Moussia 46: 1935 – 1937, Antonini’s fateful years (2/2)



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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