Hello to Our Friends, If There Are Any Left

The following account is a creative nonfiction short story inspired by an old box that Paula Mascioli found in her mother’s basement. Curious to see what was inside, she opened it to find a treasure trove of documents, old letters and papers her father had saved from the days of his father’s and uncle’s internment in Petawawa during the Second World War. Paula knew her grandfather and great uncle were interned, but never knew any details. It just wasn’t talked about. From within this box of painful memories, she pieced together what happened so many years ago. What follows is a recreation of an episode in the life of Leo Mascioli, Paula’s grandfather.

July 22, 1940

Leo wondered how much longer he had to wait. He was nervous, of course, but not worried. He knew he hadn’t done anything wrong. He felt mesmerized, puzzled, confused. He couldn’t believe his life had changed so much in such a short period of time. Little consolation knowing he wasn’t the only one. He thought about the other prisoners in the camp, walking about, trying to find answers.

He put his big hands on his knees. Every knuckle, every finger, shaped by long years of hard work. Looking down at his hands, he slowly shook his head in disbelief. When he lifted it again, his eyes met the end of the corridor. He got up and walked to the window. Standing there, hands in his pockets, he looked outside at the sea of buildings of different sizes and shapes lined up in front of him. He thought about all the edifices he himself had built during his lifetime. Do people know? Will they ever know? Will he be forgotten? If this were the end, would people remember him? What was his legacy to this country? He had chosen this country. He had made it his home…memories began to fill Leo’s mind…

I was born in Cocullo, a small town near Rome. I soon realized that Cocullo was too small for me, and when I was 10 years old, I found work on a freighter sailing from Rome to Glasgow. The world out there was so big, so promising, so inviting. I knew I could do better; I felt it. So I left Italy again when I was 18. I had only 30 dollars in my pocket, but my soul and my spirit were full of positive thoughts. I landed in Boston, but soon made my way up to Canada. I had heard workers were needed there. I first worked in Sydney and then in Glace Bay. Coal mining was hard work. I would contract men to work in the pits. Their lives were not easy, but I felt I gave them a chance. Then Marconi came. He must have heard about how hard-working we were, me and my men, because he hired us in 1898 to work on his project in Newfoundland, building his wireless tower. That was a very proud moment in my life. I went back to Italy because my heart was telling me to do so. I married my childhood sweetheart and I returned to Canada in 1906. I moved around a bit, trying different things, some more successful than others. I worked at the Hollinger Mine in Porcupine. The journey there was long, I will never forget that. Oh, the cold…the railroad at that time went only as far as Matheson. I walked the rest of the way…I will never forget. But I was still a young man full of hope. Nothing scared me then. In Porcupine I sponsored and hired 400 men from Italy to come and work there. I felt I was giving them the chance of a lifetime. Once in Canada, the land of opportunity, they could go anywhere, do anything. I was very aware of the needs of the people I worked and lived with, so I soon opened a general store and bakery. I started my own construction company, Mascioli Construction, and built sites to entertain people. I have a good sense of business, and in a short period of time I opened several movie theatres and hotels. I am so proud of the Empire Hotels, little jewels of the North, especially the one in North Bay. And Timmins? I was a pioneer of that small town. I feel I was a pioneer of the North… It was hard work, but if I had to go back, I would do the same over and over again, making the same decisions, going to the same places…

Leo heard a door open. He turned around and saw a man in uniform looking at him. “Leo Mascioli,” he said, “you are next.”

Leo said a brief mental prayer, a way to give himself strength and confidence. He repeated to himself that he hadn’t done anything wrong and walked towards the man in uniform wh led him through the door.

“Do you belong to the Fascio?” asked the judge.

“No. I do a great deal to help Italians.” Leo’s mind wandered…

Let me tell you, Judge, what I did to help the Italians… I am sure you are not interested in the good deeds I have done, but only in the bad, bad stuff you think I might be a part of. Let me tell you of the many donations I make to the Canadian Legion, and of the 25 yearly subscriptions I signed for to sponsor their publication and to have magazines sent to men of Timmins serving in England. Do you care to know that the movie theatres I built and now run are always rented free of charge to many local organizations for their meetings and activities? Maybe you would like to know about the rooms I have furnished with my own money at the Timmins and South Porcupine hospitals. Would you care to know, dear Judge, about the donations I regularly make to the hospitals? And the materials I give them for free? Or the trucks I loan them free of charge? Do you know about the many hospital bills I pay for people who cannot afford them? I help the young people of Timmins, Judge. What have you ever done for them? And last year, when the local newspaper burned down, I gave them a place to set up their operations! I help the local churches, the Salvation Army…I am glad to give back generously to the community which has given me a chance for a better life… But, what would you care?

Leo wanted to stand up and yell all of that at the judge and at the man in uniform, but he didn’t. He was a modest and humble man. And they would not have cared anyway…

“Signor Mascioli, are you listening? I asked you a question…” said the judge impatiently.

