The young mother, a glamorous aristocrat in her early 20s, was just settling down her two infant boys for their afternoon nap when the Gestapo banged loudly on her door.
She, the Contessa Fey Pirzio-Biroli, was wanted for questioning, they told her. She must come with them immediately, leaving behind her sons — Corrado, aged four and Roberto, two.
It would only be for a few days, they reassured her and, in the meantime, her toddlers, both blue-eyed and fair-haired like her, would be taken to a children’s home.
To her horror, two SS ‘nurses’ bustled in, burly blonde women who, without the slightest hint of gentleness about them, grabbed the boys by their tiny wrists.
Though her heart was pounding with fear, Fey managed to stay calm for their sake. ‘Mama will follow you very soon,’ she soothed them as she helped them put on their coats. ‘But first you will go for a nice walk.’
Contessa Fey Pirzio-Biroli did not see her two sons Corrado, aged four and Roberto, two, for nearly a year after she was taken away by the Gestapo in December 1944
Until the war changed everything, Fey’s was a fairy-tale existence. At a ball in Rome, she fell in love with dashing Italian cavalry officer, Count Detalmo Pirzio-Biroli, and in 1940, aged 21, she married him and went to live on his vast ancestral estate
Corrado sensed the lie and gave way to panic, flinging himself backwards and trying to escape. He struggled and screamed as he was dragged away with his little brother, out of her sight.
And that terrible moment in December 1944 was the last she would see or hear of them for nearly a year. In the months ahead, during which she endured interrogation, incarceration in one grim concentration camp after another and the constant threat of death, her greatest terror was that she would never see her darling boys again.
Fey was one of millions of people whose lives were ravaged by World War II.
With the recent D-Day anniversary, we have just rightly celebrated and remembered what servicemen endured during that awful conflict. But the number of civilians who suffered — torn from their homes and families, imprisoned, starved, slaughtered — was far, far greater.
Fey’s particular story — epic, emotionally charged and full of insights into the human heart and the power of love — is told in harrowing but gripping detail in a new book, The Lost Boys, by historian and television documentary maker Catherine Bailey.
Until the war changed everything, Fey’s was a fairy-tale existence. She was a high-born German, granddaughter of the great Prussian admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, on her mother’s side, and daughter of Ulrich von Hassell, a distinguished diplomat.
A tall, imposing figure, von Hassell took his beautiful daughter with him to Italy, where, for six years, he was Germany’s ambassador, orchestrating the relationship between Hitler and his fellow dictator, Mussolini. At a ball in Rome, she fell in love with dashing Italian cavalry officer, Count Detalmo Pirzio-Biroli, and in 1940, aged 21, she married him and went to live on his vast ancestral estate in the north-east of the country. It had its own castle, where her sons were born.
By this time, her father had grown disenchanted with Hitler, disgusted by his persecution of the Jews, and, with his loyalty to the Nazis questioned, he had been sacked as ambassador in Rome. He returned to the family home near Munich and joined the small, shadowy internal resistance movement whose aim was to assassinate the Fuhrer.
Fey’s army officer husband was also at odds with his country’s regime. An anti-fascist, he went into hiding, joining the partisans, the underground army fighting Mussolini.
Matters came to a head when, in September 1943, the Allies invaded Italy from the south and Mussolini fled. For a few euphoric days, it seemed the war was over — until the Germans occupied everywhere north of Rome and the fighting resumed, more bitter than ever as Hitler’s forces took their revenge on the Italians for surrendering.
Fey — with her partisan husband now in Rome working for the free Italian government — remained with her boys on the family estate, forced to share the house with German soldiers billeted on her. Somehow she managed to secretly exchange letters with her absentee husband and he even made occasional clandestine visits to his family.
She was the daughter of Ulrich von Hassell, Germany’s ambassador in Italy, orchestrating the relationship between Hitler and his fellow dictator, Mussolini
For ten months she successfully walked this tightrope — until July 1944 and the failed plot to kill Hitler at his Wolf’s Lair headquarters. The bomb left by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg exploded and wounded its target, but Hitler survived. He launched a terrible witch-hunt for the conspirators.
Fey’s father, Ulrich von Hassell, implicated along with his closest associates, was arrested, tortured, tried in a kangaroo court and hanged, choking slowly on a wire suspended from a meat hook, his death captured on cine-camera for the Fuhrer’s pleasure.
