I came to this country in 1949 after surviving World War II in our family home near Palermo, Sicily. There, we were awakened by air raid sirens many nights and scurried to the basement wondering if Allied bombs would fall on our home. One day, my grandfather’s farm and house were bombed, and we all gathered together and started to pray, waiting for the bombing to stop. Our family survived with Jesus Christ’s help in a place where thousands were killed, and many lost their homes.
“When I see the world turning on the Jews today, it’s a terrible feeling.”
Even worse were the days when German soldiers swept through Italy and treated us, and particularly our women, lawlessly and violently. When the war ended, I took a boat to New York City, seeking freedom, prosperity and a new life, and ended up in San Francisco. As a 14-year-old Catholic Italian boy with no job and no family nearby to help me, I was helpless. I barely spoke English. A man offered me a room to stay in but soon demanded I pay rent, which was fair but which I could not do. That’s when a beautiful Jewish family who owned a corner grocery store one block away offered me a job and began to treat me as a son.
The job I did for them was not glamorous. I stocked shelves, bagged groceries and cleaned the shop after hours. The wife knew I was without family members nearby, so she always made me a sandwich and other things to take to school the next day. The father treated me like a son in another very important sense: he heard I missed school one day and told me if I skipped school, he would fire me. That was powerful incentive.
We didn’t talk about religion much after they invited me to synagogue, and I declined because I was a committed Catholic. But they attended synagogue every Sabbath, and they made sure to give me Sundays off so I could go to church. We treated each other and our respective religions with mutual respect.
For two years, that couple helped me grow into a man. They helped me stay off the streets, made me finish high school and launched me on to better things in life. Without them, I would not have made it in America. They were the first of many Jewish friends and business partners I have had. For example, in 1969, I met a client named Ron in Studio City, for whom I wrote a homeowner and automobile insurance policy. Ron, who was Jewish, became more than a client; he and I became friends for the last 53 years. We still have lunch together and still argue over how large of a tip to leave our waitresses.
Ron is not very religious, but he and I have this in common: we both talk to God every day. He wakes up and says, “God, thank you for giving me another day.” I do the same.
When I see the world turning on the Jews today, it’s a terrible feeling because members of my generation know where this can lead. The younger generation seems to know nothing of the war I and others survived in which 5 million or more Jews were killed in the cruelest, most diabolical ways. Like many, I have visited the death camps where the Nazis carried out mass killings, and to me, the places are still pervaded by a sense of death. The ghosts of a terrible past seem to haunt them.
In my view, the best way to support the Jewish community as they face new pressure is to treat them like valued friends in everyday public life. This is where bonds are built and hatred is banished.
“Catholic, Jew, whatever we are, we must take time out of every day to pray, ‘God, protect our country.’”
Catholic, Jew, whatever we are, we must take time out of every day to pray, “God, protect our country, our children and our families from any disaster. Help our government leaders to do the right things. Help us to love our neighbors, family and friends of all faiths and backgrounds.” When we do this, and when we stand publicly with our Jewish friends and neighbors, it will go a long way to preventing the recurrence of the types of horrible events some of us lived through a brief 80 years ago.