Thursday, November 15, 2012

For The Lost of February '44 - Part I

As I explained in my initial blog post, my interest in genealogy was sparked by a desire to learn the fate of my paternal grandfather, Damiano De Virgilio, the man for whom I am named.  In fact, this blog is named for my goal of "knowing Nonno."  With the recent passing of Veteran's Day in the US, this seems like an appropriate time to provide some richer context on my experience in exploring his story.  However, for the sake of keeping posts relatively succinct, I will divide this tale into three parts to be posted over the coming weeks.

  • Part I: Background
  • Part II: Seeking the Truth
  • Part III: We Will Not Forget

Even after 68 years, the ripples from Damiano's loss resonate through my family.  Anyone who has dealt with the unexpected loss of a loved one, whether military or civilian, without proper closure will understand how these wounds echo through time.  I am sure that many of you will recall your own personal connections with tragic loss throughout history as you read this story.  All such events deserve to be honored in their own way.  This particular story is fundamentally about a group of people scattered across the world who came together against the odds to discover the truth.  We are linked by the gruesome deaths of our fathers, grandfathers, brothers, uncles, etc. who were among the 4,046 Italian prisoners of war who perished in a tragic shipwreck in the very early hours of February 12, 1944 while being transported by the Nazis from Rhodes to the Greek mainland.  Our goals are to:

  • Inform the thousands of families who are still unaware of the fate of their loved ones.  
  • Properly memorialize these men
  • Protect artifacts and human remains associated with the shipwreck

After so many years of painful ambiguity, this is the least that can be done.

The Lost of February 12, 1944 - Part I: Background

Mariantonia De Ruvo & Damiano De Virgilio
(circa early 1938)
Like all my ancestors of which I am aware, Nonno Damiano was born and raised in Molfetta, Italy.  He was the youngest male child of seven born to Maria Saveria Modugno and Francesco De Virgilio.  I have met very few people during my lifetime who knew Damiano personally.  However, certain traits and stories have lingered through the years.  He was tall and imposing, yet handsome, with massive hands that seemed molded for the strenuous farm life his family had labored at for generations.  His initial courting of my grandmother involved a ruse about needing to pick up a sack of seeds from her parents' home.  He was also known for quite the temper, which, truth be told, is not very surprising when I consider the genes he passed on to us.  On January 8, 1938, as he approached 26 years of age, he married Mariantonia De Ruvo, and by November of that same year, they would have their only child, my father Francesco.  Though Damiano hoped to simply settle down into the humble farming tradition of his ancestors, little did he know that he soon would be off to war, never to see his young wife and infant son again.

Damiano presumably in Rhodes
(circa 1942)
Benito Mussolini's fascist regime had delusional, imperial aspirations, and its alignment with the sinister agenda of the Nazis during World War II will eternally taint the history of Italy during the 20th century.  Damiano was just one of millions of men forced to serve a cause that he likely neither understood nor advocated.  He shipped out in January 1940 as part of the 35th Artillery Regiment of the Italian occupying force in Rhodes in the Aegean Sea.  All letters exchanged with his family are lost, but fortunately, copies of photographs shared by mail survive as testaments to a longing for the life that he left at home.

With the Italian Armistice of September 8, 1943, Italian soldiers like my grandfather were faced with the choice of either continuing to fight alongside the Nazis or risk the unknown outcome of the alternative.  I am proud to say that many Italian soldiers chose the latter, often with dire consequences, such as the Massacre of the Acqui Division.  My grandfather made his choice and was taken prisoner by the Germans on September 11, 1943.  Reports on his whereabouts ceased as of late January 1944.  For decades, nothing more was known of his fate.

Mariantonia & her son Francesco (circa 1942)
With the lack of news, Nonna Mariantonia scrambled to learn whatever she could through formal and informal channels.  She even wrote to the Vatican for assistance in learning the fate of her husband.  (Thank you Carolyn Ugolini for finding this priceless family record!)  No information was available, and he was simply declared missing in action.  Mariantonia dealt with this personal agony as best she could.  She never remarried and raised her only son on her own while running a rented farm.  It wasn't until the early 1970s, just after moving to the US, that she received word from the Italian Ministry of Defense vaguely declaring that her husband had died in the sinking of an unknown steamship off the coast of the mysteriously named "Island of Goidano" in February 1944.

