My grandfather Enrico Pagnotta. Memories of fascism in Aiello

Quello che segue è un ricordo delle esperienze di vita di Enrico Pagnotta, emigrato negli States a fine anni '40, attraverso uno scritto del nipote Matthew Sean Murtagh, studente italoamericano di New York e collaboratore del Blog.

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Mgrandfather, Enrico Pagnotta (in una nostra foto d'archivio), was born in 1921 in Aiello Calabro.  His father, a veteran of the American army during World War I, ran a small grocery store in town.  This became the family’s main source of income, guaranteeing them a decent standard of living that most others did not have.  Eventually, the Pagnotta family comprised six people, four being young children. In 1925, my great-grandfather returned to Brooklyn, New York, where he had worked before the war, in the hopes of making some money to pay off the debts accrued when opening the store. After a few years, all contact with him was lost; he had effectively abandoned the family.

My grandfather entered elementary school at around the same time his father left Aiello.  The March on Rome had occurred a few years earlier, and the Fascist Party had already taken over the classroom.  My grandfather remembered seeing Mussolini’s portrait prominently displayed on the wall next to that of the King.  The teachers constantly repeated how “Mussolini was always right and always working hard,” and how schoolboys should model their lives on his.  The students were taught slogans, such as, most famously, “Believe, obey, fight,” and “Mussolini is always right,” which they were made to repeat as a group in class.  In addition, all school assignments were designed with fascism firmly in mind; they emphasized the beauty and strength of the ideology and its state, from math problems that talked about the production levels of fascist industries to history classes that stressed the call of the Italian people to rule over the whole world.  Roman history figured specially into this education, especially from the third grade on.  Indeed, “all education,” my grandfather said, “had become propaganda.” 

Classes were taught in a rented room in a private house.  In order to be able to attend this hot, dark, and cramped makeshift school that was supposed to serve as the educational hub of the town, families were forced to pay a fee which, while small in other parts of Italy, was an astronomical sum in real terms in the South.  Often, on the first day of school, “children would arrive and would be turned back because they did not have the required five lire.”  There were always children who, in winter time, could not attend school because they did not have shoes.  While the Fascist party was supposed to help these young people, “they never did, and the kids gave up with education.”  By the time my grandfather had reached fifth grade, there were only three or four students left from his first grade class.  He, in fact, was forced to give up his own schooling after fifth grade for economic reasons; he did not have the money to go to Cosenza to take the test for secondary school.  Nevertheless, my grandfather did have fond memories of his schooling, for all of its shortcomings.  He remembered one teacher, especially, who, so movingly read Pinocchio to the students that they would start to cry.

The one bright spot of the Mussolini regime for my grandfather was his participation in the Balilla, the Fascist Party’s youth organization.  He was given a uniform, of a black shirt, green short pants, and green socks, and every Saturday he and his friends would gather in the town square to march and perform military-like drills.  Being a good student, he was chosen to be the sergeant of the Balilla unit, and was given the privilege of marching outside of the regular line, directing the others in their actions.  In a small town where “there was nothing to do,” these weekly events provided the bored young people with organized activity, and gave these incredibly poor youth something to be proud of: a uniform, flags, drums, and a sense of achievement.  The Fascist youth organizations also provided sports programs for the youth in the town, buying soccer balls, which at the time were impossible to afford, and organizing large games.  Coming from families where fathers went without work for months on end, where there was no food on the table, these children, through the Balilla units, were provided with an escape from the harsh realities of the poverty of southern Italy. 

In so organizing the youth, the Fascist Party in Aiello ran into conflict with the Catholic Church.  My grandfather remembered two incidents in the period between 1928 and 1930 that demonstrate the hostility, on the local level, between Catholic and Fascist youth leaders, despite any agreements or talks that were going on between the Pope and Mussolini at the time.  One such incident occurred one day when the local town band, which included some young people, was playing a religious song under the direction of a local priest.  The Fascist youth coordinator, who happened to hear it while walking by, ran over and started yelling at them to stop, saying that it was illegal to perform religious songs in public in such a way.  The priest, in response, told the band to keep playing, or otherwise he would not pay them for their work.  The argument nearly resulted in blows, with the Fascist leader having to be restrained from hitting the priest. 

