Assimilating in the 1930s

About 12 years ago, together with my brother Bob, I was in Naples for 3 days. We were on our way to the Isle of Capri, so we took a taxi to the point of our embarkation to the island. Having engaged the taxi driver in conversation, Bob asked him about the economic situation in Naples where we knew there was a high unemployment rate. The taxi driver acknowledged this. We then asked, “how do the people manage to survive?” He merely shrugged and replied “we help each other within the family.”

I was reminded of this conversation when I prepared this talk for it is a fundamental feature of the story I am about to narrate this evening. My paternal grandfather Bartolo came from the island of Salina in the Aeolian (Lipari) Group and eventually settled in Brunswick with his brother Giovanni in 1891 where they established a fruit and vegetable business. In 1898, his wife Giuseppina and their 2 (surviving) children arrived — my father Giuseppe and his younger brother Bartolomeo. My father was 7 years old (b.1886) and Uncle Bob was 3 years old (b.1890). Their two younger siblings Felicia (b.1896) and Rosina (b.1898) were born in Australia.

My father attended St Ambrose’s School for about 5 years and presumably then helped in the fruit shop. His siblings must also have gone to St. Ambrose’s but I do not know for how long. However they all quickly spoke English without an Italian accent.

My mother’s story was somewhat different. She also came from the same island in 1912 at the age of 20 to look after her two brothers, Joe and Dom Costa, who had a fruit shop in Maryborough Victoria. My father at that stage was 26 and had tried his luck in the USA at the age of 20 but returned to Salina for a while before finally settling down in Australia in 1909. It seems that for awhile he sounded out opportunities in country Victoria and must have met my mother during these peregrinations. They were married in 1914 and their first child (Bob) was born in 1915. By this stage they had returned to Melbourne and opened a fruit shop in Sydney Road Brunswick, presumably with my paternal grandfather. My mother had no education in Australia and only one or two years in her native island.

Their family grew. Giuseppina (Josie) was born in 1917 and Felice (Phil) arrived in 1919. Then in 1922, my mother had a stillborn child which precipitated a state of depression. On medical advice, my father sold his business and took his whole family back to Salina where they lived for about a year with my mother’s family. On their return to Australia, my father opened another fruit shop in Sydney Road, opposite Blyth Street. My parents thereafter never left Australia again.

That introduction closes a chapter in the history of our family in Australia.

The Aeolian migration to Australia began as the result of many factors and these are well described in the Graduate Diploma thesis of Maria Triaca — Italians in Australia — from the Aeolian Islands (1977). There is a long history of cultural and ethnic development in the Islands over a period dating from 3500 BC.

A marked exodus occurred from the 1880s. Many came straight to Australia. Others dallied with journeys to the USA or Argentina before turning their attention to our shores. But the determining factor seems to have been the sponsorships by family members already in Australia or by encouragement from compatriots who enthused about the opportunities in Australia. Most of them developed small businesses, such a fruit shops, mixed businesses, market gardens or cafes and restaurants. They worked very hard and long hours and wives and children assisted them in the workplace. They borrowed from members of their extended families and willingly helped each other and their friends in times of stress, particularly during the depression which hit Australia in 1929-30. Family life was close and deeply inculturated and that was the main lifeline that sustained their daily lives and their visions for the future. That is why I remembered the Neopolitan taxidriver when I began to prepare this paper.

In our family, the year 1923 began my participation in this adventure. I was born on December 21, 1923 and was promptly christened Giuseppe Natalino but I only responded to the name of Joe. I missed going to Salina in 1922 and I have never been to the Islands. My brother Bernardino was born in 1927 and Giovanni arrived in 1982. We have always been a closely-knit extended family but the experiences of its individual members have diverged considerably. Bob, Josephine and Phil had vivid memories of the depression and its impact on the population of Brunswick and on the families of their schoolfriends. Over 30% of the adult population was unemployed. My brother Phil, in about 1932, was recruited by my father to help him in the licensed grocery which he had opened in 1929. Phil’s education at school abruptly came to an end at the age of 13 or 14 and with great justification he deeply regretted that this had happened to him.

In 1924, we moved to Melville Road, West Brunswick, to just beyond the tram terminus. That area was a relatively recent residential development with many open spaces. Our neighbours were mainly Anglosaxon Protestants and our church was St. Joseph’s with a new school run by the Sisters of St. Joseph. I was sent to this school as were my two younger brothers and so our association with St. Ambrose’s came to an end. Our neighbours were most friendly and supportive and Phil and I enjoyed the friendship of their children.

