The following info is taken from pages 151-161 of the 1982 Yearbook. It covers the ministry in Italy during the 1930's when the Fascists began increasing surveillance measures, and includes some of the 'earlier' arrests and literature confiscations that were made prior to when the work was completely banned.
In the next post I'll include info about the rest of the trials, arrests and prison sentences which followed.
(Illustration of Maria Pizzato pg 153)
*FYI -back in the old days the brothers and sisters sometimes used to do these super fast literature distribution campaigns, where everyone would plan a day to meet up and work as fast as they could placing information with as many people as possible all around the city before they got arrested or before the literature was confiscated by the authorities.
A Lightning Campaign - 1932
Brother Martin Harbeck, the Swiss branch overseer, thought the work in Italy would move ahead better if the office were in a more central zone in an important city, instead of being at Pinerolo. So that year an office was opened in Milan. Brother Cuminetti thought it would be imprudent for him to move to another town at that time of harsh persecution, so he remained at Pinerolo and continued to keep in contact with the brothers, using clandestine methods.
The new office was opened in Corso di Porta Nuova, number 19...Sister Maria Pizzato was assigned to work there as secretary to Brother Harbeck.
It is interesting how Sister Pizzato learned the truth. Perhaps you will remember that at the beginning of the century The Watch Tower was distributed by the leading newsagents in the main provincial cities. Well, during the years 1903 and 1904, Maria Pizzato’s mother bought a few copies from a newsagent in Piazza Vittorio Emanuele at Vicenza, one of the largest in town. It was not until many years later, in 1915, that Maria Pizzato read these magazines again with greater attention. This time her interest was aroused and she decided to write to Pinerolo. The then Sister Clara Cerulli wrote back to her and sent her some publications...
The new office at Milan was registered at the local Chamber of Commerce under the name “Società Watch Tower,” a society for the printing and distribution of Biblical books and tracts. Brother Harbeck was in charge. A post office account was opened, and a post office box was rented. Everything was ready and it was confidently expected that extensive activity could now be carried on throughout the country.
The work was to start off with a campaign using the booklet The Kingdom, the Hope of the World. It was to be carried out so quickly as to take the feared O.V.R.A. (the secret police concerned with anti-Fascist activities) by surprise. There were very few Italian brothers at the time, hardly more than 50 in all. So the Berne office arranged for 20 Swiss brothers to carry out the actual work of distribution to avoid creating difficulty for the local brothers. Each one of the Swiss publishers went to a different town in northern and central Italy, down as far as Florence, to distribute the booklet from door to door, on the streets and in the public squares.
A free copy of the booklet was also sent by mail to all the professional people and intellectuals in the province of Milan. At that time the law prohibited the importing of literature from abroad. So the booklet was printed by the Archetipografia at Milan. Three copies were submitted to the Press Office of the prefettura (prefecture) to obtain the necessary permit, and this was granted.
How would the political and ecclesiastical authorities react to this theocratic blitz?
Everything was ready several days before the appointed date, which was a few days before March 19, St. Joseph’s Day on the Catholic calendar. With regard to this special campaign, Sister Adele Brun, one of the 20 Swiss Witnesses taking part, wrote:
“I was sent to Turin. Brother Boss of Berne was waiting for me. He had already found me a room, and 10,000 copies of the booklet, in a number of parcels, had been stored in a local warehouse. The brother told me to get in contact with local newspaper vendors and arrange for them to help me with the distribution because the work was to be carried out as quickly as possible. This I did. Then, the brother left and I was on my own.
“I contacted 12 news vendors in all, and it was agreed that they were to receive 20 lire each to distribute the booklet on the day. I chose the most expert of them to direct operations, and promised her an extra 10 lire if she organized things well. I also chose four vendors to act as supply centers where booklets could be obtained as necessary. The activity was very successful. Booklets were left everywhere, including restaurants and offices.
“Then, at midday, the owner of the warehouse where the booklets were deposited came to tell me that he would be closed on St. Joseph’s Day, the day after. What was I to do? If I waited until after the holiday, I would give the priests time to have the literature confiscated.
