Relying on ingenuity and bravado, a Polish Jew survived the Warsaw ghetto to lead a band of partisans in the Italian Alps.
One day in the winter of 1944, Comandante Enrico, the revered leader of a group of partisans in the mountains above Savona, Italy, hurried from his command post—a cave beneath a sheer rock ledge—to a secluded shed several hundred yards down the mountain. Inside, he found a hefty, middle-aged Nazi lieutenant his men had captured in a skirmish near Altare that morning.
With his dark hair, chiseled face, and sinewy build, Enrico cut a dashing figure, and his authority among the partisans was unquestioned. To deal with prisoners who were Italian Fascists, he had formed a court of law with the help of law students from the University of Genoa to ensure that their cases were dealt with impartially. But when it came to handling Nazi prisoners like this one, Enrico took matters into his own hands, often dispensing justice swiftly and mercilessly. “I had not a shred of pity left,” he recalled in his 1998 memoir In the Shadow of the Swastika. “I knew only to do with Nazis what the Nazis had done to innocent people all over Europe.”
Enrico circled the lieutenant in the cold shed, thumbing a stack of photographs that had been confiscated from the prisoner. The pictures were of the murders of Jews, and on the backs of them, the lieutenant had meticulously recorded the dates and places where the atrocities had taken place: Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia. The evidence of the German soldier’s crimes was clear, and sickened the comandante.
What nobody else in the shed could have known was that the stakes in this short drama were as personal as they could get. Born Hermann Wygoda in Germany, the comandante was a Jew whose mother, brother, and only son were rounded up and murdered by Nazis at the Treblinka concentration camp near Warsaw in 1942. Wygoda, a civil engineer by training who had spent several years in the Polish army and was, thanks to his German father, fluent in both German and Polish, had relied on his smarts, courage, and a good dash of charisma to escape the Holocaust and eventually take his war to the Nazis.
In late 1943 he traveled from Berlin to Savona, Italy, and in that move transformed himself from a survivor into Comandante Enrico, the scourge of local Nazis. For 14 months, he and his small army of partisans terrorized Hitler’s flailing forces and Mussolini’s San Marco Division, mounting raids, killing Axis soldiers, and earning Enrico the undying gratitude of the Savonesi—and a Bronze Star, personally awarded by the American general Mark Clark.
Now the comandante paused in front of the prisoner, who was mumbling to himself nervously. The Nazi’s face had turned white. “What is the meaning of this?” Enrico asked, holding out the pictures. “Justice,” the lieutenant said, “had to be done.” He dropped to his knees in supplication.
“Execute him,” Enrico commanded, striding from the shed.
Dispensing justice was perhaps the last thing on Wygoda’s mind when he was growing up in Germany and Poland. He was born in 1906 in Offenbach, Germany, to a Jewish family, but his mother had moved him and his brother Leon to Poland after the death of their father in the First World War. After getting his engineering degree, Wygoda moved to Berlin, which had reemerged as the center of European architecture and industry. There he often sailed on Lake Wannsee with friends and soaked up the city’s energy. In 1929, he moved back to Warsaw to get married. The relationship was rocky, but in 1934, before separating, the couple had a son. Wygoda named him Samuel, after his own grandfather.
In the days after the September 1, 1939, invasion of Poland, Wygoda sent Samuel to stay with his mother and brother in the countryside. Within weeks of conquering Warsaw, the Nazis had closed Jewish businesses, confiscated homes, and herded the Jews into a walled ghetto.
Wygoda’s knack for bold subterfuge served him, and the many Jews he helped at the time, well. Spouting his fluent German and walking brazenly through the city streets, Wygoda smuggled food and supplies to the family of a friend who had died in the invasion. As security increased, he bribed the Polish police and shuffled materials through a hole in a wall. But each day, access to the ghetto slimmed. “Every trip I made into the ghetto became a tragedy for me,” Wygoda recalled in his memoir. “I usually came out with such a broken heart that I was pushed nearly to the point of having a nervous breakdown.”
In late 1941, the Nazis cut off utilities to the Jews in Warsaw. It was freezing, and food was scarce. That winter, his friend’s little girl died. She was the same age as Wygoda’s son, Samuel.
German SS troops widened their persecution of Jews to the villages around Warsaw. Fearing for Samuel’s safety, Wygoda fetched the boy from his family in the country. He gathered a group of 30 refugees and fled with them to a rural estate where they worked for food and shelter on a Jewish sympathizer’s farm. One night, the refugees were startled by the arrival of a Jew named Leon Peregal, a Polish soldier who had been released from a Nazi POW camp only to return to the mayhem of the German occupation. Peregal recounted to the refugees his narrow escape from a massacre in the town of Sokolow. There, he had watched as Nazis forced Jewish villagers to dig a ditch, then lined them up on the edge and shot them, their bodies tum bling into the grave. It had been the morning of Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement.
