PEERING through the railings of Donaldson’s College, its expansive grounds stretched out before them, the young girls would strain their eyes in a frantic search for their fathers. All they wanted was a glimpse. And, of course, for them to come home.
But the men were Italian and they had been rounded up by the authorities, taken from their homes across the city leaving behind their wives and children, along with businesses they had set up from scratch.
It was June 1940, Mussolini had entered the war on Hitler’s side and Churchill wanted the immigrant “aliens” out of the country.
“A lot of Italian men living in Edinburgh were taken to Donaldson’s College, probably only for a few days, before they would be interned to the Isle of Man or Canada,” explains Dr Wendy Ugolini from the University of Edinburgh.
“Women told me they would wait at the gates to try to see their dads in the yard.”
Some would see their fathers in the distance, some would eventually welcome them home, but many more would only hear the heartbreaking news that they had died on board the Arandora Star, a giant British cruise liner packed tightly with thousands of Italians bound for deportation in Canada, attacked by a German U-boat in July 1940.
Events surrounding the attack are fairly well documented, but until now very few of the young girls – now elderly women – left behind in Edinburgh have spoken about their own experiences.
It has taken decades for some to come to terms with what happened to their families, their mothers often forcibly relocated, the physical and mental abuse they were subjected to for being Italian, their businesses and homes attacked by their customers and neighbours.
Over the course of the last five years, Dr Ugolini invited them to speak and very slowly, some more reluctant at first than others, they came forward, their accounts now forever documented in recordings stored at Edinburgh University as well as in a new book, Experiencing War as the ‘Enemy Other’.
“Sometimes I felt it was the first time they had spoken about what happened,” explains Dr Ugolini. “There were times when I would have to stop the tape recorder and they would cry.”
At the time of the Second World War, Edinburgh had the second largest Italian population in Scotland with some 350 noted on the Edinburgh Register of Aliens. Most of the community settled in Leith and the Grassmarket, as well as in Portobello or in Musselburgh, the vast majority owning either an ice cream or fish and chip shop.
“It is this idea of Italians that we celebrate – a very romantic view of them and their businesses,” says Dr Ugolini. “But we only have to go back a few decades to see how different things were.
“I was shocked at the level of abuse I was told about. Yet it certainly didn’t occur in a vacuum, there was low-level hostility against the Italians before the war. The Italian community had been made to feel different, particularly because of their religion.”
Dr Ugolini, originally from Liverpool, has had a long-held interest in the impact of war on the home front, but it was discovering more about her Italian husband Paul’s family experiences in the 1940s that fuelled her to begin her research for her latest book.
The Ugolini family, from Armadale in West Lothian, was touched at every level, Paul’s grandfather interned, his grandmother relocated to Glasgow, an uncle serving in the British Army and an auntie going on to marry an Italian prisoner of war.
Her father-in-law, the footballer Rolando Ugolini, now 87, signed for Celtic in 1946 before going on to have a career with Middlesbrough and Dundee United.
“I interviewed one man who was interned during the war and he told me that when he found out an Italian had been signed to Celtic he said it was amazing,” says Dr Ugolini.
Like many third-generation Italians – and Scots – Dr Ugolini’s husband was ignorant to much of the anti-Italian sentiment his family had experienced during the war, learning about it through his wife and the interviews she conducted with his relatives.
“I think it is part of the nature of an immigrant group to focus on their success instead,” Dr Ugolini explains. “The Italians have preferred to focus on their achievements than talk about this period in history.”
And while some have never spoken about what happened to them during the war, others have been more vocal, calling for an apology for the way the Italian community was treated.
“I understand why some people want an apology,” says Dr Ugolini. “But to do so would mean taking the events out of their historical context.
“Not many of the people I spoke with wanted an apology. What matters most to them is an acknowledgement that the events happened.
“It wasn’t a clear-cut divide. A lot of the Italians left behind were second-generation and had been born in Scotland, many prepared to fight for the British Army. To this day they are proud to be just that Scots-Italians.”
n Experiencing War as the ‘Enemy Other’, by Wendy Ugolini, is published by Manchester University Press, priced £60, available from Blackwell’s, on South Bridge. Evening News readers can enjoy an exclusive 50 per cent discount when they order through the publisher on 01752 202 301. The offer runs until October 15 and includes a £3 postage fee.