Tag Archives: World war II

Port of No Return – A Book Review

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Historical fiction novels about Italy during World War II always seem to fascinate me – probably because the stories hit pretty close to home since my parents lived through this horrible time in Italy.  Neither one of my parents, though, remembers it as being really terrible – I guess they were the lucky ones.  But after reading several accounts of the atrocities that occurred in Italy, I am devastated to learn that so many innocent people lost their lives – and if they survived, they lived through some pretty horrible experiences.  My parents speak about the poverty, but their stories tend to be more human interest stories rather than accounts of despair and fear.  My mother tells a great story of her and her sister going to collect the rationed jam, of which each family was only allowed one jar per month. The two little girls, aged 8 & 7, were sent by their parents to go and pick it up.  On the way home, they decided to sample some. One spoonful for one, another spoonful for the other, and by the time they got home, the jam was all gone! My mom says that it tasted so good that they just couldn’t stop!

Michelle Saftich’s novel, Port of No Return, speaks of life in Fiume, a town now a part of Croatia.

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Back before the war, it was a part of Italy, and during the war, it was occupied by the Germans. Towards the end of the war and even afterwards, it became a hotbed of political tensions between the Yugoslav Communists (or Partisans) and those who worked for the Germans. Families were just trying to eek out a living to support themselves and therefore found work wherever there were jobs.  Many of those jobs involved working on German projects.Tensions became so high that the Partisans fought everyone they felt supported the Germans. Families had to split up and flee their homes, taking refuge in refugee camps.  This story tells the story of the Sartoro family – mother, father, nonna and 5 children.  Ettore, the father, had worked in the naval yards run by the Germans, even though his allegiances were always to Italy. Word got out that the Yugoslav’s were coming to even the score with the Germans, and everyone involved with working for them was fair game. Ettore ran for his life, leaving behind his entire family. Months passed and the family had to escape Fiume as well.  They had to leave everything they had ever known.

The story tells of the hardships that both Ettore and his family faced, and their struggle to find each other.Even after the war was over, life was still unbearable – they were living in horrendous conditions in refugee camps – but their spirit remained strong and their commitment to family was beautiful.

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They were determined to create a better life, and this meant leaving the world they knew and venture to unknown lands. The end of the book finds the family embarking on a voyage to Australia and to the new life awaiting them there.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, and I hope that a sequel will follow that tells of their new life in Australia.

Botticelli’s Bastard – A Book Review

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With a title like Botticelli’s Bastard, I had no idea what to expect from this latest novel by Stephen Maitland-Lewis . But as I began to get absorbed in it, it all began to take shape. The story begins when a middle-aged art restorer, who goes through the motions of living his life without experiencing any passion for it, opens up a crate that has been sitting in the corner of his art studio for years. Within it, he discovers an unsigned painted panel of an old Florentine aristocrat. Little did he realize how his life was about to change!  

Now this is where the story got a little weird for me, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to enjoy the rest of it….but the painting of the Count began to speak to Giovanni, the art restorer! And, of course, he was the only one that could hear the painting speak! They ended up conversing a great deal, and Giovanni found himself treating the Count like his confidante and best friend! Weird, right? But actually, these conversations opened up the floodgates of history.  All the time periods between the Renaissance and modern times were described from the viewpoint of this painted Count who  had “lived” through them all. It was all pretty fascinating, especially the description of the pillaging of art by the Nazis in Paris during World War II.

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The Count also dropped a bombshell on Giovanni when he insisted that he had been painted by none other than Botticelli himself! Giovanni had his doubts, but promised the Count that he would have the painting analyzed by the experts for authentication.

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Throughout all these conversations, Giovanni began to renew his passion for living – the Count counseled him about life in general and also gave him a mission to accomplish. Giovanni was ultimately faced with a moral dilemma and his character was put to the test.

This book is a perfect example of what true historical fiction is all about – learning about history in a way that is interesting and entertaining!  I can highly recommend it, if you can get past the fantasy of the talking painting!

Below is a question and answer session with

Mr. Maitland-Lewis:

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  1. How did you do research for your book?

