Mafalda of Savoy was born in 1902 as a second born of Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and Elena of Montenegro. Amongst her sisters she was the leanest, perhaps the least attractive too, resembling much her father. However who had known her would say that she was the most energetic and cheerful one of them all.

In 1925 she was married to Philipp of Hesse, German Prince and head of the house of Hesse- Kassel. For the wedding, King and Queen gave to the couple a villa in Rome, near Villa Savoia that she renamed “Villa Polissena”. Her husband was engaged in political businesses and from 1930 he committed to the German National Socialist party. By Hitler’s side, Philipp was one of the prominent personalities who handled the relationship between Germany and Italy, Hitler and Mussolini, between the 1933 and 1940. In the meantime the woman would look after their 4 children while life carried on quietly until August 1943.

On the 28th of August, Mafalda left for Sofia. Boris III of Bulgaria, husband of her sister Giovanna was very ill and by the time she started her journey he was already dead, but she didn’t know this. Boris had maybe been poisoned by the Nazis after his conversation with Adolf Hitler. Mafalda’s husband, Philipp, was in Germany with his older son, while the other younger ones were with her in Rome.

The armistice of Cassibile with the allied blockade was declared on the 3rd of September 1943 and made public 5 days later on the 8th by the Americans, although the Italian part wanted to postpone it to the 12th. The night between the 8th and the 9th the King and Queen escaped to Rome, directed to the city of Brindisi. The younger children of Mafalda, 2 sons and 1 daughter, had been already taken to their grandparents in Vatican and given to the care of Monsignor Montini, later Papa Paolo VI.

After the funeral of Boris III, on the 7th of September Mafalda took off again from Sofia. Two days afterwards, on the 9th, Queen Helen of Romania got on the train personally and informed Mafalda of the armistice. Mafalda did not know anything about it, no one had informed her about the negotiations already underway on the day of her departure to the Bulgarian capital. Perhaps for fear that it would let her husband reveal something or just because a German Princess did not risk anything whatsoever, according to them.

On the 9th of September from Budapest, Mafalda tried to reach out to her father, but they informed her he had left Rome while her children were still in Vatican. She took a flight to Pescara, then moved to Chieti for eventually forwarding to Rome.

Mafalda did not know that her husband had been arrested on the 8th of September by the Nazis, accused to have partaken in the conspiracy against Germany and then deported to the camp of Flossenbürg.

She managed to leave Chieti only on the 20th; on the 21st she arrived to Rome where she rejoined her children in Vatican and then moved altogether to Villa Polissena.

She couldn’t possibly know she she would have never seen them anymore

On the 22nd a call from the German embassy arrived. They informed her that at 11 a telephonic meeting with her husband would have been set up. Mafalda was unaware that Philipp had been arrested, furthermore the call had been made personally by Herbert Kappler. The Abeba Operation, organised since Mafalda had left Rome, supervised by the Nazis had started. For a long time the Germans suspected the Italians to have secret agreements with the allies.

Mafalda would have been a useful hostage

The woman, nervous yet impatient to speak with her man, went to the embassy, accompanied by her driver and the police commissioner assigned to the Royal House, Marchitto. When the driver was immediately arrested it was clear to Mafalda about the plot, so she pleaded with Marchitto to look after her children. She was put on an airplane directed to Berlin.

After some weeks of imprisonment, Mafalda was conducted to Buchenwald and registered with the anonymous name of “Frau von Weber”, although the rumour of her real identity spread rapidly. She was accommodated in a “special” shack for political prisoners. For the lager standards her location was a rather comfortable one and the prisoners would use the same type of space that the army had. In the camp she met 5 Italian prisoners who recognised her and their Mafalda gave them coupons for food and cigarettes.

The princess was deteriorated, she would eat very little and was only concerned about her far away and cracked family

In 1944 the bombing in Germany exacerbated and on the 24th of August it was the turn of  Weimar and Buchenwald. A bomb hit the shack where Mafalda would stay and the woman was severely wounded. The injury was serious yet not enough to risk a death but, a couple of days later, on the 26th, the arm was developing gangrene, so they opted for the amputation.

Below: scale model of the camp of Buchenwald. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons

The operation was managed with impeccable accuracy, but not as rapidly as her already worn out body would have borne. The surgery lasted long time and the woman lost a huge amount of blood. After the operation she was left to herself with no further medical attentions.

in the morning of the 29th Mafalda was found dead in the brothel transformed into hospital

The woman had been operated for a too long period of time, strategy sometimes used by the Germans to get rid of inconvenient prisoners. Father Tyl, a prisoner priest who would bless the corpses destined to the crematorium, saw the naked armless body and asked whether it was the one of the Italian Princess.

After the confirmation, he asked to bury the body instead of undergoing the cremation process and kept in his mind the grave number 262 with the wording “Eine unbekannte Frau”, an unknown woman.

The camp of Buchenwald was freed by the allies some months later, on the 11th of April 1945. The Italians of the camp looked for the tomb of Mafalda and worked for the allied army in order to pay for a gravestone and a cross.

Below: Victor Emmanuel found out about the destiny of his daughter through the newspaper on the 14th of April 1945

In the middle of the Cold War it was given the right to the husband Philipp of Hesse to take the remains of Mafalda and carry them to Cronburg, in the castle of the family, where in its cemetery she rests since 1951. The wooden cross and little gravestone paid by the Italians in the concentration camp still adorn her tomb.

Rachele Goracci


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