Coming to America

Story posted on October 25, 2009 at 7:50 PM


I begin this story of my family’s emigration from Italy with Mussolini’s promulgation of his version of the Nuremberg Racial Laws in July of 1938. It seems an appropriate place to start since before that event it’s highly unlikely my parents had even imagined leaving Italy. Both of their families had lived in Piedmont for four or five centuries and had developed an interlocking skein of relationships, familial and otherwise. Their comfortably middle-class lives were connected to the land, to the mountains and the lakes. They had established patterns and routines they would have been loath to change: skiing in the winter, a country rental in the summer, much exchange of visits with brothers, sisters and cousins.

We were up in Ivrea at my grandmother’s summer place, La Vigna (the vineyard) that summer when I was told that I wouldn’t be starting school in the fall. I was going to be six, was reading and writing and eager to begin my formal education. I was so very disappointed when my parents explained that Jews would no longer be allowed to attend public schools. I don’t remember what else my parents might have told me; they perhaps saw this as a relatively minor problem considering the manifold impacts of the Fascist Laws on the family.

My father had been working as a property manager for the Banca Ceriana, but Jews could no longer work for banks. Dad must have been a valuable employee because the Cerianas arranged to transfer him to a (non-banking) subsidiary so he still had a job. We had been living in a pleasant, newly renovated top floor apartment in the center of town overlooking the trees of Piazza Carlo Felice and the facade of the ArtDeco railroad station. Presumably in relation to that transfer, however, we had to move to a smaller apartment on Via Passalaqua, a working class neighborhood near Porta Susa. My parents had recently decorated my room with a set of furniture of which I was inordinately proud. The move meant I no longer had my own room, and the furniture disappeared. We also had to let our maid go- gentiles could no longer work for Jews. My brother Gino’s arrival on October sixteenth certainly further stressed the family. The plan had been to call him David but my parents were concerned that an Old Testament name would be a dangerous thing to carry. It was not a propitious time to be bringing new life into a Jewish family.

The professors and teachers of Italy’s universities and high schools were disproportionately Jewish. Since Jews were also forbidden to teach in the public schools the Jewish Community was able to rapidly put together a school system of its own, staffed by the many who had lost their government jobs. It did mean an elementary arithmetic class might be taught by a senior mathematician, but adaptation was swift. I don’t remember when I started going to this school at the Jewish Center, but it was after a short period of having lessons at home. I would guess it was sometime around the beginning of 1939. 

In February of that year my father decided he would take me to Nice to see the famed Mardi Gras festivities. I enjoyed looking out of the front of the train as we went through the many tunnels through the Alps. My most lasting memory of Nice, though, was tromping around tired, looking for a place to sleep. Dad had neglected to reserve a room, and the city was crowded for the holiday. If we saw the famous parade at all, I don’t remember it. Only as an adult did I realize how out of my father’s character that trip was. In retrospect I’m sure I was just a cover for a little money-smuggling expedition. Unfortunately I never sought confirmation of that, nor did Dad ever say anything about it.

When summer came that year my parents sent me off to Torre Pellice to live with my great-uncle Beppo and his family at their summer home. Beppo was a mathematician and a professor at the University of Bologna. He had often been a guest at our home in Piazza Carlo Felice, and I had developed a great liking for him. I remember the table where we sat when he taught me the rudiments of algebra, and that numbers could be negative as well as positive. Beppo had two daughters, perhaps ten years younger than my mother. The younger one, Emilia (Mia), who was ten or so years older than me, was assigned to take care of me. I recently re-established contact with her, and she reminded me that we played a lot of pick-up-sticks and that I had not been above claiming none had moved when my turn would otherwise have ended prematurely. Sometime that summer we transferred to Ivrea. My mother and I took English lessons from a woman who had spent some time in England, but I’m afraid neither of us benefited measurably. The most vivid remembrance from that time at La Vigna was being clustered together around a big old radio on September 1st listening to the announcement of the Nazi invasion of Poland. I’m sure I had no conception of where events would lead us, but I do remember the foreboding that went though the family as we heard the news.