After hearing Peregal’s story, the camp was seized by panic. In the following weeks, Wygoda moved Samuel from one place to another for the boy’s safety. He paid a farmer a hefty sum to deliver Samuel to his mother and brother in Kossow, then fetched him again—trudging through the smoky forest around the Treblinka concentration camp—to hide the boy with a family in Praga. When the neighbors grew suspicious, Wygoda hurried Samuel back to Kossow to stay with a farmer friend. It was the last he would ever see of his precious son.
Some time later, he received news that Nazis had discovered Samuel and the rest of his family. They had been sent to Treblinka.
In early 1943, Wygoda received a letter from Peregal, who had secured a job painting portraits of the wives and mistresses of Nazi commanders in the eastern Polish town of Terespol. Wygoda joined him, and the two pooled their instincts and ingenuity to survive the war. With Wygoda’s linguistic skills and cosmopolitan air and Peregal’s artistry at constructing fake identification cards, they landed jobs with a construction company in Berlin that worked on infrastructure across the Axis occupied territories. Wygoda traveled to Warsaw and Krakow on work projects and, with his newfound mobility, helped Jews flee persecution. For some this meant, oddly, safety in Berlin. “The city and its immediate surroundings were the safest places in Europe for a Jew to live, provided he had some documents that did not show him to be a Jew,” said Wygoda.
Still, he and Peregal skated on the edges of exposure and vowed to escape to freedom. In December 1943, they managed to get themselves assigned to a company doing work in the Italian coastal town of Celle-Ligure, about 130 miles across the Mediterranean from the island of Corsica, which was under Allied control. With a boat secured, they waited for a moonless night to make their move. But the Germans arrived first, and nearly brought Wygoda’s escapades, and his life, to an end.
On February 12, 1944, he recalled, a knock at the door of his apartment startled both men from sleep. In the cold darkness, the room slowly blinked into focus. The maps and compass Wygoda had readied the evening before were stacked on the nightstand, beneath a bottle from which he had shaken several aspirin to sleep off the week’s frantic preparations. His pistol rested on the chair. Wygoda reached for his watch; it was 4 a.m. Shedding the sheets, he pulled on his pants and approached the door. Peregal lay in the other bed, watching with nervous eyes. Wygoda answered the door, and five German soldiers stepped through. A captain pushed Wygoda ahead of him. “Get dressed,” he said. “You’ll have to come with me.” The captain snatched the pistol from the chair, then examined the maps.
As he dressed, Wygoda recalled a stash of American and British bills in his pockets. “Can I go to the bathroom?” he asked the captain. The captain ordered one of the soldiers to follow him, but the man waited politely outside. Inside, Wygoda flushed the money down the toilet. When he returned, the soldiers spirited him away to a jail in Savona, a town up the coastal road between the mountains and the sea.
Before handing him over to an Italian sergeant at the jail, the German officer warned Wygoda against the folly of trying to escape. The sergeant, with whom Wygoda had become acquainted over beers at the bar next door, asked him to empty his pockets. They failed to detect a second pistol, which Wygoda kept strapped behind one knee. Before tossing his wallet on the table, Wygoda removed two pictures. He asked to take them to his cell. “These are my children,” he said.
As the Italian sergeant led him to his cell, Wygoda gripped the pictures. If he had successfully disguised himself to the outside world for two years since Samuel’s death, it took only a fleeting glance at the images for his private losses to surface. One was of the little girl from the Warsaw ghetto, who had died in the cold winter of 1942. The second was of Samuel, sitting sideways in a stiff coat, grinning bashfully. The pictures were creased through and flaking at the edges, but they were the closest things to treasure Wygoda possessed.
Wygoda began planning his escape. There was a latrine for the prisoners in a small courtyard. The latrine door opened toward a tall masonry wall. The street was on the other side of the wall, judging from the sound of passing cars. Wygoda told his cellmates—two Nazis who had deserted on the Italian front—about his discovery. They were ambivalent at first, but when Wygoda revealed he had smuggled in a pistol, they decided to join in.
