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Sullivan shares WWII spy story

By Amelia Tarallo
Hometown Weekly Special Correspondent

On Thursday, October 4, Mark Sullivan returned to his hometown to share his experience writing his book, "Beneath a Scarlet Sky." In the Blake Middle School auditorium where he used to attend assemblies, Sullivan shared his years-long adventure of learning about a World War II hero.

Sullivan's story began during one of the worst periods of his life. His brother had recently died unexpectedly, a book he had spent ages writing had tanked, and he was declaring bankruptcy. He was contemplating suicide. Stopping in a Walgreen parking lot, he begged the fates for a sign not to end his life.

Three hours later, the sign he was looking practically fell into his lap at a dinner party. As he talked to another dinner guest, Robert Dehlendorf, he learned the story of a man named Pino Lella. During a vacation in Italy, Dehlendorf had met Lella and had gotten to know him quite well. Lella had grown up in Italy, but had spent three decades in the United States. During World War II, he helped Jews facing deportation escape through the mountains. He was only 17 at the time.

Sullivan took his encounter with Dehlendorf as a sign and decided to go on the craziest adventure that ever came out of a dinner party. He booked his plane tickets and was on his way to Europe to track down a 60-year-old war story that had never been told. Sullivan spent ten years working on the story of Pino Lella. He researched, investigated, interviewed people for this book, and managed to write eight books during the time.

Most people did not know Lella's story, and to most people, he seemed like a completely normal person. Instead, Sullivan found Lella to be a larger-than-life character. "He's like Forrest Gump, he really is," said Sullivan, mentioning how in addition to being a World War II hero, Lella formed friendships with Albert Einstein and Ernest Hemingway.

Even as Sullivan interviewed him, Lella would gloss over serious details to his stories. In one instance, the two men visited the mountains Lella had climbed years before during rescue missions. "Any experienced mountaineer could do this," Lella said, as if climbing mountains was a simple task. The two men bonded over their loss of family and friends and understand each other on a level no one else had before they met.

When Sullivan began researching the story, he intended to write it as non-fiction. With a background in investigative reporting, Sullivan saw how important it was to try to tell this story as a non-fiction. Though much of the final product is completely true, some parts of the story had to be changed or could not be confirmed as true due to witnesses passing away or documents destroyed by Nazis, making it impossible to categorize the book as non-fiction.

"Beneath a Scarlet Sky," tells the story of Pino Lella, a teenager living in Nazi occupied Italy. Lella goes from being a normal teenager to spying on Nazis and saving Jews from deportation. The rescue missions he helped with eventually saved about 2,166 people. The story discusses the complexities of the Italian government of the time and the work of the Catholic Church during the war.

In 2017, it was announced that “Beneath a Scarlet Sky” would be adapted into a television series that would star Tom Holland. The once-lost story of Pino Lella has the potential to be known not only through Sullivan's book, but also what is sure to be a thrilling television show.

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