But even that was not enough for the crazed Hitler. Bent on more revenge, he demanded the heads not only of the plotters, but their families, too. Which is when the Gestapo came for Fey, taking her into custody and whisking away her precious children.
She worried endlessly about how they were sleeping and whether they were allowed to cuddle up together. ‘I feel only half a person without them,’ she recorded. She was one of 17 special prisoners, all related to the plotters. Strangely, they were not executed or even tortured, but, to their surprise, treated well, properly housed and fed.
For what purpose they were being held was a worry. What horrific ending did their captors have in store for them?
For five weeks, she found herself in a hotel in a forest on the eastern border of Germany. One of her fellow prisoners was Claus von Stauffenberg’s older brother, Alex, a charming, well-read man, to whom she felt drawn.
She unashamedly fell in love with him and he with her. He would be her mainstay in the hard months ahead. And hard they were. All too soon they were on the move again, herded into trucks and trains, now ominously in the hands of the SS rather than the Gestapo.
They arrived at the Stutthof concentration camp near Danzig in the north-east of Germany, a huge complex holding 60,000 inmates.
‘You,’ the SS commandant told them, ‘are the Sippenhafttlinge (literally, prisoners of kin). You all have relations who were involved in the attempted assassination of the Fuhrer.’ They would wait, he added, ‘until your fate is decided.’
The question hung in the air —whose decision would that be? Soon this became clear: their lives depended on bespectacled Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler, evil personified as head of the SS.
As the war approached its endgame and the Third Reich was on the verge of collapse, Himmler was hoping to secure his own future by using his high-profile hostages as bargaining chips with the Western Allies of Britain and the U.S.
Events, though, were moving fast, with Stalin’s ruthless Red Army closing in from the east. In the brutally cold first weeks of 1945, Stutthof was evacuated.
In July 1944, after the failed plot to kill Hitler at his Wolf’s Lair headquarters, von Hassell, implicated along with his closest associates, was arrested, tortured, tried in a kangaroo court and hanged
Crammed into cattle trucks now, they headed west through rubble and bombing raids, the front line with the Russians just miles away. Skirting Berlin, they ended up at Buchenwald concentration camp.
To ease her anxiety, Fey thought constantly of her boys. ‘If they were still alive, I could only hope their situation was better than mine.’
But even in this place of horror, she and her fellow captives were treated well and assigned decent quarters. Here, too, they met more prisoners of note selected to be Himmler’s hostages. Known as the Prominenten, they included the heads of conquered governments, such as the former French leader Leon Blum, and Jack Churchill, a captured British commando the Nazis wrongly believed was related to Winston Churchill.
They were now 137 in all. Some had their children with them, which lifted Fey’s hopes for a brief moment. But of Corrado and Roberto there was no sign.
The odyssey never seemed to end. They were shuttled off again, always one step ahead of the advancing Allied armies, going south now towards the Alps and the rumoured last Nazi redoubt.
They paused at Dachau concentration camp, each of them preoccupied with the threat that at any moment they might be gassed, shot or hanged. American planes buzzed overhead and friendly forces were just miles away, but still their ordeal was not over.
Once again they were evacuated, in trucks, around Munich, into Austria and an SS-run labour camp on the outskirts of Innsbruck.
They left here on what would be the last leg of their journey — but also the most perilous. Himmler’s attempt to court the Allies had failed. Churchill and the Americans had refused any deal, which meant the hostages were no longer of any use to him.
Orders were issued for their SS minders to dispose of them, and they were driven further into the Alps, through snow, to a remote mountain hotel. It was here that the Prominenten, Fey among them, were to meet their end.
It didn’t happen. It was now the end of April 1945; Hitler was dead and the formal surrender of the Third Reich was days away. Partisans were in the area, and so, too, was a party of U.S. soldiers.
After heated discussions, during which the lives of the prisoners hung in the balance, their 50 SS guards dropped their weapons and fled. The ordeal was over. Fey had survived.
So, too, had Alex von Stauffenberg. For the first time, they could be alone together and were open in their feelings for each other.
‘I couldn’t bear the thought of a future without him,’ she later recalled.
