the foot of the page, someone from the political police annotated in blue pencil: “È morto” – ‘He’s dead’.

Half a year later, the French police, who had infiltrated the Cagoule, proved that a hit squad of this French ultra-right wing organisation had carried out the assassination and that members of that squad had been closely following the movements of Carlos Rosselli since as early as the fall of 1936.

Neither Bellavia nor Antonini knew about  all this in 1937 and were as surprised by the murders as anyone else. The assassination must have weighed heavily on Antonini’s conscience. A direct involvement of the Mussolini regime must have seemed obvious to him. But he went forever into a state of denial as regards his own possible complicity.


The Rosselli brothers were buried on Saturday, June 19, 1937. A cortege of some 150,000 people followed the caskets from La Maison des Syndicats (Trade Union House) to the cemetary Père Lachaise. Giacomo Antonini must have been present, because his absence would have been unexplainable to the Rosselli family and his friends at the Café Murat. He had arrived in Paris from Amsterdam on the day of the funeral and, the day thereafter, visited the widow, Marion Rosselli to offer his condolences.

At the beginning of June 1937, after Carlos Rosselli had asked him not to delay his visit to Bagnoles d’Or , Antonini left for Amsterdam. He delayed his return by a week to June 19, the day of the funeral, and he was questioned immediately by the French police, during the following months, because they had found his letter to Rosselli announcing his visit. However, he could show Rosselli’s reply, asking him to delay his visit, and he had a perfect alibi by having stayed in Amsterdam.

Antonini’s financial position had improved, and he could start preparations for his marriage.

On  August 11, 1937, so two months after the Rosselli murders, Reijnier Flaes, his pregnant wife Marguerite and their little son René (Reijnier junior) arrived in Paris to pick up a new car at the Renault factory in Billancourt (“the new six-cylinder model in grey-green”). Flaes wrote in his diary:

“The Antoninis have moved to 6, Square Henri Pâté. They have refurnished the house and bought nice furniture. They have now installed themselves much better than in the rue Corot. I advanced him some money to finance their installation costs. He is waiting in vain for a shipment from Holland and has to depart with Maria to Riga tomorrow to fix his marriage affairs once and for all. Had lunch with Antonini. Listened to his story about his difficulties with the police in connection with a murder of two Italian journalists, one of whom was his friend and to whom had written a letter only two days [sic] before his death.”

The new appartment belonged to Moussia, so it must have been part of her divorce settlement with Alexander Borovsky (in Riga in 1936 – both Moussia and  her previous husband had held Latvian citizenship since 1926, see  article 33). Moussia and  Giacomo Antonini left for Riga on August 12, 1937, no doubt by train because they could not drive a car. Following Antonini’s divorce,  they were married in Riga on September 2, 1937.

On the way back to Paris, they visited Moussia’s ancestral home Wylagi in Kazimierz Dolny, Poland, where Moussia introduced Gino,  her great love,  to her family. They were delighted. In the 1970s,  Antonini told André Dzierzynski (see articles 5 and 7, a.o.) that Moussia’s Polish family gave him a warm welcome, spoke excellent French and prepared wonderful simple country food. The village folk serving at the table went barefoot, and Antonini had asked “why do the girls not wear shoes?” This baffled Moussia’s aunt (André’s grandmother), who exclaimed : “I suppose they were born like that !”

Below, I am showing three wedding pictures from Moussia’s album. The pictures can be enlarged by clicking on them. Although I was given to understand that they were taken in Riga on the day of the marriage, both André Dzierzynski and I have our doubts. It is evident that the people in the restaurant are intimate friends. It is most unlikely that they would have traveled by train or car  across Germany and Poland from Italy or France all the way to Riga, to be present on the wedding day. Moreover, Moussia’s daughter Natasha is present (standing behind Moussia and Gino) – she was in the Brillantmont International School in Lausanne at the time and would not have had the opportunity for such a long trip on her own, while having to miss classes. Thirdly, the car (a new 1937 Fiat/Simca ?) has an Italian license plate, from the city of Genoa – the picture must have been taken by the friend who drove it.

André and I believe that Moussia and Gino, on the way back to Paris,  decided to celebrate their Riga wedding again, but now amidst their friends, and that this was done close to Lausanne, in Northern Italy or a border region of France. Who are these guests ? I can only guess. The laughing gentleman at the head of the table looks remarkably like Roberto Suster, at the time Warsaw correspondent for Mussolini’s press agency Stefani (Suster was Antonini’s intimate friend and, in later years, also his protector, as will be shown in articles to come). I have a hunch that the lady in the wide-rimmed hat is Antonini’s close friend Sibilla Aleramo, the Italian novelist (61 years old at the time).

I call on my readers, those in Italy and France in particular,  to help me identify the people on the wedding lunch pictures. They may well have been prominent members of the literary scene in Italy and France. I can be reached by e-mail by clicking on ‘Contact’ under ‘The curator’ on the right-hand side of this page.



(to be continued)

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The Rosselli murders brought Antonini’s involvement with the OVRA and the income which came with it, to an end. He stepped up his efforts to write for Italian newspapers and to represent Italian publishing houses in Paris. This would not be achievable without being a party member. On August 18, 1938 he became a member of the Italian Fascist party.

Flaes saw Antonini frequently during 1938, making plenty of notes in his diary on their encounters, including remarks about their literary views and ideas for short stories.

In February,  he was in Paris with his wife and his Swiss mother-in-law, before taking them to a train departing to Switzerland. Together with the Antoninis, he explored the Marché des Puces (the Flea Market) where Moussia was looking for some furniture for their new apartement. In May, he attended a party at their home, a ‘Russian evening’ with “some weird émigrés, people with stature, but emaciated, apathetic; a spooky atmosphere”.

