Saturday, 21 May 2016

Lessons of faith from the life of Willy Jervis

Willy Jervis - Christian Resistance fighter - with English ancestors

Willy Jervis, aged 31, marrying Waldensian Lucilla Rochat in 1932

The Willy Jervis Refuge is an alpine shelter located remotely in the Conca del Pra (see webcam) a long glacial valley leading from Bobbio Pellice, in the Waldensian Valleys, towards the high passes to France and to Monte Granero.

Willy Jervis Refuge, Conca del Pra, Bobbio Pellice Photo courtesy of Di Francofranco56 - Opera propria, Pubblico dominio,

The Conca del Pra is source of the River Pellice near Monte Granero, within sight of Monviso. There is another refuge named after Willy Jervis, in the nearby Gran Paradiso Park.

Conca del Pra, location of the Willy Jervis refuge Photo courtesy of Di Francofranco56 - Opera propria, Pubblico dominio

Who was Willy Jervis? One assumes that the name ‘Willy Jervis’ has links to America, where the name 'Willy' seems common today : ‘Billy’ is the normal English version. In fact, the name is ‘Jervis’ (Norman ‘Gervase’) of English descent coming from the Jervis family, landed gentry who owned Meaford Hall in Staffordshire since the 17th century. The mansion and park recently sold for £2.7m (see photos of its interior). 

The naming of the Willy Jervis Refuge is a tribute to one of their descendants, Guglielmo Jervis (1901- 1944), an Italian resistance fighter and mountaineer awarded the Italian Gold Medal for Military Valour as a member of the fifth division of non-Marxist anti-fascist resistance group Justice and Liberty. The refuge is also in memory of all local partisans who died in World War Two. 

The Waldensian valleys have a long history of championing religious freedom and resistance going back to the 13th century. They were a centre of resistance during the Second World War. The area is dotted with war memorials. It is said that resistance to Mussolini started in the Waldensian Valleys. Jews were hidden by Waldensians, for example in the village of Rora, throughout WW2 while they were being shipped to concentration camps from across Piedmont. Partisans hid and met in mountain retreats and hunting lodges. In Torre Pellice, there are memorials those who died in the concentration camps, a memorial to the German White Rose Resistance Group and to a young woman partisan who died in the last skirmishes of the war.

‘Willy’ was the nickname for Guglielmo Jervis born on 31 December 1901 in Naples. Guglielmo graduated from Milan University in engineering in the 1920s and was technical manager at the Olivetti factory in Bologna. Then he moved to train Olivetti workers in Ivrea, just north of Turin. Throughout the 1930s, he was also active in the Waldensian communities. From 1931, he worked with Waldensian pastor, John Miegge, producing the magazine Valdese Youth. In 1932, he married Waldensian, Lucilla Rochat. They had three children. Guglielmo was a mountaineer in his spare time, a member of the The Italian Alpine Club and president of its section in Ivrea. Athletic and very fit, he spent many hours on Mount Granero with his brother Ernesto.

                                     Monte Granero where Willy and Ernesto Jervis spent many hours climbing

In the 1930s Mussolini declared Catholicism the official state religion and membership of the Fascist party was required to work as an engineer. This was the final spur for Ernesto Jervis to escape from Italy. He had won a Volta fellowship to Harvard University in 1931 and returned to Italy to marry in 1933. The couple emigrated in 1935 fulfilling a dream of living in America but it was difficult. The couple had to pull strings and rely on highly placed relatives to get on the 1935 'quota' for emigration. They even travelled separately to avoid bringing attention to themselves. Willy stayed behind with the rest of the family, a destiny which, nine years later, cost Willy his life.