During the next 15 years, we consolidated our identity in the Australian way of life whilst living in two cultures, both of which I enjoyed immensely. My father became the President of the Aeolian Society and a member of the Club Cavour where he played cards on a Friday night. We attended many Aeolian style functions - picnics, concerts, religious festivities and Sunday visits to relatives and friends of my father and mother. We got to know relatives once and twice removed, as my mother would say, and we travelled often to Geelong to visit the Virgona and Costa families who were related to my mother. We became friendly with our generation of the progeny of these families, most of whom were “heretics” from our second religion of which more anon. But we were also friendly with a wide circle of naturally born Australians ~ our immediate neighbours, business acquaintances of my father, local shopkeepers and the pastors and parishioners of St. Josephs, not to mention the friends that we made at school. I got to know many of these people as I also worked in the shop over the Christmas period and some Saturday mornings. By this stage Bob and Josie were at the Melbourne University and had become involved with the Catholic Library, the Campion Society and the Clitherow Society for females.

We became intensely more aware of our Catholic Faith, not because our older siblings were involved in university encounters but because of our upbringing and the solid grounding we all received at school. From 1921 to 1934, the Italian Community was well served by the Jesuit chaplain, Fr. Vincenzo de Francesco, who was domiciled at St. lgnatius Richmond. Many of the Italian feast days were celebrated there. In addition, we attended each year the religious festival at Rupertswood, Sunbury where the flag of the Aeolian Society was proudly carried in the procession. My father probably knew of the Salesians before they went to Sunbury as the first mission to Italians in Melbourne was conducted at St.ignatius’ Church by the Salesian bishop Monsignor Coppo in 1925. This was a significant event in the revitalization of Catholic life among the Italians. After the war, my father became more involved with the Salesians when the latter established their Don Bosco Hostel in Sydney Road. He was a close friend of Father Ciantar, a Maltese Salesian, who had offered to assist the Archbishop’s Committee for Italian Relief. That committee was chaired by Angelina Santospirito and my father was a member.

Two other events shaped the lives of our family and the Italian Community in the 1930s. In 1922, Mussolini took over power in Italy, at first according to the parliamentary system of the day. This was at a time of great political and social turmoil in Italy and King Victor Emmanuel it! Invited Mussolini to become premier to resolve the political impotence of former ministries. But in 1925, he asserted the authority of a dictator and became known as Il Duce. Mussolini vigorously pursued imperialist ambitions, especially in North Africa, an ambition that was not peculiar to Italy in the post World War 1 period.

The second event was the Spanish Civil War. which began in 1936. The rise of fascism in Italy and the emergence of the Nationalists in Spain were not simply political movements but carried significant religious overtones. In 1929, Mussolini signed the Lateran Treaty with the Pope Pius XI, a Highly esteemed Pontiff in the Catholic world. This treaty recognized the independence of Vatican City and the valid existence of the Italian Nation which had annexed the Papal States in 1870. Roman Catholicism became the state religion and Catholicism was taught in the schools.

This action by Mussolini won widespread support throughout the Catholic world and among the Italians in Australia. At the same time and during the early 1930s, as the Depression caused great poverty and hardship in Australia, the situation was vastly better in Italy under the fascist government. Prominent politicians of the day commented favourably on the Italian economy and many Italians here, including my father, were impressed. The Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935-36 dampened some of this enthusiasm. Archbishop Mannix condemned the action and distanced himself from fascism but he linked this foreign incursion to the Imperialism of Britain and France over the previous decades.

In the Spanish Civil War, the Catholic Church expressed its opposition to the philosophy of the ruling Republican Party, identifying it with atheistic Communism. They protested about the persecution of the Catholic Church and the execution of many religious leaders, for which there was ample documentation. Pope Pius XI issued his Encyclical Divini Redemptoris in 1937 and it was widely read in Australia. Catholics were alerted to the grave threat of Communism and the Spanish situation was seen as confirming the Pope’s denunciation of Communism in power. Mussolini came to the aid of Franco’s forces and this participation was not seen by Australian Catholics as part of a fascist conspiracy but rather as a crusade against the evil of a Communist state.

This was the motivating force of Bob’s involvement in the University debates on the civil war in Spain (1936-39). He attracted great attention and drew mixed responses from the wider community, especially from the media, which was besotted with the cause of the republicans. These issues also impacted on the Italian community which had fostered an affection for their homeland whilst integrating into the Australian society. Bob’s public image won the admiration of many people in the Italian and Catholic communities.