In June, Antonini became the godfather of Flaes’ second son Eric. On 4th June, Flaes picked up Antonini and Natasha at the station in Switzerland (they  had come from Lausanne, where Natasha was in school). The baptism took place on Easter Monday June 5 1938. A few happy days later, the two visitors went back to Lausanne and Paris.

Flaes saw his friends again at the end of June, then again in August, when he noted a nervous atmosphere. His brief notes are not very clear. Mention is made of pleasant dinners in L’Aigle Noir in Fontainebleau, together with Natasha who was on school holiday. He also notes that Moussia is unwell and very nervous; he does not quite understand why, but notes that she worries about ‘her papers not being in order’ and about a forthcoming visit of her former husband Alexander Borovsky, to discuss the future of their daughter in the light of the threat of anti-Semitism and of a war in Europe.

On September 12, he had dinner with the Antoninis, in a Czech restaurant. On the way home, in the street, they bought a late edition of a newspaper with the text of Hitler’s speech on the “Sudetenland question”. I quote from his diary:

“Unpleasant ambience. Alarming tone though no threats. People stand together in the street,  in the dark, without much discussion, strangely composed, a tangible, silent, tension.”

Borovsky visited the next day, so Flaes had lunch with Antonini in an Italian  restaurant. Back home, they found Moussia and Borovsky “in a state of great agitation. The news is alarming, ‘journalist colleagues’ of Antonini are on the phone, talk of partial mobilisation, Borovsky wonders if he should cancel a concert tour of Northern Europe. A mood of parting and decomposition and uncertainty about what invisible approaching threats may follow.”

On September 14th, he has an excellent lunch with the Antoninis in the Restaurant Moscou, following which “Gino had to go to the Sûreté because of the senseless murder case of last year.”

This remark is telling. Why should Antonini be interrogated anew? The French police had solved the murder case already in January 1938, having proved the assassination was perpetrated by the Cagoule and were satisfied that Antonini was not involved.

I believe that the answer lies in the subsequent arrest, on October 20, 1938,  of OVRA’s Paris network chief Vincenzo Bellavia and his ‘mole’ in the Sûreté, Jules Rakowski (see the US newspaper article above and ignore the misspelling of names).

OVRA’s spy network in France was rolled up, and Bellavia was expelled from France in 1939.

Amazingly, Antonini was neither arrested nor extradited. I wonder if this was the result of having cooperated with the French police, a few weeks before Bellavia’s arrest. Anyhow, he must have feared that he would also be arrested and extradited.

The spy ring having been liquidated, the names of both Antonini and the other ‘literary’ OVRA collaborator Dino Segre (who wrote under the pseudonym of Pitigrilli) were removed from OVRA’s list of active  fiduciari in 1939.

These events show, in my view,  why the Antonini household was in a state of nerves in August and September. The idea came up there and then that they would leave France and move to the United States. Together with Flaes (who was to be transferred to China later that year), a plan was hatched whereby the Antoninis, in an arrangement which later won the consent of the Dutch Foreign Office, would accompany Flaes’s two little sons and a Swiss nanny to Peking in February, 1939,  after Flaes  and his Swiss/Dutch wife Marguerite de Herrenschwand would have made a tour of many months in the Dutch East Indies while on their way to China, leaving the children under the care of their grandmother in Switzerland in the interim. There is no doubt in my mind that from Peking, the Antoninis would have gone to the United States. It was not to be. Flaes called the project off from Batavia (now Jakarta), when the situation in China deteriorated.

A new plan was then made, about which Alexander Borovsky, who was of Jewish descent, was informed from the start. The Antoninis would go to the United States, with Natasha, if Hitler would declare war and invade Poland (the country where Moussia’s closest relatives lived), becoming a menace also  to France and to its Jewish inhabitants in particular. Alexander Borovsky would try to make his own way out of Europe, probably to Argentina.

However, a complication arose. Antonini, until then without a steady job,  was hired by his close friend Roberto Suster, since January 1939 Director of the Paris office of Agenzia Stefani, to become Stefani’s correspondent in Paris. Agenzia Stefani was Mussolini’s Press and Propaganda agency,with a strong link to the Italian Foreign Office under Mussolini’s son-in-law Galeazzo Ciano.

Born in 1895, the polyglot Suster was trusted by Mussolini, who charged him with confidential international missions. This explains his frequent job moves as Stefani correspondent, successively to Germany, Russia, China and Japan, Persia, the Balkan, the Baltic countries and Prague, before arriving in 1933 in Warsaw where, until January 1939, he held the combined jobs of  Chief Embassy Press Officer, Stefani correspondent, political secretary of Italian Fascists in Poland and the Editor of the magazine ‘Polonia-Italia’.  Suster spoke Russian and Polish and was first married to a Russian woman. I suspect that it was in Poland that the Antoninis made the acquaintance of Suster for the first time.


On June 1, 1940, Moussia and Natasha sailed from Genoa, Italy, on the luxury liner SS Manhattan (they can be seen in the background of the picture above). In their trunks, they had Antonini’s suits and ties. It is not clear if it had been decided that he was to follow later, or that a US entry visa was already refused in Genoa.

Then, Italy declared war on June 10th, joining Germany.

According to the memoirs he dictated in the last  few years of his life, Antonini fled to the Italian Embassy in Paris where he slept for two nights on the floor. Then, together with the Embassy staff, he was put on a special train to Geneva, where the group was exchanged for French diplomatic staff from the French Embassy in Rome. From there, he travelled to Rome where he met Suster and they both put up in the Hotel Luxor.

In Rome, he tried to obtain a US entry visa but he was unsuccessful. The American consul told him plainly that as an Italian who was not a Jew, he had no chance.

