Italian Americans Working To Keep Story Of Wwii Mistreatment Alive

Posted: November 07, 1999

DEVON — The story might be forgotten by some, but Matthew DiDomenico Sr. remembers, and he wants to make sure others do, too.

It is the story of 600,000 Italian Americans whose civil rights were violated with curfews, seizure of personal property - and in some cases, internment - by the government during World War II.

Among the victims was opera great Ezio Pinza, who was arrested by the FBI, stripped of his belt and shoelaces, and interned in Ellis Island for nearly three months. The reason: He was from Italy.

Ironically, Pinza was later selected to sing the national anthem at a ceremony honoring war hero Gen. George Patton.

"We are not seeking reparations or apologies. All we want is an acknowledgment that this happened. We need to learn from this," said DiDomenico, executive vice president of the National Italian American Foundation. The foundation, which promotes Italian American culture, expects to raise $1 million this year for scholarships and grants, largely for Italian American youth.

DiDomenico, 61, of Wayne, was one of several foundation members who testified in Washington on Oct. 26 before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution.

The nonprofit group is seeking support for legislation that would provide for a government report detailing injustices suffered by Italian Americans during the war and a formal acknowledgment of such injustices by the President.

"Since these government policies toward Italian Americans are never mentioned in history books, most people do not believe they ever took place," DiDomenico said in an interview in his Century 21 realty office on Lancaster Pike in Devon. Framed pictures of John Travolta, Nicholas Cage, Paul Sorvino and Al Pacino, who have attended foundation fund-raising events, line the wall. The board, he said, consists of top executives and doctors across the country.

The proposed legislation has been introduced by U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel, a Democrat who represents the Bronx and Westchester County in New York, and U.S. Rep. Rick Lazio, a Long Island Republican. The foundation is hoping to get House approval in the next 45 days. The legislation would then move on to the Senate.

Calls to the Justice Department concerning the government's position on the legislation were not returned.

John Calvelli, a foundation board member and lawyer who works for Engel, said that more than 10,000 Italian Americans, mainly on the West Coast, were deemed "enemy aliens" and evicted from their homes. The mistreatment of Italian Americans has been documented with photographs, memorabilia and memoirs in an exhibit titled Una Storia Segreta, or A Secret History in Italian. The exhibit was put together by the western chapter of the American Italian Historical Association.

Lawrence DiStasi, president of the group, estimates that about 250 people were held in an internment camp in Fort Missoula, Mont., in 1942.

According to Steve Fox, who wrote The Unknown Internment, an oral history of the relocation of Italian Americans, about 3,278 were either detained or interned by the Immigration and Naturalization Service during the early years of the war.

"Maybe 15 to 20 percent who were detained were legitimate concerns or security threats," said Fox, an independent scholar from California. "The rest were people who may have bragged about their homeland or were involved in Italian American organizations.

Recently, the government compensated and extended an apology to Japanese Americans interned during the war, but nothing has been done for Italians and German Americans who were similarly treated. DiDomenico, who grew up in South Philadelphia, moved to the Main Line in 1969 and was the second real-estate agent of Italian American descent there, said he has experienced stereotyping.

"Immediately, the word got back that I must be connected to someone because I was somewhat successful. . . . They think that because you are from South Philadelphia."

Una Storia Segreta has personal relevance for DiDomenico, whose grandfather, Matteo DiDomenico, saw his shortwave radio confiscated by federal agents.

"At the time he was an air raid warden, had two sons serving in the U.S. Army, one in the Pacific and the other in Europe, and was himself an American citizen living in South Philadelphia," DiDomenico said.

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