Submitted by: Rose Stella Proscia
Ancestor / Family Name: Profida Maria Ettore Stella
Ancestral Town: Miglionico, MT, BAS
Many times bravery and humanitarian acts show up best during times of great societal upheaval, such as war. In spite of all the losses the world experienced during World War II, those six years provided a setting for true humanitarians to come forth with acts of kindness and bravery. Many of those stories have been told and retold in books, documentaries, and movies. My own family has its own private story to tell.
During World War II, less than half a mile from our family abode in the heart of South Beach, Staten Island, New York, was a United States Army facility, Fort Wadsworth, where some Italian prisoners of war were detained. Historians cannot even confirm the number of Italian POWs at that fort or even at other locations on Staten Island. Thomas Matteo, our present Staten Island historian, believes that more than 500 Italian and German POWs were interned in this borough during World War II.
I do know, from stories related to me as I sat at my mother’s knee, that my mother knew about the POWs and took it upon herself to meet one of their most important needs, communicating with their loved ones back home in Italy.
On Sunday afternoons, my mother, who was single at the time, walked the public beach area until the sandy shores became part of the Fort. She kept walking, unobtrusively slipping through any natural or man-made barriers, until she came to the Italian POW barracks. There she found the POWs, with outstretch hands, holding letters for their loved ones in Italy.
My mother patiently and methodically collected the letters one-by-one, nonchalantly tucked them away into her pocketbook, while at the same time assuring the Italians, in their own native tongue, that the letters would be promptly mailed. This seventh-grade educated, low-paying white-collar letter-shop worker used her own funds to buy the proper international postage, as well as her personal time to secure envelopes and get the letters off to the local mailbox as fast as she could. My mother strongly believed that families should know the whereabouts of their absent members, especially those serving in the arm forces, despite Allied or Axis affiliation.
I do not know the number of Sundays Mom snuck into the Fort from its back beach area to collect the letters. I do know she did this act of kindness after serving as custodian for a small South Beach mission of the Vanderbilt Avenue Moravian Church. She would arrive at their Sand Lane storefront two hours early to light the kerosene stove so the little children would be warm when they sang simple Gospel hymns and learned Bible stories in the early afternoon. I do not know how she stumbled upon the POW ministry.
I do not know if others from Mom’s Italian-American enclave did similar acts or even knew about the Italian POWs so close to their residences. I do know that on the few occasions when she quietly related the story to me, her only child, she did it with vivid descriptions and with great joy and pride.
Furthermore, I do not know how much risk was involved with her secret entrances to the Fort. Was she ever spotted by U.S. military officers? Did they turn a blind eye? It has been documented that Italian POWs were labeled “reluctant warriors.”  While German POWs were held under guard, many of the Italians were given day-passes and allowed to spend time in their surrounding neighborhoods.
However, I do know that my Mom goes down in our family’s personal history as a hero. My Mother’s small but selfless act of kindness, done poignantly and quietly, was invaluable to those POWs living under duress. She saw a need and met it. My Mom is my hero.
I do not know if I would have the courage to do something similar to my Mom’s accomplishment in wartime America. However, the foundation of any courage I have been able to summon up definitely has roots in my first generation Italian-American parents. They recounted inspiring stories of their challenges, travails, and accomplishments in becoming acculturated in their new world. They exemplified lives rich in principles which they applied daily. Most amazingly, they believed that I, their only child born during their middle-age years, could courageously carry their strongly-held Godly values, unwavering sense of right and wrong, staunch work ethic, and high regard for selfless acts of kindness to the next generation. They taught and showed me that “Nella vita bisogno avere corraggio.”