The Princess in the Concentration Camp

The Princess in the Concentration Camp

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I came across this story while researching a post for Tiara Tuesday. And now that I know it, I can’t forget it, so I’m going to share it with you. It’s about Mafalda of Savoy, an Italian princess who died in a concentration camp during World War II.

Before the Storm

Mafalda of Savoy, portrait as a child

Princess Mafalda of Savoy was born in Rome in 1902. She had one brother and three sisters: Umberto, Yolanda, Giovanna, and Maria Francesca. Mafalda inherited a love of music and the arts from her mother, Queen Elena, who wrote poetry in her spare time. In 1925, Mafalda married a German prince, Philipp of Hesse. Between 1926 and 1940, the couple had 4 kids: Moritz, Heinrich, Otto, and Elisabeth.

When World War II broke out, Italy’s Fascist prime minister, Mussolini, sided with Germany and the rest of the Axis powers against France, Britain, and Russia. At first, this didn’t present a problem for Mafalda – after all, she’d married Prince Philipp of Hesse, a German prince and member of the Nazi party.

But it was a problem for Hitler because he freaking hated Mafalda.

Even though her husband was an intermediary between the German Nazi party and the Italian Fascists under Mussolini, he called her the “blackest carrion in the Italian royal house.” He wasn’t alone. Goebbels referred to Mafalda in his diary as “the worst bitch in the entire Italian royal house.”

Goebbels referred to Mafalda in his diary as “the worst bitch in the entire Italian royal house.”

They both believed she was working against them. Why? I’m not sure. Mafalda wasn’t generally interested in politics. She’d always been a happy, gentle girl. As a child, she’d been so frail that her mother used to weigh her almost daily to make sure she’d gained weight. Mafalda knew this and hid coins in her clothing to make it look like she was gaining weight. It worked until a few coins fell out one day – and the jig was up, as they say.

Does this little girl strike you as the type who would grow up to be feared by the leadership of the Third Reich? Me neither…but that’s what happened.

The War

Princess Mafalda of Savoy
Mafalda in court dress in the 1930s.

Almost immediately, the war went south for Italy. It didn’t take Victor Emmanuel long to lose confidence in Mussolini. By mid-1943, he’d made up his mind to kick him to the curb. On the night of July 25, he met with Mussolini and issued his arrest warrant. However, they still had to avoid pissing Hitler off, so they pretended to remain staunch Axis allies. In private, though, members of the royal family had already reached out to Allies to ask for a separate peace. They announced that peace on September 8, 1943, which made Victor Emmanuel persona non grata with Hitler.

The king and queen got the hell out of Dodge just after the announcement was made.

There was just one problem.

Mafalda wasn’t with them.

She was in Bulgaria consoling her sister, Giovanna, after the sudden death of Giovanna’s husband, Tsar Boris III (who maybe was poisoned by Hitler, who knows – that’s another story).

Mafalda was in Bulgaria consoling her sister after the sudden death of her husband, Tsar Boris III (who maybe was poisoned by Hitler, who knows – that’s another story).

When Mafalda heard about the separate peace, she must have freaked out. What would happen to her family? To her country? Before she left Bulgaria, all she knew was what she’d been told: that her husband was under house arrest in Germany, and her kids were safe at the Vatican.

The Set-Up

Her husband was under arrest – that part was true. But it wasn’t a genteel house arrest. The Nazis had taken him to Flossenbürg and planned to arrest her on her return, too.

Mafalda hurried back to Italy. The rest of her family had already fled south to Brindisi, and her sons were indeed safe at the Vatican. Relieved, she quickly let the German Embassy in Rome know she was home.

On September 23, the German High Command called her. They said they had an important message for her from her husband, Prince Philipp, and would she please come to the German embassy in Rome to receive it.

She went.

But the Nazis never let her go.

They arrested her on the charge of not informing them of Italy’s separate peace as soon as she knew about it. Since she was a German citizen through her marriage, they told her this was her duty.

To Buchenwald

The Nazis shipped her to Berlin for questioning. Then they shipped her to Buchenwald, largely in retribution for her father’s perceived treachery. They called her Frau von Weber, although several Italian prisoners recognized her as Princess Mafalda.

At Buchenwald, she lived in an isolated barracks (shack number 15) next to the ammunition factory on site, along with the former chairman of the SPD Reichstag group and his wife. An open trench next to the barracks was the only protection during the increasingly frequent air raids. If bombs started falling, their only recourse was to dive into the open trench and hope for the best. Her food was better than that of the other prisoners – she ate the same food the SS officers did. She shared her food with others.

