The "Americani" in Italy at War

By Gino C. Speranza

[The Outlook, April 12, 1916]

Early in the war a story was current in Italy which, although never officially vouched for, has strong elements of probability. It was said that a young man born in Chicago of Italian parents, having come to Italy to enlist as a volunteer, had been captured by a couple of Austrians during a daring reconnaissance on which he was sent through a wooded section of the lower Isonzo. As he was being led, hands bound behind him, towards the Austrian trenches, he heard his captors speaking in his native tongue, or, as the story says, using "that particular pronunciation which distinguishes the English of Americans." So he entered into their conversation, and soon the three discovered that each was American-born and all were more at home in the vernacular of the United States than in the language of their "rulers." It appeared that the captors happened to be in Austria when the war broke out and had been compelled to join the army. They made no complaint, however, except to state that the food they received was rather poor and the work endless and very heavy.

Thereupon the wily Chicagoan depicted the succulent rancio of the Italian army and the excellent treatment accorded by Italy to prisoners of war. All of this was true, but it was painted with such a fine Italian hand that after a while captives and captors were retracing their steps and heading, quite naturally, for the Italian trenches. In half an hour the Chicago Italian was delivering to his command two Paterson Austrians—'friends of his"—with a very special plea for consideration.

The story may not be true in all its details, but, as I said, it has many elements of probability. The European conflict has brought to this continent thousands of those immigrants, or sons of immigrants, who even before the war were known as "Americani"— men who had not merely lived among us, but who, on their return, either temporarily or permanently, had brought with them indelible marks of their life in America.

It is of these Americani in Italy to-day that I wish to speak, of these returned immigrants whose contribution toward the betterment of many villages in southern Italy will some day be written, I hope, as one of the finest pages of the influence of American democracy on those who sought its asylum, even though they never became its sons.

Unofficial but reliable information would place the number of such Americani who have left the United States to enter the fighting ranks of Italy at not less than sixty thousand, and probably at above seventy thousand. That, under Italian law, many, if not most, of them were under a legal duty to come cannot be challenged; that some of them in coming violated the spirit of their allegiance to their adopted country is a political question of such a serious and vexed character that it transcends the purposes and scope of this article. I wish, rather, herein to bear witness to one fact of deep significance and of practical importance to our future immigration legislation, and it is this: that if many of those who come here from the United States have fought gallantly, if they have endured patiently, if they have died bravely, we can have the assurance that the years spent by them among us and their experience in America played some part in the ordeal through which their strong young lives have passed or in whose fires they have been nobly consumed.

I came over from New York with nineteen hundred of these Americani on shipboard. They were the gayest lot I have ever seen, playing and singing all the way from the North River to the Immacolatella at Naples. They came from every point of our country; miners from the West, some wearing caps with the inscription of some flour company or the name of an express company; others decked out in American overalls, suspenders, and sweaters; there was even one Italian from Kansas in a baseball suit! Many of them had the Italian tricolor and a button of the Madonna del Carmine on one lapel and an American flag pinned to the other. There were forty Italians from Hartford, including a young, capable-looking contractor whose name you will find enrolled in the Connecticut militia. Missouri was represented, and Pennsylvania, and the Far West. A special car had carried a Minnesota contingent from Duluth to New York, but only a few of that party had been able to find room on our steamer.

A stoutish, rosy-cheeked, clean-shaven Italo-American who spoke no Italian explained to me plaintively that his chum from Hibbing, Minnesota, had been left behind for the next boat-load. "That friend of mine," he explained, "is a wonder; he has beaten all comers with his car on the race-tracks in our State. Besides," he added, solemnly and impressively, "he's an aviator, and writes poems!

I treasure a sample of the poetic fervor of this unknown Italian from Minnesota, from whose admiring friend I was able to obtain a copy. It is entitled "The Farewell of an Italo-American Aviator to his Sweetheart," and is phrased after an old Italian marching song. That it deserves, when done into appropriate English, to be included in an anthology of broad-gauged American patriotism is established by the poet's outburst of affection for the place of his American residence. Nine out of ten native citizens of the Republic have probably never heard of Hibbing, Minnesota, but this is how the Italo-American aviator, on his way to drop bombs on Pola and Trieste, apostrophizes that Western town:

"Hibbing, beloved Hibbing,
Town of my thoughts, adieu!
Farewell to joy and pleasure
And friends most kind and true.
Remember in some measure
One ever true to you!'