At 9 p.m., Wygoda’s cellmates called for the guard. On the bed, Wygoda writhed, feigning sickness. The guard entered the cell, and when he leaned over Wygoda, the German cellmates grabbed and bound him. Wygoda used his pistol to knock the man out, and they ran into the courtyard. Propping the latrine door against the masonry wall, they scurried over and leapt onto the street. The three of them ran in the shadows along the road to Wygoda’s apartment in Celle-Ligure. Not surprisingly, Peregal was not there; he had been captured by the Gestapo and sent to the same jail as Wygoda. (He too later managed to break out, and made the long trek to neutral Switzerland, where he waited out the war. He eventually immigrated to Canada.)
Wygoda fled into the Alps, stopping in villages over the next few days to scrounge for food and a place to rest.
Meanwhile, news of his jailbreak had riveted the region. Over hot polenta, one farmer’s wife entertained Wygoda with the dramatic tale of a British spy’s daring escape. That supposed spy, of course, was Wygoda; perhaps the German officer’s conclusion he was a British spy was why they had treated him with a measure of respect at the jail, Wygoda thought. He had seen the way they treated runaway Jews—with haste and a bullet. In Savona, they had clearly wanted to keep him alive.
His secret safe, Wygoda fled deeper into the mountains, passing through Ceva, a quaint hamlet speckled with chestnut orchards, then Roviasca. There, in a cave on the fringe of the property of a sympathetic farming family who had heard the jailbreak story, Wygoda set up camp.
Weeks later, representatives from the Committee of National Liberation, a group of Italian partisans, approached Wygoda and led him to a house where a man named Simon, a leader of the partisans’ Voluntary Liberation Corps, introduced himself. Simon had learned of Wygoda’s escape from prison and was impressed. He wanted Wygoda to lead their growing but frazzled ranks; it was clear that politics played a role in the choice, as Wygoda later recalled: “I understood that I was supposed to be something of a dark-horse candidate in a political stalemate, a catalyst to bind loose ends into a harmonious entity.”
Wygoda knew of the Italian partisans from his work with the German construction company. They had been the culprits behind many of the destroyed roads and bridges he had repaired. At first, Wygoda was hesitant. The partisans were a nationalist force, and Wygoda’s Italian was less than perfect. “I was frank with them and said that I did not believe myself capable of the job,” Wygoda recalled. But they shared a common enemy. Wygoda accepted, and Simon gave him a new name—Enrico.
The next day, Comandante Enrico stood before 117 partisans and delivered a rousing speech. “Force is the only thing the enemy will respect,” he told them in broken Italian. “The only way to be forceful is through unity of purpose. The only road to unity is discipline.” They responded with a roaring ovation.
Enrico spent the next several weeks rounding up smaller bands of partisan troops and organizing them into brigades. By late summer 1944, the partisans numbered around 700 fighters. Hearing of the gathering forces, a British major and an American officer contacted Enrico and began to airlift automatic rifles, machine guns, mortars, and ammunition to the mountains. “The British light submachine gun was the most efficient piece of automatic hardware we had on hand,” Wygoda later said. “With such a weapon, a man who was light on foot and had good agility, as well as a dose of courage, could perform miracles in the mountains.”
From his cave headquarters, Enrico—the brains behind the partisan force’s daily operations—ordered the bombing of Nazi encampments and the reinforcement of his own with mines. His men killed Germans, cut off supply lines, intercepted information, and were generally a daily scourge to Hitler’s forces. To pay for supplies, the partisans held wealthy Fascists from Savona for ransom. With that money, they bought food, clothing, and medicine. From German convoys, they looted French cognac and cans of tuna fish.
But their greatest aid came from the local population, who supplied the partisans with information about German troop movements and kept quiet when the Germans came calling. So important to Enrico was the relationship with the townspeople that when one of his men got drunk and raped a farmer’s daughter, the comandante court-martialed the partisan and held a military tribunal. With his fellow partisans as jurors, the man was sentenced to death by firing squad. Enrico described the execution as “agonizing” but “necessary in order to make life safer for the multitude.”
In his entire time spent leading the partisans, he had told only one person that he was a Jew: the Polish wife of a doctor who helped the partisans care for their sick and wounded. Concerned she might be a spy when they first met, he questioned her and thought she was being less than truthful. When he continued, she finally broke down, admitting she was Jewish. He quizzed her on her knowledge of Judaism, asking her, for example, what a menorah is, and she answered all his questions correctly. He then told her he too was Jewish and she asked him whether he was circumcised. “Do you want me to show you?” he answered jokingly. From that point on, the two of them had a silent understanding.