“About three o’clock in the afternoon the 12 news vendors began to return, one after the other. They were very tired and wanted to go back home because they had not yet had an opportunity to eat a meal. Instead of sending them home I went out to buy some provisions and then we ate a meal together. Then I proposed: ‘If you finish the work by this evening I will give you an extra 10 lire.’ They agreed to carry on and after a short rest they went out to work again. By the end of the evening they had distributed all the booklets.”
After having gone on to take part in the campaign in the city of Novara, it was time for Sister Brun to leave. She recounted: “I took a train to Milan where 200,000 copies of the booklet had been seized, and I left the same night for Switzerland, where my husband was anxiously awaiting my arrival. The activity had been accomplished so rapidly and unexpectedly that none of the 20 brothers were arrested.” It was estimated that, in spite of the amount of literature confiscated, about 300,000 booklets had been distributed!
The reaction was not slow in making itself felt. “Only two or three days after the campaign,” relates Sister Pizzato, “the newspapers, especially those under clerical influence, began to pour out a furious attack against us. The office in Corso di Porta Nuova was submerged in inquiries, and letters were arriving from all over Italy with requests for books or explanations.
“At this juncture, two policemen arrived at the office and ordered Brother Harbeck and me to report immediately to the press office at the questura [police headquarters]. There, after a number of questions, Brother Harbeck was ordered to close the office. It was agreed that we could have the confiscated booklets back on condition that they would be exported to Switzerland. It was explained that these measures were being taken to safeguard the prestige and dignity of the Catholic Church, in accordance with the Lateran Treaty.”
The closure of the Milan office, only a few months after it had been opened, left Brother Cuminetti alone to carry on his patient, clandestine correspondence with the brothers. He would send them occasional pieces of literature or personal letters, and, when possible, he would make visits to encourage them in the Lord’s work.
In 1935 Brother Cuminetti moved from Pinerolo to Turin, at 18 Via Borgone, where he continued to carry on his underground activity. This arrangement was maintained until Brother Cuminetti died on January 18, 1939, after an operation. He witnessed to doctors and nurses to the end, and although he was hardly 50 years old, his death probably spared him from having to endure another “odyssey” during World War II. Other Witnesses were to have the privilege of demonstrating their integrity to Jehovah during that time of great persecution.
The Great Persecution
Italy’s declaration of war on Ethiopia in 1935 and her decision to enter World War II in June 1940 contributed to worsening the persecution against the few Witnesses in the country. As time went on it became more and more difficult for the brothers to maintain their neutrality.
The Swiss branch did its best to keep in contact with the Kingdom publishers, and in 1939 Sister Adele Brun was assigned to visit the brothers in northern and central Italy. Her visits were spread over a period of three weeks. Some brothers can still remember the pleasure and encouragement they received from those upbuilding visits. On her return to Switzerland, Sister Brun learned from her widowed sister, Albina, that the police had constantly been on her trail.
Although the publishers were few and far between, clandestine preaching was organized, particularly by Brother Martinelli. Literature was brought into the country by persons who worked over the border in Switzerland. They would come home in the evening, bringing the well-hidden literature with them.
Then Brother Harbeck had a secret meeting with Sister Pizzato to encourage her to get in contact with brothers who had lost touch with the organization after the death of Brother Cuminetti. She was given about 50 addresses by the Berne branch office. Her stock of literature was deposited at Milan in the home of an apparently interested person, the daughter of a deceased Christian sister. However, this woman must have collaborated in some way with the police. Sister Pizzato relates:
“This new phase of the work was of very brief duration. In September 1939 we began sending off parcels. They did not exceed three kilograms [6.6 lbs.] in weight because, according to the postal regulations in force at that time, it was not necessary to indicate the sender’s address on parcels of this size. I used to pack up the literature in the evening and, so as not to arouse suspicion, I would drop the parcels off at different post offices in the morning on my way to work.” However, something happened to spark off persecution against the Witnesses. Unfortunately, on October 28, 1939, one of these parcels was opened by a postal clerk at Montesilvano...The contents were immediately handed over to the police, and the resulting inquiry soon revealed where the parcel had come from, although it did not have the sender’s name on it. The literature had been addressed to Sister Mariantonia Di Censo, and she was arrested the next day. Then, on November 1, members of the Fascist police, O.V.R.A., paid a visit on Sister Pizzato. She relates:
“Very early in the morning the police burst into my home at 28 Via Vincenzo Monti, Milan. There were seven of them—six agents and a commissario [police commissioner]. They rushed into the room and curtly ordered me to put my hands up, as though I were a dangerous bandit. They soon found what they considered incriminating material—a Bible and Bible literature!”
