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We Were Outsiders. Conversation with Guido Calabresi

Alessandro Cassin

In this conversation Judge Guido Calabresi, a long time friend of Centro Primo Levi, shares stories of his family’s flight from Fascist Italy —from Milan to Yale— and the ways his childhood experiences have shaped his personal and professional life in the USA.

This spring, Calabresi has appeared as a panelist in our presentation of Giana Pontecorboli’s  Americordo.The Italian Jewish Exiles  in America, and of Patrizia Guarnieri’s Italian Psychology and Jewish Emigration under Fascism.

Guido Calabresi is a legal scholar and senior Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. A former Dean of Yale Laws School where he has been teaching since 1959, he is now Sterling Professor Emeritus and Professorial Lecturer in Law. He has been awarded some fifty honorary degrees from universities in the United States and abroad, and has published widely on the Law and related subjects.

AC Unlike most Italian Jews who came to the US, fleeing the Italian racial laws, your father was an anti-Fascist and realized long before the discriminatory measures where Italy was going.  You family’s decision was not so much a consequence of the laws but rather a political decision.

GC We are unusual because we were antifascist. Most of the people who came as refugees were not particularly active antifascists, perhaps they thought fascism was wrong, but it was not a reason for taking political action. And then there were some who had been actively fascist, because some Italian Jews as every other group had embraced fascism. What was unusual about us was that both my father and my grandfather were fiercely antifascist from the beginning. My father was beaten and jailed in 1924, when he was a student, from then on he and his sisters became very active in Giustizia e Libertà the movement led by the Rosselli brothers. The second time he was beaten and jailed was when he and others put a wreath by a statue of Garibaldi on the first anniversary of Mateotti’s murder.

My father had wanted to leave Italy in the late twenties early thirties, when it became clear that Mussolini was not going to fall. My grandfather who was a patriot of the old school, said: “No, one does not leave one’s country”. Despite patriotism, his fierce anti-Fascism, made some call him a traitor. One of Ferrara’s most prominent fascists, his name escapes me now, would correct them:” You can call Ettore Calabresi anything: he is wrong, his is terrible, but don’t call him a traitor, because in the First World War he behaved heroically even after Caporetto”. Because of his antifascism and his prestige in the city, my grandfather was barred from returning to Ferrara. Once he returned to his city to attend a funeral they put him in jail.  In such a small city they could not tolerate a powerful industrialist married to a woman from a great land owning family, who was outspokenly against the Regime.

AC Was there a catalyst for your parent’s decision to leave?

GC After my grandfather died in the fall of 1937, and at the same time his friends Carlo and Nello Rosselli were murdered, my father decided it was time to leave. He tried to get out then, but as it happened, the Fascists did not want people to come to the US and speak out against them, so they denied us the necessary exit visas. My father was repeatedly denied permission to leave until the racial laws were passed. So we came to the US because we were anti-Fascists, but we left at a time when most Jews were in fact fleeing the racial laws.

AC For centuries Italian Jews had lived in tightly knit communities. Increasingly in the times of Fascist persecution, mobility between cities was dangerous. During the difficult times that it took your parents to arrange for the family’s departure for the US, you moved all over Italy: from Bologna, Milan, Genoa and Cortina D’Ampezzo, making it literally an escape out of Italy, rather than one out of Milan. What do you recall of the actual departure?

GC What had happened is that with the help of Giuseppe Levi, a professor of Physiology in Turin —the father of Natalia Ginzburg— a fellowship had been arranged at Yale, through the Damian

Foundation, and that is what allowed us to come. But my mother’s parents thought one should not leave, so the compromise was that my father was going to come see what it was like and we would join a bit later. When our father was scheduled to leave, my brother and I were in Cortina with our maternal grandparents. My father was supposed to leave on the Conte Di Savoia, in late August 1939, and my mother was there seeing him off. But the ship did not sail: they said it had engine trouble and that it might leave the next day. Some body we knew in Rome told us that the delay was because war was about to break-out.

I had gone to bed thinking my father had sailed, when we were phoned in the night: it was my mother saying that the ship had not sailed, it might sail tomorrow. If it is war we don’t want to be separated, bring the children to Genoa, and we will leave the next day. She went back to Milan and told the maids to put everything that was in the wardrobe rooms, into trunks.

AC one of the difficulties is that you were not allowed to bring money abroad…

GC Exactly. My father had had enough shirts made so that he did not need shirts for fifteen years!  What the maids took from the wardrobes and put into the trunks was not necessarily what we needed in the US. For instance upon opening them we found diapers from when we were small. Those were eventually sewn together and made into sheets for my father’s examining room here…

AC How did you get to Genoa?