From their headquarters in the mountains, the partisans skirmished with German and Fascist forces in the valleys below. When the Nazis captured partisans, Enrico’s men snatched up Germans, then engaged Padre Giovanni, a local priest, to arrange prisoner exchanges. After one such occasion, the priest negotiated a November 1944 meeting between Enrico and a German officer. On a bridge near Vado, the officer urged Enrico to join the Germans. Enrico responded in kind, urging the officer to join the partisans. They negotiated a prisoner swap: a German captain for 3 partisans who had been captured in an ambush, and another 10 citizens the Nazis had rounded up in reprisal.
But on November 28, 1944, before the exchange could take place, the Germans attacked, and the partisan force’s biggest battle of the war ensued. First machine gun fire rattled the ridges overlooking the bay. Then, a Ping-Pong match of mortars and machine gun fire followed. By daybreak, the clash had erupted into a battle. The Germans outnumbered the partisans 20 to 1, but Enrico’s men were deft on the mountain passes, and their positions gave them the upper hand. In the initial strike, the Germans occupied a mountain across from Enrico’s command post and set up radio communication there. The comandante ordered an assault squad, led by one of the men with whom he had escaped from the jail in Savona, to attack. The partisans destroyed the German command post, then split into smaller bands and attacked the Germans from numerous angles. They cut off the road to reinforcements. By noon, the Germans were retreating in droves.
Enrico lost five men in the battle, and six were wounded. The Germans, whose attack had been part of a larger operation against all the partisan brigades in the region, lost 87 men. But they were still keeping Enrico’s partisans hostage. The comandante sent a handwritten note via the priest to the Nazi commander he had met on the bridge. In the note, he demanded the return of the prisoners immediately. Enrico sent his men to capture three more Germans—a lieutenant and two enlisted men. Another letter followed, with Enrico demanding the release of the hostages, as well as 100 pairs of new shoes, underwear, and wool socks for the approaching winter. He included in the letter salutations from the captive Germans to let the Nazis know that they were alive. Finally, the German commander agreed to the terms in full, and exchanged the prisoners.
By winter 1944, heavy snow and a general malaise among the Germans all but quelled skirmishes in the Savona area. Enrico was appointed to head a united force of four brigades spread across 400 square miles. The partisan forces swelled with defectors from Mussolini’s army and civilians bent on ending Hitler’s hold on their country. For Wygoda, having the extra men was heartening. “After the war I was asked by many people, particularly British and American officers, how I managed to handle such a large group of people without any disturbances,” Wygoda recalled. “I had never given it a thought. The only thing I had promised my men was that with their help we would get rid of the enemy very soon.”
On April 25, 1945, Comandante Enrico—soon to be, once again, Hermann Wygoda—and the partisans left the mountains and marched into Savona to liberate the city. While a few diehard Fascists resisted, the Nazis immediately surrendered. People filled the streets, chanting Enrico’s name. The crowd gathered around the comandante, and two men hoisted him on their shoulders, spiriting him to the second floor balcony of a building overlooking the plaza. From the balcony, Wygoda glimpsed his men sprinkled throughout the masses. A colonel from the partisan movement introduced him, and he gave an impromptu speech, “genuinely moved,” he later said, “by such an expression of respect and friendship.”
In the following days, the Allied and partisan commanders began to return life to normal in Savona. Wygoda took a job as a police inspector. He was a hero, but he was haunted by memories of Poland. Wygoda remembered the ghetto, the beatings, the smell of Treblinka. He was lonely and hungry for home, but uncertain where home was. The beauty of Poland had been overshadowed by the horrors of war. He knew that he would never feel comfortable in Germany again. “The term death… lost every meaning for me, except when I was capable of applying it in conjunction with the term Nazi,” Wygoda later recalled. “Then, and only then, did death have a meaning for me, inasmuch as it helped to carry out an act of justice against the killers of innocent children. At times such thoughts frightened me. I wondered what it would be like after all this came to an end, when I again would be a free man in a peaceful world.”
But Wygoda did go on. In June 1946 he received an invitation to a ceremony in Milan. In the courtyard of a castle, Gen. Mark Clark awarded Wygoda a Bronze Star. Wygoda could not understand English yet, but as the general pinned the medal on his chest, he thought of an ancient Polish slogan: “For our freedom and yours as well.”
That fall, Wygoda moved to the United States. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, where his aunt had settled before the war, Wygoda married Rae Raider, who had a five-year-old daughter, and the couple later had two children together, a boy and a girl. He started the Wygoda Building Corporation, a successful homebuilding company. But he never forgot where he came from. On Fridays, the family went to temple. And on his nightstand, until he died in 1982, Wygoda kept the pictures of Samuel and the girl from the Warsaw ghetto.
Originally published in the March 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.