That fall I could overhear many discussions of where we might be able to go. But for a lucky break I might have spent my life tending sheep as Tasmania was mentioned as a possibility! Finding asylum was difficult for everyone but particularly so for my family because of my sister’s condition. Laura appeared normal when she was born in February 1935 but she quickly manifested severe neurological problems. She was spastic, never learned to walk unassisted and never developed mentally. Those few countries that would accept refugees would not admit someone in her condition. My father was often away and I remember frequently being shut out of adult conversations by closed doors. I discovered years later, from my aunt Giuseppina, that Dad had been crossing the Alps clandestinely to bring money abroad for our family and close relatives. The Italian government did not allow Jews to leave with more than pocket change. That fall I remember often being farmed out with relatives, especially with my cousin Giorgina who was about fifteen years older than I and had just married. I suppose my parents were busy planning our emigration and making arrangements for my sister’s care. I was sheltered from this.

In November we went to Zurich, leaving Laura behind. The US immigration quota for Italians was apparently divided into Italians living in Italy and Italians living abroad, and my parents had discovered that there might be space in the latter category. Our mission to Switzerland was successful. The only glitch I recall came when the doctor at the consulate thought he heard rales in my father’s chest and raised the possibility of TB. That would have meant the end of our hopes for an American visa. Fortunately, the X-ray proved clear. The family concluded he had laid his stethoscope on the outside of my father’s heavy winter undershirt! The U.S. consul in Zurich, [Samuel Edison Woods?] though his actions may not have been comparable to the deeds of Hiram (Harry) Bingham IV in Marseilles (1), was certainly a hero to our family. A one-week stay satisfied his requirement for Swiss residency, and my uncles Giulio and Davide also went through the Zurich consulate to get the prized visas for their families.
(1) The US Government did its best to keep Bingham’s work secret, and I first learned of his exploits from a display in the U.S. Holocaust Museum about 1990. A Yale graduate, and the son of the discoverer of Machu Picchu, Bingham entered the Foreign Service in 1929, and ten years later was posted as Vice-Consul to Marseilles. He defied the State Department’s instructions not to help refugees, granted visas to about 2000 Jews and a number of non-Jews, many of them prominent writers and artists. He helped their escape from Vichy France, often contributing his own funds, and he used his home as a safe house for refugees. State rewarded him with a transfer to a lesser post, and in 1945 forced his resignation by passing him over for promotion. Only in 2002, after his death, did he officially receive positive recognition when Secretary Powell presented his family with a “Courageous Dissenter” award. In 2006 the Post Office issued a commemorative stamp recognizing Bingham as a “Distinguished American Diplomat.”

US Immigration Law prohibited the entry of disabled persons so it was out of the question for Laura to come with us. She would be left with a wonderful family in Borgomasino, near Ivrea, the Rubattos. They were a farm family with a long connection with the Jonas. In fact, the older woman in the family had been my mother’s wet nurse. They took good care of Laura all through the war years and as long as they were physically able to do so. My parents subsequently arranged for her care in a convent in Biella. As was unfortunately typical of my family, the impact of leaving her behind was never openly discussed. I am aware that it was an agonizing decision for my mother though she kept that to herself. 

Our family did not celebrate Christmas or Chanukah but did exchange small gifts at New Year’s. New Year 1940 was celebrated with a big family party on the eve. I can only wonder about the feelings of the participants. My uncle Giulio Jona and his family had already left for New York in December, and most of the rest of the extended family were getting ready to go, to abandon home and the familiar and face a new world. The big treat for me, and the only thing I remember, was my excitement at being allowed to participate and stay up until midnight for the first time. The cream puffs were delicious.