Roberto Suster became Agenzia Stefani’s Director of their Berlin office and asked  Antonini, fluent in German, to join him, which he did  on 15th August 1940. In Berlin, he tried again, unsuccessfully,  to obtain a US entry visa (the United States did not enter the war with Germany until December 11, 1941, when Germany and Italy declared war in support of Japan). On 27 September 1940, he was present at the signing of  the Tripartite Pact between Japan, Germany and Italy, the Axis, following which he returned to Rome.

By the end of 1940 it had apparently been decided that, since Antonini could not leave Europe, Moussia would attempt to come back from the United States, after having put her daughter in college. In February 19, 1941, Antonini  asked  his friend Suster to convince his superiors to have him transferred to Paris, where he would await Moussia. Suster told him (still according to Antonini’s own dictated memoirs), that Ciano did not want him to leave Italy before the war was over, on the grounds that he was notoriously pro-French and pro- English. However, Suster persuaded Carmine Senise, Arturo Bocchini’s replacement as the boss of the OVRA (Bocchini died 22 November 1940), to let Antonini return to Paris, via Berlin. His subsequent activities in Paris will be the subject of the next article.

Until recently, from other sources than Antonini’s memoirs, all I knew about Moussia’s stay in the United States, was that she had found some friends of the past and put her daughter into college. In the summer of 1940, she stayed for a few months, with Igor and Vera Stravinsky in Beverly Hills. In New York, she managed to find her first husband Vladimir Baranovsky and his wife Fern. During the next few years, this wonderful couple looked after Natasha during weekends and school holidays. Alexander Borovsky had managed to flee from France to Argentina. Natasha was enrolled in Sarah Lawrence College in New York.

Then followed one of the many extraordinary adventures which have marked Moussia’s life. This intrepid woman dared to risk U-boats and return to her beloved Gino Antonini while the war was on. But she ran into an unexpected obstacle.

Antonini wrote in his memoirs that Moussia left New York on a Spanish boat, sailing to Bilbao, intending to travel back to Paris by train. The British Secret Service took her off the boat in Bermuda and interned her there, on the grounds of her “being the wife of a confidant of Galeazzo Ciano”, telling her that she could not leave the camp in Bermuda until the end of the war.

She was released after two months of internment, after many strings had been pulled. The combined efforts of her own personal friends in the US and of the Holy See (which had been contacted at Antonini’s request by Alessandro Lessona, former Italian minister of African Affairs), had been successful. She made it back to Paris, where she arrived in the spring of 1941, finding her husband in full swing in two new jobs.

Being in the extraordinary position of having access to so many different sources, I am happy to add the following account, which I found quite recently in the Memoirs of Natasha’s father Alexander Borovsky.

Rave newspaper reviews of his concerts in Buenos Aires in the months of June and July, 1940 had attracted the attention of the American impresario Sol Hurok, who asked him to come to New York and arranged a visa for him.

Buenos Aires 1940, from left to right the pianists Mieczyslaw Munz, Alexander Borovsky and Claudio Arrau, and the conductors Gregorio Fitelberg & Alberto Wolff.

In New York, in September 1940, Alexander Borovsky was reunited with his daughter Natasha,  who had just become 16 years old. She was alone.

His account of that meeting will be specially savoured by the faithful readers of the first forty articles in this series.  In the 1950s, Borovsky wrote in his Memoirs:

“My daughter had come to New York alone, without her mother. I did not know what to do with her. I had to go on tour to South America and here she was, my daughter of 16 years of age. I could not take her along on tour, I did not know anyone with whom she could stay. It was a situation which baffled me. I explained to my daughter that I must leave and could not take her with me, and she understood it well. She told me that she would stay alone in New York, if only I could find for her a suitable place to stay, in due course she would find a college and live on the campus.

One of my new American acquaintances suggested to place my daughter in an international house for students, promising that she would make the necessary arrangements. With this promise, I left my daughter for a few days at the house of a very old friend of my former wife [ this very old friend was Vladimir Baranovsky, Moussia’s first husband, would Borovsky still have been in the dark about that ?? I do not think so, he was just very discreet] and that is how I left her in New York.

I remember that, when my daughter called her mother in Los Angeles to say that would stay in New York, her mother was outraged by the idea, but how could she expect me to have acted otherwise? One minute later, there was a call from Los Angeles, full of reproaches and insults. Then my daughter called her mother again, asking her to understand the situation and to believe that nothing untoward would happen to her. There were many calls that night, I can’t imagine how much money was spent on these discussions between the telephone earphones at one end in New York and on the other end, in Los Angeles. [ … ]

Then I left by train to Chicago, on tour. [ … ] In Chicago, I had the chance to meet my former wife Maria in time at the rail road station, she was on the way from Los Angeles to New York from where she wanted to return to her husband in Paris. She had already accepted my plans for our daughter and was friendly to me, and happy that I could have timed my departure from New York in time so that I could see her.

When I saw her disappearing, in the window of a moving train car, I was asking myself whether I would ever see her again in my life. She was still a very beautiful lady, but I did not regret that our ways separated.”

Alexander Borovsky then left on a six months’ tour to South America and the Caribbean.  When he returned, he found that his daughter had managed to get herself enrolled in Sarah Lawrence College in New York, all by herself.

“She told me that she had written off  to several colleges  asking for a scholarship, explaining that she had fled from Europe and was left by her mother who had gone back to join her husband in Paris, and that she did not want to bother her mother, nor her father, with the costs of tuition and other expenses. She was very successful with her pleas, getting offers from two colleges from which she chose Sara Lawrence College.”

