Nine Lives from Immigration

PhotoMany people think about making movies about their own life, and I have to admit that I am guilty of that. However, if I had an option, I’d likely make a movie about an ancestor from my adoptive mom’s family, her grandfather – Fortunato “James” Carmelo Fiorello. I’m not sure what the title would be per say. I have a working idea, something like, Nine Lives from Immigration. The life of Fortunato is fascinating, at least to me.

From family recollection and digging through historical records, I have found some astonishing details about this quiet man. He was hardworking, but quiet in his later years. He was born on 22 Nov 1895 in Itala, Messina, Sicily, Italy to Pasquale and Concetta (Cucinotta) Fiorello. He was one of six and the second oldest born. Unfortunately, Fortunato and his family were living in Sicily during a time shortly after the Italian war for unification, and the economy, especially in Southern Italy and Sicily were not doing so well. At the same time, the mafia was growing stronger and becoming a lead force in the social structure. As a result, Fortunato’s family left there home in Itala, and headed westward for the United States of America, in 1909. Unlike many immigrants who arrived in New York, Fortunato and his mother and siblings, meeting his father, arrived in the port of Boston, Massachusetts. There, is where home was built.

Fortunato, back in Italy, had learned the trade of carpentry. He carried that talent with him to America. He attended some schooling, but mainly worked to help support the family. Unfortunately, the year 1915 was a hectic one. Fortunato lost both his mother and one of his sisters, Helena, to tuberculosis and he voluntarily enlisted in the Italian army during World War I (1914-1918. He traveled back to Italy where he fought on the front lines. He considers his time in the war, “most exciting [years]” of his life.

He spent three years in the Po Valley, located in the Alps of northern Italy. Fortunato was a man who lived by his name; he was fortunate. During his time fighting, he survived seven bullets and a bayonet injury. He was wounded a total of three times, but continued to return to battle, fighting in a different regiment each time. In addition, he was one of only five men from his original regiment to survive the war; fighting on the forefront the entire time. In one memory, Fortunato recalls: “Early one morning he heard the sentries shouting, ‘Gas Attack! He quickly grabbed a gas mask with one hand and a box of hand grenades with the other. He started throwing the grenades. He was very effective, probably because he used his experience of playing baseball in Boston – playing the position of catcher. The enemy was very surprised by his actions. The hand grenades stopped the enemy [from advancing], and they quickly ran back to their lines.”

When the war was over, Fortunato stayed on a military base near Trieste, a commune in Northern Italy. It is important to note that for years Trieste was associated with the Istrian Peninsula, which for a time went back and forth between various ownership depending on the lines of territory. Alas, the peninsula was split and Trieste became associated with Italy. While in Trieste, he met a young woman by the name of Giuseppina Sulich, who had lost a brother, Rudolpho Sulich, during the war. Rudolpho was on the opposing side, fighting for Austria and is presumed to have died on the Russian front. Giuseppina Sulich was the daughter of Antonio Sulich and Anna Zornig (or Sornk depending on the language variation). Antonio had been a prison warden under the Austrian police force. The family’s place of origin is Prvacina in the Vipava River Valley. After the war, Antonio was discharged of his duties, as the Italian authorities replaced all public officials with Italian personnel coming from other parts of Italy as part of an “ethnic cleansing” policy, which had heavy consequences on thousands upon thousands of families living in Trieste, including the families of the Sulich clan. Unfortunately, Antonio was then forced to become a janitor in one of the local buildings in the neighborhood.

Fortunato returned to Boston, and shortly after requested a visa for his wife. She joined him and they married in 1920 in Boston, Massachusetts. Giuseppina was fortunate to speak three languages: German/Austrian, Italian, and English, which helped her once she joined Fortunato in the United States. At the same time, Fortunato requested to become a citizen of the United States and was awarded his citizenship on 21 November 1927. After their marriage in 1920, just two years after World War I had ended, Giuseppina, who later changed her name to Josephine, and Fortunato, who later changed his name to James, gave birth to their first son, Edward, on 18 October 1921. In total, Fortunato and Guiseppina had 4 sons. Edward, however, is my mother’s father.

World War I took a huge toll on the financial economy both internationally and on the United States. The Great Depression, which began in 1929 and ended in 1939, resulted from the crash of the stock market in October 1929 and sent Wall Street into a panic and wiped out millions of investors. The Great Depression was the deepest and longest-lasting economic downturn in the history of Western industrialization. Now Fortunato and Giuseppina were forced to figure out what they were going to do. Fortunato and Giuseppina decided to move back to Italy, to be close to her family. Fortunato, Giuseppina and their family lived in Italy for several years, until The Great Depression had nearly ended in the United States. Unfortunately, there is no exact reason or length of time for how long the family stayed or why they decided to return to the United States; however, in doing so, the four sons sadly lost the Italian language that they had grown to know, but excelled in the knowledge that their father had taught them.