The reunion was repeated in the first days of February with a big farewell dinner in Genova for the Segre clan. My uncles, Giulio and Alberto Segre and their families all left for Brazil within days of our departure for the States. We sailed from Genova on February fourteenth on the SS Excambion, one of the “Four Aces” of the American Export Lines fleet. She was a mixed passenger/cargo ship of 9360 tons displacement and 475 feet length and for a decade had regularly sailed to and from the Mediterranean and the East Coast of the US. She had begun her February westward voyage in Haifa. From a copy of the ship’s manifest that recently came into my possession, I found that most of the thirty passengers were Central European Jews leaving Palestine. She had made prior landfalls in Beirut and Piraeus, picking up a few passengers in those ports. From Genoa she continued to Marseilles and then across the Atlantic. 

The trip over was quite interesting for a seven-year old boy. I had studied enough geography and read enough ancient history to be excited about seeing the Rock of Gibraltar and leaving the Mediterranean. The North Atlantic in February is seldom calm, and it must have lived up to expectation as both of my parents were seasick most of the time. I was charged with running after my sixteen-month old brother and making sure he didn’t fall overboard. The only unusual event came as we approached the Azores. A German U-boat surfaced near us, checked us out and went on its way. Luckily we were flying the American flag but you can imagine the anxious excitement of the travelers, most of whom were escaping the Nazis, as they lined the railings.

The Excambion went on to have an interesting history herself. Throughout 1940 she continued to ferry refugees to the Promised Land of the USA; among others, Paderewski, Marie Curie, and Salvador Dali, Dali’s passage being paid for by Picasso! Laurence Olivier and his wife, Vivien Leigh, were passengers returning to Europe at the end of the year. It is said they bickered the whole way over. In January of 1942 she was bought by the US Navy, renamed the USS John Penn, and refitted as an attack transport. After a year and a half of distinguished service, she was sunk by enemy action off Guadalcanal on August 13, 1943.

Almost all my parents’ siblings and their families emigrated in those months. On the Segre side Alberto and Giulio went to Sao Paolo, Brazil and Gemma to Havana. Lino, the oldest and my father’s half-brother, stayed in Italy, dying of pneumonia in 1941. His wife and children survived the war in Piedmont. Dad’s sister Carmen and her husband, Benvenuto, remained in the environs of their home in Saluzzo and did not survive. They were in hiding when he developed a strangulated hernia. By the time they overcame their fears to go to a hospital it had been left untreated too long and a fatal peritonitis had ensued. Carmen was captured when she brought him to town for treatment, was deported and killed in Auschwitz. My paternal grandparents stayed behind also, but through a combination of luck and protection from the townspeople, survived the German occupation. After the war I learned that the chief of police of their little town had come to their home and told them, in Piedmontese dialect, to flee because the Germans were going to make a sweep the next day. On the Jona side, David and Giulio came to New York and Enrico went to South America, first to Bolivia, then to Peru. Raffaele stayed in Italy to care for nonna Itala who remained in Ivrea in an apartment just behind the family mansion. If we include second cousins, we also had relatives in Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador and Panama during the war years. More about the family’s wartime experiences anon.

Our first American landfall was in Boston. Dad decided to go ashore for a few hours and I joined him, dressed in the short pants of a proper Italian boy. I quickly found out that short pants were not appropriate dress for a February twenty-sixth in Boston. I was excited to see America and remember walking under the elevated train tracks, not anything I had seen in Torino. My most vivid memories of that excursion, though, were my frozen knees and chattering teeth. The ship went on to New York where we were welcomed by the memorable sight of the Statue of Liberty. We landed in Hoboken and were met by Eugene Fubini, probably the only one of the Turinese expatriates with a car. Fubini was to become head of Research at IBM in the 50’s. He drove us through the tunnel under the Hudson (another new experience) and on to Jackson Heights where we moved in with uncle Giulio and his family on 82nd. Street, not far from LaGuardia Field.

