Moussia 47 : 1938 -1941 Turbulent times for the Antoninis


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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