The Attack

On August 24, 1944, Allied bombers attacked Buchenwald. Mafalda and the other cabin inmates hid in the trench. When bombs demolished the cabin, it fell over the trench. They found her alive, crushed under a pile of rubble. One side of her face was wounded and her left arm was crushed and burned. In the aftermath, she recognized two fellow Italian prisoners by the “I” they wore on their shirts. She waved them over with her right arm. When they pulled her from the rubble, she said, “I’m dying. Remember me not as a princess but as your Italian sister.”

When they pulled her from the rubble, she said, “I’m dying. Remember me not as a princess but as your Italian sister.”

They brought her to the on-site brothel, which doubled as an infirmary. It was run by a man who wasn’t even a surgeon. He sutured her arm, but made no further effort to help her.

After a couple days of agony, her arm became gangrenous and they decided to amputate it. On the night of August 26/27, while on the operating table, Mafalda bled out and never regained consciousness. A radiologist named Pecorari, also interned at Buchenwald, believes they held off on treating her intentionally. Letting inconvenient political prisoners die on the operating table wasn’t uncommon. It let the Nazis off the hook. They didn’t actually kill the person, but they got rid of someone who was a pain in their ass.

Aftermath

Mafalda of Savoy's commemorative postage stamp
An Italian postage stamp commemorating Mafalda.

After the air raid, they tossed her body on a pile of corpses. A priest smuggled her body out and placed it in a wooden coffin. Coffin #262 was buried nearby, with no name and no ceremony. Years after the war, in 1951, a group of Italian sailors held at Buchenwald identified her burial site and her coffin was removed. Now, Mafalda is buried with her husband’s family in Kronberg Castle in Hesse.

After the war, American military police took German citizens through the camp so they could see what happened there. The doctor who treated Mafalda (and let her bleed out) had also experimented with “serums” on living people, who died 90% of the time. He was hanged after the war.

Mafalda’s Family

Before the war ended, the Nazis transferred her husband, Phillip, to Dachau. American soldiers eventually arrested him when they liberated the camps. After he served his sentence, he became an interior designer and lived out his life in Rome until his death in 1980.

Mafalda’s granddaughter, also named Mafalda, is a fashion designer.

Later, an Italian interned at Buchenwald said, “The only beams of light in Buchenwald were Mafalda’s eyes.” He never even spoke to her or touched her. He only saw her come and go from her shack.

Something about this story just won’t leave me alone. I wish I had the time to write about her. Maybe I’ll have to make time. This is one of those stories that never goes away once you let it in.

What do you guys think about this story? What does it make you feel?


Image credits

Mafalda and children: Unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Mafalda as a child: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Mafalda as an adult: Photobucket, posted by Alexandre64_2007
Mafalda’s commemorative stamp: Laziowiki.org


 
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About the Author

Jenni

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I write thrillers, romance, historical fiction, tiara posts, and more. Right now, I'm working on a nonfiction trilogy: Grand Duchess Hilda of Baden, Grand Duchess Elizaveta Mikhailovna of Russia, and Princess Augusta of Brunswick.

Comments

  1. Tremendous pathos in this tale, I agree Jenni. One of “my guys” is fond of saying that noble is an adjective (quality), not a noun (title). She had it certainly. And the other thing- evil guys are smart but stupid, you know? They treated her this was because, um, they thought she was an enemy, based on… nothing as far as we can tell. Sounds about right for those dopes.

  2. Jenni, a full length biography of this tragic princess should be in print. I think it would be wonderful should you take it on. I for one would buy it.

    Sincerely,

    Michael Tanner Atlanta, Georgia

    1. Author

      Thank you, Michael! It would definitely be a worthy project. I’m so flattered you have the confidence that I could do Mafalda justice. There are so many stories that deserve to be told. Hers is one of them. I’ll keep the idea of a full-length bio in mind… 🙂

      Jenni

      1. Beni,

        Please keep us posted as I want to read the whole book! I have a feeling it will be a best seller and perhaps a movie.

        1. Author

          Hi Gail! I’m so glad you liked this post. I’ll definitely keep you guys updated – I’ve been doing a lot of research on Mafalda and her family, as well as her husband’s family (the Hesse-Kassels). Thanks so much for commenting – it means a lot to me!

