NEW CASTLE, DELAWARE – “‘O Sole Mio” cries out the crowd that fills the cavernous banquet hall in suburban Delaware.
Nicola DiRito, a 90-year-old Italian Resistance fighter, immigrated to the United States following World War II. Today, he stands next to his wife of 61 years, Anna, whom he affectionately calls “Nina.” Nic is surrounded by friends, many of them Italian speakers. Nic, it should be noted, doesn’t really speak English with a great deal of fluency.
The party is primo. The hall is packed with the sounds of Italian and Philadelphia accents. Banquet tables are lined with cheese and prosciutto.
People like Nic and Nina are one of the last bridges to the “Old World” for Italian-Americans like myself. The couple hails from Lama dei Peligni in the province of Abruzzo, where my Nonni, who died last year, was from.
My friend Alex Lawson had suggested that I come to visit Nic for his 90th birthday last fall, which was also my 31st.
Lawson’s wife, Laila, had grown up across the street from the DiRitos in New Castle, Delaware.
“Nina really helped my mom a lot with me and then with my sister when she was born,” says Laila. “Even though Nina had no children of her own, she was like a mother to my mom, who had recently immigrated from Iran.”
Nic and Nina would become surrogate parents to many. As I sat there on my 31st birthday, eating handmade pasta at Nic and Nina’s kitchen table—with vegetables from their sprawling garden—I could see why.
“They never really met a stranger; they are very loving and very open,” says Laila.
Their love and solidarity for others were born out of their struggle against fascism in their formative teenage years during World War II.
“People see the war on TV, and they forget what it’s really like,” says Nina as I eat pizzelles in their small brick house outside New Castle.
“They forgot what it is really like,” says Nina again. “We starved. Whole families starved to death. We moved constantly. We never knew where we gonna sleep.”
Nina was forced to constantly cross a bridge bombed by the Allies to buy bread. Each trip across the bridge, she wondered if it would be her last.
In 1943, Italian King Victor Emmanuel III deposed fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and signed an armistice with the Allies; immediately, to prevent Italy from joining the Allies, Hitler invaded the country.
In Nic and Nina’s hometown of Lama dei Peligni, the retaliation was brutal.
Twenty-nine cities were flattened. Italians were rounded up and mass-executed to instill fear. Eighty percent of their hometown was destroyed.
In November, the Germans cut off electricity to the whole region. Soon after, they started destroying every home in Nic’s town.
On December 5, 1943, 200 local townspeople formed the Brigata Maiella, or the Gruppo Patrioti della Maiella—a brigade of the Italian Resistance movement named after the nearby Maiella mountain range in which they hid.
At age 15, Nic had to beg to join the unit, but eventually, his persistence won him a place.
As a teenager, Nic blew up bridges. He raided police stations to steal guns and fought in close hand-to-hand combat with Nazi stormtroopers on more than a dozen occasions.
Out of the 200 men who joined the unit, 59 were killed. Nic saw his close friends killed and was nearly killed himself numerous times.
“I remember one time, we were surrounded, and they tried to blow up the barn in which I was hiding,” says Nic with a face of worry that shows the fear he must have felt nearly 75 years ago.
“I got down, cut the wire, and hid until they left,” says Nic.
In 1944, the Americans liberated their small town of Lama dei Peligni, but things did not immediately improve. Starvation and homelessness were rampant.
Nic had to work three months for the Americans before they would finally give the Brigata Maiella clothes, as the resistance fighters’ had degenerated into rags.
Thus, slowly, began Nic’s process of becoming American.
In the post-war years in Italy, he struggled to find work. There was still widespread hunger. Italians wandered the country, sleeping in fields in search of work.
Finally, in 1956, he saved up enough money to emigrate and was approved to come to America. Nic and Nina married shortly before Nic planned to depart.
“For two years, we only talked through letters,” Nina says, as Nic pours me yet another glass of Sprite.
At first, the transition to the United States wasn’t easy. Nic didn’t speak English, but fortunately, in the Delaware suburbs outside of Philadelphia, there existed a large generation of Italian-Americans that did speak Italian.
Nic found work as a day laborer at Abex shipyard. Despite not speaking English, he started as a laborer making $1.74 an hour and worked his way up to a position as a welder making $9.27 an hour.
