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Giuliano Ghersi
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IRO Refugee Camp Bagnoli, Naples

It was the early spring and summer of 1951. After a stay of almost four years with relatives in Trieste, we lived in the Bagnoli camp to be processed for emigration to the U.S.A.

Each family had a tiny room with cots, table and chairs. We had 3 cots - for my mom, Maria (b. Maurovich) my younger brother Elio, and I - 2 of which were stacked vertically. The walls were only about 7 or 8 feet high so there was an obvious lack of privacy. You could hear everything that was going on and from the top cot you could see your neighbors in their rooms. Wash sinks, toilets and showers were at one end of the floor with the area marked WC.  We spent the days outdoors in the mostly beautiful warm weather.

The center of the camp was a building with many steps and a snack bar. The favorites for the kids were brioches and orange drinks. Music, mostly Neapolitan songs, would play loudly from the large outdoor loudspeakers. The food at dinner time in early evening was ladled out by cafeteria workers onto military style metal trays as you went by. I remember that one time my younger brother, who was ahead of me in line, had all the tray sections filled with food. He then spotted some pudding at the end which he really wanted badly because it was something sweet. The solution for the cafeteria worker was to scoop it on top of Elio's mashed potatoes. [the makings for a new type of gnocchi?]

After eating we washed the trays and utensils in outdoor sinks. It did not take long to realize that the cooks might have used good ingredients but managed to ruin the food in preparation. Our solution was to buy a small portable gas stove which we used in our tiny room mostly to boil water for pasta, soup and coffee.

Besides a field for playing soccer there was a library where one could read American magazines and books. I had been studying English for a couple of years in Trieste. However, I could not converse, but I could read and understand. I really wanted to learn as much as I could about my new future country and visited the library often, proudly getting my library card stamped each time. Since it was summer, we kids went swimming. Getting to the shore was challenging since we went barefoot and had to cross an asphalt roadway. We dove from some cliffs that may have been 20-25 feet high and really enjoyed the water. It was a beautiful deep blue and must have been high in salt content because after the dive we rose to the surface very quickly. I'm sure our light weight had something to do with it too.

I also remember seeing the movie "Sunset Boulevard" starring Gloria Swanson outside the camp. We often bought fresh food outside the camp from local vendors but felt we were being "gypped" with high prices since we were the outsiders from the north. We managed to visit Pompeii and other outskirts of Naples where we ate pizza for the first time. We also rented a rowboat one afternoon on the 30th of June 1951 and had fun with a lady friend and her two daughters (their names escapes me. I think the girls were named Gabriella, Daniela or Michela).

We also briefly joined a local Boy Scout group organized by a scout master that was also a camp resident like us. We did not have uniforms except for a neckerchief and some of us had a Boy Scout hat. We went on hikes and I remember carrying a white flag with a black fox head. This scout master must have been living in the camp for a long time. I'm saying this because when I told him that we were leaving and promised to write to him, he stated that many left with that promise and never wrote. Sad to say, I eventually did the same thing upon landing in the U.S.A becoming totally absorbed in my new life and for a time did not think about the friends that I left behind.

In order to emigrate one had to obtain about 20 or so signatures from various officials. For example there were signatures required from the Italian Doctor, the American Doctor, the American Political Inspector, etc. This took months of waiting to be called for the exams, interrogations and for finally obtaining the signatures. I had seen people exiting out of some of these encounters crying because they did not feel it went well for them and were worried about the consequences. I remember checking the list of last names many times and first learned the term "Pending", that was our status for many months. 

At a certain point in time my brother and I were told that we had eye infections and needed daily drops by the camp medical office. This resulted in further delay in our being sent to another camp in Germany in preparation to boarding a ship to the U.S.A.  The area around the soccer field was swirling with dust when the wind blew and this could have caused an eye problem. Some people suspected  that the "diagnosed eye infections" may actually have been an excuse to keep us from leaving due to a backup in processing, and the eye drops were merely water. Some people talked about getting checked by an outside doctor but nobody did since there was little money, so we bided our time and went along with it.

We made friends with people from Fiume, Istria and Dalmazia who fled after the communist takeover at war's end, people with whom we had a lot in common. I remember asking a lady that was soon leaving with her family to what city in Australia they were going. She replied: "We are being sent to Adelaide". There would be no friends or relatives in Adelaide to welcome them and help them get a start. I was content thinking that when we would arrive in the U.S.A. waiting for us would be my father, whom I had not seen in over four years, and my uncle Rudy who had sponsored my mother and whom I had never met, along with his family. We would be going to an apartment, and school for my brother and me. These people going to Adelaide were like many others that had no sponsors and were about to go into the unknown with hope, a lot of courage, and faith in themselves and their capabilities.

Finally the day came when we received the notice for our imminent trip to a camp in Germany.  We had a trunk and a couple of suitcases. For some reason my mother decided that we needed sugar cubes to take away with us on the trip. Not finding these nearby the camp, she told me to take the train into Naples and buy them there. I was thirteen years old then and not too timid. Taking the train was no problem, but when I was walking through those narrow streets and alleys with the laundry stretched overhead between buildings and people yelling at each other, I became a little frightened. However, I got the sugar cubes and returned safely to the camp.

We finally said goodbye to our friends on our departure day. The sadness of knowing very well that we would never see each other again was overshadowed by our anticipation to finally leave this camp on our way to starting a new and better life. We were loaded on big army trucks with canvas tops, where we sat on wooden benches, and brought to the train station.

Giuliano Ghersi

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Created: Monday, November 17, 2008; Last Updated: Sunday, November 30, 2008
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