Borovsky adds:  “She was very talented in languages, she could speak  six of them very well indeed. She was born and raised in Paris where she learned French, then moved to Berlin where she had to speak German. She was often taken to the estate of her mother’s family in Poland, where she learned Polish. She learned Russian because her parents preferred  to speak Russian at home. Thereupon she learned Italian because the new husband of her mother was an Italian and she was often in Italy with him.”

[ …]

Then, a most surprising revelation:

“In the course of some conversations with her, I found out that she had been broke for a long time. WHY ?, I wondered, because I had left her with enough money to last at least six months. At long last, I could get the following story out of her.

Her mother took a boat from New York to Europe, I do not know of what nationality and what line. Anyhow, this boat had to stop at Bermuda and pass the control of the British authorities. When they saw the Italian name which her mother acquired with her marriage to an Italian, they asked her to leave the boat,  and they put her in a camp. For three months she tried to get the permit to continue her voyage to Europe, to her husband, and when the permit was granted she had no money left for the second boat.

She did not know where I was or, maybe, she did not want to ask me, anyhow she wrote of her predicament to my daughter, whereupon my daughter sent her immediately what she had left of the money left by me. It helped her mother greatly, and she was soon back in Paris which was then under Nazi power. It was a wonderful gesture by my daughter, the more so since she did not tell me about it – I had to pull the story from her bit by bit.”

So, my faithful readers, having written more than forty articles about Moussia before I found this account by Borovsky,  I now see her yet again in a slightly different light. She truly was a woman for all seasons.

September 1940, in the United States. Alexander and Moussia (not at the railway station in Chicago !) and the 16-year-old Natasha, in New York.

(to be continued)

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1941. Giacomo Antonini in discussion with dr. Otto Abetz, German ambassador in France (left) and with a German officer in the uniform of a lieutenant-colonel. My guess is that he is Heinz Schmidtke, chief of the Propaganda Staffel, responsible for the censorship of all cultural life in France – press, literature, radio, film, theatre, music – with offices in fifty cities all over France. Schmidtke arrived in Paris in July 1940 as a major and was soon promoted to lieutenant-colonel.

After the armistice between France and Germany in June 1940, the Germans moved swiftly to bring cultural life in France under their control. This had all been prepared before the war. Yet, there was confusion, even rivalry, between two different entities, on the one hand the German Embassy under Ambassador Otto Abetz, in a general cultural role, taking orders from Joachim von Ribbentrop, the minister of Foreign Affairs – and, on the other hand, the Propaganda Staffel under Heinz Schmidtke which was charged with censorship of all cultural activities.

The Propaganda Staffel came formally under the Commander of the occupation army, but for all practical purposes under the German Ministry of Education of the People and Propaganda under Joseph Goebbels, with whom Schmidtke had a direct line of communication. Sonderführer Gerhard Heller (with the rank of lieutenant) was Schmidtke’s right hand man. The name of Heller, a Nazi since before 1933, is still known in France today because he gave his approval to the publication of some works by anti-fascist authors, like Albert Camus.

Otto Abetz (1903-58) was a Francophile from his early youth onwards. In 1930, together with his best friend in France, Jean Luchaire, he founded a Germano-French cultural youth group, the Sohlberg Circle. In 1932, he married a French woman, Suzanne de Bruykere, Jean Luchaire’s secretary. Like Jean Luchaire, he had had socialist leanings before embracing Fascism. He joined the Nazi party in 1931. Having entered the diplomatic service in 1935, he became Germany’s ambassador to France already in 1938 but was extradited in 1939 as a spy. He was back in France in July 1940, again as Germany’s ambassador.

Jean Luchaire (1901-1946) was a French journalist and press baron. Son of Professor Julien Luchaire, historian and writer, he was born in Siena, Italy. His father was a professor at Florence University. Unlike his father, he supported Fascism. In 1940, he founded Les Nouveaux Temps, a collaborationist newspaper. Loyal supporter and minister of the Pétain Government, he became the President of the Paris Press Association and, later, of the French National Press Corporation.

It is in this milieu that Moussia found her husband, when she returned from the United States in the spring of 1941. In this milieu  he would continue to function until the summer of September 1943.

In his new capacity as Paris bureau chief of the Stefani Press Agency, being fluent in German,  he was introduced to Heinz Schmidtke on May 13, 1941, by the Italian Press Attaché, Francesco Anfuso, brother of Filippo Anfuso, the right-hand man of Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s Foreign Secretary. The two men soon became friends. Schmidtke’s girlfriend, Ira de Poligny, had a Russian mother and got on well with Moussia.

Antonini’s first objective was to re-activate the Stefani Press Service in Paris. Introduced by Schmidtke, he met Ambassador Abetz as early as on May 23 1941. Abetz offered him part-time use of his diplomatic wire service so that he could get in reliable touch with Stefani in Rome.  According to Antonini’s memory notes, Abetz explained to him that he was a fervent supporter of French collaboration with the New Order in Europe,  providing it was firmly based on a radical change of mentality between France on the one hand  and Germany and Italy on the other hand, while France would have to make war reparations in kind or in money to those two countries.

In the summer of 1941, Antonini was promoted, once again on the recommendation of Francesco Anfuso, to the position of President of the International Press Association of Italy. To celebrate the occasion, he gave a reception in the Italian Embassy in Paris, during which the three pictures shown in this article were taken. I have ‘sifted’ the Internet diligently in order to identify the people in the photos and the results are shown in the captions.

Antonini befriended Robert Brasillach. Brasillach was the editor of the weekly “Je suis partout”, the principal collaborationist newspaper, with anti-Semite overtones, during the German occupation, and renewed his friendship with Jean Luchaire whom he had known as a boy in the primary school ‘Michelangelo’ in Florence.