GC My brother and I, our maternal grandparents, and our nanny — a wonderful woman from Friuli, very religious, very Catholic and fiercely anti-Fascist— she had been with us since the time my brother was born, took a train. I remember that ride very well because we could not get a sleeper, it was too late, and so we all were in a first class carriage, which was unusual.  In families of our sort parents would typically go first class, the children and the nanny would go in second class, not to disturb the people in first. I thought those red plush cushions in first class were lovely, and was very excited that we were going to America. My brother and I were shouting “We are going to America!” without knowing at all what that meant, while our grandparents, looked like death, because their daughter was leaving, their other daughter having already left for Brazil. We arrived in Genoa, and the ship did not sail.

So we thought, war is really coming. Obviously, we did not want to go back to Cortina, near the German border, and we also did not want to go back to Milan because it might be bombed.

AC You had to separate again?

GC Yes. My father went back to Milan to see if there was some other way to leave the country, while we went to our maternal grandparents’ villa, L’Uccelletto, on the Via Emilia, just outside Bologna. —L’Uccelletto, has become over the years a collective dream for our family, everyone has been trying to rebuild l’Uccelletto—

While we were there, my father was frantically searching for other ways to have us leave. The President Monroe, of the American President Lines, was despatched to bring American nationals back home because of the war crisis. The ship was so full that they needed an extra ship doctor and offered the spot to my father. His reply was that he would only go if his family could travel with him. So again we thought we would be leaving… Our trunks were somewhere between Genoa and Bologna.

But eventually they found another doctor who wanted to leave and did not have a family with him, so our departure was postponed again

The evening that the trunks arrived at L’Uccelletto —I had a little earphone radio—I heard that the Rex — the flagship of the Italian lines (which appears in Fellini’s Amarcord)—  was leaving on the 8th of September. What had happened was that war had broken out, but Italy had not joined. So the ship was sailing. I turned to tell my mother that I heard this, I was six but I knew what was going on. The phone rang: it was my father from Milan saying he had tickets for us on the Rex. We immediately went back to Genoa with the still unopened trunks. We got on board on the 8th of September, and arrived in New York on the 16th.

AC How was the beginning of your American life?

GC Not easy. The problem was that, because of the uncertainties of our departure my father’s fellowship at Yale had been arranged for the second term. So when we arrived my father did not have a job, and things were not easy. We went to a dismal hotel on the West Side that a distant cousin of ours, the only person we knew in the US, had indicated. This cousin, Paolo Contini, because he was tall and handsome, had been sent by the Fascists to study law in Berkley, California.

My parents had sent Paolo a telegram from the ship asking him to find us a really cheap hotel in New York where we could stay a few months. The hotel was cheap indeed: it cost $10 a month for four people with food — if you can call what they gave us, food—

I know this because my father kept the receipts for the first two months, obviously one for my brother and one for me, so we would always know how it all started in the US.

AC Your memories are so vivid and precise. Did you commemorate your beginning in the family over the years?

GC Yes, we always celebrated the anniversary of our arrival. The night before the 16th, we often would go to an excellent Italian restaurant, as a reminder of our life in Italy and on the ship; and then the day after, we would go and eat hamburgers…

We had been very, very wealthy, but arrived with nothing and had to rebuild from scratch.

AC Since your father was going to start his fellowship in New Heaven in just a few months, why did you remain in New York City?

GC We stayed in New York because my father thought that the New York License Exams had more reciprocity. If we were going to starve, he thought, we might as well starve here, as there. He took his exams in New York and luckily he passed them. We did not know that we would end up staying in New Haven. His fellowship was only for a year…

A Dean at Yale recently found the letter from back then giving the fellowship, and sent it to me. It is the most offensive letter you can imagine. My parents never said a word about it to us, but it said: “Yes we will let you come, somebody has given the money, try to get them to give more, but you cannot do this and you cannot do that … and don’t think it will last…” They really did not want us: I’m not sure if in their eyes it was worst that we were Italian, or Jewish, but they made it clear they did not want us. The Medical School like the Law School was more open, than the rest of the University, which was certainly not open to Jewish or to Italian faculty members at that time, but it wasn’t very open!

AC What was it like for two young children such as you and your brother, to find yourselves in New York under these new circumstances, as refugees?

