Swiss border guards in action. Ticino 1946.
Swiss border guards in action. Ticino 1946. Swiss Customs Museum

Escape to Switzerland

Smuggling activity at Switzerland’s southern border increased again in summer 1943. In addition to goods, more and more refugees were smuggled into Switzerland.

Maria Moser-Menna

Maria Moser-Menna

Maria Moser-Menna is Head of the Swiss Customs Museum in Cantine di Gandria.

In the past, smuggling was most significant along Switzerland’s southern border with Italy, where it was carried out on a large scale. For those living in Ticino and the valleys of the Italian Grisons, this dangerous industry had been part of everyday life for decades. For many families on both sides of the border, smuggling was a job like any other – and one that brought in much-needed income. Smuggling foodstuffs and other goods was widely accepted, although it reached a climax during World War II. This period of history saw the arrival of refugees from northern Italy, who wanted to cross the border to reach the safety of Switzerland. When smuggling along the southern border was at its height, confrontations between the border guards and the smugglers were increasingly common. This presented a huge challenge and resembled a game of cat and mouse. On occasion, the border guards would turn a blind eye and let the smugglers through, as they knew their families relied on the money it brought.
Staged arrest of two smugglers in Ticino, probably circa late 1940s.
Staged arrest of two smugglers in Ticino, probably circa late 1940s. Swiss Customs Museum
In the 1930s, even before the Second World War began, one smuggler from the further end of the Intelvi Valley stood out for his exceptional courage and audacity. He was always able to evade the border guards. His name was Clemente Malacrida, and he became known as the “Duke of the Mountains”. One of Malacrida’s most daring exploits was an attempted border crossing at Arogno on 3 January 1934. He was leading a column of 131 smugglers when they were hunted down by border guards as they fled the scene. A little while later, the “Duke of the Mountains” was arrested following an extensive search operation.
The Duke of the Mountains: portrait of Clemente Malacrida, nicknamed “Il Ment”.
The Duke of the Mountains: portrait of Clemente Malacrida, nicknamed “Il Ment”. Storici di Como, Dall'età di Volta all'epoca contemporanea (1870 - 1950).
1934 arrest warrant for Clemente Malacrida.
1934 arrest warrant for Clemente Malacrida. Como State Archives
In May 1936, he died under unclear circumstances and was shot by police while trying to escape. The mysterious circumstances of his death played a big part in the creation of the legend surrounding this extraordinary smuggler. Many people sought protection from persecution and death at the border between Italy and Switzerland. Some refugees succeeded in reaching salvation at the border posts and were fortunate enough to enter Switzerland and go on to live there in safety. Others, on the other hand, were less favoured by fate. They were turned away by Swiss customs officers and, in many cases, were sent back to certain death in the Nazi concentration camps.
In late September 1943, Ornella Ottolenghi arrived at the Swiss border. Ever since the German Wehrmacht had occupied Italy a few weeks beforehand, Jews had been hunted down ruthlessly and with great zeal. The Ottolenghi family lived in Milan and escaped to a village in the mountains after a friendly police officer warned them in advance. Here, they were safe for a short time, but soon the Germans arrived there, too, and the Ottolenghis had only one option left – to escape to Switzerland. They found a safe haven in Lanzo d’Intelvi. Presumably, this was because the Swiss customs officers in Caprino sent the family back to Italy.
The border post at Caprino. Today, the Swiss Customs Museum is housed here.
The border post at Caprino. Today, the Swiss Customs Museum is housed here. Swiss Customs Museum
The family succeeded in crossing the border a second time with the help of Italian anti-fascists and a few volunteers in Ticino who were in on the plan. The end of October saw the family finally arrive safely in Switzerland, where they handed themselves in to the police in Lugano. Now, they were able to remain. Ornella was later separated from her parents and taken to a children’s home in Geneva. Many children whose families had fled to Switzerland were separated from their parents. The Ottolenghi family was lucky and Ornella was able to return to her parents in Ticino shortly afterwards.
Ornella Ottolenghi’s data record for a Swiss refugee identity certificate, 1943.
Ornella Ottolenghi’s data record for a Swiss refugee identity certificate, 1943. Swiss Federal Archives

Countess of fashion

Among those fleeing national socialism in 1943 was Countess Wally Castelbarco, daughter of the world-famous conductor Arturo Toscanini. Toscanini was a dogged opponent of fascism. At that point in time, he was living in exile in the United States. Together with her young daughter, Emanuela, the countess travelled from Italy and arrived at the border post at Caprino in Cantine di Gandria on 11 November 1943. The Swiss customs officers let them pass, thus saving her life. Countess Wally Castelbarco was one of Milan’s most well-known fashion icons at the time.
Countess Wally Castelbarco, 1931.
Countess Wally Castelbarco, 1931. Getty Images

A smuggler’s paradise

10.04.2022 23.10.2022 / Swiss Customs Museum
The Swiss Customs Museum, which occupies an idyllic spot on Lake Lugano, is only accessible by boat or a long walk and is a wonderful option for a family day out. Entry to the museum is free. After visiting the museum, you can go for a wonderful meal inside one of the two scenic grottos, picnic in the area around the museum, or enjoy a refreshing dip in the sea. Afterwards, the boat trip across to Gandria on the opposite side takes only a few minutes. The special exhibition, which is entitled “A border between poverty and persecution”, shines a light on smuggling activities along the southern border during the Second World War. A particular highlight of the exhibition is the collection of moving stories of famous and less well-known refugees who managed to cross over the border into Switzerland from Italy via the Cantine di Gandria during the war years.

Further posts