A courier in the Italian Resistance during WWII, now in Scottsdale: "There is always tomorrow"

April 23, 2012

Wednesday is the 67th anniversary of Italian Liberation Day, when Allied troops toppled the dictator Mussolini. Key to their success was the Italian Resistance movement. According to a group that keeps track of former resistance fighters, possibly one of the last surviving members lives right here in Scottsdale.

Margaret Fray Margaret Fray as a teenager in the 1940s. (Photo courtesy Margaret Fray)

If you were to meet Margaret Fray, you probably wouldn’t guess everything she’s done in her life. She’s a diminutive lady of a certain age, bustling around her home answering frequent phone calls and plying her guests with coffee and cookies. She was born Margherita Bertola, just outside of Turin in Northern Italy.

“At that time, you know, that was when Mussolini was in power, and my father was not too happy with all the things that were happening," Margaret said.

Her father was a tax collector, who was later forced out of his job by the Fascists and took a job at a bank. Margaret says when World War II started, many Italians didn’t take it seriously. Then, the air raids began. Margaret remembers her family always running, "from shelter to shelter, and the bombing would come in the morning, at noontime, in the evening, and during the middle of the night," she said.

Her family moved to a smaller town just outside Turin to get away from the constant bombing. But life didn’t get any easier. Hostile Italian and German troops were everywhere. She remembers one especially haunting statement from a German leader.

“The general said that he was going to turn Torino into another Warsaw," Margaret said. "They were going to destroy everybody."

A woman in Margaret’s family joined the Italian resistance movement, called the “Partigiani” or “Partisans.” The Partisans fought to overthrow the Axis powers terrorizing Italy.

“The Partisans, they were in Rome, in Florence, everywhere. All through Italy,” Margaret said.

Margaret also joined the movement. She was a “staffetta” – a dispatch rider. She would carry messages and supplies from partisan collaborators in the towns to their leaders, who were hidden in the remote hillsides.

Margaret hid secret communiqués in her school books and guns underneath her skirt. She was dodging German and Italian soldiers at every turn.

Margaret says almost a hundred women partisans were killed in the war. She was careful and smart, but also lucky.

“It was a very, very incredible, incredible life to live," Margaret said.

When American troops entered Turin in 1945, Margaret caught the eye of a soldier from California. They married and moved to the United States.

Margaret Fray Margaret Fray with one of her paintings, at home in Scottsdale. (Photo by Nick Blumberg)

Even after surviving a war, Margaret’s life in America hasn’t been easy. Her husband struggled with alcohol, and died young. She tried for years to help a troubled daughter and has worked many, many careers.

Now in her 80s, she keeps busy, painting regularly. Margaret’s home is filled with art; so filled, she has an entire closet jammed with unframed paintings of landscapes from around the world.

“I like to paint. [I've painted] since I was about ten years old. It was very rewarding to me, you know," Margaret said. "When I painted a picture, it helped me to forget my war and all my background.”

Even decades later, Margaret is sometimes emotional talking about the war. Still, she says that her life experiences have given her perspective and strength.

"When you go through a war like I did, it toughens you up. You get strong, and you can cope with a lot of situations," Margaret said. "I think that for a person who’s never had trauma like that, they kind of panic and give up. I never give up, because I know that you can pull through anything."

"You have to think that there is always tomorrow, and if you are not around when [the] good tomorrow comes, what the hell is [it] to be dead, you know?"

View more photos and Margaret's paintings:

Special thanks to Bill Diekmann for his assistance.