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June,1943: Isles of Hope, Tears and Fear in Richmond County of New York City: Ellis and

Staten Islands

By Dr. Robert L. Marraccino, NYC Department of Education, Career and Technical Education
(CTE);Adjunct Biology Professor of the College of Staten Island, CUNY: High School Teacher
(CTE), former Microbiologist Researcher
Sundays were not the same since the War started, with curfews and rations. Our plates

had less, and the vegetables looked like refugees from a desert campaign, started in our Victory

garden. The aged carrots were so contorted, and starved for minerals, that leaving them on the

plate was an act of mercy for such a tortured life. At least we justified not eating our vegetables

in that way. It was Summer 1943.

Most seats at the dinner table were empty; Uncle Angelo was on a destroyer in the Orient,

Uncle Nino joined an Air Force band traveling across the southern United States, and Dad was

drafted into the 628th Light Engineering Corp of Pattons 3rd Army. In total, five uncles and one

Dad were missing.

My mothers father, Tony, presided over Sunday suppers for cousins, aunts, and

grandparents with the hope that all would return soon. I was ten years-old, and my mother

always said, Children should be seen, but not heard. So, I did not ask any questions, but I knew

from all the unusual activity, something life changing was about to happen.

We kept the traditions from before the War alive in anticipation that carefree life could

return again. Sundays in the summer brought the family together in our huge converted mansion

on Sand Lane,followed by a day at the beach and late afternoons at the Amusement Park on

South Beach, Staten Island, and home before curfew.

But on that Sunday after church, I sensed something was different. White-laced table

cloths, venerated as if it were the Shroud, covered long tables set for twenty-six. Three tables

extended in a t-shape from the kitchen, into the living room, and across the alcove. Grandpa

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always occupied the center seat at the table, and behind where he sat was the place where my

aunt always remarked to me, Grandmother was laid out there. I always felt a cold breeze

walking past the spot, but rationally I attributed it to the wooden construction of a second-floor

alcove, framed by five tall windows. My aunt intended to keep my grandmothers memory close

to us, but her intentions did nothing for our appetites. The table was set more formally than

usual: a cut-glass, heavy, crystal water pitcher with glasses, a precious matched-set of

dinnerware, and golden spoons next to glittering Demitasse cups, with saucers.

As the Packer pulled up to the home, we assembled anxiously out front, only feeling the

warm, cooling breeze from the Atlantic, through the grand arches of the brick portico. The two

alabaster lions rested as sentinels at the base of the long staircase to Humboldt Street. The car

lumbered into sight around the corner.

Weve seen this phantasmagorical car, like the Shadow knows, before. Its white-

starred and dull green. Often, men will emerge with death notices of fallen loved ones on distant

shores. As the rear door opened, I expected to see a chaplain with a telegram. The standard

telegram is made of paper with the consistency of a tissue, intended to be dissolved by tears,

palliating an enduring memory. Words on this paper can be felt like brail across the back, as the

typewriters keys branded the inked message of despair into the very core of your heart.

Instead, three men in strange summer, army uniforms emerged. With smiles and a

booming: Bongiorno! Italian officers from the North African campaign, now prisoners of war,

had arrived. I remember little about their appearance except their broad smiles. I can only

imagine the experiences which were hidden behind their sunken, coal-colored eyes.

Though I didnt know it then, I found out soon enough: These men were imprisoned near

chemical dye plant in Bayonne, NJ, and they were far from the only ones. In 1943, there were

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about ~14,000 POWs in the state, and sometimes Italian communities reached out to comfort the

prisoners. The Germans went to Sheep Town or the neighborhood known as Concord; while

the Italians came to us, the Mediterranean of the North Atlantic, South Beach. Men emerged in

their khaki, short-sleeved shirts and pants, ready for an excursion. The only thing now to link

them to their past is a patch: Italy on their uniforms, now stripped of their former allegiances

and honors.

The POWs joined our Sunday dinner. I guess it is the hope that our uncles, if captured,

would be treated well over there. Or maybe our hospitality came from the guilt that my

grandfather and his five brothers had about leaving Italy themselves in 1899, to escape the army,

to escape poverty. Either way they seemed to fit right in: three POWs filling the space of my

missing family. Italian dialects and wine flowed all throughout the lunch, and I only could

understand a little because my mother wanted to me to be Americanized. Later, I found out to be

Americanized is to be isolated from the language and ties to the families ethnic culture, putting

America and English First.