“No, I told them we needed none in Timmins…”

Oh, I remember well my brother Tony and I being approached by the Italian consul about organizing a Fascio in Timmins. I wasn’t interested. I never joined. Never wanted a card, although I was given one. But I never signed it. Never took the oath. And if they had cared to look around, they would have noticed that the Italians in town held that very same view. The local branch of the Fascio, organized in 1934, had a very short life, with only two meetings held. People were not interested and did not want to pay the dues. I know why they approached us, my brother Tony and me. We were very involved with the community, everyone knew us. We had a lot of friends, we helped those in need. They thought they could use us and our connections to bring people into their Fascio, but they were wrong. My brother Tony had better English than me, and was always helping people with their paper work, acting as intermediary between the Italian Consulate and the Italian Canadians that needed help with their visas and other legal matters. Tony liked to help, if he could. He looked after a few things for the Fascio at the very beginning, but he dropped everything soon after. We are going to get into trouble for that. I was made “Cavaliere” and officer by the King of Italy. I know they are going to use that against me. I am sure the judge doesn’t care to know that it was because of the many contributions I made to so many Italians in Northern Ontario…

“You knew Italy was at war with Ethiopia and that Canada and England were opposed to it. Who would you choose between the King of England and the King of Italy?,” asked the judge scornfully.

“This country. I went to Italy, Judge. I saw. Only two years ago. I went there with my brother, Tony. I didn’t like what I saw: poverty, unemployment, no freedom of speech or action. I am not happy with Mussolini. I am glad I am in Canada. Definitely, this country, Judge.”

The judge continued: “You’re charged with belonging to disloyal organizations.”

“No, I am loyal to Canada. This is my home. Everything I have is here.”

“Who do you hope wins the war? You’d be a big man if Italy wins,” the judge went on mockingly.

“I can’t get any bigger,” Leo replied.

 “Who do you prefer?” the judge insisted.

“King George.”

When the interrogation was over, Leo was escorted back to the camp, where he would remain.

The prisoners were treated fairly, but the boredom was insufferable. Leo had always kept busy, and idleness was not part of his makeup. Thanks to the CARE packages Leo and Tony received regularly, they could prepare good Italian meals that became very popular, not only among the prisoners, but also among the guards who often wanted to eat with the Italians rather than eat the camp food. However, food was small consolation. Leo was very worried about his family and his businesses.

I have built all that I have with hard work so that my children and grandchildren can have a better life, and now everything can be taken away from me. Just like that. This is unfair. I am a good man!

Leo was 64. He should have been preparing for retirement and enjoying the last few years of his life. Instead, he worried about his future. He knew his son was trying very hard to take care of things. He could hardly imagine the pressure his boy was under. He was only 27! He was running the businesses and trying to get both him and Tony out of the camp. The Canadian government was trying to take all their businesses away from them. How could they? How could they possibly do that to him and to his family? He started all those businesses by himself, one after the other, con tanto olio di gomito. They represented a lifetime of hard work. Even if they did leave the internment camp, what would happen to them? He decided to stop thinking about this for a while and walked to the barrack where the kitchen was. Though a small consolation, cooking relaxed him.

One day, one of the guards approached him. The two had become friends, thanks to the many tasty dishes Leo had prepared for him. The guard handed him a scrap of paper. It was an article written by the former mayor of Timmins, published in the local newspaper and sent to the Minister of Justice. Leo couldn’t believe his eyes. The mayor was accusing Leo of being a communist, as the owner of the Timmins newspaper. But he was not the owner of the newspaper! And he was not a communist either. Leo was heartbroken. He couldn’t believe what he was reading. The article was an act of spite for having helped a friend in need and for not having supported the mayor’s re-election. Leo had no means to defend himself. He shouldn’t have read the article, but the guard thought he should know. This was a hard blow. His frustration and anger grew.

The months went by and the camp routine set in, but Leo’s thoughts were always on Timmins and his family:

February 16th, 1941

Dear Son,

Eight months have been hard and long to endure, and who knows how much longer we will be here… all the while knowing that we have done nothing wrong in this country. I’m not sorry, but God have mercy on them. What the heck are they accusing us of? All the good deeds we have done? Have they been completely forgotten? … Here, we are all fine, except for the terrible monotony that gets on your nerves and is hard to bear. With time, we will forget about it. Hello to our friends, if there are any left…

The letters Leo sent home were strictly censored, as were the ones he received. He wondered continually about what had happened. Then suddenly, on February 18, 1941, after eight months of internment and thanks to the efforts of his son, both Leo and his brother Tony were released. But Leo’s heart was broken, as was his spirit. He couldn’t bring himself to go back to Timmins. He felt betrayed by the many people he had helped. He had thought they were his friends. But in time of need, so many had turned their backs on him. Few had spoken up for him or had said a good word.

I can’t stay here any longer. It hurts too much. I am going to Toronto. I make this decision with a heavy heart, but staying here and seeing those faces of betrayal hurts even more. Toronto is a big city.

Leo’s heart was heavy the day he left, and it stayed that way for a very long time.

Paula Mascioli is an interior designer currently living in Ottawa, Ontario.

Giulia De Gasperi was born in Treviso and currently lives in Scotland, where she holds a post-doc in ethnology at Edinburgh University.

This article is published as part of the Community Historical Recognition Program (CHRP) funded by the Department of Canadian Heritage.

First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 24.

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