A Little History / Un Po’ di Storia


 

Un ragazzo si chiama Franco.

My name is Michelle, and I’m the daughter of the little boy who wrote this diary.

This diary is part of my father’s story.
This is a story about family, and a place called Istria.

I don’t know how this diary ends. I’ll be translating it from Italian to English, and posting it for you to read here. So just like you, I’m reading page by page, until we reach the end together.

1932 – 1951

My father Franco was born in 1932, in Draguccio, a small town in Istria, a heart-shaped peninsula in Italy. If you point to the town on a map today, you will be confused, however. Your finger will be pointing to Croatia. The Istria of my father doesn’t really exist anymore.

My grandfather and Italian ancestors are all from the towns and cities that surround the volcanic Mt. Etna, in Sicily. My grandfather left this homeland for Istria. There he met and married my grandmother, and they had two sons. As elementary school teachers, they taught in several towns, finally settling in Rovigno, my grandmother’s birth place.

Growing up in Rovigno was a joy to my father. He loved school, the paranze fishing boats, soccer, and tending the garden with his father. During the summers, my grandfather gave Franco little writing assignments. My grandmother corrected the spelling in his diary. He was just another little boy, living an enchanted life in a beautiful coastal town.

After World War II ended most of Istria was absorbed by the newly-created Yugoslavia. Border lines had been redrawn, many indigenous Italians didn’t wish to become Yugoslavians, and safety for Italians was not guaranteed.

Franco’s family was forced to flee. People were disappearing. Or worse, dying as victims of the foibe. Ultimately, after the war, nearly 350,000 native Italians chose to leave (this number varies, depending on the source). My grandparents left behind many possessions and mementos, choosing instead to save family papers, documents, photographs, and books. They made their way to Rome as refugees and displaced citizens, and eventually, they arrived in the United States and became citizens.

1951 – 2005

In the U.S., Franco finished his degree, became a civil engineer, got married. He had three children:  my older brother (fratellone), me, and my younger sister (sorellina). His brother, a chemical engineer, married, moved to Texas, and had two children. My Italian grandparents died before I was born.

Dad occasionally told us stories about his childhood and Istria. Mostly the good memories, I think, to protect us. Sometimes he mentioned the darker parts of the war. Burying olive oil in the yard. The saboteur who invaded their home on Christmas eve, costing them their holiday dinner, and nearly their lives. As he grew older, his stories became more poignant, filled with greater longing and loss. And sometimes with tears.

Over the years, the family papers and documents had been stored away. I never saw them growing up, and I don’t recall my father speaking much of them. Perhaps he told my sister or she went searching for them as an adult. I don’t remember ever seeing them. Looking back, I wish I had listened more attentively to my father’s stories, paid closer attention, asked more questions.

2005-2013

My parents both passed away in 2005, a few months apart. My sister and her husband got the monumental task of sorting through an accumulation of things my father couldn’t bear to throw away. Every scrap of paper written in Italian she put aside, even though none of us, his children, could read a word. We didn’t learn Italian; Dad never taught us. Perhaps he wanted us to grow up American. Perhaps his pain made it impossible to teach us.

Eventually, my sister amassed several boxes of papers, documents, poems, and letters, including this diary, that I’ve named The Istrian Diary. Many items were damaged and decaying. A history was uncovered, documenting daily life, the difficulties of being a refugee in one’s own country, the transition to life in Roma, and eventually the U.S. The diary was especially significant; daily entries, drawings, a boy’s sketches. My father as a boy in a country on the wrong side of a war.

In 2007, my sister contacted the University of Pennsylvania. With the help of Fabio Finotti, Director of Italian Studies, she donated dozens of items to the Kislak Center for Special Collections, to be preserved for future research into the Italian exodus of the Istrian peninsula. We hoped a graduate student, conducting research into World War II and Istria, might someday examine the documents and translate the diary. In the meantime, the documents—and the diary—waited to be rediscovered, for 8 years.

2013 – Present

I decided to learn Italian in 2013. As a child and even as an adult, I thought my Italian family was limited to my uncle’s family and a few stray cousins. The internet, however, was rapidly connecting me to a growing network of family around the world, and I was frustrated with my inability to communicate with them.

After nearly three years of study, my thoughts turned to my father’s writing. He often wrote stories and poetry in English and Italian, and had contributed several to a website dedicated to Istria, its history and culture. Translating his poems was an emotional experience for me. Here were my father’s words, written over sixty-five years ago, when the beauty and loss of Rovigno were still fresh in his mind. Suddenly, I very much wanted to read his childhood diary.

In June 2015, I flew from my home in Los Angeles to visit my sister near Philadelphia, PA. I’d made an appointment with the Kislak Center, and I would finally see the diary. Would I be able to read it? What secrets would it tell?

At first, I thought my reasons for learning Italian were the same as any other student. To travel, learn a new language, to communicate with family. Maybe. Or maybe I’m supposed to rediscover my father, while learning about a place called Istria. Where a little boy played, grew up, and wrote a diary.

I hope to share his story with you, and with all Istrians, living scattered throughout the world today.