Ironically, our neighbor was detained by the FBI two years prior on December 15, 1941. A

warrant for his arrest as an alien enemy was issued, and he was taken to Ellis Island for the

duration of the War. Soon his family joined him. We passed his empty house, on our walk from

church up Sand Lane. We did not know why the government chose to erase the life of some, and

feel obliged to make whole the lives of others in this time of war and suspicion. Who are the

alien enemies and who are our allies? These are questions which are often obscured in extreme

times of fear, mistrust, and violence.

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The FBI also suspected my grandfather when he arrived from Italy in 1909, and asked

him on Ellis Island if he is an anarchist. I heard this story first when I was sixteen and I was glad

that he indicated: No to the claim that he would overthrow the American Constitution. His

brother was sent back as mentally defective, but later he arrived bringing his younger brother,

Joseph with him. Joseph graduated college as an industrial design engineer in 1932. Grandpa

lived up to his part of the bargain; he declared himself a bricklayer at the interview, and lived as

one until his death. Since that interview on Ellis Island, the family has been committed to be

builders of America, never anarchists. But, we always knew that we were the outsiders.

Looking into the future, when I finished college, Grandpa did have to answer questions one more

time on Easter Sunday morning,1958, at FBI headquarters, upon return to the United States from

his only visit to Sicily. The answer was still the same: No," but it is sad that after a long,

productive and honest life that he was still feared as an alien enemy from a distant shore.

In retrospect, there lay the irony, in the shadows of Lady Liberty on that sunny, Sunday

morning in 1943. At her back in Bayonne, NJ, her shadow cast upon the imprisoned, Italian

POW nationals, who were sworn to defeat Lady Liberty. At Libertys feet, were her subjects who

swore allegiance to her, but were labelled by racism and fear. Italians, Germans and Japanese

citizens lost their liberty by an Executive Order of the President to languish on Ellis Island for

the duration. I guess the President was right that: all we have to fear is fear itself. We feared

our neighbors more than a distant hostile aggressor. Our President, FDR, did not prepare us to

answer that question because he believed in the strength and resilience of the American people

never to act in fear against our fellow citizens or our enemies, but fear of the unknown has

always undone the charitable works of Staten Islanders.

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Not far from South Beach, along the North Shore and across from Ellis Island, is the site

of the first quarantine station (1799) and port of entry and detainment of passengers and mariners

sickened by the miasmas of the day: Yellow fever, cholera, malaria and small pox. These

diseases appeared mysteriously and increased as the resentment to waves of eight-million Irish

immigrants crashed upon the City shores, swelling to 25% of the total population in 1860. It did

not take long before resentment against the alien enemies began to surface, and a seditious and

anarchist act, by United States citizens, was borne to undermine the federal Act of 1798, signed

by President Adams, to establish the station.

At 9 oclock in the evening on September 1,1858, fifty or sixty men scaled the walls of

the quarantine station, removed of all the sick or dead, and started a fire, consuming all the

buildings within the walls. At dawn, only smoldering, skeletal structures stood. Neither Governor

Kings militia, the 8th Regiment of Washington Grays, nor the federal troops, Sabine Marine

Guard of the Paraguay Expedition intervened except to secure the property afterwards. The

motivation for this anarchist act may arise from unwarranted fear of the immigrants or the

epidemic spread by their presence. In the previous year, five-hundred and eighty-six Staten

Islanders from the surrounding neighborhoods died from Yellow fever. Fear which triggered this

mass assault against the aliens, can be understood, but the unwillingness to stop it cannot be

condoned.

Two well-known and respected rioters, Ray Tompkins and John Thompson, were rounded

up and appeared before Judge Metcalfe by November. The Judge appealed to the US

Constitution to justify his decision; the federal government could not take life without due

process. Partially, his reasoning was dependent upon the devastating yellow-fever epidemic in

the previous year. People were exposed directly to this deadly disease because the federal

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government constructed and maintained the quarantine station on Staten Island. Judge Metcalf

was convinced that the immigrants originated from the worst parts of Europe and Africa, and

carried their infected matter or vessels directly to us. Therefore, he decided to set the men free,

and relocate the Station. Two islands, with their own crematoria, were built off the coast of South

Beach to comply with a new federal mandate. Next to the beacon from the lighthouse, known as

the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island was developed later as the entry way for Europes mass

immigrations of aliens, sometimes enemies, during the twentieth century.

On the Ferris Wheel in South Beach that Sunday, as the luminous clouds reflected the last rays of

light, those Italian POWs asked about the abandoned islands off shore, Swinburne and

Hoffmann. I dared not tell them the story of the hysteria of Americans for alien enemies," and

they did not did not ask anymore. For the future, I believe that all we have to fear are Executive

Orders of fearful Presidents when we start to identify the enemy aliens amongst us (US).