The 17-year-old WWII hero

A recent novel is based on the factual story of one hero who did change the course of history fighting against the tyranny of the Nazis. In “Beneath A Scarlet Sky,” Mark Sullivan chronicles the life of Pino Lella, a 17-year-old boy who grew into a man during the last years of World War II.

Although all the facts could not be verified, the story is still extraordinary, and Sullivan stated that the following details are all true.

“I contacted the daughter of the Nazi general who brutally used slave laborers as well as his spiritual advisor,” Sullivan said. “Regarding Pino, he is still living today and I was able to verify that he did indeed work as a spy and save Jewish refuges. I did the research and verification over the course of 10 years and lived in Italy, spending three weeks with Pino and finding other witnesses to what he told me. His name was given to a researcher by the Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Center, Yad Vashem.”
This inspiring story is a lesson on courage. Those in America today should read it to realize that their current life is nothing compared to what those who suffered through the Nazi regime had to endure. Sullivan tells Lella’s story, showing man’s inhumanity to man in Italy, the forgotten front, where the Nazi war machine made the citizens suffer and struggle.

The book begins in the summer of 1943, as the allies started bombing Milan. As in England, Italian families sent their children to the countryside to save them from possible death. But Pino was not content to lead a normal teenage life. Instead, he joined the underground railroad of the Catholic Church and the Italian resistance to save Jewish lives.

Unfortunately, despite heroic efforts, nearly 20 percent of the Italian Jewish population was killed in the Holocaust. Readers will learn how the German SS found a list of Jews, rounded them up, put them on trains and transported them to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Many others were machine gunned down or thrown into the lake, forced to freeze to death.

Yet, throughout the last years of World War II, Pino risked his own life to save Jews. A very compelling scene tells how he led Jewish refugees across the dangerously snowy Alps to the Swiss border, having endured an avalanche that almost buried him and his rescues alive.

Many of those trying to escape the grips of the Nazis did not have the physical strength; yet somehow found the perseverance. He made the demanding climb up the mountain near Casa Alpina, many times with the refugees on his back, as he skied them to safety in icy weather.

“I read accounts of what the Nazis actually did and confirmed a lot of what Pino told me,” Sullivan said. “We cannot forget they had a long-range vision of genocide and atrocities, including hanging young boys’ heads on barbed wire posts. I actually did the climb he did and made a video. After getting to the top, you cannot believe what these people went through to escape. It was a very dangerous and unforgiving setting.”

In addition to helping Jews escape, he also became a spy while the driver for Gen. Hans Leyers, a commander in the Nazi engineering and construction group, Organization Todt. Pino’s parents, who insisted he sign up with Todt to avoid being conscripted by the Germans to fight on the Russian front, put him in this situation.

Unfortunately, very little was known about the general, until Pino came forward, because Leyers destroyed many of the documents.

When reading about Leyers, people might compare him to Wernher von Braun, dubbed “the father of the space age.” During World War II he was the technical director of the V-weapons development and head of the Mittelbau-Dora Planning Office, a division within the SS. He rose to become a major in the SS and used slave laborers from the Buchenwald concentration camp to build the V-2 rockets. Leyers also used slave labor to keep the German war machine going. They were beaten, starved and killed if they did not perform to the efficiency that was required. Sullivan is glad Pino stands as a witness to history.

“He saw the German policy of intentional mistreatment of people,” the author said. “Over 11 million people were taken as slaves to build the fortification just as Pharaoh did in Egypt. The slaves would collapse from lack of nutrition. Leyers knew that the army functions on its supply lines and he made sure to keep the war machine going. He became a very powerful person, yet, stayed in the shadows.

“I used this quote, ‘In the game of life, it is always preferable to be a man of shadows, even in the darkness if necessary.’ Pino also stayed in the shadows to learn the locations of tanks, mines, fortifications, and factories that he passed on to the allied resistance.”

Mark Sullivan

Pino was a witness to history, but unfortunately also saw his fellow Italians seek their own form of justice. The vigilantes rounded up people whom they suspected of being collaborators and actual Nazis and shot them on the spot. According to Sullivan, “25,000 people were killed in Northern Italy by those in the resistance the three to four days after the war ended. There was absolute anarchy and chaos. Pino was the perfect example of mistaken identity. He wore a Nazi uniform and few people knew he was actually an allied spy, a 17-year-old who rose up and became a hero in the face of true evil.”

“Beneath A Scarlet Sky” is a very informative story. As people remember the Holocaust they should think about Pino who risked his own life to save others. Doris Wise, president of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors summarized this day, “On Yom HaShoah, we honor the memory of the millions who died under Nazism. But we owe them more than a day of commemoration, more than museums dedicated to a distant era. Memorializing the past is worthless if we fail to learn from it,” and one way to do this is make sure the stories of someone like Pino are told.

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About the Author

Elise Cooper

Elise writes book reviews that always include a short author interview.