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World War II and the North End

In his book, International Conflict in an American City: Boston’s Irish, Italians, and Jews, 1935-1944, Rodney Stark discusses the conflicts between Irish, Italians, Blacks, and Jews before and during World War II.

italian4The book is a reminder that a war which eventually became a paradigm of ethnic unity was preceded by often acrimonious inter-ethnic battles about the fascism, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, Roosevelt’s’ WPA, Mexican anti-clericalism, and growing anti-Semitism. We get some insight into this in some letters between William Foote Whyte and North Ender Frank Luongo, which I found in Whyte’s archives at Cornell University.

Whyte, who had left the North End in 1939, wrote to ask Frank if anti-Semitism was growing in the North End. Luongo wrote back and informed him that while anti-Semitic sentiments could be found, the vast majority of North Enders did not ascribe to the rising anti-Semitic tone. Moreover, while support for Mussolini was common, it did not equate with an unwavering support for fascism or anti-Semitism. That anti-Semitism took no hold in the North End is no doubt due to the very warm relations Italians and Jews have always had in the North End – a relationship that remains an untold story and may remain such as it has little documentation.

As an interesting side note, a 1941 article, “Shortwave Listening in an Italian Community, by Jerome S. Bruner and Jeanette Sayre. They found in the North End a fairly large number of what they called “militant Italians” who resented discrimination against Italians and hostility to Italy, and who saw the rise of Italian military power as a source of pride. Interestingly, these militant Italians were more likely to listen to short wave radio programs because of their distrust of American news outlets.

Another development during World War II was Proclamation Number 2527, which declared some 600,000 non-naturalized Italians as potential enemy aliens. Italian homes were raided, thousands were arrested, and a few hundred interned in War Relocation Camps. As far as I know, nobody in the North End was touched by this. On the West Coast, a 50-mile Exclusion zone pushed many Italian Americans inland. Many longshoremen and fisherman lost their jobs. This exclusion zone was not applied on the East Coast. If it had, the entire North End, along with hundreds of other Italian neighborhoods, would have been evacuated.

The North End, however, was affected by another World War II development. This was the encampment of almost 50,000 Italian POWs in the United States, including some who were interred at Christopher Columbus High School. Again, this is an untold story with little known documentation, but from what I have heard the Italian prisoners fell in love with the North End and the United States, the latter being a common pattern of these prisoners elsewhere. Some of the Italian POW’s married Italian American or other American women and remained in the United States after the war. Incidentally, I have been contacted on occasion by scholars asking for information on POWs at Columbus, but I know of no records or first-hand accounts. If anyone knows of such, please let me know.

About James Pasto

James S. Pasto is a senior lecturer at Boston University, co-founder of the North End Historical Society and editor of the society's journal. To share stories about North End's past, e-mail pasto@bostoniano.info. To find out more about the North End Historical Society, visit alexgoldfeld.com/NEHS.html.