The internet is my primary source for research, but one has to be very disciplined so as not to go off in tangents in reading material with is irrelevant to the topic in hand. For that reason, visits to local libraries are ideal, although more time consuming. With regard to Botticelli’s Bastard, the research covered many different periods of European history, which made the project enjoyable and it did not at any time feel onerous.

 

  1. If you could put yourself as a character in your book, who would you
    be?

Unquestionably, Giovanni Fabrizzi, the art restorer. He was burdened with sadness and later on was faced with the dilemma of Satan on one shoulder and the good angel on the other in determining his course of action. But there is a moral tale for all of us and I found myself inspired by his ultimate decision.

  3.  What made you write a book about a talking painting?

A painting that has survived 500 years, has traveled across continents, and has hung on many different walls, has a life of its own. Just as Oscar Wilde’s
Dorian Grey had a painting that aged, my painting in
Botticelli’s Bastard talks to the restorer. Just as a writer or an actor can get totally immersed in his character, so can a restorer working over a long period of time and in the minutest detail, become overtaken by the painting on which he is working.

4.  What is the last great book you’ve read?

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron. This novel is superb on every level – character, plot, language, and overall style. I first read the book many years ago, at a time when I was not writing professionally, so I didn’t appreciate the subtlety and brilliance of Mr. Styron. Reading it again recently, I realized that the author was one of the major world’s literary geniuses. His writing is so fine that I have to resist the temptation of never writing another word.

 

  1. Do you write every day?

I try to do so. Even if I am not writing a novel, I think it is important to write
something on a daily basis, whether it be a journal entry, or a complex social
or business letter. The great piano virtuoso Arturo Rubenstein remarked once
that “the first day I do not practice, I notice. The second day I miss a
practice, the critics notice. The third day – the audience notices.”

 

  1. What advice would you give budding writers?

Treat the art of writing as a serious professional occupation, and not a recreational activity. Try not to read fiction whilst you are writing fiction, as you could fall into the trap of admiring a particular descriptive passage in something that you have read, and subconsciously repeating it in your own work. Read fiction before or after you have completed your book, not during your exercise.

 

  1. What is your next project?

I have started a novel about a second-rate jazz pianist, and have already
completed about 20,000 words. In the midst of writing this, another project came into my mind and I may well place on hold the earlier one to focus on this latest possible work. I don’t want to say anything about the new project at present, so as not to jinx these very precious early stages.

 

Would you like to win a copy of this book?

Just click here, a Rafflecopter giveaway,
and you will have the chance to get your very own copy FREE!

Of course, you can also purchase the book at Amazon, Barnes & Noble,  Book Depository, and Chapters Indigo.

The Light in the Ruins – A Book Review

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This excellent book by the author of Midwives, Chris Bohjalian, delves into life in the beautiful Tuscan countryside during the ravages of World War II. The Rosati’s, a noble family, who lived in a beautiful villa surrounded by vineyards and olive trees, thought their little world was safe from the horrors of the War even though both their sons were in the military fighting for Il Duce. Their oldest son was off in Sicily and their other son was commissioned in Florence as part of the Nazi pillaging of art, but the rest of them were quietly living out the War in their little corner of Heaven. Heaven was about to turn into an inferno, though, when the Nazi’s learned of the secret Etruscan tomb on their property and the possibilty of gathering priceless artifacts to send back to Germany.

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At first, they treated the Rosati’s with respect and reverence. One of the young German officers even fell in love with Cristina, the youngest daughter, and it all seemed like they would live a happily ever after once the War was over. This fairytale abruptly came to an end, though, when Italy surrendered to the Allies. The Germans became desparate and began trashing the countryside and killing anyone suspected of harboring the Partisans.

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Massacres of innocent people, sometimes a whole town, took place and everyone lived in fear. The Rosati’s were no exception: they soon became prisoners in their own home.

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They were forced to give up their home for it to become a barracks for the Nazi’s. They were allowed to remain, though, but all 6 of them were crammed into one room. Their animals were slaughtered to feed the soldiers and their vineyards and olive groves destroyed. Everything they had was gone! And on top of all the physical and economic hardship they indured, their allegiance was questioned by all…were they Nazi sympathizers (after all, their daughter was in love with one) or were they harboring Partisans?

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Fast forward 10 years or so….the War is over and Italy has somewhat repaired itself from the damages. The Rosati’s have left their war-torn estate behind and moved to Rome. The horrors they endured during the War are still raw scars on their hearts that have yet to heal, and probably never will. And now, their family has become the target of a brutal serial killer. Someone is out for revenge, but why? Who? The pretty, young, female investigator assigned to the case has to untangle clues from the past which puts her back in touch with her own secrets and horrors endured during the War. The story takes its twists and turns, but the reader is always caught up and motivated to keep reading wondering how its all going to come together.

Nutella Has English Roots?

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I bet you never equated Nutella with anything English, right?  After all, it is made in Italy and many Italian children have been raised on Nutella and bread sandwiches as an after school snack!  Nutella was created in Italy, back in the 1940’s, by a Piemontese pastry maker named Pietro Ferrero.

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He had the ingenious idea to incorporate hazelnuts with cocoa beans to extend the chocolate, which was in short supply because of World War II rations.  His original recipe mixed toasted hazelnuts (which are abundant in Piemonte, Italy) with cocoa butter and vegetable oils.  He called this delicious concoction “Pasta Gianduja” (gianduja is hazelnut in Italian).  Then in 1949, he changed the original recipe to make it easier to spread on bread.  This became known as “Supercrema Gianduja.”

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So, I know you’re just dying to find out where this English connection comes in?  Well, in 1964, because hazelnuts were becoming so popular, the Ferrero company decided to change the name to “Nutella”…a combination of the English word “nut” and “ella”.  “Nut” was used to make it clear that it was made of nuts (and not just chocolate), and the ending “ella” to give it a softer ending.   So there you have it – an Italian product with an English name!  I guess they knew that English would one day be the international language and they were tapping into a whole new population to sell their product to!  Now that’s what I call SMART MARKETING!

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Solitaria – A Book Review

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I am going to digress from my travel log in order to review the latest book I read having to do with Italy – Solitaria by Genni Gunn.  I actually won this book from The Italy in Book Challenge that I did in 2011 and finally just got around to reading it.  I have a signed copy with a personal note from the author!  I definitely am going to put this book and note in a safe place – it’s always so special when the author has signed their work.

Solitaria is a wonderfully written book which takes place in the present time,  when the body of Vito Santoro is discovered by a demolition crew at an Italian seaside villa, and it digresses to memories of Italy in the 1940’s.  La Solitaria (the solitary) is Piera, the oldest sister of a family of 5, who barricades herself in her room when the rest of the siblings come back home from their homes around the globe after the body of their oldest brother, Vito, is discovered.  She feels that no one understands her even though she feels she has devoted her entire life to taking care of them and making sure that they were safe.  She has a strong sense of duty and she believes that the rest of her siblings don’t realize that everything she did in her life was out of love and sacrifice.  Instead she feels only lonliness and rejection.  The discovery of her brother’s body after all these years is the right time for her to tell her side of the story of the family’s past and all their secrets, but she will only tell David, her sister’s son and favorite member of the family.  During her private times with him, she pulls out letters that she has written and which she has kept locked up.  She tells him about Aldo, the successful lawyer, whom everyone turns to when they are in need; Teresa, the dead brother’s wife and Marco, their son; Renato the rebel who lost Teresa to Vito; Mimi the spoiled youngest surviving sibling; Clarissa, the famous opera diva whom Piera competed with for attention; Daniela whom sadly was killed as a young child; Vito, the oldest brother and “black sheep” of the family;  and her mother and father who faught with their own demons while trying to provide for such a large family.  The family dynamics were at times loving and other times filled with jealousy and betrayal…and many dark secrets.  Genni Gunn brings Italy of the 1940’s to life with her words, and I could hear the stories told to me by my own parents of the difficulties of living in Italy right before and during the War.

If you are looking for a book that keeps you interested page after page, while giving you some insight into Italy’s history during the Fascist Period, then you will enjoy Solitaria.  I highly recommend it!

Viva L’Italia!

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The war years in Italy were difficult – innocent people were killed by the Germans because they were believed to be helping the Partisans (see my post about this at  An Italian Tragedy), people were hungry and not sure if they would get food, and idlyllic and peaceful places full of history, art, and beauty were being destroyed.  Once the Americans came in and the Partisans triumphed, Italy began to breathe a sigh of relief.  La Festa della Liberazione, a National holiday in Italy marking the end of World War II and the fall of the Fascist government, is celebrated today, April 25th, with parades and other festivities all over Italy.  Rebuilding Italy after the War would turn out to be a significant and difficult task, but the Italians worked hard and persevered.  Even though it is not immune to the problems plaguing the rest of the world, Italy has come a long way from those horrible days during and after World War II to become the Italy that so captivates and enchants those that visit her.

Below is a song written by Partisan sympathizers and sung during the War by the Resistance.   It was sung in the underground and only became popular to the public after the War when it was introduced by some Italian student singers at Berlin’s Youth Festival in 1948.  I have to make note, here, that I am purely sharing this song as part of Italy’s history and I’m not making ANY political statement here!!!  With that said, here it is:

BELLA CIAO

Una mattina mi son svegliato O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao Una mattina mi son svegliato Eo ho trovato l’invasor

O partigiano porta mi via O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao O partigiano porta mi via Che mi sento di morir

E se io muoio da partigiano O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao E se io muoio da partigiano Tu mi devi seppellir

Mi seppellire lassù in montagna O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao Mi seppellire lassù in montagna Sotto l’ombra di un bel fiore

E le genti che passeranno O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao E le genti che passeranno Mi diranno: “Che bel fior”

È questo il fiore del partigiano O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao È questo il fiore del partigiano Morto per la libertà

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One morning I woke up O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao One morning I woke up And I found the invader

Oh partisan, carry me away, O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao Oh partisan, carry me away, For I feel I’m dying

And if I die as a partisan O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao And if I die as a partisan You have to bury me

But bury me up in the mountain O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao, But bury me up in the mountain Under the shadow of a beautiful flower

And the people who will pass by O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao, And the people who will pass by Will say to me: “what a beautiful flower”

This is the flower of the partisan O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao This is the flower of the partisan Who died for freedom

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Here is a song that was sung by the Alpini – a branch of the military that patrols the mountains all around Italy.  It captures the sentiments felt during the War by those Alpini soldiers and their love of the mountains of Italy.  It is in a sort of dialect, and therefore I will try to translate it as best I can!

IL TESTAMENTO DEL CAPITANO

 El capitan de la compagnia l’è ferito stà per morir el manda a dire ai suoi Alpini perchè lo vengano a ritrovar. el manda a dire ai suoi Alpini perchè lo vengano a ritrovar.

I suoi Alpini ghè manda a dire che non han scarpe per camminar O con le scarpe o senza scarpe i miei Alpini li voglio qua. O con le scarpe o senza scarpe i miei Alpini li voglio qua.

Cosa comanda, siòr capitano, che noi adesso semo arrivà? E io comando che il mio corpo in cinque pezzi sia taglià. E io comando che il mio corpo in cinque pezzi sia taglià.

Il primo pezzo alla mia Patria secondo pezzo al Battaglion il terzo pezzo alla mia Mamma che si ricordi del suo figliol. il terzo pezzo alla mia Mamma che si ricordi del suo figliol.

Il quarto pezzo alla mia bella che si ricordi del suo primo amor. L’ultimo pezzo alle montagne che lo fioriscano di rose e fior L’ultimo pezzo alle montagne che lo fioriscano di rose e fior.

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The Captain’s Testament

The captain of the company is wounded and is dying.  He sends a message to his Alpini soldiers for them to come and visit him.

His Alpini soldiers tell him that they don’t have shoes to walk.  He says that with our without shoes, he wants them there.

What do you command, Captain sir, now that we have arrived?  I command that you cut my body up into 5 pieces.

The first piece to my Country, the second piece to my battalion, the third piece to my mother so that she may remember her son.

The fourth piece to by girlfriend so that she can remember her first love.  And the fifth piece to the mountains so that it can be covered in roses.

Little Known History of Italian POW’s

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Courtesy of Camilla Calamandrei

Prisoners in Paradise, a documentary film by Camilla Calamandrei, is about Italian POW’s in America during World War II.  I am embarrassed to say that I didn’t know this very poignant and important part of my Italian heritage.  I was not aware that so many Italian soldiers (51,000!)  were interned here in the USA during the war. Because my parents immigrated so many years after the end of the war, this subject was never discussed in my family and I didn’t know any of these stories on a personal level.  But after watching this film, I learned so much and actually found out that my mom knew all about this from her neighbor whose sister used to date some of these POW’s!

The film shows some great footage of Italians in North Africa during the War and also footage of their times in the internment camps strewn all over the United States.

It follows the stories of six POW’s and their personal experiences.  One of the most memorable lines in the movie is from a POW who said that while he was fighting in North Africa he was hungry and living in horrible conditions. But after his capture by the Americans and shipment to an American POW camp, he felt like he was in Paradise  – he was fed abundantly, given a pack of cigarettes a day, and slept in warm barracks!  Even though he was a prisoner of war, the Americans treated him with kindness and respect.  The hardest part for him was not having any notice of his family back home.  His letters home went unanswered, and he had no news for the remainder of the war.

The story continues to explore the change when Italy surrendered and switched alliances. These Italian POW’s were given the choice to join forces with the USA to provide assistance to the war effort.  Many decided to cooperate and were given considerable freedoms.  They were allowed to socialize with the Italian-American families already settled here, and many met and fell in love with their future brides.

Several of these war brides were interviewed in the film and just hearing about their experiences brought tears to my eyes.

When the war ended, these Italian POW’s were freed and sent back to Italy.  Their excitement at being allowed to go back home quickly became horror as they entered the port of Naples to find it completely destroyed.  Their homeland was in shambles and they were devastated and scared to find what their homes would be like.  They knew that they would have to work hard to rebuild Italy once again.

Meanwhile, those young American women who had fallen in love with their Italian POW’s were also at a loss.  Their loves were sent back to Italy and could not return unless they were married.  Many of these girls hopped on ships and sailed to Italy to claim their husbands.  They married in Italy and came back with their Italian husbands.  But, I can just imagine how many never saw their loves again….

The end of the movie touches upon the tender memories of the POW’s who have made America their home for many years now.  They tearfully mention that America has given them everything, but that a big part of their hearts still belong to Italy.

I can highly recommend this movie – it is available for purchase at www.prisonersinparadise.com.

Below is a very informative essay written by Camilla Calamandrei and she has given her permission to post it to my post – thank you, Camilla, for all the hard work you put in on your research into this very important part of our Italian heritage.

Italian POWs held in America during WW II:
Historical Narrative and Scholarly
Analysis

by Camilla Calamandrei

From
June 1940 through May 1943, hundreds of thousands of Italians were sent into a
war for which they were ill equipped and about which they understood little. By
the end of 1943, over six hundred thousand Italian soldiers were taken prisoner
and, of those, 51,000 were brought to America as enemy prisoners of war.

The documentary “Prisoners in Paradise” traces the journey of six young
Italians: from their entry into the war; to internment as prisoners in a country
with a level of abundance and wealth they had never imagined possible; through a
decision that would change not only their experience as prisoners in the United
States, but in many cases, lead them to a second decision that would change the
course of their adult lives.

The first period of critical decision making for Italian POWs began on
September 8, 1943, with the announcement of the signing of the armistice by the
Badoglio government in Italy. Now that Italy was officially an ally of the
United States, Italian POWs were faced with the dilemma of whether to “
collaborate” (i.e., perform war related work) with the nation that had, until
that moment, been their enemy captor. To understand how confusing this concept
was at that time, it needs to be noted that during this same period Northern
Italy was still occupied by Germans who managed to free Mussolini on September
12th, and place him at the head of a newly declared fascist republic. If these
simultaneous contradictory scenarios are confusing for us to follow with fifty
years of hindsight, one can only imagine how shocking the shifting alliances
must have been for young Italians who had only recently been pulled from combat.

Looking at the data, it seems clear that Italians POWs in America were,
overall, sympathetic to the Allied cause. Almost 90% of the Italian POWs agreed
to support the U.S. war effort by joining what would be called Italian Service
Units. This summary view unfairly disguises, however, the difficulty, and in
some cases trauma, of being asked to make this kind of decision. If these men
had gone to war with the understanding that they didn’t have to believe in the
war–they only had to believe in the greatness of Italy–then what did it mean
now to change loyalties? Did this constitute further loyalty, in obeying the
government of their homeland? Or, did it constitute a pathetic move to avoid
being associated with the losing side? For young enlisted men there were all
these questions as well as: the fear of being sent back into combat–possibly
this time in Japan; fear of helping supply munitions that would be used in Italy
where their families might be in harm’s way; and fear of some kind of
retribution against their families if it became known that their sons were
helping the Allies. For Italian officers, who tended to be more indoctrinated in
the ideology of fascism, changing sides was incomprehensible because it meant
that there was no such thing as the courage of one’s convictions. Finally, for
some individual enlisted men and officers who had fought side by side with
Germans for two and a half years, there was also the simple question of loyalty
to fellow soldiers.

Italian POWs were right to view the decision to support the U.S. war effort
as a serious one. It would dramatically affect the quality of their experience
as prisoners in the U.S. And, in turn, for those who would become immersed in
relationships and the abundance of life in America, it would lead them to the
question after the war of whether they should live in Italy or seize the
opportunity to build a new life under the flag of another nation.

The almost 45,000 Italian POWs who eventually agreed to join Italian Service
Units were relocated, almost immediately, to coastal and industrial sites across
the United States. They worked with American civilians and military personnel in
combat related work for the remainder of the war. By contrast, non-collaborating
Italian POWs were kept in highly isolated camps in places like Texas, Arizona,
Wyoming and Hawaii.

In addition to having jobs and earning money, men involved in the Italian
Service Units were given increased freedom of movement and as a result, incre
ased interaction with American civilians. Across the country, there was an
outpouring of interest on the part of Italian Americans who were looking in the
Italian POW camps for relatives, family friends or simply people from their
hometowns. As a result a number of Catholic parishes in many states arranged to
host dinners where Italian Americans could meet and visit with Italian POWs.
These courtesies were extended almost exclusively to POWs who had agreed to
support the war effort and even the freedoms granted these Italian Service Unit
members varied greatly depending on where they were situated in the U.S.

Comparing and contrasting the experiences of Italian POWs on the East Coast
with POW experiences in the mid-West and on the West Coast reveals that, while
their lives inside camp walls were quite similar, surrounding communities had a
strong influence on how much freedom POWs had to move outside camp boundaries.
It seems that community responses varied by region according to immigration
patterns prior to the war, local politics, regional economic realties and
involvement and/or perspectives on the war. For example, one might assume that
the East Coast, because of its old world, European connection and large Italian
American communities, would have been the place where Italian POWs were received
most sympathetically but this was not necessarily the case. While there were
many Italian Americans who wanted to retain contact with the prisoners (by
travelling to visit them on Sundays) it was generally accepted that this should
be a relatively reserved activity. The fact that these Italian POWs were
contributing to the war effort did not erase the knowledge that Italy had
contributed to escalating the war in the early years.

In contrast in the middle of the country, in states like Utah, Michigan, and
Ohio, Italians serving in Italian Service Units had some modified privileges and
an unofficially sanctioned freedom of movement. POWs could be escorted out of
the camp by U.S. soldiers (which usually required a bribe) or POWs could sneak
out of the camp and sneak back in, under an unofficial agreement by which
American soldiers would turn a blind eye. In Ogden, Utah a local church held
chaperoned dances each weekend for the POWs and Italian American families could
visit POWs on Sundays.

Finally in California, where the war was palpable through to the end of 1945
because of the intensity of fighting in the Pacific, Italian POWs working in
support of the war effort were actually received most enthusiastically. While
local West Coast Italian Americans had felt some tension in their neighborhoods
early in the war (i.e., that they should not too openly be supportive or
concerned about Italy) once Italy switched sides community animosity turned more
consistently to the Asians. As a result, Italian POWs had a rather significant
amount of freedom in the camps in California. The most amazing story being that
of the Italian POWs stationed on Angel Island who held regular dances in a hall
in San Francisco that they rented with their own money. In addition, Italian
American families in California could, with official permission, take Italian
Service Unit members out of POW camps for picnics and outings. It is important
to note that immigration patterns during the 20’s- 30’s in California set the
stage for a sympathetic reception of Italian POWs. Italians in the preceding
decades had immigrated in large numbers and established themselves as fisherman,
farmers and winemakers. In this state, heavily populated with immigrants from
all over the world, by the 1940’s Italians were seen as relatively established
–especially in contrast with Asian laborers who were seen as a threat to the
local “white” labor movement. Racism towards another group took the edge off
racism or fear of the Italians. A point which actually refers to a larger
transition that was occurring for America during this period: the change in the
perceived definition of who was a true American.

During WWII white ethnic Americans (e.g., Italian Americans, Jews, Irish
Americans) were drawn into a more integrated, accepted status as they were asked
to go to war for their country and as they had the experience of forming bonds,
while in the army, across ethnicities and class. Early in the war Italian
American communities were fiercely divided as it became clear that some were
embarrassed by Mussolini’s actions and others were still sympathetic to the
fascist regime. In families where perhaps only the father had become a citizen
when they first immigrated, wives and children quickly moved to establish their
American citizenship. With this as the backdrop, we see how Italian POWs and
Americans were each facing their own questions of personal identity, loyalty and
nationality during the period when they were called upon to work together for
the larger Allied cause.

In addition to the stories of Italian POWs interacting with Italian
Americans, there were numerous situations in which Italian POWs developed
relations with Americans of diverse heritages (e.g., Italian POWs in Colorado
and Nebraska were sent to do farm work for German American farming families; in
California and in New York POWs were guarded by Irish American guards). In a
remarkable number of instances, the human impulses towards connection and
camaraderie allowed the labels of “enemy,” “prisoner” and “foreigner” to fade
away and be replaced by life long bonds of friendship and love. This was credit
to both the Italians whose vitality and good will flowed freely and to the
Americans whose curiosity and humanity led them into vibrant, warm relations
with the Italian prisoners.

By the end of the war in December 1945, Italian POWs had contributed millions
of hours to the war effort. When they were repatriated in January 1946, a number
were leaving significant relationships behind—hoping, but not sure, that they
would find a way to stay connected. Their joyous return to the homeland was, of
course, tempered by the devastation evident throughout Italy and the realization
that opportunities for young men returning from war were few. For Italian POWs
who had not collaborated with the U.S., the return to Italy also meant coming to
terms with the fact that in many cases friends and relatives had in the end
decided to support the Allied war effort, and the non-collaborating position was
no longer a popular one either officially or unofficially.

In the years following the war, some of the couples who had met in America
did decide to marry. In order to do that the American women had to go to Italy
and marry there (because of quotas restricting immigration into the U.S.). Most
often, due to financial difficulties in Italy, these couples would return to
raise families in the United States in the areas where the women had lived and
where they still had jobs. We don’t know, officially, how many ex POWs chose to
come back and live in America—but a number of them do now live as American
citizens in the towns where they were first enemy prisoners of war. Others
(especially officers from the “fascist” camp in Hereford, Texas) have written
books and created art about their experiences in America, and have returned to
visit periodically. Clearly the experience of being a POW had a big impact on
the 51,000 men who were brought here. And, they–in turn–had a big impact on
all the lives they became part of, whether it was for the war years only or for
the fifty years to follow.

copyright 2000, Camilla Calamandrei