November 1, 2023

Distant Horizons - Francesco Gulotta

To celebrate my grandfather Francesco Gulotta's birthday, I am sharing a translation of his autobiography. It's a incredible story of his escape from fascism in Mussolini's Italy and his journey to the United States. The original was published in 1987 in the book "Orizzonti Lontani" which as far as I can tell had a small run in Sicily. It's title can be translated into "Far-off Lands" or "The Big Land" or even "Distant Horizons", all the translations are kind of beautiful. Francesco was born around 1910 in Sambuca di Sicilia and started working as a mason at the age of 7. He was to marry my grandmother Marietta Sagona but the rise of Fascism in italy separated them for two decades. In 1950 they had my father Lorenzo in New York City. Francesco died around 1996 back in Sicily in his family's home with Marietta dying soon after. It's an amazing story and I'm glad to share it with you.

Francesco and Marietta Gulotta exploring Venice.

By 1928, fascism had fully taken hold in Italy. At that time I was in business with a fellow my same age, Leonardo Sacco. We were held in high regard in our town, Sambuca, thanks to our great skill in the art of bricklaying, and for this we were granted many local public works projects. As I recall, in that year we had quite a few contracts for such projects, enough to stoke the envy of many other brick workers in town, a number of whom had registered with the local fascist party in hopes of securing such work. Intending to get Sacco and me into trouble with the authorities, some local fascist or jealous competitor went about fabricating accusations against us and filed secret reports with the Prefecture of Agrigento. Although the accusations were patently false, they had the intended result, facilitated by the fact that my brother Toni had already been sent away due to suspicions that he was active with the local communist party, which was an illegal activity at the time.

Before long the Prefecture of Agrigento sent a letter to authorities in Sambuca. It was an official request for identifying documents, including fingerprints, for Francesco Gulotta and Leonardo Sacco. It was the initiation of a process that could've landed us in prison, or had us sent into exile.

Sacco and I went to the local Magistrate, at the time Don Calcedonio Ciaccio, to respond to the request of our fingerprints. He tried to reassure us that since there was no evidence of us having done anything wrong, no one would be able to charge us with anything. But it was easy to see how uncertain he was with that assessment, and we noted that he'd only said it as a matter of formality. We were lucky that the official responsible for taking our prints was Giuseppe Bondì, who proved to be sympathetic to our situation and made sure that our fingerprints came out imprecise enough to temporarily ward off the authorities. This gave us some extra time to figure out how to save ourselves by way of clandestine emigration.

Another request for fingerprints arrived a week later. We had Bondì do them again, and this time he opted to leave them incomplete, noting that the individuals in question had damaged skin on their fingertips due to their work with rough stone. Agrigento responded abruptly this time around. They said that if there wasn't anyone in Sambuca specialized enough to get fingerprints from a couple of bricklayers, then it would be better to just have them come to Agrigento to have them done properly.

In the meantime, through secret backchannels we managed to find a contact in Palermo to help us get things underway to leave the country. Getting to America would cost about 120,000 lire. Sacco and I both had family and friends there to help us get settled upon arrival.

We consulted with Pippinu Mulè and Michele Guzzardo to gather the outstanding funds owed to us by the township, withdrew all of our savings, and left Sambuca the night of August 13th, 1928, heading directly to Palermo to meet up with our contact, who then had us immediately depart for Naples. We stayed there for about a week as houseguests of people who helped us make sure to not leave a trail for the police. Our contact had us move on to Genoa after that, where we stayed with a local sailor tasked with getting us on a boat headed directly to America. Mixed hopes occupied us for our few days there as we went around to hole-in-the-wall taverns near the port, all of them reeking of cheap wine and bustling crazily with the mad brawls of drunk sailors. We were very eager to leave. Finally, the sailor we were staying with let us know that we'd be leaving Genoa the next day aboard a ship called the George Orson.

At noon, as we had planned, Sacco and I approached the ship as it prepared for departure, making our way into the mix of workers doing repairs here and there. Once the sailor got us on board, Sacco was able to find a quick hiding spot in a coal depository, but I was spotted and only barely escaped being left behind. Luckily I avoided that and was able to join Sacco in his hiding spot. The coal depository was full, so the two of us on top left us crammed up near its ceiling. We spent many hours stuck in that position, silent and with no food or water. The sailor we had paid to help us out didn't even come to our aid. At a certain point I realized that Sacco wasn't doing very well. He was sweating profusely, but his body was cold and lifeless. He would've certainly died if we'd stayed in that spot much longer. I moved him along with me as best as I could while making my way around the depository towards the furnace. The machinist on duty, a Venetian, was startled upon spotting us there, but rather than sounding any alarms, he let us explain ourselves, was understanding of our dilemma, and even gave us some water.

The ship disembarked in Biserta. We took advantage of the cover of darkness and got directions from a sailor to make our way to the home of Zu Paulu, a Sicilian who had a business there that was hardly anything more than a hut, but that served variably as an emporium, restaurant, or tavern, or as whatever else might be necessary.

