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When Italian Americans were ‘enemy aliens’


By Al Kemp Managing editor

There was a time – and it wasn’t that long ago – when being an Italian in America was practically against the law.
“Potentially Dangerous,” a documentary film now in production, explores that little-known World War II era when the American government deemed Italian Americans “enemy aliens.”

The film, directed by Zach Baliva, shares the stories of some of the 600,000 Italians and Italian Americans who were persecuted during the war. Many were under curfew from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. An estimated 10,000 were forced from their homes and businesses. Hundreds were placed in military camps without trial.

“These events were traumatic,” Baliva said. “Italians in America chose to forget their culture, and people in my generation feel the effects of that loss.”

Baliva is a third-generation Italian who has lived and worked in both Hollywood and Italy. He hopes to revisit his great-grandfather’s hometown for the first time
as part of “Potentially Dangerous.” He’s already interviewed several people including a 91-year-old man who remembers the night the police raided his home and confiscated his father’s radio. They had to register as “enemy aliens” and abandon a well-established family business.

“When I connect with these people, I can hear in their voices what it meant to their families, and how it changed them,” Baliva said. “And also that double-effect of not having it known. And it doesn’t have to be hidden anymore. We need to tell this story now while we still can.”

Despite the wartime persecution documented in “Potentially Dangerous,” this country’s Italian American population is thriving today – many of them quite affluently, said Joe Cannavo, former editor of The Italian-American Herald. But he said progress on one front has come with a cost on another: the gradual slipping away of their Italian heritage and culture.

“Many [people] do not even know about the internment camps set up in World War II for Italians, much less care,” he said.

Cannavo, a one-time Italian language instructor in Gloucester County, New Jersey, noted that the Italian language is spoken less and less in the United States as Italians have steadily assimilated into American society since the time of World War II, adding, “I wish I had a dollar for every Italian in my generation who said to me, ‘I wish my parents had insisted that their children learn and speak Italian.’ ”

Baliva’s documentary, which will feature leading historians, government officials, and first-person accounts, recently launched a 30-day crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter.

“Most Italian Americans I talk to have little idea that Italian immigrants were placed under curfew, evacuated, and in some cases detained without trial during World War II,” Baliva told the Italian-American Herald.

Baliva started his career on the hit NBC show “ER” at Warner Bros. and later produced “My Name is Jerry,” the independent film that gave this year’s Academy Award Nominee Steven Yeun his first on-screen role. He lives in California.

Cinematographer and co-producer Noah Readhead has worked for clients like Verizon and Sony, and produced the award-winning short documentary “Always Coming Back.” He lives in Chicago.

“Potentially Dangerous” is part of the Russo Brothers Italian American Film Forum, an annual event created by Hollywood directors Joe and Anthony Russo (“Captain America: Civil War” and “Avengers: Endgame”) in partnership with the National Italian AmericanFoundation and the Italian Sons and Daughters of America to support projects that highlight the Italian American experience.

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