The tragedy of the Holocaust is one everyone learns about and remembers; the victims’ names are mentioned and memorialised. Royals were not exempt from the concentration camps, and Princess Mafalda of Savoy was sent off to Buchenwald where she would later die.
Mafalda was born on 2 November 1902 in Rome to King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and his wife, Elena of Montenegro. Her maternal grandparents were King Nicholas I of Montenegro and his wife, Milena Vukotić. Her paternal grandparents were King Umberto I of Italy and his wife, Princess Margherita of Savoy.
She was the second of Victor and Elena’s five children. She had one brother, the future King Umberto II of Italy – two years her junior. He would go on to be the last King of Italy.
In September 1925, Mafalda married Prince Philipp of Hesse, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, who was also the grandson of German Emperor Frederick III. Philipp was a known member of the German Nazi Party (National Socialist).
During the First World War, she was known to accompany her mother to Italian military hospitals to visit with the wounded. The Second World War would prove to have an entirely different experience. As Italy would ally itself with Germany during World War II, Philipp used his position as a German royal married to an Italian royal to his advantage and acted as an intermediary between the two nations. Adolf Hitler would even host a dinner that both Philipp and Mafalda attended in 1935. She had no idea how things would change less than ten years later.
She travelled to Bulgaria in September 1943 to attend her brother-in-law, King Boris III’s funeral. While there, she was informed that Italy had surrendered to the Allies and her husband was under house arrest in Bavaria, Germany. She was also told that her children had been given sanctuary in the Vatican.
Adolf Hitler and his Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels saw the Princess as a threat to the German war effort with Hitler calling her the “blackest carrion in the Italian royal house.” Goebbels, for his part, called her the “worst b**** in the entire Italian royal house” in the Goebbels Diaries.
As a result and after the Italian surrender, Hitler ordered her arrest. While in Bulgaria, she received a call from the German High Command by Hauptsturmführer Karl Hass telling her that he had an important message from her husband that she needed to get from the German Embassy. Upon her arrival, she was arrested and sent to Munich where she was questioned. She would be sent to Berlin and then to the Buchenwald concentration camp where she remained for the rest of the war.
It was on 24 August 1944 that the Allied powers bombed the ammunition factory at the camp. Princess Mafalda was in an adjacent building to the factory. It has been said that she was buried up to her neck in debris from the bombing and had severe burns on her arm.
The author of The Theory and Practice of Hell – The German Concentration Camps and the System Behind Them, Eugen Kogon said that Dr Schiedlausky of the medical office elected to perform an amputation on her injured arm, which was supposedly infected. The results were deadly for the Princess. She died due to significant blood loss from the amputation.
Princess Mafalda’s body was sent, unclothed, to the crematorium where Father Joseph Thyl would take her body, cover her up, and have her cremated. He also took a lock of her hair, which he smuggled out to be sent to her German family. Confirmation of her death did not come until after the Axis powers surrendered to the Allies in April 1945.
Prince Philipp would survive the Second World War and work to defend Germany against socialism and communism. Eventually, he would move back to Italy where he became a successful interior designer; while married to Mafalda, they spent the majority of their time on the outskirts of Rome on the estate of Mafalda’s father.
Mafalda and Philipp had four children: Prince Moritz, Landgrave of Hesse, Prince Heinrich Wilhelm Konstantin Viktor Franz, Prince Otto Adolf, and Princess Elisabeth; the latter of the four is the only remaining child still alive at 76-years-old.