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Julia Cuniberti, at 90; Italy specialist with OSS during World War II

During the war, Ms. Cuniberti learned that Nazis had taken control of her family’s villa in Italy.Family photo

WASHINGTON — When the intelligence cable arrived in Washington, Julia Cuniberti immediately understood that World War II had hit home, specifically, her family’s home in the Apennine mountains of Italy, a stately villa called La Palazzina.

The daughter of an Italian immigrant, she spoke Italian, French, and German and offered valuable services to the Office of Strategic Services, the secret intelligence division during World War II. Ms. Cuniberti died Feb. 8 at a nursing home in Riverdale, N.Y., where she had recently moved. She was 90. The cause was complications from a fall, said a niece, Marilyn Cuniberti Schwartz.

When the cable arrived late in the war, Ms. Cuniberti was a fresh recruit to the OSS, the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. Her job, former OSS agent Elizabeth McIntosh wrote in the book ‘‘Sisterhood of Spies,’’ was to review and distribute the intelligence materials pouring in from Europe and then erase their contents from her memory.

Fighting in central and northern Italy had grown intensely fierce in late 1944 and early 1945. Antifascist Italian partisans helped apprise Allied intelligence of developments, including the Nazi occupation of the Cuniberti home near Bologna, in the town of Pavullo nel Frignano.


Ms. Cuniberti’s father, an Italian-born lawyer, had purchased the villa before the war, and his daughter knew the estate in all its detail: the huge fireplaces and copper pots, its murals and music room. She also knew that her father had welcomed members of the extended family to the house after the war started. Its remote hilltop location, he hoped, would provide a haven from the fighting and bombs.

Back in Washington, Ms. Cuniberti learned from a cable that the Nazis had at some point taken control of the house, converted the villa into a headquarters and observation point, and restricted her relatives to a small part of the property. Partisans seeking to inflict a setback on the Germans had called for an Allied attack on the site. ‘‘You can imagine my reaction,’’ Ms. Cuniberti told McIntosh. ‘‘I couldn’t notify my uncle and aunts and cousins. I could only pray!’’


According to McIntosh’s account, Ms. Cuniberti later received cables from partisans reporting the results of the strikes. The bombs had missed the target. Months later, Ms. Cuniberti and her family received official word that their relatives had survived the war.

Ms. Cuniberti was born in Washington and spent a period of her childhood in Europe. She received a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in 1944 from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

After her OSS assignment in Washington, she served with the agency in England, Germany, and Switzerland. After the war, as soon as it was safe to travel to Italy, she surprised her relatives with a visit.

Ms. Cuniberti later pursued a career as an illustrator and graphic designer, a field she studied at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington. Her drawings appeared over the years in The Washington Post, and she helped operate Cuniberti Art and Design in Arlington, Va. She also received a teaching certificate from American University and taught art in public schools in the District of Columbia.

She leaves a brother.

Ms. Cuniberti’s cousin Clelia Cuniberti, 87, is the only surviving relative of those who took refuge at La Palazzina during the war. Reached at her home in Bologna, she said she is convinced, despite the account in McIntosh’s book, that Julia was responsible for their survival.