The only source of information about his activities in Paris in the period 1941 until July 25 1943, the day of the fall of Mussolini, is Antonini himself, in the memoirs he dictated to his wife Karin between 1979 and 1983, the year of his death.

It would appear that he felt he was just carrying out his professional duty for Stefani and the Italian Embassy, while  building his network with Italian publishers and writers, without any particular scruples. He put his acquaintance with Schmidtke to good use and succeeded in:

  • ensuring that the editor Michel Gallimard, friend of Albert Camus, was not sent to a forced labour camp
  • bringing about the escape of a Hungarian journalist whom the Gestapo thought was a Jew
  • saving the life of his Jewish friend Michel Forstetter, a translator of Russian, betrayed to the French police by French fellow citizens

However, there is no mention in these memoirs of anti-Semite literature, or of expropriation and deportation of Jews, although many of his regular acquaintances were involved in these activities. Already in the summer of 1940, Abetz had organized the expropriation of rich Jewish families. In March 1941 began the orchestration of anti-Jewish propaganda and the establishment of filing systems to register all Jews. After these preparations, the deportations of Jews began March 27 1941. The obligation to wear yellow was announced in May. The terrible large-scale  razzia, by the French police,  the round-up of some 13000 Jews in the indoor cycling stadium Vel’ d’Hiv, took place on 16 and 17 July, 1942.

Otto Abetz and his deputy Rudolf Schleier were heavily implicated in these crimes.

In 1949, Otto Abetz was tried in France and condemned to twenty years in prison but he was freed very soon, in 1954. Together with his wife, he was killed in a car accident in Germany in 1959.

Rudolf Schleier was transferred to Berlin in 1943 and  escaped arrest by the French authorities. He died in 1959.

Jean Luchaire was condemned to death for having collaborated with the enemy and was executed at Fort de Châtillon, at Fontenay-aux-Roses, near Paris, on February 1946, despite testimony in his favour by his friend Otto Abetz.

Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, front man of the cultural collaboration with the German occupiers and editor of La Nouvelle Revue Française replacing, in 1940,  Jean Paulhan (Antonini’s friend after the war) at the behest of the Propaganda Staffel, went underground and committed suicide.

Robert Brasillach was condemned to death in 1945 for having committed ‘intellectual crimes’ and executed, after General de Gaulle had refused amnesty. The petition for amnesty was signed by the writers Paul Valéry, Paul Claudel, François Mauriac, Daniel-Rops, Albert Camus, Marcel Aymé, Jean Paulhan, Roland Dorgelès, Jean Cocteau,  Colette, Maurice de Vlaminck, Jean Anouilh and many others.

1941. Giacomo Antonini with his friend Jean Luchaire (in the middle) and the man on the right, who could be Sonderführer Gerhard Heller. For comparison, see the pictures below.

Left: Jean Luchaire. Right: a well known photo showing Gerhard Heller (in uniform) with a group of French writers whom he accompanied during a visit to Germany in November 1941, at the invitation of Joseph Goebbels. Next to Heller: Pierre Drieu de la Rochelle, further to the right Georg Rabuse, Robert Brasillach, Abel Bonnard, André Fraigneau.

So far I have been able to identify with confidence only one person on this picture: Ambassador Abetz’s second-in-command Rudolf Schleier, second from right. The man whose cigar is being lit by Antonini looks remarkably like  Filippo Anfuso , the chief of staff of Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s Foreign Minister.

(to be continued)

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Moussia and Alberto Magrini in Venice, 1944


After the second World War, Reijnier Flaes visited his friend Gino Antonini in Paris at the first available opportunity.

They had not seen each other since September, 1938. Flaes had lived through turbulent times: interned in the Dutch legation in Peking by the Japanese, then evacuated to Lourenço Marques in an exchange of Western diplomats against their Japanese counterparts,  a brief period in London during the Blitz and then a few years, 1943-1945, in Lisbon, city of spies and of transit for Jewish refugees.

In December 1945, he was transferred to Warsaw, a city in ruins. During his first annual leave he went to Paris, to look for Antonini and Moussia. He noted the following in his diary (which he called : ‘mnemotechnical notes’):

“October 20, 1946. Arrived at at 8 o’clock in Paris, where Gino is waiting for me. Checked into Hotel Bristol, made a long walk with Gino, to the roundabout of the Champs Elysées. Talked and talked,  until 11 o’clock.

“October 21: visited Moussia and Gino at 6, Square Henri Pâté. Moussia in bed with a cold. The two have not changed at all, we have continued our conversation without any rupture, as if we broke it off yesterday. Gino summarizes his adventures since 1938. Stefani until June 1940, a year in Rome, a few months in Berlin, then Rome again, thereafter Paris, until the Armistice [i.e. between Italy and the Allied Powers, 3-8 Sepember 1943]

Internment. Sent to Italy – life in the camps – refoulement [he uses a French word, roughly meaning ‘driven back’] to Venice – return to France after September, 1944. Successive troubles in several French prisons, finally: stabilisation in the spring of 1945. Since then: active in the publishing world; he has become representative in France of a publisher in Milan.  Saw ‘The Condottiere’, hanging on the wall in their dining room. We went out, exhibitions etc.”

“October 23, 1946. Lunch at the Antoninis, joined by  Father Teilhard de Chardin [who befriended Flaes in Peking]. Father T. has returned from China last spring, he will stay in Paris for another year. Beautiful grey-haired old man, very sympathetic, he has has not changed one bit. ‘La vieille France’. More fascinating than ever in his appearance, without saying much. I am unable to explain what makes him so charming. ‘Très homme du monde, très indulgent et large.’ Straightforward, unimposing, full if little jokes, a beautiful phrase, a poetic thought.”

