Princess Mafalda of Italy
Baron Philippe & Princess Elisabeth de Rothschild
Princess Mafalda, daughter of King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy, and Princess Elisabeth de Rothschild, wife of the French wine-producer, died under horrific circumstances in Nazi concentration camps.
It’s difficult to say which of the two princesses suffered a more ghastly death.
Mafalda perished after the Allies bombed Buchenwald in central Germany where she had been sent for passing secret codes to her father, the king of Italy.
The blast from a bomb the Allies dropped on Buchenwald severely burned Mafalda’s arm, which was amputated without anesthesia. She bled to death on the operating table. The operation was surprising because camp inmates usually received substandard medical care, if any. Typically, inmate infirmaries had nothing more than aspirin and bandages.
Deportees who weren’t killed immediately upon arrival at the camps were starved and worked to death. Since Mafalda died without regaining consciousness after the operation, her end may have been a cruel mercy compared to death from starvation in slow-motion.
The cause of Princess Elisabeth’s death in the Ravensbrück concentration camp in northern Germany remains in question. One source claimed that she died of typhus, but her husband’s post-war autobiography insisted she was thrown into an oven at Ravensbrück’s crematorium alive.
The fairy-tale lives of both princesses prior to deportation must have made the barbaric conditions of life in a concentration camp even more unbearable.
Mafalda was also an innocent victim of her unfortunate family connections. The princess’ father, King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy, inadvertently contributed to his favorite daughter’s death.
After helping Mussolini to power in 1922, the king dismissed the dictator in 1943 and signed an armistice with the Allies. The German army then occupied northern Italy, and Victor Emmanuel fled south. Since the king was out of reach, Hitler wreaked his revenge on the king’s daughter.
Mafalda’s impressive pedigree, although it contributed to her death, extended beyond Italy. She was related through marriage to Britain’s royal family. An in-law was married to the sister of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. In 1925, Mafalda married the ousted ruler of a German principality, Philipp of Hesse-Kassel, who was also a dedicated Nazi. The marriage connected her to the royal houses of Europe she wasn’t already related to.
Despite Philipp’s political sympathies, Hitler placed him under house arrest after the armistice in 1943. As the king’s daughter, Mafalda fared far worse. After her detention by the Gestapo on a preposterous charge of sabotage, she was sent to Buchenwald and her death. Pope Pius XII gave her children sanctuary in the Vatican, and they escaped the revenge Hitler had wreaked on their mother.
The Nazi dictator may have wanted to use Mafalda as a hostage in order to force the king to return to the Axis fold. More likely, the Fuehrer sought revenge for her father’s betrayal. Hitler couldn’t lay his hands on Victor Emmanuel, so he chose the next best things, the king’s daughter and son-in-law.
Elisabeth de Rothschild happened to be in the wrong marriage at the wrong time. Her husband, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, was Jewish, but she came from an aristocratic Catholic family whose forbears included one of Napoleon’s generals, outranking a mere baron, especially a Jewish one in post-Dreyfus, anti-Semitic France.
For unknown reasons, after arresting the Rothschilds, the Gestapo allowed Philippe to leave for England despite the baron’s religion. His wife was rearrested for trying to escape Nazi-occupied France and sent to Ravensbrück north of Berlin.
Elisabeth’s life before her ghastly death also had tragic elements. The death of her deformed child soon after birth led to the couple’s bitter estrangement prior to their arrest.
Princess Mafalda was not a royal snob. Before surgery, she told her compatriots at Buchenwald, "Remember me not as an Italian princess, but as an Italian sister." In 1997, her portrait was placed on an Italian postage stamp. Tragically, too little and too late.
Princess Elisabeth has the unwanted distinction of being the only Rothschild murdered by the Nazis even though she wasn’t Jewish, just very, very unlucky.
Causes Frank Sanello Supports
ACLU, ASPCA, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders