When Being Italian was a Crime

During World War II, some 10,000 Italian immigrants in America were displaced. Another 50,000 lived under curfew. Others spent months or years in internment camps.

This is the way my grandmother tells it: On a quiet day in March of 1942, two strange men walked through an unlocked door into the house in Mamaroneck where she lived with my grandfather and my mother, who was not yet six months old. These men, dressed in suits and fedoras, did not knock. They did not ring the bell. They came right in and proceeded up the stairs and into the room where my grandfather was working. They asked him, "Are you Ezio Pinza?" He admitted he was. They pulled out their FBI badges. One of them said, "In the name of the president of the United States, we place you under arrest."

They searched his house. They put him in a car. They drove him down to the Foley Square courthouse in Manhattan. They fingerprinted him and interrogated him and then they took him to a detention center that was ready and waiting on Ellis Island—the same place he had first entered the country 15 years earlier. They took away his belt, his tie, and his shoelaces. He was to remain there in a crowded dormitory for most of that spring.

He was not told the substance of the charges against him. He was not allowed an attorney in the hearings on those never-revealed charges. His offense was being an Italian national, four months shy of his U.S. citizenship, in a country that had just declared war against Japan, Germany, and Italy. People who did not like him were whispering about his sympathy for his native land and his alleged Fascist tendencies. That was enough for J. Edgar Hoover.

Metropolitan Opera basso Ezio Pinza, the author's grandfather, at sea in the ‘30s.He was classified as an "enemy alien" and interned for months in 1942.
Metropolitan Opera basso Ezio Pinza, the author's grandfather, at sea in the ‘30s.
He was classified as an "enemy alien" and interned for months in 1942.

My grandfather was a famous man, the leading basso at the Metropolitan Opera, and his arrest was reported prominently in the national press. He became Hoover's trophy. "FBI's Been Watching Him: Pinza, Met's Basso, Jailed as Duce's Pal," read the headline in the Washington News. "Pinza, an Italian and therefore an enemy alien, played the wrong role; he boasted of his friendship with Mussolini." Another paper published a cartoon of him dressed as the devil for his upcoming role as Mephisto in Faust, being led away by a stony-faced G-man under the caption "Appearances are against him." As bewildering as his situation was, my grandfather was lucky. The same fame that got him noticed by the FBI also led to his release after 11 weeks. Thomas Mann wrote a letter to the feds in his support, as did New York Italian anti-Fascist leader Carlo Tresca. Other Italians in America didn't have such important friends. A few spent months and even years in internment camps in places as isolated as Montana. On the West Coast, Italian nationals were forbidden to enter neighborhoods or entire towns that were deemed to be of military importance, and some of them lost their jobs and their homes as a result. Some 10,000 people were displaced; another 50,000 lived under curfew. Fishermen were barred from their boats. Families were separated. Businesses failed. Yet while most Americans now know about the wartime internment of the Japanese, who won reparations and an apology from the government in 1988, few are aware that Italians—the largest immigrant group in the country at that time, with some 600,000 Italian resident aliens in the United States—were affected at all.

In an effort to bring the story into the national consciousness, two New York Congressmen, Democrat Eliot Engel and Republican Rick Lazio, are sponsoring a bill that would force the government to publicly acknowledge what happened to the Italian American community during World War II. The legislation does not ask for remuneration, or even an apology. Instead, it would force the government to open its files and publish a list of all who were detained, interned, arrested for curfew violations, or otherwise persecuted under the executive order. The legislation also calls for "[a] review of the wartime restrictions on Italian Americans to determine how civil liberties can be better protected during national emergencies." And it calls for government financial support of documentaries and exhibits that would tell the story.

"We're trying to write history correctly," says John Calvelli, administrative assistant to Representative Engel. "It's a vindication of what happened to Italian Americans during the war. I think it's an important story to be told."

Not all Italian Americans are convinced the bill is meaningful or necessary. "I'm not a believer in that legislation," says Philip Cannistraro, a historian and professor of Italian American studies at Queens College. "I believe it's a lot to do about not very much. It's not in the same category as what happened to the Japanese. I'm not defending what happened, but you have to see it in the context of the times." Cannistraro points out that intense political pressure from the New York Democratic and labor establishments convinced President Roosevelt to lift the enemy-alien designation from Italian Americans on Columbus Day, 1942. Germans, Japanese, and other nationalities bore the label, and its restrictions on their civil liberties, until the end of the war.

"Roosevelt's entire reelection to the presidency was based on the big-city ethnic vote," says Cannistraro. Immigrant-controlled Tammany Hall was the key to New York's support for the Democrats. Roosevelt had already lost ground with New York Italians when, before the 1940 election, he called Italy a back-stabbing nation for entering into an alliance with Germany. He didn't want to risk the 1944 election as well.

Next Page »