The untold story of thousands of Italian children sent away from their parents in the 1950s

In the 1950s, Reggio Calabria on the toe of Italy, was a dangerous place to grow up. lyonara/flickr, CC BY-NC

The province of Reggio Calabria on the toe of Italy is a hotspot for natural disasters. As a humanitarian reaction to severe floods in 1951 and 1953, thousands of Calabrian children were displaced and sent to live with other families or in summer camps, military bases or Church-sponsored institutions across Italy.

Both the Christian-Democrat government in charge at the time as well as the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and their associated civic groups were directly involved in the relocations.

This is a silenced corner of Italian and European history. It is not part of official Italian history textbooks, nor an issue readily discussed in local Calabrian communities. As part of my own ongoing research I interviewed a number of former displaced children, now in their sixties and seventies, who spoke to me for the first time about their experiences. They empathise with the problems facing displaced people, particularly children, currently entering Europe and see similarities in their stories of being uprooted.

Childhoods uprooted

In the floods of 1951, the Ministry of the Interior reported that the damage affected 68 municipalities in Reggio Calabria, that 3,090 houses were severely damaged or destroyed, 3,797 families were hosted in temporary shanty towns and 49 people died. Two years later, more floods killed 55 people with 2,500 more left homeless.

Reacting to the disasters, the PCI, involving a number of groups such as the Union of Italian Women, took the initiative to relocate children aged three to 12-years-old from southern Italy – with the agreement of their parents – to live with new communist families in the north of Italy. Centre-right newspapers at the time condemned the scheme as an “abduction of infancy”, echoing criticisms of child evacuations instigated by the Communists during the Greek civil war.

Interventions by the Catholic Church and police, who openly opposed the relocations by the communists, only led to the removed children being sent to monasteries, orphanages or juvenile detention centres across Italy instead of moving to new families or back home. Children stayed away from their parents for between one and ten years.

Under other disaster relief schemes active during the early 1950s, the government and church as well as their associated civic groups, primarily the Italian Women’s Centre, also relocated orphans and children from very poor families to place them in institutions across the country.

Some of the people who were relocated as children who I interviewed spoke of having very positive experiences of living in new towns. There were opportunities to go to the cinema, get a good school education and eat new foods. But others were deeply traumatised.

Two such children, displaced at the age of six and seven, remember the day they describe as being “snatched” by the Italian Red Cross, without warning and while playing with their friends. They stopped only momentarily to wave goodbye to their parents working in a nearby field. They were taken to Sicily before being separated and sent to gender segregated institutions in different parts of Italy where they lived for over a year until they returned home. Life in the institutions was hard: there was hunger, malnutrition, stale bread, and corporal punishment.

Today, recalling memories of this experience provokes immense suffering and disbelief about the political decision-making processes and power games between left and right that were involved in these children’s relocation for “humanitarian” reasons.

Silent reunions

Upon their return, many children remained silent about their experiences. They soon understood that what had happened caused a great deal of suffering to their parents. The relocations were a source of constant humiliation and shame for both the children and their families. According to many of those who were relocated as children that I spoke to, their parents were victims of false promises by the government to provide them with subsidies and a new house – things which never materialised.

It has become apparent during my research that even in close-knit Calabrian village communities, children who were relocated are to this day rarely aware of neighbours who suffered the same fate. In Italy, where secrets are often public knowledge, families and neighbours kept their personal story of displacement well guarded.

People do still remember and evaluate what happened to them. But I believe there was no space for the existence of these divisive and shameful stories in the newly united Italian collective post-war imagination. The child displacement seemed to be an extra burden that Italy could not or was not willing to shoulder after the moral and political defeat of the war. After the devastating schisms of World War II, silence in Europe seemed like a natural condition.

The post-war period was fundamental in giving birth to and establishing top-down policies, spawning lasting ideological positions concerning displacement and refugees. In the same way, Europe today is unprepared for the current migration crisis while still dealing with the debris of economic meltdown.

The silenced child displacement of 1950s Italy is not simply a thing of the past. Humanitarian actions that took place several decades ago continue to affect the lives of relocated children. Displaced children breaking their silence about their experiences is fundamental not only to piecing together silenced European histories but, crucially, to better evaluate the current politics of mass relocation.

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