We met up with our contact there and determined that from Biserta, Sacco and I would cross Algeria by train, then head to Oran to await the ship there. That was the port where we'd be able to get back on the George Orson while avoiding the scrutiny of the customs officials typically on duty in the area, since the ship would have to make a mandatory technical stopover in Oran before heading into the open waters of the ocean. We wandered around a bit that night, then went to stay over at Zu Paulu's place. He accompanied us to the station early the next morning, got us aboard the train, and saw us off, wishing us good luck.

Patrols stationed at the border between Libya and Algeria requested our passports, which we didn't have, but we made up some excuses and they let us pass through. We ran into another Italian on that train, a guy from Castelvetrano who seemed so suspicious that we thought he might be spying for the Italian government. Our strategy upon arrival in Algiers was to get away from the shady guy by losing ourselves in the general craziness of that train station. Then we headed out into the streets and went into a bordello. Everyone inside was speaking in French or Arabic, neither of which we spoke, so I got up on a chair and asked out loud if anyone there spoke Italian. A couple guys came up to us and said they were from Brescia, so we explained our situation to them and asked if they could help us arrange a car ride to Oran. They proved to be very understanding of our circumstances, contacted a taxi driver and negotiated the fee for us: a thousand lire, exactly half of what a different driver had told us earlier. To be extra safe, the Italians had one of their trusted guys ride along in the car to discourage anyone from trying to take advantage of us.

It was a 12 hour trip from Algiers to the port of Oran, crossing trough deserts and mountainous terrains. All the while we feared being stopped and robbed by marauders, and the intense heat drove us crazy.

Once we reached our destination, we headed to the port to wait for the ship to arrive, keeping a close eye on the horizon for a long time in hopes of glimpsing even just a bit of smoke indicating the presence of a boat. We finally spotted the George Orson and watched as it approached the pier when, all of a sudden, just as it got close, it changed course and veered away, quickly losing itself back along the horizon. We found out later that its abrupt redirection was thanks to a strike being held by the dockworkers. They were refusing to load coal onto the ships, so the captain turned around and headed elsewhere. As the ship vanished into the distance, so did our hopes of getting back on board, en route to America.

While wandering around town, we were stopped by the police. Since we didn't have identifying documents, we were brought to the local Italian Consulate, where we were declared clandestines. They put us on a boat headed directly to Marseille, where we'd be seized by government officers and returned to Italy. Fate gave us a hand once again, however. In a show of solidarity with us, the boatswain, once we arrived in Marseille, let us sneak off the boat while the Italian government officers rushed through the protocols of our handover with the captain. We quickly lost ourselves in the crowd, then took a train to Paris, where we were arrested once again. This time we bribed the cops with money, and they let us get on a train headed to a large maritime city in Belgium. The same cops might've mentioned to the train conductor to turn a blind eye to us, since we crossed the border into Belgium without any difficulties. Upon arrival in the seaside town there, we were completely without money, so we sought out work with an Italian firm building a large car factory so that we could cover basic needs for a while. We also telegrammed our relatives in America to ask them to send us some money.

In the evenings, after getting off work at the construction site, Sacco and I hung around in the area of the port, hoping soon to fmd a ride aboard one of the many ships docked there. We got acquainted with some of the numerous escaped politicians who filled the taverns, where we were fortunate to meet a Genovese sailor who helped us out in a big way. He was friends with a German sailor whose ship was docked there at the time, so he arranged with him to take us on board for a payment of 200 dollars. It all worked out just right. 400 dollars had arrived from America at around the same time, so on our agreed upon date, late at night, we climbed aboard the silent, sleepy ship, and the German sailor stowed us away in a little spot cleared out under the furnaces.

The ship's course was slowed down significantly by the thick fog settled in on the ocean, and we spent a full 22 days stuck in that little spot, in an unbelievably unsanitary state, in complete silence for fear of being caught. It would be 93 days in total from the day we escaped Sambuca to our eventual arrival in Boston, where again we had to make some risky moves to evade customs officials.

Once we finally got settled in with our relatives there, we set about trying to find work and get integrated into these new environs so different from our own.

Not long thereafter I was advised to go to Cuba for a brief visit so that I could then return to America with a pass for legal entry. I did, and once I got back, I finally felt like I didn't need to conceal my identity anymore. By now I was as American as I could be. And yet, my heart was still in Sambuca. My girlfriend was there, a wonderful girl who, after many years, still patiently awaited my return. In 1940 I applied for and was granted an Italian passport, which allowed me to go back to Italy to get married. I was still concerned that someone might track me down there, however, so I quickly returned to America right after the ceremony. It's a good thing I did, because only hours after I'd left my home there, the police came knocking at the door.

When World War II broke out and America decided to intervene, I was called into military service for the US. I didn't have to fight on the front lines, but my service brought me many advantages as a citizen.

I built my family, worked for many years, and led a comfortable life in the great land of America. In the end, though, illnesses and fond memories of my youth in Italy convinced me to return definitively to Sambuca.

  • Text extracted from Orizzonti Lontani, ed. Salvatore Maurici, Palermo, Centro Civilta Mediterranea, Lo Studente, 1987, pp. 13-18.
  • English translation from the original Italian by Paul D 'Agostino, PhD. © 2024
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