This period also coincided with a vacuum in the chaplaincy to the Italian community. Father de Francesco left in 19384 and a new chaplain did not appear until 1938. He was Ugo Modotti, from the Jesuit community in Naples from which Father de Francesco had come. By this stage, the Axis partnership between Rome and Germany had been forged and this alienated most of the Italians in Australia.

Meanwhile, Bern, John and I continued our education in the Catholic school system. I gained a place at St.Colman’s school in Fitzroy as a consequence of a scholarship from the Archbishop to fine tune us to sit for a Junior government scholarship. This led me into the pathway set by my brother Bob with the Christian Brothers at North Melbourne and at St.Kevin’’s which had moved to Toorak. The development of Bob’s career and his appointment as assistant secretary in the National Secretariat for Catholic Action (in 1937) lifted our profile among Victorian Catholics but so too did the reputation of our sister Josie who was active in the Clitheroe Society and with the Grail Community.

At the same time, Phil and I became involved in parish activities, such as the football teams and the tennis club. This occurred over the 1930s. Within the circle of my friends and acquaintances I was not conscious of any great hostility towards our family as Italian immigrants nor was there any talk about multiculturalism or ethnic ghettos as Italians were widely dispersed through the suburbs and country areas This may not have been the experiences of Bob and Josie who were engaged in the controversies of that period both at the University and later after the establishment of the Office for Catholic Action in 1938. As a family, we were involved in the local parish where we attended mass and the sacraments and were very friendly with the local priests who were mainly of Irish origin. At the time I was not conscious of the general policy of the Church to assimilate Italians into the Australian community. We just naturally did so from the time that my parents returned from Salina in 1923. However, through the Aeolian society, my parents were concerned about the welfare of their compatriots and they naturally sustained the culture of the extended family, which was not peculiar to the Italian way of life.

I mentioned before that we had a second religion that demanded great faith and brought us great joy and often profound suffering. it also consolidated our assimilation. My father became an ardent supporter of Australian Rules Football and he showed steadfast allegiance to the Carlton Football Club, a passion that remained to the day he died. Many of his italian compatriots were converted to this religion and we delighted in visiting our relatives in Geelong so that we could engage in vigorous controversy with our cousins under the watchful supervision of our parents. Year in and year out, my father, Bob and Phil would attend football matches and we all prayed for the day when we would win the Premiership. At last that day arrived in 1938 and who better to beat than Collingwood but Bob did not see that victory due to the fact that his fiancee fainted in the enormous crowd. and they had to leave the ground, never to return on that day.

So we progressed until the Second World War began in 1939. By this stage, Catholics and Italians alike were more concerned about Communism than Fascism. Italians were also deeply worried about the growing belligerence of Nazi Germany and were annoyed by the behaviour of the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden. in our family, there was great concern about a possible Rome-Berlin Entente. Recently I acquired a book by Richard Lamb entitled Mussolini as Diplomat. Lamb had written a previous somewhat chilling book called the War in Italy. His latest effort is quite illuminating about European diplomacy in the 1930s and the factors that plunged Italy into the profound disaster of the Second World War.

When Italy invaded France in support of Nazi Germany in June, 1940, many Italo-Australians were interned in fear of a so-called Fifth Column, an enemy within Australia which was at war with the Axis powers. My father was not interned and my brother Phil was conscripted into the Australian Army. He served in New Guinea. My father became a member of the Archbishop’s Committee for Italian Relief and Father Modotti, assisted by other priests in certain provincial centres, established welfare services for the internees and later for Italian Prisoners of War who were sent to Australia.

During this period I was at the University doing medicine. Most university students were required to work in essential industries during their vacations and I worked at the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories in the production of the new antibiotic Penicillin. My brother Bob had married Helen Power and my sister Josephine was married to Vin McGrath.

By the end of the 1930s, we, as a family with deep seated Italian sympathies, had become deeply rooted in the Australian culture and our assimilation was very advanced.

After graduating in medicine, I commenced a career at St. Vincent’s Hospital as well as conducting a general practice for some years in Thornbury. In 1951, I worked for 12 months on a part time basis with Dr.Soccorso Santoro in Collins Street and that is when I began the next chapter in my life with members of the rapidly expanding wave of Italian immigrants. That chapter could be entitled An Italian Reawakening. It proved to be a kind of shift into a reverse gear but it is a story for another day.

Dr. Joe originally presented this lecture to the Dante Alighieri Society.

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