by Hap Rocketto
I live in a town with a heavy leavening of Italo-Americans. As a matter of fact I am married to one, which is why I live there. The town was a New England Yankee stronghold until there was a large influx of Italians from Calabria and Sicily who were brought in at the turn of the century to work the granite quarries and monument shops for which the town is famous. There was an occasional Neapolitan, who was viewed with the much the same quizzical suspicion as a Giant fan living in Brooklyn during the heyday of the Dodgers, but by and large the immigrants were from the southern most tip of Italy or the island that the province of Calabria seems to be booting like a soccer ball. The town is rich in Italian heritage with membership in one or more of the local ethnic social or civic organizations such as the Sons of Italy, the Daughters of Isabella, the Italo-American Club, the North End Social Club, the Societa Cittadini Calbro Americani, and the local Dante Society de rigor.
Even though I have an Italian sounding last name, there is no K in the Italian alphabet, the closest my Russian grandfather Louis came to Italy was when he was a passenger aboard an immigrant ship bound from a shtetl in the Russian Pale of Settlement, via the Black Sea port of Odessa, traveling through the Mediterranean, to the goldena medena of New York. It was at Ellis Island that some civil servant changed Louis’ last name of Rokita to the more Italian sounding Rocketto. However, in an attempt to put down roots and blend in I belong to both the Italo-American Club and the North End Social Club. Like Boston, the Italian population of my town settled in the north end where rent was cheap, friends from the old country resided, and it was possible, by dint of hard work and saving, to buy a home in the poor but well kept neighborhood.
Of all of the local organizations the Dante Society is specifically dedicated to preserving and spreading Italian culture and to that end sponsors, among other activities, a film series. My seventh grade daughter Leah is studying Italian and her teacher gives extra credit to those who attend one of these cultural events. She implored me to take her to the last film in the series to bank up a few extra points to ward off the possible effects of a future poor grade. Let it not be said that her parents raised a fool. Off we went after a dinner, either by accident or design, of my wife’s rich southern Italian tomato sauce, her superior meatballs, and linguine.
I plopped down in my seat expecting some colorful travelogue movie, perhaps with sub titles, extolling either the quaint customs of the fisher folks of the Isle of Ischia, the wonders of the antiquities of the Seven Hills of Rome, or the stories canals of Venice. I was jerked out of my skeptical reverie when the movie started. The simple title frame of Camilla Calamanfrei’s “Prisoners in Paradise” fading into grainy black and white archival footage of some 50,000 Italians being herded into prisoner of war compounds in North Africa. Soon the sad minions of Mussolini were entrained to ports where they embarked on troopers for a trans Atlantic crossing to the United States.
A map flashed on the screen showing the location of the numerous POW camps the soldiers occupied. My eye immediately went to the dot, seemingly to me to be larger than the rest, in northern Ohio on the shoreline of Lake Erie. The film rolled on with me intently watching the screen for any trace of long rows of small huts, a few red brick buildings, or a tall flagpole standing in front of a wide flat plain to no avail.
As I watched for visual details I absorbed the dialogue of the various ex-POWs and their wives as they discussed their experiences during the war years. It was a fascinating story. The POWs told of coming from a country that was mostly agrarian, through a war zone, to a land of “Milk and Honey”. Here they were safe from shot and shell, ate better than they ever had in their lives, and had free time to recreate. Some met their future wives as they worked in support of the Allied war effort after the fall of the Fascist regime. They truly were “Prisoners in Paradise.”
Perhaps the luckiest and most famous of all the Italian POWs was Enzo, the baker’s helper to Nazorine the Paniterra. He was able to stay in the United States because his father-in-law’s childhood friend, Don Vito Corleone, engineered a special Congressional act to prevent his repatriation to Sicily. The baker’s son-in-law repaid the debt in full when he helped Michael Corleone bluff gunman sent, by the rival gangster Sollozzo, to finish the botched assassination of his father Don Vito, The Godfather. Or so that is what Mario Puzo would have us believe.
Just as the Italian POWs spent years living in a rough hut in a camp so had I. Since 1975 I have logged about 52 weeks at Camp Perry, Ohio, an internment site for Italian POWs from 1943 through 1945. I was sure that I spotted a row or two of tarpaper shacks that, after some renovation, have housed countless competitors, including myself, during the National Matches. Then again, maybe it was just my active imagination and desire to see them.
At any rate I have to agree with the former POWs when they speak of spending time as a “Prisoner in Paradise.” With the exception of being held behind barbed wire against your will the experience of being a POW doesn’t seem to differ much from being a competitor at Camp Perry. While there we enjoy good food, a safe, simple and clean place to stay, plenty of time to relax as we enjoy the simpler pleasures of life, and find the time and opportunity to form life long friendships. I certainly feel that my time at Camp Perry is paradise although I am a prisoner by choice, not by chance.
Hap, thanks so much for sharing this history. We need to be reminded of where we came from, so we can see where we may be going. So many only look forward, and do not know or understand the events of the past and their significances.
Hi, I stayed in one of the huts in 1957 as a just turned 17 new recruit with the PA National Guard. We were there to train for 15 days on 90 mm Anti-aircraft guns. Although it had been 12 years since the end of the war, the huts appeared as if nothing had been done to them. I was surprised to see German writing on the walls and what appeared to be hand drawn calendars used to track days. No one had told us new recruits that we would be bunked in old POW huts. Fortunately it was summer camp because there were no hot showers. It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t quite Paradise to us but I’m sure it must have been for the German and Italian POWs.