She promised to break up with Detalmo, the husband she had not seen for a year-and-a-half, and start a new life with Alex.
That, though, was easier said than done. When Detalmo came to find her and professed his undying love, her conscience would not allow her to reject him, though, as she wrote later: ‘My heart was breaking into a thousand pieces for Alex and I just sobbed and sobbed.’
It was the mother in her that won the argument. There were the boys to think of, if they could ever be found. And that was an almighty ‘if’. Europe was awash with 25 million refugees, half of them, the Red Cross estimated, orphaned children, lost in the chaos.
Fey had no idea where Corrado and Roberto had been taken. Where could she even start the hunt for them?
Fey and her husband stayed together, until his death in 2006. She died in 2010, aged 92. Pictured: the couple in November 1940
She guessed they would have been given new names, and could be anywhere — Germany, Italy, Austria, out of her reach altogether in the Soviet bloc as, in the post-war division of spoils, the shutters came down on eastern Europe.
It didn’t help that she and Detalmo were corralled in Italy. Classified by the Allied authorities as former belligerents, they were banned from travelling abroad. The boys, too, were categorised as ‘enemy children’.
In Rome, where her husband was now a government official, Fey printed hundreds of leaflets with photographs of the boys, begging for information, but ‘it was like throwing pebbles into the sea. All the international organisations were bombarded with so many requests that we knew it could be years before anyone looked into the case of the Pirzio-Biroli children. We were left with the sinking feeling that, with every week that passed, the chances of finding them diminished.
‘They were lost, perhaps in the east, perhaps without a name, and there was nothing we could do.’
She was in despair, suffering panic attacks and fearing that ‘I was 25 and my life was over’.
It was her mother, Ilse, who, though still mourning her husband hanged by Hitler, came to the rescue. From her home outside Munich, this formidable matriarch followed up any lead she could find about SS-run children’s homes.
One took her to an orphanage near Innsbruck, a large house with a Gothic tower in a pine forest. At the door she presented photos of the boys to the head nurse — and the miracle happened.
‘Why, these are the Vorhof brothers, Conrad and Robert,’ the nurse exclaimed. ‘They’re here!’
Ilse was shown to a dormitory where 30 children lay on beds, taking their afternoon nap, her grandchildren among them. ‘Their little blond heads were sticking out from under the bedclothes,’ she recalled. ‘They looked like angels.’
She gently asked Corrado, ‘Don’t you remember your grandmother?’ and he put his arm around her neck. ‘Can we go home now?’ he said.
But Fey’s agony was still not over. Three months went by before she and Detalmo were allowed to travel to Germany, and then only after special permission from a U.S. general he ran into at a diplomatic party. They drove to her mother’s home and waited for the boys to return from a walk with Fey’s older sister, Almuth.
Fey’s own words describe the glorious finale of this epic wartime story.
‘We sat down to tea as if it were the most normal thing in the world but we could not stop staring at the door, wondering just what we would find after one year apart. Should we hug them or should we hold back and be more formal? We decided to do the latter to see how the boys responded.
‘After a while we heard footsteps and the door flew open. The children stood there in front of us and there was complete silence. I was trying terribly hard not to cry.
‘Then, bending gently over Corrado, Almuth whispered: “Do you recognise that person?” He blushed and said immediately: “Yes, it’s Mama.”
‘Pointing at Detalmo, Almuth asked him: “And do you know that man there?” Staring wide-eyed, Corrado hesitated for a moment. Then he said excitedly: “Yes, it’s Papa!” and rushed over to him, grabbed hold of Detalmo’s trousers and put his little feet on top of Detalmo’s shoes, something he had always done when he was younger.
‘Robertino trotted over to me, clambered up on my lap, and sat without saying a word. Holding him in my arms, he seemed the most precious thing in the world.’
Of all the myriad individual tragedies that World War II threw up, this one at least had a happy ending. The boys put their bad memories aside, had good careers and are still alive in their 70s.
Fey and her husband stayed together, until his death in 2006. She died in 2010, aged 92.
The Lost Boys by Catherine Bailey is published by Viking, £20. ©Catherine Bailey 2019. To buy a copy for £16 (20 per cent discount) call 0844 571 0640. Offer valid until 6/7/19, p&p is free on orders over £15.