As best I can remember it was a small two-story house with two or three bedrooms in which we managed to squeeze four adults and four children for the next six months or so. It must have been quite an uncomfortable situation. That the parental generation kept it amicable was a remarkable achievement. There were two toddlers, a four year old and me, and two women who were not best of friends had to share the kitchen. Uncle Giulio came and went at odd hours as he interned in a local hospital working toward his medical licensure, and my father spent his days looking for a job in a city that hadn’t recovered from the Great Depression. And then there were so many other obvious stresses. The family was scattered and in varying degrees of danger, the language was foreign, the war in Europe was heating up, nobody quite knew where their next meal would come from. It’s remarkable that the only conflict I can recall is one toddler biting another, and that was a rare enough event to become memorable. A number of uncle Giulio’s medical friends, among them the future Nobel Laureate Salvatore Luria, would come to share our canned corned beef, usually on sale at the Big Bear Market, and our other dinner “delicacies”. Dessert was a rare luxury. I still remember the tangerine we divided in four parts; whether I got three segments or two, it was a treat. I can’t remember what we did for furniture in those early months because it was already pushing summer when a truck arrived one warm day and dropped off a big wooden crate. Much of our furniture and household goods, our bikes and the other things I’d been missing had finally arrived from Italy. I know my father had made visits to HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), and they may have provided household goods to tide us over. (I still contribute to HIAS in acknowledgement.) About that time, through some Turinese connections, my father got a job as a bookkeeper for a company importing carpets from Italy, Columbia Floor Covering, (I remember the name because their letterheads and envelopes provided me with scrap paper for several years after they had long gone out of business.) That good fortune enabled us to move a few blocks to 81st street and to an apartment of our own. Our departure from 82nd Street made room for the latest arrivals, my uncle David and his family. 

Other memories from that first house: In Italy I had read about American gangsters, and they became an ongoing concern to me. At bedtime I would stand at the top of the stairs looking down through the glass top of the front door afraid that one was going to invade our space. That fear was in no way assuaged when, shortly before we moved out, there was a shooting next door. I came down in the morning excited to follow the drops of blood down the alley between the two houses. Nobody ever explained that one to me! There were more pleasant memories as well. We had a nice playground near us with the standard American swings, slides and monkey bars. There was nothing like that in Italy and my parents duly documented it in photos they sent back to the grandparents, copies of which are still in our family albums. After our bikes arrived, Dad and I would ride down to the paths along Flushing Bay to see the occasional air traffic. There weren’t many planes in those days; the splashing arrival in the bay of PanAm’s Transatlantic Clipper from Lisbon was a great event. Gino, who must have not yet been two, still remembers joining those rides perched on the crossbar of our father’s bike.

Our second apartment was on the first floor of an apartment house and faced the back alley. I remember that because rag peddlers would stand in the alley shouting “I buy old clothes” in Italian flavored English, and an organ-grinder would set up shop outside our window with his little monkey. It was a period when my father and I both went to religious services each Saturday. The synagogue did provide some support, and at least two Jewish families in the neighborhood did their best to make us feel welcome, the Fishers and the Fankushens. The Fishers had two boys of about my age, and those were the first American kids I remember playing with. The Fankushen children were younger, but Leon, the father, became our dentist and my parents kept in touch with that family for the rest of their lives. Their son, David, is a pulmonary disease specialist in Los Gatos, and I still run into him on occasion. Another playmate was Enzo Falco, a friend from Torino. His family was now living on Riverside Drive at 102nd Street, and my mother and I went there a number of times on the subway. I still was shaky in English so it must have been still in 1940 when my parents gave me a couple of nickels and suggested I go visit him by myself. The trip to Manhattan was uneventful as was my visit with the Falcos but the return proved memorable. Instead of taking the Flushing train at Times Square I boarded the Grand Central shuttle and ping-ponged back and forth several times with increasing distress. I can’t recall how I corrected my error, but I returned home little the worse for the experience and in no way discouraged from my future explorations of New York City’s subway system. Over the next decade I managed to ride every mile of it, underground and above. My Italian childhood was a fast-fading memory. I had become a true New Yorker.