One morning in late April of 1945, a military convoy snaked its way through a thin rain along the tortuous mountain road that winds from Milan along the side of Lake Como to the Swiss frontier. Near Dongo, 30 miles from the Swiss border, the lead armored car was stopped by a roadblock. Italian partisans, members of the fabled 52nd Garibaldi Brigade, began their search. One of the things they found was a grotesque figure of a man in a swastika-marked helmet with a German corporal's greatcoat draped over his black-shirted Fascist uniform. Two days later the squat man, Benito Mussolini, and his doxy Claretta Petacci were hanging upside down outside a gas station in Milan.
The partisans also found something else: a fortune estimated at nearly $90 million, which Mussolini and his entourage were trying to smuggle into Switzerland. Besides much of the Fascist government's gold bullion and foreign currency, there were Mussolini's personal funds (including three sacks of wedding rings contributed by Italian wives to the Ethiopian campaign), the personal jewelry of Claretta Petacci and the wives of other Fascist bigwigs traveling in the convoy, and satchels of secret correspondence between Mussolini and Hitler.
"I Don't Remember." Though the Gold of Dongo has never since been seen, all Italy knows what happened to it: it went to Italy's Communist Party (whose headquarters in Rome is still popularly known as Palazzo Dongo). For more than a decade, in the face of persistent Communist stonewalling, successive Italian governments have been trying to unravel the intricate series of thefts and murders by which the Reds managed to get the treasure out of the hands of the partisans to whose care it was originally entrusted. Nearly two months ago in the marbled Palace of Justice at Padua, 35 defendants finally went on trial.
Key figure in the Padua trial is 57-year-old Dante Gorreri, a onetime street singer and plumber who is charged with the murder of two Communist women comrades and embezzlement of the "heritage of the Italian state." To put him beyond the reach of the law, the Communists elected him to the Italian Chamber of Deputies, and not until last year, after a long fight, was his parliamentary immunity lifted. On the witness stand at last, big-bellied Dante Gorreri answered almost every question with "I don't know ... I don't remember."
But the prosecution had more than enough other witnesses to compensate for his total lack of recall. Partisan Leader Pietro Terzi, commander of the men who captured the treasure, laughed nervously as he testified: "We decided to hand the treasure to the Communist Party because the Communists had fought harder than anyone else." An ex-driver for the partisans told of loading five heavy suitcases aboard a Fiat, taking them to Como and delivering them to Gorreri. "They weighed plenty," said the driver. "The car was overloaded and the wheels scraped against the fenders." Snapped Gorreri: "I never saw you before. You lie." Said the driver, unperturbed: "I never lie."