When Being Italian was a Crime


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.

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.

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.”

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.

The investigation seems to have yielded little more than assertions by various parties that my grandfather, whose name the agents had trouble spelling, admired Mussolini—as did many Italians at the time—and that he received several magazines and letters from Italy at the midtown hotel where he was living. Nonetheless, he was “considered suspicious” and his movements in and out of the country were closely monitored.

The case was closed some months later “in view of the fact that there is no indication of any subversive activity on the part of subject.”

Then came the war. In February of 1942, an executive order declared all Italians, Germans, and Japanese in America to be “enemy aliens.” Such aliens were required to keep the government apprised of their whereabouts at all times. In order to embark on a singing tour early in 1942, my grandfather had to sign his name 88 times to obtain the 22 permits that were necessary for him to make the trip. “Ezio Pinza’s Tour Requires Much Ink,” said the headline for a mildly sarcastic article about the permit process in a New York paper. “The Department of Justice has become an autograph collector of great power and range lately.”

It soon became apparent that the government’s interest in my grandfather was no joke. Informants, whom my grandmother believes to have been jealous fellow singers eager to see his career derailed, stepped up once again. They told tales of his enthusiasm for the Italian war in Ethiopia, his support for the Italian Red Cross, his participation in the collection of gold rings for the Italian war effort in the ’30s. According to the FBI files, several who spoke against him were women with whom he had been involved years earlier, when he had quite a reputation as a ladies’ man. His case was reopened. Unbeknownst to him and my grandmother, the FBI was making plans for his arrest several weeks before they ever walked through the door into my family’s home.

There is no indication that my grandfather ever truly cared about politics at all. Indeed, he seems to have had few interests outside his work and his family. He did love the country of his birth, and had served in the Italian armed forces in World War I; his name did appear on a list of pro-Fascists drawn up by an American anti-Mussolini leader. But the prominent anti-Fascist Carlo Tresca was firm in his statement that “Ezio Pinza never has shown himself to be, directly or indirectly, an agent of Fascism or of Mussolini.”

But for the FBI, in that atmosphere of newborn wartime hysteria, the prospect of arresting a famous Italian was perhaps too tantalizing to pass up. They had some people who were willing to speak up against him. They had a situation in which the protections of the Constitution were essentially suspended. They didn’t need anything else. He was lucky to be let out after only 11 weeks. True, he was “paroled” on the condition that he report weekly to “a reliable United States citizen”—his personal physician was deemed suitable. But he could go back to work, back to his family, back to the home the G-men had entered as if they owned it.

The proposed legislation can’t change what happened to my grandfather, but it reminds us just how quickly a nation can trade fundamental liberties for a false sense of security. Even today, New York City is full of marginalized people who see their rights being trampled. Amadou Diallo is dead, and black men of all classes have reason to fear the police. During a raid on suspected Algerian terrorists in Brooklyn last year, neighbors of the Islamic men were terrified by the sudden and violent action of the authorities, and feared for their own safety.

What happened to the Japanese, the Italians, and the Germans in World War II may seem like a historical curiosity, but tell that to the African woman who spent years in INS custody fighting for political asylum. Tell that to the Cubans and Haitians who are penned up indefinitely in American detention camps.

A nation, like a family, has to tend to its memories. Forgetting has its price.

“We’re not asking for money,” says Calvelli. “We’re asking for education. We’re asking for that to make sure it doesn’t happen again, to African Americans or Arab Americans or anyone else.”