Before continuing, I give a short historical background summary:

{ After the fall of Mussolini in July, 1943, a new Italian goverment started secret negotiations with the Allied Powers who had, after pushing the Italian army out of North Africa, just landed in Sicily. The Armistice, a euphemism for surrender, was agreed on September 3 and made public on September 8. The German army then wasted no time, invading all of Italy very rapidly. Mussolini was liberated by German SS paratroop commandos under Otto Skorzeny on September 12. On September 23, Mussolini proclaimed the neofascist RSI,  La Repubblica Sociale Italiana, the Social Italian Republic, usualy called the  Salò Republic, named after a small town on Lake Garda. This was in fact a puppet regime of Hitler. }

Flaes’s notes were very brief indeed. Antonini gives a more detailed account in the autobiographical notes he dictated a few years before his death in 1983.

In September 1943, following the Italian Armistice, the Germans declared all personnel of the Italian embassy in Paris ‘personae non gratae’. The Antoninis left Paris by train from the Gare de l’Est with a group of other Italian diplomats, and were locked up in Vittel, a notorious concentration camp in the Vosges. From there they left, after a while, probably in an exchange with German diplomats, to Northern Italy and were interned by the  Salò neofascist government in the concentration camp of Salsomaggiore.

In December 1943, a high official of that government let them go to Venice, but with Gino under house arrest, in the home of their friends Dirce and Alberto Magrini. The neofascist official told Antonini that he was on a shortlist of hostages, to be executed if Venice would come under attack.

As soon as the news of the liberation of Paris (August 1944) reached Venice, Antonini and Moussia were again detained and moved to the Stura Valley in Piemonte, close to Cuneo. They were first emprisoned in Vinadio, then in a converted inn at Forte Vinadio, close to the French border.

One may ask why Antonini, who had done his duty as an Italian (from his own point of view) by his work in Paris as Stefani’s correspondent and as Press Attaché of the Italian Embassy, was taken hostage by the Salò government. The reason, I think, is that Mussolini had come to strongly suspect the rather cosmopolitan Stefani Agency. It had always been under the orders of Galeazzo Ciano, the Foreign minister and married to Mussolini’s favourite daughter. In July, 1943, Ciano had voted in favour of ousting Mussolini.

When the Salò republic was proclaimed, on 23 September, the General Director of Stefani, Roberto Suster, Antonini’ close friend and protector, had been taken off the job. He was imprisoned as a hostage in October, in the San Gregorio monastery which had been partly converted into a prison. Both Antonini and Suster had good reasons  to distrust Mussolini; on January 11, 1944,  he had his son-in-law Ciano executed, in a sitting position , tied to a chair, by a bullet in the head.

The Antoninis managed to escape from their captors and crossed the Alps, arriving at the nearby village of Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée. They hitchhiked in military vehicles of the Franco-American forces who had landed in Southern France in the Operation Dragoon, first to Marseille, from there to Lyon and they finally managed to reach their apartment in Paris.

Two days after their homecoming, Antonini was put under arrest by a ‘Comitato italiano di Liberazione’, an Italian Liberation Committee, belonging to a multi-party organization instituted by the post-war Italian government to round up fascist war criminals. He was taken to their Headquarters, a converted clinic in the Rue des Bleuets,  11th Arrondissement. Five ‘judges’ interrogated Antonini in an intimidating manner, by frequently pushing the barrel of  a submachine gun in his back. According to Antonini, his jailers were not just communists, but agents of the NKVD, interested in  his work for Giustizia e Libertà and Carlo Rosselli, intent on finding an excuse to execute him as soon as possible.

Reality is often more improbable than fiction. Here is another example:

Moussia’s seamstress was the mistress of the Chief of Police of the 11th Arrondissement. He called the Italian Liberation Committee by telephone en warned them severely that Antonini was under the protection of the French Government. This caused some confusion between the judges. Then Moussia appeared on the scene and, in a magnificent display of temper, dumbfounded the head judge by telling him that ”not having been afraid of his former boss Yagoda in the Lubyanka in 1927, she was certainly not afraid of him !” (see article 35).

Antonini soon found out what was meant by ‘being under the protection of the French Government’. He was taken, by the French police, to their office in the Rue Saint Ambroise and from there to Drancy, the former transit camp for Jews on their way to Auschwitz and now a detention center for French collaborators, where he  saw many war time friends.

Towards the end ot 1944, he was taken from there  to the notorious prison of Fresnes. His trial took place in January, 1945. Maurice Garçon, a well-known defense lawyer, managed to get him acquitted, justifying his proven contacts with Germans and with the Pétain government by showing that he had been instrumental in saving the lives of two people, one being a Jew, from the hands of the Gestapo (see article 48).

But Antonini’s worries were not over yet.

Since 29 January 1945, a trial was in full swing in Rome, in the High Court for the punishment of fascist crimes, covering many such crimes, including the Rosselli murders. During the trial, witnesses testified  convincingly that the Rosselli murders were indeed ordered by the Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano, with the connivance of his Chief of Staff Filippo Anfuso. The verdict was given on March 12 , 1945. All the accused were found guilty.

Filippo Anfuso (see article 48) was sentenced to death in absentia (Ciano was already dead). Anfuso had fled to France and from there to Spain. General Mario Roatta, Colonel Santo Emanuale, and Major Roberto Navale were convicted to lifelong imprisonment. A few year later, all four of them, Anfuso included,  enjoyed total freedom in Italy. Neither the rôle of the OVRA, nor Antonini’s name were mentioned during the trial.

In France, the nine perpetrators of the Rosselli murders were re-arrested (the Pétain government had released them in 1940) and they made full confessions in 1945. The trial took place in october 1948. Jean Filliol was sentenced  to death in absentia (he had fled to Spain) and the others to various punishments. But a few years later, they were all free. Neither the rôle of the OVRA, nor Antonini’s name were mentioned during the trial.