For about 40 years, my family was forced to content itself with this nebulous information.  In my next post, I'll recount how the power of Google, social media, and mere serendipity ultimately brought the truth to light.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Tale of a Forgotten Zio

When I began to explore my family history, I naturally expected to discover my share of ancestors who were completely new to me but were known to other living members of my family.  I anticipated moments where I would mention a newly found name to a relative, and the response would be "Nah, niorsi, m'ricord ca...."  Putting aside my pathetic attempt to write "Nah, yes, I remember that..." in the Molfettese dialect, I've been blessed with several of these moments of revelation.  Memories have been jogged to reveal additional nuggets of vital information that often lead to further discoveries.  However, for the past several years, one figure has consistently stood out as a major mystery: a paternal great-granduncle named Mauro De Virgilio.

I was lucky enough to grow up in an environment full of granduncles and grandaunts.  My parents also seemed to have no problem naming the siblings of their grandparents even if they only held wisps of memories.  My father can still proudly recall some of his paternal grandfather's brothers whom he remembers as elderly men when he was a small child in Molfetta.  However, neither my father nor any other member of his family had any inkling of Mauro's existence.  Even in terms of documented evidence, he was like a mirage, disappearing and then suddenly reappearing in unexpected places.   Regardless, in the end, his story reminds us of the darker and lonelier aspects of the immigrant experience.  It also forces us to acknowledge that documented evidence can't always tell us the full story of a person's experience, especially the more intimate challenges or demons endured throughout the course of life.

On the very first day that I began to  explore the wealth of records from Molfetta on microfilms at the Family History Center in Emerson, NJ, I came across Mauro's birth record from March 19, 1883.  I thought I had simply found another sibling of my paternal great-grandfather, Francesco De Virgilio.  At first, I just assumed that Mauro had lived out life in Molfetta much like his brother.  However, then I entered Mauro's data into my family tree.  Within seconds, those famed little green leaves started to sprout indicating record matches.  Despite my skepticism, I found the following records which are clearly related to Mauro:
  • An Ellis Island passenger list indicated that he arrived in the US in March of 1907
  • A World War I draft registration card indicating that he was living in Scranton, PA, and working at the Scranton Coal Company as of September 1918
  • A petition for naturalization documenting residence in Scranton as of August 1920
The only inconsistency is that all these records reflect a March 19, 1884 birth date.  However, since I wasn't able to locate any birth records showing that a Mauro De Virgilio was born in Molfetta exactly one year after my Mauro, I can only speculate as to why this error exists.

My first reaction to these finds was "Scranton?!"  I've known my ancestors to be mariners, farmers, and various types of dock workers, but coal miners?  Also immigrants to the US from Molfetta during this period were congregating in Hoboken, NJ.  I never considered Northeastern Pennsylvania as a destination for my ancestors, but I soon learned that Italian immigrants were among the many ethnic groups who labored in the coal mines of the region.

After his petition for naturalization, Mauro disappears from records.  To add to my frustration, he appears in not a single census record up to this point.  However, there is a positive note to this part of the story. As I dug through Scranton records and information online, I discovered a nephew of Mauro, Michele De Virgilio, who settled in Scranton too.  Via this discovery, I was able to connect with Michele's daughter, my 2nd cousin once removed, who was extremely gracious with sharing all the information available to her.  Unfortunately, she knew nothing of Mauro.  Thus began a long drought of new data, even after seeking assistance from various PA-based genealogical experts.  Finally, I decided to put the project aside for a while as one often does when faced with brick walls in family history research.

Then April 2012 rolled around, and little did I know what awaited me in the highly anticipated release of the 1940 US Census.  Well, another little green leaf sprouted, and a "Mauro Devirgilia" appears as a resident of the Hudson County Alms House in Secaucus, NJ.  This was the closest match I had found for Mauro in any census.  His age matched within a few years, and it claims that he was a resident of Jersey City in 1935.  Thus, I faced an unfortunate possibility: Though Mauro's life had brought him closer to the Molfettese immigrant community in Hoboken, it had also sadly resulted in residence in the poorhouse.