When we had passed Gibraltar, some of these boys in the second cabin arranged a special evening musicale for me; they asked a "professor" from Naples to play for a whole hour on the piano some of his most pyrotechnic variations from "Norma" and the old Verdian favorites. Slowly the dining-saloon—dimly lighted, as we were sailing in almost complete darkness to avoid submarine attacks—filled with men from every province of Italy, gathered there from a hundred places in America; strong boys and frail, thoughtful men and hardy laborers, all listening to the music.

Suddenly the "professor" struck up the national hymn of Italy, and the crowd rose to a man, cheering for "Savoia," while hundreds of others huddled on the steerage deck sent up a mighty shout from below. It came roaring through the portholes like the challenge of regiments charging for Italy and for glory. I have been in great crowds on impressive occasions, and have heard thrilling hurrahs; but this was the first time that I had listened to the cheers of men resolved to die, if need be, for something infinitely greater than life.

I wish that those at home who look censoriously upon these Americani who left our country to fight for another allegiance than that of the adopted land could have felt with me the thrill of that cheer, could have heard its steadying ring, which seemed to brush aside the shadow of the Valley of Death so that one might more wholly listen to that stirring music which somehow makes all of us here—soldiers or just friends, belligerents or observers—drop into marching step with the forces bravely struggling for a free Europe.

We must not be too legalistic and coldly logical in the face of tremendous events. The question for most of these Americani was not one of allegiance but of service. The fundamental and controlling choice was not between America and Italy, but essentially between a safe, peaceful jurisdiction and a perilous undertaking. In making their choice a large number of these Americani could have claimed our protection and remained in the relative comfort and ease of their American homes; that they chose, instead, the dangers and the sacrifices which were all that Italy offered them may legally sever them from our citizenship, but surely let it not take from them some tribute of respect.

Perhaps we can best read the true inwardness of their choice in some typical and illuminating examples. I know, for instance, a young Italian officer who has lived several years in America. He is as dashing a cavalry officer as ever won the heart of the fairest and noblest maiden; yet if you had met him on Wall Street, as I used to, you would have been attracted by his tall, well-groomed figure, his strenuous gait, and the "unmistakable" evidences about him of an American clubman and gentleman. The Italian war was not many days old, however, when he was off to his native land, where he was soon after seriously wounded in one of the bloodiest battles for Gorizia, and advanced in rank for bravery on the field of battle.

When I saw him in Rome, after he had left the hospital, I asked him what he thought of war. "Now that I have been through it," he said, thoughtfully, "I feel that it can be justified only for the protection of one's country. I came to Italy because it is my country; but if to-morrow America, where my wife and I have lived, should be threatened with invasion, I should fight there as I have fought here."

Let me tell you of another young man I know; an entirely different type, and born in an entirely different section of Italy, whence he had been brought to America at the age of just two months. He is a graduate from one of the best-known universities in America, a poet at heart, writing graceful English verse with a certain Elizabethan flavor; an architect by profession, and an enthusiastic lover of New York, where he lived for nearly twenty-five years before the war broke out. "I don't know why I'm going to Italy," he told me while we crossed the Atlantic together, "for I don't know Italy and do not speak its language, while all my friends are in America, where I have had an excellent position." But on a day of deeper intimacy he let me read more closely in his soul "I wish I were sure of myself," he confided; "because when I think of the fighting line I am really afraid to die; but when I was a little boy my mother used to tell me how Italy's oppressors stood up her father and his brother against a wall and shot them down mercilessly because they refused to fight against Garibaldi." It was a boy's almost frightened face that turned to me a little pleadingly, saying, "I see that picture every day now; that's why I'm going."

Some time ago, at Ravenna, where the dust of Italy's greatest son awaits the Judgment Day, the colonel of the regiment of territorials stationed there called for volunteers to go at once to the fighting line. The first nine men to step forward were immigrants recently returned from America. "We have come here to fight," said their spokesman to the colonel, "and for no other purpose; we ask to be allowed to go in the place of some others who have families dependent upon them."

Nor less spiritually brave seems to me the case of that young laborer who arrived at Genoa from America in answer to the call of endangered Italy, bearing tenderly with him his motherless baby of a few months, and whose only thought was how, in the absence of any relative in Italy or America, he could place it safely and lovingly so that he might join the colors without delay.

I cannot in my heart brand men of this sort with the ugliest of words—disloyalty. Indeed, in the face of the tremendous fact which the European drama represents and the principles which are involved in it, I should not like to think that men like these had kept safely from its risks.