Antonini could breathe a sigh of relief. But not for long. In July 1946, to his utter consternation, his name was included on the list of OVRA informers, fiduciari,  published in the Italian State Gazette (see article 42).

He has maintained until his death that this inclusion was erroneous, the result of manipulation by jealous colleagues who wanted to discredit him with their slander. He probably thought that his reports to the OVRA would never be found. But they were dozing in the Italian State Archive in Rome and would be woken up by  Italian historians some fifteen years after his death. I’ll write a bit more on this subject in the next article.


With the help of the notice board on the upper photo, I managed to reconstruct when these pictures were taken. They were taken on 11 september 1951, during the Biennele of Venice , on the evening of the world premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progres, under the baton of the composer, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in one of the roles. Moussia was a close friend of the Stravinskys, with whom she had stayed during several months in the summer of 1940, in Beverly Hills (article 47). Antonini was a great lover and connoisseur of opera. Vera Stravinsky mentions, in a photo diary, pleasant stays with ‘Countess and Count Antonini in their ancestral home in Venice’, without mentioning the dates. This home must have been the house of Dirce and Alberto Magrini, across the water from the San Zanipolo church. One can see that on the back op the lowermost photo, Moussia refers to Dirce and Albetto Magrini, their hosts in 1944. In this series of articles I have published many photos of the beautiful Moussia, of which those taken in the 1920s are probably the most beautiful. But on none of those older pictures does she look as relaxed and happy as on the photo above. At last, the Antoninis were settled and happy.

Towards the end of 1945, Antonini’s pre-war literary efforts and networking bore fruit. A big Milan editor, Valentino Bompiani, engaged him as his literary agent in France, at a fixed salary.

It was a master stroke, for him and Antonini alike.

Bompiani visited Paris in the winter of 1946 and was introduced everywhere –  in the literary world – by Giacomo Antonini. With the help of Antonini, he obtained in 1946 et 1947,  the rights in Italy  of French classics in translation, like those of  Proust, Flaubert, Balzac, Chateaubriand, and , more importantly, the rights to publish in translation, the works of Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Giono, André Malraux, Jules Supervielle, Julien Gracq and many other French ‘moderns’. Moreover, Antonini opened for him the French market for Italian literature in French translation.

Already in 1947, Bompiani extended Antonini’s remuneration, by introducing commissions.

The situation of Antonini seemed to have stabilized, indeed.

(to be continued)



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Maria “Mousia” Sila-Nowicki died on August 2, 1959 at the age of 64, of a brain tumor. She is buried in the Russian cemetery near Paris, Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois.

A few months ago, to my great surprise,  I found a photo of her grave on the internet, on the site of the Find a Grave organisation. When you click on the following link: :  Moussia, you will see the details. Then, in the left hand column on the page, click on ‘Find all Antoninis in Cimetière de Sainte Geneviève des Bois’, like I did, curiously. You’ll be surprised once more, because you will find that Giacomo Antonini is, ostensibly,  also buried in this grave. When he died, 16 June, 1983, he was married to Karin Barnsley, his third wife.


On the photo, it is difficult to read the plaque on the cross but one can decipher  ‘25.1.1895 – 2.8.1959 Comtesse Maria Antonini’ and ‘Comte Iacopo Antonini 18.9.1901 – 16.6.1983’.

I called Karin Antonini immediately and told her what I had found. She was baffled that the grave would be visible on the internet. Then she said:

“Gino was happily married to Moussia. They were together twenty-eight years, from 1931 until 1959. Also my marriage with Gino of twenty-two years was a very happy one. I knew Mousia during the last few years of her life,  we were friends. As you know, I have always honored the memory of that formidable woman. After Gino’s cremation, I went to France and scattered part of his ashes over Moussia’s grave. I found that a normal thing to do, under the circumstances.”

“And the plaque, which says that both of them are buried there?”

“I had it made and affixed to the cross.”

“And what have you done with the remainder of Gino’s ashes?”

“I scattered them over an area right next to my future grave and I erected a small memorial there for Gino and planted a Tuscan cypress behind it, the tree is doing quite well.”

Who is this extraordinary woman, Karin Barnsley?

The marriage of Karin Barnsley to Giacomo Antonini, December 8, 1961

Karin Barnsley was born in 1927, daughter of Edward and Tania Barnsley. Karin’s mother came from a Swedish-Russian background. Her father Edward was a famous English cabinet maker, about whom three books have been written. Some of his creations are shown in museums. He died in 1987, but his work shop still exists, please click on the following link: The Edward Barnsley Workshop where Karin is also briefly mentioned.

Already as a young girl, Karin was quite independent. In 1941, when she was fourteen years old, she left home to live in London, during the Blitz. As soon as the war was over, she crossed the channel and went to live in France. With time, she found a job in Paris, with UNESCO. When Moussia died, leaving behind Antonini in a state of shock,  she had met the Antoninis several times, with mutual friends. Two years later, she accepted without hesitation the wedding proposal of Antonini, twenty-six years her senior. She told me that their marriage was a very happy one.

In the beginning they continued to live at 6, Square Henri Pâté. Following Antonini’s retirement, they moved to England in 1967, into the Bee House, in Petersfield, East Hampshire,  Karin’s parental home.

The two were very active in the local community. Karin occupied herself, together with others, with the founding of a Trust which would safeguard the continued existence of her father’s workshop. Antonini pursued his great passion, the opera, and accumulated a large collection of longplay records. He was founder member of the English Donizetti Society,  President of the Dante Alighieri Institute at Winchester and Southampton, and of the Anglo-Italian Society at Portsmouth.