Delving through newspapers, city directories, and other records, I once again hit a desert of data.  Then I recalled a controversy that I read about roughly a decade ago.  The Hudson County Burial Grounds was a cemetery used to bury unclaimed bodies from the alms house and the neighboring asylum and penitentiary.  All of these facilities were located in an area of Secaucus known as Snake Hill.  The cemetery had been all but forgotten until excavations associated with a $235-million highway-interchange project exposed that the remains of almost 10,000 individuals were still entombed on the property.  A group, including a fellow descendent of Molfetese immigrants whose grandfather was buried in the cemetery, fought to ensure that the remains were relocated and properly memorialized.  The controversy was covered by publications throughout the nation, including Archeology.  In fact, the story became the subject of an award-winning 2007 documentary, called Snake Hill

Though I followed the story with interest as it unfolded, I never thought that I had a personal connection to it, but now I decided to follow a hunch that Zio Mauro may have been among those buried at Snake Hill.  Upon examining the burial list, I came across a record for a "DeVirgilio Dauro" buried on November 5, 1941.  Since the name was only off by a single letter, I decided to make my inaugural visit to the New Jersey State Archives where I located this death certificate.  It states that a Mauro DeVirgilio died on October 31st, 1941 and was buried in the "almshouse cemetery".  Although some of his personal information is slightly off, such as his father's name (Nick rather than Michele), these inaccuracies can feasibly be attributed to facility administrators who filled out the form based on the "records of the institution" as stated on the certificate.  Furthermore, whomever filled out the form didn't care much for math either since it was believed that someone can live from 1873 to 1941 and be 57 years old.

These flubs aside, the most striking bit of new information on the document was his last known address, 200 Grand St. in Hoboken. Besides being the location of Hoboken's iconic Italian restaurant Leo's Grandevous since 1939, when I looked up the property in the 1940 Census, I was intrigued to find that a family headed by an Ignazio De Robertis lived in the building.  While the surname De Robertis is rather common in Molfetta, Mauro's slightly older sister Vincenza married a man named Ignazio De Robertis.   Though I have found no evidence of a link among the De Robertis families, it's possible that Mauro had been a boarder at some point with members of his sister's extended family.

Again, this is guesswork, and much of Mauro's tale is open to theories until further evidence is uncovered.  In addition to the De Robertis connection, some of the biggest teases come from the other names associated with his records, such as an alleged cousin, Mauro Rana (Mauro's mother's maiden name), whom Mauro was meeting in the US according to his passenger list.  Though I have found no leads linked to such names, perhaps the internet gods will deem me worthy of a chance web search by descendants of these individuals who might be able to shed more light on Mauro's tale.

The largest void in Mauro's story is from 1920 to 1940.  One can't help but wonder what brought a man petitioning for naturalization to end up in the poorhouse 20 years later.  Much was occurring in the world during these decades to place a life in turmoil: the Great Depression and Prohibition just to name a few.  Mauro may have also suffered from illnesses, injuries, or addictions that contributed to his lonesome fate.

Some might question why one would bother to explore the life of a long-dead, distant relative who may have been a vagabond.   Well, as we rightfully celebrate our immigrant ancestors who lifted themselves up from nothing to various forms of success, we can appreciate their efforts all the more when we are reminded of an opposite fate that may have awaited them. Besides, if in truth Mauro was just a good man who was dealt a raw deal, then perhaps some justice is found in knowing that he is no longer forgotten.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Taking Our Italian Legacy Digital

Taking a short break from my family history rants, I'd like to shine a spotlight on a few intriguing online initiatives that have significant relevance to Italian genealogy.  The first two came to my attention through Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter during just the past month alone.

Endangered Languages Project

"With the Endangered Languages Project, Google puts its technology at the service of the organizations and individuals working to confront language endangerment by documenting, preserving and teaching them."   Such an initiative has immense potential for the preservation of Italian dialects.  They are a pivotal part of our cultural story and should be treasured.  Though much was done to compromise their usage after the unification of Italy in 1861 through much of the 20th century, Italian academic institutions and linguists have been working diligently in recent decades to preserve and teach these priceless aspects of our legacy.  Perhaps this will be another vehicle for these efforts.  A few projects relating to Italy have already begun.

L'Archivio Storico Luce 

L'Archivio Storico Luce on YouTube contains thousands of videos chronicling seventy years of Italian history and social life from the 1920s to 1990s. For example, I was excited to find the following newsreel footage from the early 1950s showcasing fishermen in my family's hometown of Molfetta.

Digitizing Italian Civil Registration Records  

An historic partnership between FamilySearch and Direzione Generale per gli Archivi (DGA) will result in free online access to millions of Italian Civil Registration documents.  This monumental project will entail a great deal work.  Volunteers are encouraged to participate in indexing efforts..