Rather is the conviction borne in upon me, and fortified every day by a hundred little proofs, that there is more deep-seated respect for America among the returned immigrants in southern Italy than in any other part or in any other class in Europe, and that no diplomacy, however far-sighted, and no propaganda, however skillful, has produced such a real sphere of friendly American influence anywhere abroad as these humble Americani have created for the United States in the Abruzzi and Calabria.

In a recent article by an Italian observer much stress is laid on the part played by immigration in preparing the Sicilian people to accept the brave hardships of war. Northern Italy, he points out, entered joyously into the conflict, with its soul still smarting under the humiliations and the cruelties of the Austrian oppressor of half a century ago; but Sicily from the very beginning rose to the more ideal reasons of the war, and, overlooking its past sufferings, intuitively grasped the fact that the arch-enemy was not the Austrian oppressor of Italy, but the German overlord of a Europe fighting to be free. "Emigration has proved a school of life, an apprenticeship in sacrifice, an experience with pain, privation, suffering, and abnegation; it has been a factor of moral uplift and has habituated the Sicilian the trials of great partings, of far distances, often with no home-coming.'' In other words, emigration prepared, in a measure, the spirit of these people for the demands of war.

But numberless little incidents are not wanting to prove the large, deep thesis that allegiance to an endangered Italy has not meant spiritual disloyalty to the adopted country. The thought of America blooms in the most unexpected places even in the midst of the war. Among the countless hymns and canzonette which the conflict has produced there is a very popular ditty entitled "Viva Trento e Trieste ;" it is sung to the music of an older and even more widely known Neapolitan song which bears this title, "Me ne vogl'i all' America!"—I am going off to America!" Or take the wounded Sardinian soldier who was brought to the American Hospital at Florence; when he was taken to a large, sunny ward and placed on a comfortable spring-bed he smiled and said, "I have found America in Italy!"

If only some Americans who have doubts about the loyalty of these men would visit our hospital in the city of Dante, of Donatello, of Giotto, of Savonarola! Stopping near the door above which flies the Stars and Stripes with the tricolor of Italy and the white standard of the Red Cross, they very likely would hear old and new songs issuing from the house of pain—wounded soldiers singing in tones of a wild challenge the favorite war hymn, " Fuori i Barbari!" followed perhaps in a gentler but not less earnest mood with "Viva l'America" to the tune of "Santa Lucia."

Face to face with what the drama of Europe means, seeing day after day wounded men brought back from the fighting line, uncomplaining, and unafraid, I confess that nothing stirs me more than, as I read the lists of the honored dead, I see a statement like the one before me: "Giovanni L——, bugler in the Tenth Bersaglieri, who had recently returned from America." And knowing these men, having followed their lives, gauged their struggles, and drawn near to their simple ideals, I feel certain that when the shadow settled slowly upon them there passed before their darkening view, not only the picture of their father and mother, of their Italy and their hopes, but also a gleam of the vision of America.

When the war is over and the minds of men shall turn to constructive work, we in America will have to give serious thought to refashioning, if not fundamentally changing, our immigration and naturalization laws. We have heretofore attempted to use physical tests of desirability to the alien applying for admission at our gates, and, in a minor degree, political, economic, intellectual, and moral tests. But the truest and most reliable test of all we have never applied—the test of character. I realize that seemingly insurmountable difficulties exist to its practical application, yet the hope of securing the finest element from abroad for our American democracy lies in our willingness and determination for the sake of our country to find a way of applying this steadiest and safest gauge of desirability. History and the record of the spiritual life of the various peoples in Europe might well have helped us in the past, but we preferred the new sociology to the old and certain lessons of history. The great European drama which we are witnessing offers to-day, however, undreamed-of opportunities to study and "to know those fundamental and particular characteristics which differentiate nationalities, and which constitute fine or oblique character among different groupings of men in the history of civilization.

Let us hope that our diplomats and our consular officials here in Europe, as well as our writers and correspondents, will realize this fact, and that they are rising to the great occasion; they can furnish us in these momentous days spiritual data of such profound significance as no Congressional commissions, no sociological faculties, and no scholars in our universities could hope to supply in a century of study and learned inquiry. For Europe is to-day, not merely a bloody battlefield, but something infinitely finer and greater. It is God's fiery laboratory wherein the passions and lusts of men are being slowly and terribly consumed, but wherein also the intimate life of the human spirit is working out reactions of profound meaning and of infinite consequences.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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