He shows me his most prized possession: a formal certificate of his service in the Patriota signed by a British Brigadier general proclaiming that Nic was a “Patriota” during World War II.
His scrapbooks tell the story of an American dream as a post-war refugee in America.
“Speaking no English, [Nic] was grateful for those at Abex, who guided and trained him on his new job,” read an advertisement in the New Castle Gazette celebrating his 25th work anniversary at Abex in 1981. “[Nic] extends his many thanks to all his friends and fellow-workers for their patience and guidance through his many years of service at Abex Corporation.”
The union job he had gave him a position of living in the middle class and a sense of community. He bought a home, a white-brick colonial style house that he still lives in till this day.
As he sits in a La-Z-Boy in his home, Nic’s voice rises with excitement as he flips scrapbooks full of decades-old photographs.
“Look, Joe Biden! Me and Joe Biden!,” Nic says, pointing to an old Polaroid of him and the former vice president embracing at a Delaware street festival.
For people like Nic and Nina, remembering history is important because they did the impossible—they beat the Nazis in a guerrilla war in the mountains of Italy.
For years, to keep alive the memory, courage, and hope of their struggle against fascism, Nic and Nina have performed dozens of history classes for young people in their living room.
Even today, on his 90th birthday, Nic gives an impromptu lesson. He shows me a photo of a Patriota who was killed during the war. From the way Nic shakes his head, you can tell that still, 70 years later, it’s something that pains him, it’s something that scares him. Not just the loss of life, but the loss of country.
He stops and points to tell me about people that died. He talks of the misery many suffered and his constant attachment, his constant devotion to home.
In August 2001, Nic’s hometown of Lama dei Peligni honored him by etching one of his poems on a monument dedicated to her emigrants, those who left without choice for foreign destinations because of the destruction wrought by World War II:
My country, you are like love
When I left you to go my way
Believe me it was not my fault
But I have left you my heart
Because it did not go in my suitcase
But their pain didn’t end in Italy. He still carries deep wounds with him from the poverty he faced as he watched his social safety net collapse.
In 1986, Nic’s shipyard went belly-up and closed. In the process, Nic lost a significant portion of his pension.
Approaching retirement age, and still not fully proficient in English, Nic had difficulty finding work.
“Work? He never worked again,” says Nina. “All he did was grow vegetables, do some gardening.”
Then, without health insurance, Nic paid nearly $400 a month in health insurance costs, for a plan with a $2,000 deductible.
In the six years before they were able to get on Medicare, Nic and Nina spent $40,000 of their life savings on health insurance.
It’s a subject that aggravates the normally jovial Nic. He shows me scores and scores of op-eds he wrote to his local paper, the News Journal.
“How can we talk of civil rights when retired people, after a lifetime of work, see their life savings end up in someone else’s pocket,” Nic wrote in an angry op-ed.
As white nationalism and neo-Nazism are on the rise again, people like Nic and Nina find themselves startled that the old foe of fascism has returned.
“There are people around today like Nic and Nina who fought the Nazis and survived the Nazis, and these people are all thinking, ‘Why is this happening again?’” says Laila.
Faced with dwindling retirement savings and threatened cuts to the social safety net, Nic and Nina find themselves having the same old anxiety attacks about how to pay bills and find solutions.
For years, to make ends meet, they cultivated a large outdoor garden. Nic and Nina grew tomatoes, string beans, fennel, broccoli, carrots, beets, chard, spinach, squash, zucchini, cantaloupe, potatoes, strawberries, figs, peppers, and even peanuts.
They pinched pennies. They bought cheese in blocks to save money and canned vegetables to last them throughout the winter.
“Somehow we managed to get by,” says Nina. “We are always very careful with money. We never buy anything new; we always fix it.”
Nina stops and smiles, and my own anxiety fears about the 70 bucks in my bank account disappear, as she speaks in a thick Abruzzo accent.
For while they are far from the war of their youth, their hearts are still in Italy and still determined to persevere no matter the obstacle.
“I tell people I am scared. I am scared everyday,” Nina says through her thick accent. “But we survived so much worse during the War. I always tell people you have to take it one day at a time. We always have each other to help us through hard times. We will be OK.”