It's very exciting to see such initiatives come to life.  I can't wait to see what will be next.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

"Clandestine Immigration"

As a child, I often heard that my maternal grandfather, Saverio La Forgia, had been in the US for several years in the mid-to-late 1920s.  When my mother would talk about it, she would covertly whisper the word clandestino, clearly insinuating that there was something illicit about this informationEven the ears of a child could comprehend the hint at unauthorized activity.  However, as I look back, what I recall most vividly is that I thought she was saying "grande stile", sarcastically implying that Saverio had arrived in "great style".  Yet, this was one instance where my mom wasn't expressing the famed Italian love for hyperbole.  She was simply stating that he was in the US clandestinely.  In other words, he was an illegal immigrant.

Saverio La Forgia (circa 1925)

Whenever I see, hear, or read a news item on illegal immigration, I can't help but think about my Nonno Saverio, but he was not atypical for the time period.  Several laws were enacted by the US government in the early 1920s to significantly restrict immigration.  These laws set immigration quotas on Southern and Eastern Europeans while explicitly prohibiting immigration from parts of Asia and the Middle East.  Regardless, the appeal of jobs as the US economy boomed in the Roaring Twenties was strong enough to entice many into drastic measures.  According to family lore, Saverio "jumped ship".  In essence, he arrived in the US under the guise of working on a cargo shipping vessel and somehow sneaked into the country.

For reasons lost with Saverio's passing in 1987, he decided to go back to Molfetta in early 1929, not long before the infamous stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression.  However, his future brother-in-law, my granduncle, Leonardo De Gennaro, had quite a different experience.  Fortunately for me, he also left a paper trail.

Leonardo De Gennaro - Border Crossing Record

The document above is a portion of a record of Leonardo's reentry into the United States from a visit to Canada on October 27, 1938.    It notes that he had already been residing in the United States from March 19, 1926 through two days prior to his return from Toronto.  In addition, it acknowledges his initial entry into the US in 1926 via Tampa, FL, on a vessel named Clara Camus.  

Besides family oral tradition, there is significant factual and circumstantial evidence indicated that Leonardo's initial entry into the US was illicit .  Firstly, there is no evidence of a legitimate reason why he came to the US through Tampa, FL.  Upon arriving in the US he made his way north to Hoboken, NJ, to stay with his aunt's family.  Why didn't he arrive through Ellis Island as was most common for other immigrants from Molfetta during this time period?   After marrying Angela Maria Manente, he and his young family moved to Brooklyn, NY, as reflected above.  Furthermore, all  indications are that the Clara Camus was purely a merchant cargo ship.  

Unlike Saverio, Leonardo stayed permanently in the US, eventually settling his family in Southern California.  Though he died in 1990, he is still lovingly referred to as "Zio Della California" by family in the US and back in Molfetta.  

Several years ago while attending a seminar, I posed a question about Italian illegal immigration during the 1920s to a respected Italian-American genealogy expert.  He seemed practically insulted by my question and offered a rather belittling response as if I had asked about Italian colonization of Jupiter during the same period.  However, I find that his reaction is not uncommon in the Italian-American community.  Whether it is considered a stain on the iconic Ellis Island experience beloved by all or exposes hypocrisy in one's stance on modern immigration issues, frankly, there is no use denying that such activity occurred.   It is a part of history and underscores the risks individuals were and are still willing to take for the sake of opportunities.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Birds of Passage and Twists of Fate

My immediate family immigrated to the United States from Molfetta, Italy, in the early 1970s.  Since my father arrived via JFK Airport rather than through Ellis Island, I grew up assuming that I had no personal connection to the immigrant experience exemplified by weeks of steerage travel and chalk marked clothing.  In short, I was 100% wrong.  However, in the process, I learned some of the most important lessons of family history research, such as:
  • Oscar Wilde was right when he said “When you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.”  So, test assumptions.
  • Don't be afraid to ask relatives for information.  The worst thing they could say is "I don't know."
  • Read historical documents completely...and then go back to them later because you'll be amazed at what you missed the first time. 
Male Italian immigrants of the early 1900s were frequently referred to as "birds of passage" since they often never settled permanently in their destinations.  Rather, they sought work, saved their earnings, and then returned home to their families.  Well, before long, I learned that I had an ancestor that came to the U.S. three, perhaps even four times, in the decade preceding 1913.

Ignazio De Gennaro is pictured in the above photo circa 1930 with his wife Mariantonia Petruzzella.  He is my great-grandfather, or to be more exact, my mother's mother's father.  His earliest documented arrival in the U.S. that I've found was on June 24, 1906.  He arrived with his brother Mauro with the goal of staying with cousins in Brooklyn, according to the ship manifest.  However, there is another important question on the manifest...


