Cobblestones, Conversations, and Corks: A Son's Discovery of His Italian Heritage
by Giovanni Ruscitti

Published: 2022-08-16T00:0
Paperback : 224 pages
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“Giovanni Ruscitti has written a wonderful book of special relevance for all North and South Americans whose ancestors have migrated from Asia, Europe, and Africa. His journey to the land of his forefathers is so meaningful not only because of the discovery of what connects us ...
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“Giovanni Ruscitti has written a wonderful book of special relevance for all North and South Americans whose ancestors have migrated from Asia, Europe, and Africa. His journey to the land of his forefathers is so meaningful not only because of the discovery of what connects us ‘Americanos’ to the rest of the world but also the journey within. A trip in which we all feel recognized. Bravo maestro!”—Hernando de Soto, finalist for Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, and author of Mystery of Capital

Cobblestones, Conversations, and Corks is a passionate and deeply moving story about a father-son relationship; a culture rooted in family, food and wine; and an ancestral small town in Central Italy that was left behind after World War II.

On November 11, 1943, the Nazis invaded Cansano, forcing its two thousand inhabitants to make a tough decision—fight and be killed or sent to a POW camp, stay behind as servants to the Nazis, or move into the unforgiving mountains of Abruzzo while the Nazis used their village as a home base. Giovanni Ruscitti’s family chose the latter and spent the next few months living in horrendous winter conditions in the rugged mountains. When the war ended, they returned to a village so ravaged by the Nazis that, today, the town has less than two hundred citizens and remains in a dilapidated state.

In this memoir, Ruscitti visits Cansano for the first time with his family, including parents Emiliano and Maria. As he walks Cansano’s cobblestones, his father’s stories and life are illuminated by the town piazza, the steep valley, and the surrounding mountains. He relives the tales of his parents’ struggles during World War II, their extreme post-war misery and poverty, their budding romance after, and their decision to immigrate to the US in search of the American Dream.

Ruscitti’s adventure is not just an exploration of his homeland but reveals what family, culture, wisdom, and love really means. And what our heritage really tells us about who we are.

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Chapter 13, The Nazi Invasion

p. 62-65

On the morning of October 17, 1943, the Nazis invaded Cansano. With a net of troops surrounding the town, the soldiers entered the piazza and began firing randomly in the streets. On a loudspeaker, which could be heard through the entire town, they demanded that all men ages sixteen to sixty report to the post office building; if they didn’t, their home would be destroyed. No one turned themselves in and the Nazis carried out their promise. Men, fearing capture, tried to flee into the valley and the mountains but fell right into the Nazis’ trap. Women and children hid in town and some escaped into the valley.

My father was seven. My mom was four.

During our 2014 visit to Cansano, my parents took me, Donato, and Izabella on a tour of La Partayova. We walked down the steep staircase, and my parents told us about each family that lived in the homes.

“Over here was a big oven that many families used to bake bread,” Dad said, pointing to an abandoned home with no door. “And then, if you go down there, it was real scary,” he said, pointing to a deep and narrow ravine next to the baker’s home. “The Nazis came in and a lot of people went down here, including our family, and we were hiding. They could not find us.”

His prior stories of the war were suddenly very real for me.

As the invasion continued on that fateful October morning, the Nazi soldiers ransacked many homes and eventually captured several military truckloads full of Cansanese men and teenage boys, whom they beat and enslaved, putting them to work making trenches to protect the Nazi soldiers from the Allies’ bullets. “Somona bitches,” Dad recalled.

Two of my grandfather Panfilo’s brothers, Antonio and Rocco, were captured during this initial raid and held briefly in a camp a few miles from Cansano. They were somehow able to escape and return to the town, hiding in animal stalls to avoid recapture.

But unfortunately, something worse happened.

As we walked down the steep staircase during the 2014 visit, my dad stopped in front of a home and pointed to a window on the third story. “My cousin, who was twenty-one or twenty-two [at the time], was about to be captured and jumped out of the window. He hit his head on a rock and died.”

Imagine that choice—be captured and enslaved or jump from the third story onto large rocks below and risk serious injury or death. My distant cousin chose death, or at least serious injury. The war I had heard and read so much about became more real for me that morning.

Over the next two weeks in late October 1943, the Nazis fortified their command in the piazza and continued looking for men, many of whom hid in their homes or in the valley and nearby mountains. Families began hiding possessions in the stables and small hidden rooms in their home. Furniture, wheat, corn, potatoes, clothing, money, and other important possessions were stored and hidden.

On November 1, 1943, the Nazi commander stationed in Cansano announced that all Cansanesi had to evacuate the town by noon on November 11. The Cansanesi were told that people who didn’t voluntarily leave would be deported to Padua, a city in Northern Italy.

“We didn’t know what to do or where we would go,” my dad told me about that day during one of our morning walks.

Families were shocked and given ten days to determine what they would try to take with them—by foot or mule—into the rugged mountains, with winter cold and snow approaching.

Since many of the men had already either been captured or escaped into the hills to avoid capture, women and children were left to plan the departure. Some of the men, including my nonni (grandfathers) Rocco and Panfilo and some of their brothers, returned at night and helped their families plan and pack, escaping back to the mountains before dawn so the Nazis would not see them.

“Everyone—the whole town—was scared,” my dad said. “Ah. La paura (the fear),” he remembered, shaking his head.

It was about to get worse, yet again.

On the morning November 11, 1943, as families packed their mules and belongings, the Nazis changed the plan and told the Cansanesi that each person could only take what he could carry.

“Can you imagine?” my dad told me about that morning during one of our walks in Cansano. “My mom, she was crying, ‘Dio mio, che faremo.’ (My God, what will we do?)

The rest of their belongings, they were told, would become the property of the Nazis, including the homes, furniture, clothing, stored food, and animals. The Nazis also offered some people the opportunity to stay behind to become their servants and aids. A few did, and they were viewed as traitors, probably improperly, as they did what they thought was necessary to protect their families.

Life-altering—indeed, life-or-death—decisions had to be made. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

Through the author’s story, how important do you think it is to visit one’s ancestral homeland? Or are family stories enough to make an impression?

How did food and wine teach the author about his culture?

Through the author’s visits, what is something new that he learned about himself, his family, or the countries of Italy and the United States?

What difficulties did the author and his family face when assimilating in American culture?

How does the author’s family’s story reflect the American Dream? How is it different than other immigrant stories?

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