Another such incident occurred during a religious procession, in which all of the young people, as part of their religious instruction, participated.  Walking through the streets wearing a white cassock and holding a small candle, my grandfather happened to run into his teacher, Don Arturo, at the time the leader of the Fascist youth.  Upon seeing him, the teacher acted surprised, saying, “You too, Ri?,” with the implication that his favorite student was participating in this religious event. My grandfather, ashamed of this response from his teacher, threw down his candle and ran away from the procession.  The other young people, seeing him do so, followed.  Within seconds, because of the simple remark of the teacher, the religious procession was in shambles, with a huge chunk of its participants fleeing down the narrow alleyways of the town.  

While his experiences in the Fascist youth groups and in the Fascist education system surely had a strong influence on him, the economic realities of my grandfather’s life under fascism had, by far, the strongest.  He remembered the Fascist years as a time of great want and inequality.  After my great-grandfather effectively abandoned the family in 1925, there still remained a source of income for them through the store, which they kept open. This relative comfort, however, was short lived; in 1933 the store was forced to close because of its constant debts to creditors and other store owners.  As a result, the only source of income for the family was wiped out; they now descended into the ranks of the poorest of the town. 

The economic hardships of my grandfather’s family were the reason why he was forced to give up school, despite the fact that he was the top student in his class; unable to afford the costs of taking the exams, he watched as others of less academic ability, the sons of doctors, priests, and others went on to secondary school, while he was forced to remain in the town, taking unofficial lessons with his uncle, Rosario Naccarato, a teacher.  Joined by his younger brother Ugo, my grandfather was able to attend a seminary for fatherless children in Piemonte for a short while, with the help of his aunt, a nun.  However, when the school found out that his father was not dead, but in New York, and that my grandfather did not wish to become a priest, they told him to leave. 

By the time he was 17, my grandfather understood that there was no hope for him to continue his schooling.  Not wanting to become a carpenter or bricklayer, the occupations of the vast majority of the men of the town, and one which almost guaranteed at least 10 months of unemployment a year, he was left with no other option but to join the army, which he did in 1938.  As a member of the Border Guards in Tobruk, Libya, he was the first person to reach Italo Balbo’s plane after it had been shot down by Italian artillery.  A few months later, in January 1941, he was captured by British and Australian soldiers, along with his older brother Aldo, a veteran of Ethiopia.    

As a result of the injustices of the Fascist regime, my grandfather became active in the resurgent Partito Comunista Italiano when he returned from an American POW camp in 1945.  In Aiello, the Communists and Socialists, all informed by similar experiences, spearheaded much-needed social and economic changes.  Through their efforts, the first elementary school was built; a town hall was erected; the roads were paved; a bus stop was created; and an extensive land redistribution campaign in the countryside took place, spurred on by peasant occupations of unused farmland claimed during the Fascist years by the largest landowners.  Nando Aloisio, the local leader of the PCI and a close friend of my grandfather, was a guiding force in all of these actions.  On one occasion, in the lead-up to the 1948 elections, Nando organized a group of Aiellesi to go and see Amantea’s soccer team, for which my grandfather was playing at the time.  The Aiellesi, packed into an American truck left over from the war, waved red flags and sang Communist songs all the way to the field, where the horrified team owner, a Christian Democrat, told my grandfather to never let it happen again.  When the elections did occur later that year, my grandfather ran as a member of the Republican Party, in an attempt to win votes from the Christian Democrats.  The plan was to get people who would normally vote Christian Democrat to vote Republican, and thus increase the chances that the PCI would win.  My grandfather remembered receiving six votes, including one from his aunt, the mother of Eugenio Iacucci.

In 1949, a year after his mother Rosaria passed away, my grandfather married Anna Pucci in Aiello.  She was also an Aiellese, who had been in America since she was young.  The two then emigrated to Brooklyn, New York, where they were soon joined by the rest of my grandfather’s family, Aldo, Ugo, and Carmela.

Commenti

  1. I believe the truck you are talking about was my fathers. He had the only truck in Aiello. A dodge. It was so bad that when it climbed the hill to go back to Aiello, the passagers had to get out and yes push it. The owner ALFREDO TILESIO. AND THATS ANOTHER STORY.

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