Well, Ignazio responded with while Mauro stated  .   Sadly, I have not been able to locate any official records of these supposed earlier arrivals.  However, I have officially confirmed that Ignazio went through Ellis Island once more on  March 26, 1909 and then again on September 29, 1913.  What I find particularly interesting is that Ignazio left Mariantonia with another new born each time he left.  (Insert your comic innuendo of choice here.)  All kidding aside, I try to imagine how difficult it must have been for him to leave his family behind, each time unsure whether he'd ever see them again.  This must have been particularly difficult during his last trip.

According to family lore, his goal was to bring his wife and children to the U.S.  By 1913, Ignazio's youngest sister, Chiara, had settled to raise a family in Hoboken, NJ, with her husband, Giuseppe Gaudio.  Several of Ignazio's brothers were also still making repeated trips to Hoboken in search of work.  Therefore, it's quite possible that Ignazio did in fact plan to have his entire family join him too.  In fact, the following photo of my grandmother, Maria Vincenza (Ignazio's daughter), was allegedly taken for her passport around age 4 circa 1913.

Ignazio's plans were thwarted by a modest, little event called World War I which began during the summer of 1914.  Ignazio had to stay in Hoboken at least through the fall of 1918 as indicated on his World War I Alien Registration Card (below).  It's unclear as to why Ignazio abandoned his plans after the end of the war and returned to Molfetta.  Perhaps he became disillusioned with America.  Perhaps he was merely homesick, or maybe his wife became wary of the dangers of ship travel.  We may never know.

I am perpetually amazed by how events ripple through time to affect the fate of generations.  For instance, had Ignazio's plan to import his family to America come to fruition, I would simply not exist...So, for those who may have tired of me already, who knew that World War I could seem even worse?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Launching on a Very Symbolic, Poignant Date

I've played with the idea of creating a blog related to my interest in genealogy since I started exploring the subject more seriously about three years ago.  I've avoided it mainly for fear that it would be a vain, self-indulgent effort that would have very little value.  However, earlier this month, I attended the RootsTech conference, and my perspective changed drastically.  There I learned that though I am not a genealogy expert I need to do my part to nurture this precious, emotional pursuit.  It's done a lot for me, and by sharing my successes, failures, and whatever knowledge I've gained, I hope others as well as I might gain at least a little...If not, perhaps this "vain, self-indulgent effort" might serve as good cousin bait.

I am particularly concerned about the state of Italian genealogy.  Please don't get me wrong...There are many passionate, knowledgeable people out there dedicated to the field.  Some of these individuals can be found via the links along the right.  However, as I've become more involved in the broader genealogy community, I can't help but feel that individuals of Italian descent are underrepresented when it comes to shaping genealogy's future.  Therefore, I also hope to do my part to change that.

I've chosen to launch this blog on a very symbolic day for me, February 12.  In fact, it represents the main reason I began exploring genealogy in the first place.  Like many first born males of Italian descent, I was named after my parternal nonno (grandfather), Damiano De Virgilio.  Even as I was growing up, his disappearance while serving in the Italian army during World War II cast a very long shadow over the lives of my immediate family.  All we knew was that he was taken prisoner by the Germans in Rhodes after the Italian armistice of September 8, 1943.  After that, his fate was a complete mystery.

Carrying his name made me feel that I had an obligation to uncover the truth despite the logistical and bureaucratic hurdles.  In the end, I discovered the truth about the forgotten Oria shipwreck off the coast of Greece where over 4,000 Italian prisoners of war perished on February 12, 1944.

When I started, I never anticipated that the process would also teach me incredible lessons in the power of the internet, social media, and collaboration across boundaries of language and geography.  Abigail Pfeiffer eloquently recounts the struggle and successes in one of her blog posts, and Salvatore Rossetti has created a site to help honor our lost family members.  There are so many to thank and recognize in this still evolving epic where we continue to work to inform all family members of victims, ensure that the lost are properly memorialized, and engage authorities to help protect human remains and artifacts from vandals. However, I would be doing a major disservice if I did not acknowledge Aristotelis Zervoudis.  If it wasn't for him, none of this would have been possible.

Most recently, RAI TV has produced several pieces on the Oria.  This following video has English subtitles.

Earlier this week, a fellow grandson of one of the fallen, Michele Ghirardelli, was interviewed on an Italian talk show.

In future posts, I will discuss various aspects of our efforts from a genealogical perspective, but for today, I do my small part in honoring my Nonno Damiano, his fellow lost, and all those who continue to work to ensure that their memory lives on.