Americans celebrate Columbus Day Monday to commemorate what is known as the discovery of the "New World" by Italian explorer Christopher Columbus. As Italian Americans mark the holiday, New York's Italian American Museum has opened an exhibit. The display explores a painful time when 600,000 Italians living in the United States were designated "enemy aliens" during World War II.
After Japan attacked U.S. forces at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt implemented what was called the "Alien Enemy Act."
Unnaturalized immigrants, or aliens from Japan, Italy and Germany living in the United States, were to be investigated or interned. Although the painful experience of Japanese-Americans in internment camps has been well documented, less is known about the treatment of Italians during the same period.
On Columbus Day, October 12, 1942, President Roosevelt, who had a large Italian constituency, rescinded the so-called enemy alien status for Italians. But it has taken sixty years for some Italian-Americans to speak out about the experience.
"Well, we were restricted to observe a curfew, could not gather on the street corners, could not be out after eight o'clock at night, " says Italian-American Anthony Allocca, who is now 81-years old. He had only been living in the United States for two years when he was labeled an enemy alien.
He says he was given a bizarre choice. He could be interned or serve in the army. He chose to serve and later enlisted in military intelligence because of his ability to understand Italian, French and German.
Before Mr. Allocca was called to war, his movement was restricted. The new immigrant, who barely spoke English, needed permission from New York police to leave his neighborhood. "Deep down in the bottom of my heart I always felt a little hurt," he says.
Mr. Allocca's story is now featured in the exhibit called "Prisoners in our own Home. "A black and white photograph of Mr. Allocca, smiling, in his army uniform, holding a small white dog is on display.
Documents that look like bright pink passports with photographs and fingerprints registering men and women from Italy as "enemy aliens" are there.
And on view is a photograph of a large room with dozens of bunk beds to intern Italian "enemy aliens" on Ellis Island, the same spot where as many of the five-million Italian immigrants first docked in the United States starting in the late 19th century.
Italian-American Museum president Joseph Scelsa says although some Italian immigrants had been loyal to fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, the majority of Italian-Americans stood with the United States in the war effort. More than 500,000 Italian American servicemen fought the Axis powers in World War II and 70,000 soldiers were the sons of "enemy aliens." "And while many of the sons and daughters of these "enemy aliens" were defending the country, their parents were being restricted back at home from going to work to traveling to their businesses from doing all the types of things that they would normally do. They were basically watched," he says. "They had to be home in their houses in the evening. Things were taken away from them, their cameras, their radios, flashlights, things that did not make any sense."
Mr. Scelsa says more than 2,100 Italians in the United States were taken into custody under the Enemy Alien Act and thousands of homes were raided by the FBI.
Famous Italians were not excluded from the restrictions either. The father of baseball hero Joe DiMaggio was barred from traveling to his son's restaurant and Metropolitan Opera Star Enzio Pinza was detained for nearly three months.
Mr. Scelsa says it is important to speak out about the treatment of so-called "enemy aliens" now at a time when the United States is fighting a new war against terrorism both at home and abroad. "The Italian-American community basically took it on the chin. They did not want to draw attention to themselves," he says. "They felt badly enough that America was at war with their former home. They took it in silence. And nobody is saying that that was a bad thing. What we are saying is that while they took it in silence we have to be careful that we do not tread on the civil liberties of anybody during a time of crisis."
Italian-American Clara Orsini-Romano agrees. When she describes how she returned home from school one day at twelve years old to find that her mother, a store owner, and her grandfather, a gardener, had been taken into custody by FBI agents as "enemy aliens." Although they were not mistreated and returned home several weeks later, her mother was angry, then ashamed. She barely spoke about the experience.
Mrs. Orsini-Romano says she wants to share her mother's story. She says Italian-Americans are reserved about their culture and rarely talk about their history. "I think that is probably something that came about because life was tough for us. We had to give up our language so to speak, we did not dare let anybody know that we could speak Italian in our home," she says. "So I wish that people would take more pride and have a sense of who we are because we have given so much. I love the opera, the arts and music and we have so much to be proud of."
Curators at the Italian American Museum say they plan to take the exhibition, which opened just before the Columbus Day holiday, to schools throughout the United States to teach children about the Italian American experience during World War II.