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.

What Cannistraro calls "reverse prejudice" against Italians also played a role on the easing of restrictions. "There's a famous Roosevelt quote," he says. " 'We don't have to worry about the Italians. They're not a dangerous people, they're just a nation of opera singers.' "

To the descendants of those who were wrongly imprisoned as enemy aliens, however, the bill's aims sound modest enough. But bureaucracy moves slowly when national security is not perceived to be at stake. The legislation, introduced in 1997, just passed the House last November. Now, 58 years after my grandfather was removed from his home and thrown into captivity, it awaits action in the Senate.

Supporters of the bill say it's worth waiting to set the record straight. "Was there one act of sabotage by an Italian American? No," says Calvelli. "Legally, what we did is we put people in jail for something they may have done in the future. The simple fact that the leadership of the United States Army considered interning 600,000 resident aliens is incredible. I think it's a precursor to the House Un-American Activities Committee. And as you start looking at the story, it becomes even more obscene."

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.

identity crisis

Why has this story been hidden for so long?

In my own family, it was a dark chapter that was rarely discussed. Although I was encouraged to take pride in the musical accomplishments of my grandfather, who died several years before I was born, it was not until I was in my teens that anyone told me how his nationality had affected his life, and the life of his wife and daughter, during the war.

My grandmother, I eventually learned, had spent much of her time traveling back and forth to Washington in an effort to free her husband. She left my infant mother in the care of a nurse; my mother became gravely ill and had to be hospitalized, while her father was locked away and her mother's attentions were deeply divided.

But my grandmother didn't speak with her daughter about the internment until the 1950s, and then only briefly. "There was no reason to discuss it," my grandmother, an American citizen of English descent, says unquestioningly. "We put it out of our minds and behind us. I didn't tell any of the children until they were grown. We were so ashamed."

My mother, Clelia Garrity, says her father never talked about the matter with her or her younger brother and sister. "I seem to remember him saying that the incident was so distressing that he wanted to forget it completely," she says.

That silence was typical in families where loyalty to America was called into question, according to Joseph Scelsa, dean of the John D. Calandra Italian-American Institute at Queens College. Scelsa says the community hasn't pushed for recognition of civil rights violations before now because complaining is seen as a sign of weakness. "It's the nature of the Italian American psyche," he says. "We never bring shame to ourselves, even though we were the victims. It's a cultural legacy of taking it on the chin, of being quiet about it."

The desire to blend in with the mainstream culture, for many Italians, meant being silent in other ways as well. Though my grandfather always spoke English with a heavy accent, he raised his children in the Waspy enclaves of Westchester and Connecticut, as white-bread Americans. They did not learn Italian at home. "I have never thought of myself as Italian American," my mother says. "For whatever reasons, my mother and father did not encourage that identity in their children."

When my grandfather died in 1957, the story of precisely what he was thinking on Ellis Island died with him, as he wanted. My grandmother will say only that he was terribly depressed during his weeks there, that he feared the ruin of his career, that his health declined.

In fact, he was to go on to even greater public acclaim after his release, both at the Met and later as the star of the Broadway show South Pacific. But my mother says that she remembers him as quiet and solitary—an image that is in sharp contrast to the reputation he had as a dashing man-about-town before the war. "He was never social or even outgoing during the years that I knew him," she says. "He was almost a recluse."

just the innuendo, ma'am

One look at my grandfather's FBI file and it's easy to see why he might have chosen to withdraw from society after he left Ellis Island. Much of the file is inked out or deleted—some of it, implausibly enough, to protect national security—but there's plenty left to read between the thick black lines. And while some of it raises questions about my grandfather's political views, none of it is convincing evidence of anti-American activities.

The bureau started gathering information in the case of Ezio Pinza as early as September of 1940, when it received a letter alleging he "is an active member of the Nazi party and he expresses openly and vociferously contempt for everything American. He sounds a serious menace." This informant, whose name is censored, received a prompt reply from J. Edgar Hoover, promising "appropriate consideration" of the matter.

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