GC We landed on a Saturday and on Monday we were in school. I was six, almost seven and my brother was nine years old. That’s what you did with kids. My brother was lucky because in this little public school somewhere in the West Side, they had a class for people his age and older, who were non English speakers. We spoke German and French, we had had a German governess and a French one, but we did not speak English. My brother immediately fit in with his classmates who were German, French and Spanish refugees, and learned English perfectly in a short time and with no accent at all.

I instead, was too young to go in that class, and was put back in kindergarten, while I should have been beginning second grade. I could already do math at a 5th grade level and instead was in a class were all we did was make necklaces and tie knots … I did not understand what was going on, and naturally did not like it.

Further I was teased pretty badly and did not have enough English to respond.

AC As children did you sense or absorbe the anxieties your parents must have felt about employment, the war, and the future?

GC Our parents were very good at keeping from us their underlying anxieties. I did not think about the future much, but the present was sometimes puzzling. There were things I didn’t like: I did not like the food! Until we found an automat where they had chicken potpie, I really had trouble eating. I loved the automat, it was very flashy and something children could play with: you put in money and things spun around…

Remarkably our parents kept us from feeling really anxious about things, so that our anxieties were more our own, the smaller anxieties of all children trying to adjust to a new environment.

I have long been full of admiration for the strength of my parents.

AC Did you realize that the family was suddenly out of money?

GC Our parents did not talk about it in front of us but there were plenty of indications. For example my father was a well known cardiologist but without a license he could not practice. Someone at the Italian Consulate, a Count of some sort, heard about him and asked to be treated.  My father took care of him but explained he could not accept money. So instead the Count kept sending elaborate flower arrangements for us at the cheap hotel. My mother would only comment that he could have send fruit…In truth I am sure the Count had no idea how poor we really were.

AC In that period, the fall of 1939, there were a number of other Jewish families, who had escaped from Italy and were living in New York. Did your parents socialize with some of them?

GC There was a significant Italian Jewish community in New York, and there were also some non-Jewish anti-Fascists: the two groups pretty much became one. My father, of course, fitted in both camps because of his early anti-Fascism. We did see a fair amount of them. There was the whole family of Paolo Calabi. One of the daughters, Serena Calabi Modigliani, who later married the famous economist Franco Modigliani, was a distant relative on my mother’s side.

My parents almost never went out in the evenings, because it cost money to do anything. One evening they did go out, I think to a movie, and our baby sitter for that evening was Tullia Calabi, who later married Bruno Zevi. She must have been 17 or so and I remember liking her very much. After that, we did not see her again for years and years.

AC When you moved to New Haven, that kinship with other Italian Jews must have ended abruptly.

GC Certainly in a certain sense by moving to New Haven we distanced ourselves from the Italian Jewish community in New York. We did socialize with the very few Italian Jews who had come to New Haven. There were the Orefice, an insurance family, Giorgio Cavalieri’s sister had married one of them and they were in New Haven. For a time, Cesare and Piera Tedeschi (John Tedeschi’s father and mother) were there and we would see them. But in New Haven we had to be part of a broader community.

The Italian Jews who remained in New York in fact remained very much part of that community of exiles, and while my parents stayed in contact with them, we progressively became separate from them.

AC In a sense you were becoming “Americans”?

GC Well, what did we become? We were outsiders in every possible way; we were Jews but not like most American Jews. We were Italian, but not like most American-Italians. We did things for them and with them. My mother after the war was made Cavaliere for all she had done for the Italian Americans in New Haven.  And my father was met immediately by those —very few— Italian Americans who were or had been anti-Fascist, and had been ostracized, because the Italian American community, mislead  by propaganda, had become quite pro Fascist. Several of them made my father (a doctor, not a lawyer) the executor of their wills, because they trusted and shared his political views.

AC Were did you live in New Haven?

GC That is interesting! When we first arrived, a real estate agent took us to the Wooster Square area, which is where all the Italians lived —New Haven was very segregated— and to Westville, were most of the Jews tended to live. But the people from the Medical School, my father’s colleagues to be, immediately swept in and said: “No, no, no that is not were you are going to live. You must live in a certain area between Whitney Avenue and Orange Street, between the Park and Edwards Street, (which is where all the Yale fellows, assistant professors, graduate students still live.) What they meant to say was: you are “ethnically Yale”.

