Prisoners Amoung Us

This feature-length documentary explores Italian ethnicity in America from several unique and distinctly personal perspectives. In the decades preceding WWII, hundreds of thousands of Italians flocked to these shores in hopes of starting new lives in a land that promised freedom and opportunity. They immigrated through the Great Hall of Ellis Island, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, and spilled out into the streets of New York City and beyond in anticipation of a kind of renaissance.

Some made their way to the west; others remained close to the eastern seaboard. And many clung to each other in urban havens, favoring the familiarity of their customs and language. Their stories are told by historians and through the diaries, letters, poetry, and powerful memories of first-, second-, and third-generation Italian-Americans. They share with us that struggle to embrace one's heritage while laying hold of an entirely new culture.

With the outbreak of a second world conflict in Europe, an already tenuous landscape changed. And when Italy joined with Hitler as an Axis power, Italians in America, quite young in their assimilation process, were faced with yet another dilemma. Lines of loyalty were now less clearly drawn; their sense of identity, already in flux, was thrown into turmoil. Paranoia in this country ran the gamut from street-side prejudice to formal declarations of war upon non-citizen Italians.

This sentiment reached a crescendo in December of 1941 when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Proclamation Number 2527. This law branded the 600,000 non-naturalized Italians as potential "enemy aliens," stripping them of their right to privacy and empowering the Attorney General "to direct the conduct to be observed toward the aliens who become so liable." Furthermore, the document allowed discretion in "the manner and degree of the restraint to which they shall be subject and in what cases, and upon what security their residence shall be permitted…."

The liberties taken by government agents, under the guise of "security," is a largely unknown chapter of our history. Through first hand accounts, the film will reveal the raids on Italian homes, the internment of some of the male heads of these households and the psychological rebound suffered by the victims. Remarkably, many sons of these "enemy aliens" volunteered for service as American soldiers and sacrificed themselves on the battlefields of Europe and the South Pacific. In fact, Italian-Americans suffered the highest U.S. casualties of any ethnic group.

But our story is not confined to this. It is a little-known fact that about 50,000 Italian POWs were actually encamped on American soil during WWII. Unlike those immigrants who chose to leave their shores and live among Americans, these Italians fought under Mussolini and his fascist policies. Having been captured in action, they were shipped to camps in the United States. Here they were exposed to a very different kind of internment than that of the Allies imprisoned in Europe. Ultimately, the most cooperative enjoyed vacation-like benefits. It is interesting to note that while some rejected their captors and retained their fascist loyalties, many decided, following the war, to return to this country and become naturalized citizens. We share some of those stories, several as on-camera interviews with former POWs.

Finally, there is a thread that is drawn through all three aspects of Italian ethnicity in America (those who immigrated, became citizens and sought refuge in tiny "Little Italy" enclaves around the country; those who, because of their ideology, lack of citizen status, or ignorance, incurred discrimination - some to the point of internment; and those Italian soldiers who spent WWII in prisoner of war camps in this country), which displays a kind of irony. In spite of its bumps along the way, ours is a country of resilience. Without attempting to over-simplify or categorize the psychology of our nation, we do, it seems, have the ability to re-think our prejudices and shift ourselves into a position of tolerance. The remarkable fact is that many of those who we have suppressed have returned to us volumes of fortitude, character and culture, which ultimately enriches us as a nation.

Thus, the assimilation of Italians into our culture, through the several avenues defined in this film, has, as so many others have, enriched our nation. Those Italians who have survived the struggles associated with assimilation, have now been allowed to maintain as much or as little of their heritage as they are comfortable with. We, as a country, are benefactors. Our story, overflowing with interviews, historical detail, photographs, literature, music, poetry and analysis, will reveal a chapter in history heretofore unknown to most, and will do so with integrity and sensitivity, in tribute to those who have written it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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