The Italian fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, came to power in 1925, who both helped and hindered Italy. In the beginning, Mussolini greatly helped the people of Italy by improving the Italian economy. Fortunato Fiorello was unaware of the evils that Mussolini would bestow upon Italy; as a result, he was at first in favor of Benito Mussolini and the fascist regime. While participating in a parade near Hanover Street in Boston, Fortunato was one of several Italian Americans attacked. The terrorizing event occurred May 1928 and newspapers were quick to deliver the details: “Italians Battle in North End”; “Three stabbed, many beaten and seven arrested on Hanover Street”; “anti-fascists make attack on parade.” According to one article under the headline “Marchers Are Attacked,” Fortunato Fiorello is mentioned as being one the victims.

“The paraders gave them little attention until at Cross Street, which is just above the station, a man stepped from the sidewalk with cries of, ‘Down with Mussolini!’ ‘Down with the Fasciti!’ and reached for a decoration on the breast of Fiorello, Fortunato of Somerville. Behind him came three others who attacked Carmine, Parella of Watertown, vice-president of the Ex-Combattenti, who was acting as color-bearer, and attempted to wrest a Fascisti flag from him.

Fortunato, a member of the band, used the cornet he was playing to bash in the face of his assailant, while Parella, furling his flag, used the pole as a club and opened the heads of two of the three belaboring him. A whistle sounded and, as at a given signal, nearly one hundred members of the anti-group plunged from the sidewalk and reached for the throats of the paraders nearest them.

Knives and clubs were quickly produced and for nearly five minutes the battle waged back and forth across the thoroughfare, until the door of the Hanover Street station suddenly burst open and some twenty patrolmen, headed by Captain Arthur B. McConnell and Sergeant Maurice Sullivan, buried themselves into the fray and, separating the factions, arrested the ring leaders.” Little did Fortunato Fiorello know, he would soon enlist in the war to help assist in the fight against Mussolini.

The United States did not enter World War II right away. Although the war began in 1939, the United States joined the side of the Allies on 7 December 1941, after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Germany, Italy, and Japan had teamed up and Adolph Hitler was trying to create an Aryan race and was the ring leader of the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, which was a mass genocide of the Jewish population.

Fortunato Fiorello and his three eldest sons – Edward, James, and George – enlisted in the war. Edward Fiorello, the grandfather of this writer, was a mechanical engineer in the war. His youngest son, Carl, was too young at the time and later enlisted and fought during the Korean War. On the other hand, Fortunato Fiorello was hired in Boston’s Charlestown Navy Shipyard. His knowledge of carpentry made him very effective. He was familiar in working with steel in measuring and laying out steel. His talent was exceptionally good, for he went from third class ship fitter to first class ship fitter in just a “couple of months.” “His work was exemplary and his name was placed in a special gold book.” He was put to work building destroyers, destroyer escorts, and submarines.

In the late 1960s, Fortunato returned to Trieste, Italy to visit Giuseppina’s family. One individual whom Fortunato met was Giuseppina’s great-nephew, Diego Vatta. Together – just the two of them – they spent many hours revisiting some of Fortunato’s most horrific experiences. Diego led Fortunato to see many of the battlefields in which he had fought at. While revisiting some of these battlefields, Fortunato recounted some of the horrendous memories. Memories in which Diego found unforgettable. As a volunteer, Fortunato was mercilessly assigned to the very front and spent three full years in first-line combat.

Diego was at a loss for words. He truly admired the man that stood before him. He was an angel. One day, Diego took him to Redipuglia War Cemetery, a place where the remains of one hundred thousand soldiers are buried. It is also “Italy’s largest and most majestic memorial dedicated to the soldiers who fell in the Great War [sic].” They climbed the steps of the huge monument, reading many of the individual bronze plaques with the names of forty thousand deceased. When they reached the summit, they saw the chapel, framed between two massive blocks, which contained the remains of sixty thousand unidentified dead soldiers. At this time, Fortunato sat down and burst into tears. He could not stop crying, as his head was cupped in his hands and his elbows rested on his knees. He sobbed desolately. The moment was moving. In this moment one thing was understood. Fortunato was a very lucky man. He could have been among the thousands of names listed, but his good fortune allowed him to survive. His reward was meeting and marrying Giuseppina, a woman who truly loved him. Together they built a magnificent, disciplined, and laborious family.

Fortunato is a man with courage, strength, and many lives. His service has been recognized all over Italy, and is honored by our family. Just these details alone, indicate why a movie about him would be my choice. He is a hero. He risked his own life, and still found happiness. He lived a life of hardship, and was able to create a life of substance and sustainability. He is truly an inspiration.

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