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Jewish World Review Sept. 12, 2002 / 6 Tishrei , 5763

Jonathan Turley

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This country's hidden strength | This week, I spent hours listening to scratchy audiotapes made in a little kitchen in Cherry Valley, California. These were interviews taken over the last two decades with one of the most extraordinary people that I have ever known. Her name was Josephine Piazza and she died this week at the age of 96. She was my grandmother, but more than that she was an American story that is about to be lost with the last survivors of the Industrial Revolution and the Great Immigration.

I first began to tape Grandma Jo after my graduation from college. I was intent on writing a book about my grandfather, Dominic Piazza, one of the original organizers of the United Mine Workers in Ohio. His life was filled with powerful moments of deadly strikes and countless injuries from beatings, cave-ins, and eventually black lung. However, as I sat in the kitchen with Jo cooking and talking, I became intrigued by her story; the story of a young girl who watched history unfold and fought to maintain her family through the cruelest conditions of the late Industrial Revolution.

Jo came to this country at age 6 on June 10, 1913 with her mother, and her brother. What followed was a horrendous two-week voyage (for the price of $20 a head) in the over-crowded and filthy hold of the Santa Anna, a wooden sailing ship out of Sicily. Jo was almost lost to the sea and watched as two dead passengers were tossed over the side. They eventually arrived at Ellis Island. They had survived the first of what would be many tests of survival.

Upon her arrival, Jo was suddenly taken from her mother by doctors who noticed a small rash on her chin. Her mother was simply marked with an X on her clothes and pointed to a wooden bench. Terrified, her mother remained at the wooden bench for three days without food and begged uncomprehending officials in Italian for help. Jo remembers the nurses at Ellis Island bringing her out into an inner courtyard at the infirmary. "You want to see something beautiful?," the nurses cried out to the patients in hundreds of windows. The nurses then pulled up Jo's dress to show her hand-stitched, spotless petticoats. This was Jo's introduction to America.

They settled down in a coal-mining town with her father in Ohio. At age 12, Jo was brought into a circle of Italian elders and told that she was now betrothed to Dominic Piazza. She objected to the arranged marriage and said she wanted to go to school -- an inconceivable option for an Italian girl at that time.

At age 14, Jo married in a wedding that lasted four days. At age 16 she had her first child. She would have 14 pregnancies in all and would lose 7, including her first child, Francis. In a coal-mining town with little heat and little medicine, child mortality was a crushing reality.

Smart with a gift for languages, Jo would become a teenage midwife; assisting a coal company doctor who would often pass out drunk on his patients. She watched as the doctor would euthanize miners crippled in cave-ins. In these times, a seriously injured miner would be dispatched "in the interest of the family."

The doctor was also the local abortionist. She watched women die in child birth or from back-alley abortions. Her closest friend died in her arms from internal bleeding from a botched abortion. When I asked her how she could take such trauma, she said that she would keep repeating a type of personal mantra: "It can't get later than midnight."

Jo saw midnight on too many occasions. During the strikes, her family struggled to live and to support other striking families on the verge of starvation. During this period, she lost her one-year-old son, Anthony, in the cold of an Ohio winter after days struggling to keep him warm and alive.

Before she was 18, she had seen enough death and sorrow to last a lifetime. Eventually, she learned how to survive. This quiet and shy girl also learned to fight like an American. After watching children in Ohio going to good schools that were unavailable for immigrant children, she suddenly announced that she would run for the school board. To the astonishment of everyone, she won and she helped build a school to give immigrant children the education that she was denied.

The tapes are filled with accounts of an endless struggle to survive against killer floods, snow storms, mafia violence, and prejudice. They also reveal the astonishment of a young girl watching the 20th Century unfold from a pre-industrial society without electricity, airplanes, or telephones. She lived through prohibition and gangster wars. She even gave bank robber Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd a meal in 1934 shortly before he was gunned down in Ohio.

This incredible journey ended this week with Jo's burial in a desert graveyard thousands of miles from her little town of Cianciana, Sicily. For the little girl who was paraded in her petticoats at Ellis Island, she left quite a legacy. The seven children who survived produced 20 grandchildren, 34 great grandchildren, and (so far) 2 great-great grandchildren. And most importantly, she left a lifetime account of how a little Sicilian girl emerged from innocence and became an American.

As we remember the first anniversary of 9-11, Jo's story is a reminder of the hidden strength in this country. Whatever adversities await us, we are a nation composed of survivors; individuals who were willing to take a leap of faith where others would not. As was shown on 9-11, when midnight comes, it only gives us a reference point for recovery rather than resignation. We are strong not because of our collective size but because of our smallest components. That is why all the fanatics in the world would be no match for a little girl in petticoats.

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JWR contributor Jonathan Turley is a constitutional law professor at George Washington University. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Jonathan Turley