          Jenni

  3. As an italian I’d like to thank you for commemorating her Highness, you may be interested in knowing that Prince Amedeo Duke of Aosta has been arrested and sent in a concentration camp too, but he’s been luckier and is still alive

    1. Author

      Alex,
      Thank you so much for your comment! Mafalda’s story touched me deeply and I couldn’t help but share it. I’m very interested in Prince Amedeo’s story, too…thanks for the tip!

      Best wishes,
      Jenni 🙂

  4. Dear Jenni Wiltz,

    What a story!

    Do you have any references that you used?

    1. Author

      Hi Roberto,

      It is a great story, isn’t it? Most of the info I found came from three sources. The Alexander Palace Time Machine (3rd link) was by far the most helpful:

      * “Mafalda of Savoy, Marie-José’s Tragic Sister-in-Law”:
      http://crossoflaeken.blogspot.com/2010/07/mafalda-of-savoy-marie-joses-tragic.html

      * “Princess Mafalda of Savoy”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Princess_Mafalda_of_Savoy

      * Alexander Palace Time Machine forum post, “Daughters of King Vittorio Emmanuele III”: http://forum.alexanderpalace.org/index.php?topic=1962.msg%25msg_id%25

      Jenni 🙂

  5. Hello, greeting from a snowy NYC. I am at the NYPL, reading vintage Vogue, in the 15march1930 issue (Vogue used to come out twice a month) there is a full page photo of Princess Mafalda as part of a multi-page article “A Prince is Married: As Seen By Him.” So I Google’d the Princess and learned her sad story. That’s how I came upon your article. Thank you for this. The Princess was remembered in Italy with a postage stamp. But what a STORY I am sure there is here, waiting for a book or a screenplay. Thank you again.

    1. Author

      Thanks so much for your comment! Glad you enjoyed the post, even if Mafalda’s story is a sad one. I’d love to see that Vogue – I’ll see if I can find one in a library around here. I think Mafalda is a heroine just waiting for a story. I’m doing a thriller series now, but I’m seriously thinking about making her story my next project. She’s worth remembering, that’s for sure. Hope the snow has let up a bit for you! 🙂

  6. This gave me chills. I can’t imagine what she endured in her final days. She sounds like a beautiful soul. Rest in peace, Princess Mafalda.

  7. This is a story for our time. There is more that she was used by the SS officers while in the camp. Perhaps that is why the Church did not put out her story as a modern day saint … I have read that Adolph hated her so because she would not cooperate in putting people on trains to the camps.

    1. Author

      Thanks so much for your comment! I wouldn’t be surprised at all to find out that’s why Hitler hated her so much. Her story is so touching and so tragic. I’m glad to hear from someone else who finds her so inspiring. 🙂

  8. She seemed so gentle and pure of heart. I too am impacted by this story. In fact, I noticed she was special just by looking at her photos, and seeing her eyes. Nazism was such a darkness and snuffed out so many beautiful souls. Thank you for keeping the flame of her memory alive.

    1. Author

      Hi Charles,

      Thanks for commenting! Yes, she did seem so gentle and pure of heart. I get the feeling that she had a strong sense of right and wrong under that glamorous exterior. I’m glad there are so many others out there who are touched by her story and can help honor her memory.

      Jenni 🙂

  9. I am Italian. Apart from a couple of biographies, the story of this poor frail princess was narrated in a TV movie with actress Stefania Rocca in 2006 (the wife in real life of Prince Emanuele Filiberto di Savoia, Clotilde Couraud, interpreted Mafalda’s sister Giovanna). A remarkable effort, where neither her tribulatìons in the camp nor the ambiguity of her husband’s behavior are overlooked. It should be translated into English or at least shown with subtitles.

    1. Author

      Hi Regina,

      Thanks so much for commenting! I would love to see that TV movie! I searched for it on YouTube and found a few clips posted by Testacoda Produzioni. I wish I could see the whole thing…itt looks like a great production. Thanks so much for telling me about it!

      Jenni 🙂

  10. Interestingly, Mafalda, married to Prince Philipp of Hesse, was thus sister-in-law to his brother, Prince Christoph and wife, Sophie Battenberg—the same Sophie Battenberg who until her death in 2001 was sister to the Duke of Edinburgh, and thus sister-in-law to Queen Elizabeth II.

    1. Author

      Hi Robert,
      Thanks so much for commenting! Boy, it seems like everything about Mafalda is sad, doesn’t it? What a terrible fate for the ship that bore her name. I love that, later, the captain of the mail ship let his Italian passengers drop a wreath into the water over the spot the ship went down. I’m so glad you shared that link with me.
      Jenni

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