During my visit to Karin, in February 2001, together with my wife Hannelore, we were pleasantly astonished about the enthusiasm and openness with which Karin spoke to us not only  about Gino, but also about Moussia (see article 42).

Karin and Hannelore in the kitchen of the Bee House, in 2001.

After our return in Holland, Karin wrote to me several times. I am quoting below an interesting paragraph:

“Between 1969 and his death, Gino on and off wrote some reminiscences for me and for Niccolò: His childhood in Venice, schools in Holland and meeting with Dutch writers, meeting with Hetty Marx, that miserable marriage, meeting with Moussia; some memories of Paris and travels between the wars – (I have added, in an English version I made, any dates and events I discovered in books and other papers). He dictated his war memories and those of immediately after the  war to me in 1979 as he was still too upset to write them himself. Then he wrote about his meeting with me. This last part I have not yet translated from his Italian. [ … ]

If you would like to come again you could look at any parts that would interest you – or, if I manage to visit you – I would bring them.”

My friend Stuart Dodds, the husband of the late Natasha Borovsky, has let me consult the personal notes of Natasha of a visit to the Bee House in 1976 and some twelve letters written by Antonini to Natasha in the period January 1979 – August 1981.

In April 1976, Natasha had not seen Antonini since June 1, 1940, when she and her mother left Genoa for the United States on the ship ss Manhattan (see article 47). Then, she was a teenager, with a secret crush on her caring stepfather. In 1976, she found him profoundly changed, tense and irritable, and she was rather taken aback by the fact that the Bee House seemed to be a kind of sanctuary for Moussia, in which Karin quietly acquiesced.

The twelve letters 1979-1981, all in French, deal almost exclusively with  long lists of longplay opera records which Natasha looked for in the US and was to send to Antonini in England by seamail. I have picked two of very few sentences of a more personal nature:

January 27, 1979
« The situation of the  country, which is catastrophic, makes me remember the Germany of 1931/32 when  I lived in Berlin together with your adorable mother with whom I was madly in love, as you know … » [Antonini refers to the chaotic situation in England in 1979]

and the following most significant phrase, in a letter of February 15, 1980:

« At the behest of Karin, who insists on it very much, I have started to write down my personal reminiscences not meant for publication. That takes me time and it makes me tired, but maybe it is better that I do it, because having talked about myself, I can then talk about others I have known, writers and musiciens. I have just arrived in Berlin [1931]. Of course,  that makes me  think about you a lot, remembering how I saw you pass my window at Salzburger Strasse, … you recall?”»

This letter confirms that Antonini started to write and dictate his memoirs, placed in the archive in Florence,  only a few years before he died – but adds that it was done at the behest of Karin.

Karin has always taken the position that Antonini’s archives are open and that there is nothing to hide. She has always spoken to me with great frankness. She granted full access to Antonini’s personal archives in Florence to the Italian journalist Roberto Festorazzi, who even had temporary access to a restricted part of those archives. In his book he reveals a mass of details which I have left out of my current series. Nonetheless, Karin has told me that,  in line with what Antonini himself has maintained until his death, she refuses to believe that Antonini worked for the OVRA, passing on reports about Carlo Rosselli.

From all that, I can only draw one conclusion: I think that Karin, whom I know as a person with very high moral standards, has not known about her husband’s involvement with the OVRA, until she saw Festorazzi’s book. Festorazzi found the proof of this involvement, like Mimmo Franzinelli did,  in the Italian State Archive in Rome.

In my view, the same goes for Moussia. Of course, she must have known about Antonini’s involvement with Carlo Rosselli and his  Giustizia e Libertà. But she did not know, I believe, that he reported on these activities to the OVRA. And when, in 1946,  the name of Giacomo Antonini appeared on the list of OVRA’s fiduciari, she had no choice but to believe what her husband said to her.

I admit that we cannot know this with total certainty.

As I am writing these lines I have to think of the words which a granddaughter of Alexander Kerensky, Russia’s first leader after the February revolution of 1917, wrote to me.

Half a year ago, in the course of my research for articles 10-20 of this series, I managed to have a long telephone conversation with a grandson of Kerensky. He  took time to talk about about the political activities of his grandfather  but when the conversation moved on to his family and its genealogy, he confessed to finding it painful to talk about that. There had been too much pain and misery. But he gently encouraged me to write to his sister. Which I did, and she helped me with information  in a very friendly way. I mentioned my conversation with her brother and asked her if it would not be better if I did not include all I knew in my blog article. This was her reply, which I found moving:

« Dear Jan, I don’t really see why you shouldn’t publish what you have on the descendants of Lev; one of  my mottos is Voltaire’s:  “On ne doit aux morts que la verité” (to the dead,  one owes nothing but the truth).  Of course, sometimes truth is a tricky thing to get hold of, but I have no objection to people publishing their honest opinions. »

That is what I have endeavoured  to do with this series of fifty articles: publish my honest opinions.

Notwithstanding my efforts and those of some other authors,  Giacomo remains a mystery. Professor Mimmo Franzinelli calls him ‘L’ineffabile Antonini”. As regards his involvement in the Rosselli episode, one not only wonders: “Has Moussia known?”, “Has Karin known?”, but just as much:  “Has Reijnier Flaes, his best friend, known? And:  “Has Alberto Moravia known?”

Moravia admitted to a journalist that his book and the related  film ‘The Conformist” were indeed based on the assassination of the Rosselli  brothers, his Jewish cousins. Yet, he stayed friends with Antonini for many years after the book came out, and he never admitted that Antonini was the model for Marcello Clerici.

I wonder: is there still a vital piece of information missing ?

I continue to ponder.

In as far as Moussia is concerned: what a woman, her life is a mini-history of the main European revolutions and wars of the twentieth century.




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