The O.V.R.A. had found the addresses of various other brothers in Sister Pizzato’s flat, and so it was that the police made raids on their homes. From October to the beginning of December approximately 300 persons were questioned by the police, although many of them were only subscribers for The Watchtower or had publications of the Society in their possession. About 120 to 140 brothers and sisters were arrested and sentenced. Of these, 26 were brought before the Special Tribunal as ringleaders.
Guerino D’Angelo, one of this latter group, relates what happened when he was arrested: “I was sowing corn for a family of brothers whose menfolk were already in prison. Only the old people and the children were left at home. The police arrived and ordered me to leave the seed drill where it was. Then they hauled me off to prison, where I was severely beaten.”
Vincenzo Artusi related: “On November 15, 1939, as I was going out to work, I found two police agents waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs. They asked me if I was Mr. Artusi. When I confirmed my identity, they made me go back into the house and wait while they searched it from top to bottom. They turned everything upside down and pulled out drawers to find evidence against me. Finally they managed to lay their hands on what they were looking for—the Bible and the book Enemies. They took me away without even letting me kiss my three children good-bye. I was taken into a room full of police agents where I was questioned for three hours.”
Sister Albina Cuminetti, who had just been bereaved of her husband, was arrested and tried by the Special Tribunal. She wrote:
“I was arrested and taken off to prison by car. There were two police agents, a commissario and a high official from the Ministry of Home Affairs, in the car with me. I had to smile as they were taking me away to think that four men, two of them high-ranking officials, were needed to arrest such a feeble woman as myself. I was not afraid of them; on the contrary, I earnestly spoke to them about God’s kingdom. They started to laugh, but I told them they were not making fun of me but of Jehovah God’s promises, and this cannot be done with impunity. I added that their sarcasm would turn into bitterness. In fact, that commissario and the official both died in prison after the fall of Fascism.”
Fascist Government Takes Special Measures
We have already mentioned the fact that persecution against true Christians became harsher after 1935. Why?
On April 9, 1935, the Cults Department of the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a circular on “Pentecostal Associations.” At that time the authorities had not properly identified Jehovah’s Witnesses and thought they were part of the “Pentecostal” community. The circular was sent to the provincial administration centers, calling for the immediate disbanding of those associations whose activity was declared to be “contrary to our social order and harmful to the physical and mental welfare of our race.”
On August 22, 1939, another circular (No. 441/027713) was issued, with reference to “Religious Sects of Pentecostals and the Like,” which stated:
"For a number of years now, the existence of certain evangelical religious sects brought in from abroad, and more particularly from America, has been observed in Italy. Their doctrines are contrary to any established government. . . .
It is therefore necessary to oppose these sects with the maximum determination. . . .
To this end, we request that accurate investigation be carried out to ascertain the eventual existence of groups of these ‘Pentecostals,’ or other similar sects, in the various provinces. Legal proceedings should be taken against anyone found taking part in meetings, religious rites or propaganda activities. Instructions should be requested from the Ministry on how to proceed in other cases. Furthermore, we would recommend that all known adherents to the sects in question be kept under strict surveillance and that they and their habitations be regularly searched on the slightest suspicion, to ascertain whether they are in possession of printed matter for propaganda purposes, or if contacts with fellow believers are being maintained with a view to worship. . . ."
The measures recommended in this circular were responsible for the wave of arrests that led to the mass imprisonment of Jehovah’s Witnesses at the end of 1939.