His story is that of a Christian making the decision to join the active Resistance even if he could easily remain passive in the struggle of good and evil. It is also the story of a quality of faith that changes lives and that trusts that God does not abandon His people, even (and especially) in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

Willy's inspiring story is as follows:

In 1943, after Sicily fell to the Allies and only the north of Italy remained under Axis control, Willy joined the non-Marxist Italian Resistance. Several times he guided over the high Alps, groups of Jews and other refugees to Switzerland where he came into contact with the British undercover forces. Under suspicion, he fled Ivrea in November 1943 to take refuge in the Waldensian Valleys, west of Turin, where he continued his work with Justice and Liberty, the Italian non-Marxist resistance. He was known by an Anglicised ‘nom de guerre’ - ‘Willy’. Willy organized, among other things, the first transit of weapons for the resistance on the Western Alps. On 11 March 1944, he was arrested at random while carrying incriminating documents by the SS of the Italian II Kompanie ‘Battalion Debica’ commanded by Captain Arturo Dal Dosso at Bibiana Bridge. He was inhumanly tortured, without giving anything away. On the night of 4-5 August 1944, he was taken with four other partisans to the beautiful square of Villar Pellice, in the heart of Val Pellice and executed by SS firing squad. His body was left hanging on a tree as a deterrent to local Waldensians, who, as a result, redoubled their efforts to support the Allies. His last words, found engraved with a pin in his pocket Bible were: "Do not weep for me, do not call me poor; I died for having served an idea.”

He was posthumously awarded the Italian Gold Medal for Military Valour. His citation reads: "Arrested by the German SS and found in possession of sabotage material and military documents, for days he was subjected to inhuman torture to which he responded with stoic silence, while heartening other prisoners. Subjected to firing square, the SS left the corpse exposed for the purposes of ridicule and retaliation in the square in Villar Pellice. He faced death with the serenity of heroes". 

The 'idea' that Willy died for is the same as that of the Old Waldensians : religious and human freedom as a demonstration of faith in God, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. In support of this goal, Willy showed the same outstanding courage, love and knowledge of the mountains as the Old Waldensians. In his last letters to his wife Lucilla from prison he wrote:

”Faith does not abandon me and my last thoughts will be for you, my dear. I am under no illusion and I pray to God to give me strength and you, consolation. I am calm for myself - but what anguish for you. How many things I want to say. You know my love for you and the kids”.

How did this English 'Jervis' surname come about in Val Pellice? Tracing the story back leads to a branch of the landed Jervis family in Eccleshall in Staffordshire during the 18th century which had illustrious relatives. Willy’s great uncle X 4 (his first cousin X 5) was the famous British Admiral John Jervis, First Earl of St Vincent. He imposed discipline and limes on the Navy to cure scurvy. He commanded the British flagship HMS Victory (now in Portsmouth) and the Mediterranean Fleet before Horatio Nelson. Various Jervis relatives colonized India and normally married into the aristocracy, living well-heeled lives of wealth and prestige.

How did a branch of the Jervis family end up in Italy? Willy’s teenage great-aunt, Annie Jervis fell for a  dashing Garibaldi Freedom Fighter raising funds in England for the Italian Unification Campaign. She eloped with him to Naples with family jewels, only to be subsequently abandoned by her lover who passed on syphilis and stole the jewels. She spent her last years (in the first decades of the 20th century) living with blindness caused by syphilis in a ruined palace in Naples. One of Annie's brothers, thought to be a British sailor had gone out in the early years to bring her home but he stayed and married a Waldensian. Willy Jervis, his grandson, was born in Naples in 1901.

After the Second World War, Willy’s widow Lucilla Rochat Jervis returned to work in Florence as a teacher and translator of English. Her children, Giovanni, Gladness and Paola, were supported by Adriano Olivetti who treated their father as if he was a worker who had died in the service of Olivetti. This was tinged with deep gratitude, for the elder Olivetti was a Jew and had been saved by Willy risking his life, by guiding him over the Alps into safe Switzerland. Willy and Lucilla's son Giovanni Jervis became one of the leading psychiatrists in Italy.

The main square of Villar Pellice where Willy and the partisans were shot was renamed ‘Piazza Willy Jervis’. There is a memorial stone where Willy died. The street in Ivrea where the Olivetti factory was located is called ‘Via Guglielmo Jervis’.

Willy Jervis memorial in Piazza Jervis where he was murdered.

References and acknowledgements

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