AC Yale in turn was less than welcoming to Jews…

GC Yes, we were at Yale, and we were part of Yale, but we were completely different from most of the Yale people. With the exception of a few people in the Law School, and fewer people in the Medical School, there were no Jews on Yale faculty and no Italians either. So we were part of something of which we were not part, and not part of those things one would have thought we would be part of. My brother and I recognized this immediately, and not as a negative thing; that rather than being part of any group, we were ourselves. And that we did. We spoke Italian at home, and we spoke English outside. Italian remained our language: to my brother’s dying day, when I spoke to him I would speak in Italian. This has much to do with what all of us became.

AC Can you talk about your family’s relationship with Italy. In three generations of Calabresi men, we find Ettore, your grandfather, who having fought for a unified Italy, could not imagine leaving. Your father, Massimo, whose anti-Fascism made him want to leave in the early 1930s, and yourself who despite having grown up largely in the States continue to see Italy as a point of reference.

GC I think, that in an interesting way, all of us have always thought of ourselves as being Italian. Though they decided ultimately to stay in America, in part for my brother and me, my parents never thought of themselves as being really American. They became American citizens but they were Italians in a very deep sense. To their dying day, they were Italians who were living here.

My brother and I were, in some fundamental sense, both. We went back to Italy after the war, and both of us had the same experience. This was right after the war when Italy was very poor and just beginning to reconstruct. Both of us had the sensation that while it would be extremely difficult to live in Italy if one were poor, it would be intolerable for people like us who had grown up in America with egalitarian principles, to be rich there, as we would have been. So we said to our parents that we wanted to remain in the US.

There is a time related irony: our trip and our impressions were of Italy in the late 1940’s, before the Italian economic boom of the 50’s and 60’s, when Italy became immensely egalitarian, while in America African Americans were virtually not seen; desegregation had not yet happened. In a sense we made a decision, based on egalitarianism, which was a good thing, but we may have decided wrong because now America is less equal in many ways than Italy.

My wife, who is as American as they come, and has fallen in love with Italy (her work is there), says that I am never fully at home until I am in Italy.

AC How does one deal with in effect being, both Italian and American?

GC One summer I had a group of students from all over the world. A youngster who was born in Pakistan, and grew up in Denmark, said: “Look, I think I know what it means to be two things, but what are you really, are you Italian or are you American?” And I said, “ I am both, I really am both”. “OK” he said, “but whom do you root for in the World Cup?” “Of course, in the World Cup I root for Italy” I answered “but if there were a World Cup in baseball I would root for the USA”.

In other words, in those things that I associate with Italy, I am very Italian and in the things I associate with the US I am very American.

Now that is a difference from my parents, who though they were here felt so deeply Italian, and with my grandfather, born in 1870, who no matter how bad things got, could not conceive of leaving Italy.

AC Much of the Calabresi’s American experience is intertwined with Yale. It was Yale that offered your father an initial fellowship, and Yale is the place were first you studied, and later became Dean of the Law School and eventually Professor Emeritus.

GC We grew up in New Haven, where we first were at the fringes of Yale —my father was hanging on by his fingernails to a tenuous affiliation while my mother flat out could not teach at Yale, as women were not on the faculty back then— Nonetheless both my brother and I attended Yale and did very well there. Yale recognized this very early, so that when I got a prize as one of the top students in my freshman year, in the motivation they wrote “Guido Calabresi first generation American, second generation Yale.” Both my parents had gotten Yale degrees and that, in an odd way, became part of our identity. In a strange way I think that Yale changed more than we did and it became more like us, than we became like it.

AC How much do you think that your family history, you emigration story has informed your professional life as a United States Court of Appeals Judge?

GC The way we came to this country certainly influenced me as a lawyer and as a judge.

I became a lawyer because I loved the study of law so much… that I practically fell in to it. At the time I did not realize how much this was the ancient tradition of my family.  Especially on my maternal side, the Del Vecchio’s, who originally were Rabbis, had later had a long tradition in the Law. In my immediate family (grandfather, father and brother) they were all doctors and I thinking I was doing something different, fell into an even longer family tradition. I was reverting…

What became of me as a lawyer and a Judge is this: the most important part of my legal education, of my formation as a lawyer, and as a Judge is that I am a refugee. That I am an outsider.

People don’t believe that I am an outsider, because now I seem to be so much of an insider. But I am not.

My wife Anne recognizes that and loves that in me. It is that sense of not being part of the system, that has made me, I think, the kind of scholar, the kind of Judge, that I am. In the same way that my student, colleague, and now boss Sonia Sotomayor, has always seen things as an outsider, so do I.

I could not be the judge that I am if I had come up entirely in an American system. In a strange way I have Mussolini to thank for that; the difficulties he presented us with made us the people that we have become.

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