​September 2003

Secret Histories

by Ken Scambray

Accenti BOOK REVIEW : Secret Histories by Ken Scambray
Edited with an introduction by Lawrence DiStasi Una Storia Segreta: The Secret History of Italian American Evacuation and Internment During World War II (Heyday Books, 2001) is a collection of essays covering one of the least known aspects of World War II history: the internment of Italian Americans.


Like Japanese Americans, Italian Americans - immigrants and U.S. citizens - from New York to California were rounded up and unjustifiably interned in camps and other locations in America. According to Lawrence DiStasi, however, unlike the Japanese, the internment of Italian Americans did not extend much beyond 1942. Even so, as DiStasi points out in one of the several articles he contributed to the volume, thousands of resident alien Italians had to carry identification cards at all times. Many were restricted in their travels and could not possess such items as short wave radios, cameras and weapons. As a result of the humiliation that some felt, many of those who came under government scrutiny committed suicide.


But the question that many, including even Italian Americans, have asked is why, today, should we resurrect this footnote in Italian American history?


In the closing essay in the volume, "How World War II Iced Italian American Culture," DiStasi provides the most compelling reason. His essay serves as the theme that links all the other informative essays and memoirs in the collection. The study of the treatment of Italian Americans during the war is not just another exercise in the politically correct category of the "cult of victimization."


Rather, as DiStasi explains, Mussolini not only caused the physical incarceration of Italian Americans, he also drove Italian American culture underground for more than two generations. The fact that Mussolini joined the Axis Powers created a climate of fear and embarrassment among Italian Americans. Adding to the problem, Italian fascist ideology, through Mussolini's Ministry of Culture and its contacts with Italian immigrant newspapers, played a significant role in North American Italian communities.


Italian newspapers in North America before the outbreak of hostilities were bombarded by "news" from Italy, more accurately described as fascist propaganda, which they willingly published.


When Italian Americans began to be arrested, they were afraid to speak out against the government and risk being labelled disloyal Americans. Even more important, as DiStasi correctly argues, because Mussolini became America's enemy, Italian Americans in the wake of the war sought anonymity through assimilation. It was their wish to forget the war years when la patria became the enemy of the free world, and they were suspected, however briefly, as enemy agents who threatened American society.


Born in the wake of the war, I have been forced to live my entire life with a representation of the fear that nearly all Italian Americans felt at that time. My family name - originally Schembri - is a product of that same Italian American effort to assimilate caused by Mussolini and his fascist regime.


Unfortunately, because of the short duration and limited incarceration of Italian Americans during the war, scholars in general have tended to ignore this chapter in American history. The internment of Italian Americans ended years before the termination of the war. At the end of the war, the millions killed in action in the Pacific and Europe and exterminated in concentration camps overshadowed the number of Italian Americans incarcerated.


But the Italian American perspective of the war years and their aftermath brings another view to the internment of Italian Americans. As we look at the larger picture, Di-Stasi informs us that Italian American internment continued to have an impact on Italian Americans and their role in American culture more than fifty years after the fact. Though Italian Americans continued to make great contributions in the arts and other aspects of American culture, their voice in American society at large was silenced in the years immediately after the war. In the 1970s Italian American culture underwent a literary renaissance. Nevertheless, DiStasi writes, for decades Italian Americans have been debased by the constant message from American society: "Give us gangsters. Give us crime. Or give us most happy fellas.


That's what Italian America is about. That's what we - the publishers, the editors, the arbiters of American culture - will listen to" from Italian American culture.


The more than thirty pieces in DiStasi's collection include scholarly articles, personal essays and memoirs. Besides DiStasi's essays, some of the others that demand notice are Jerre Mangione's "Concentration Camps—American Style," Stephen Fox's "The Relocation of Italian Americans in California during World War II," Rose Sherini's "When Italian Americans Were ‘Enemy Aliens,'" and Gloria Ricci Lothrop's "Unwelcome in Freedom's Land: The Impact of World War II on Italian Aliens in Southern California."


Una Storia Segreta is a major contribution to Italian American studies. Underlying the many historical and legalistic details presented in the articles is the larger issue of where Italian Americans are currently on the cultural playing field in America. Rather than a footnote that some would rather forget, the revelation of the internment of Italian Americans during World War II informs us not only about our status in American society today, but also about our own attitudes towards our past and our identity.



Ken Scambray is the author of The North American Italian Renaissance: Italian Writing in America and Canada (2000). He is professor of English at the University of La Verne, scambray@ix.netcom.com



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