With a population of 800, the medieval village of San Polo Matese, located in the province of Campobasso, Molise, Italy, seems an unlikely location for a major theater of World War II. Yet in this mountainous, southern Italian town, the Santillo and Iezza families found themselves at the center of a violent struggle that would impact their lives for generations to come.
Michele Iezza, the Mayor of San Polo Matese, did his best to protect the town's people from the ravages of war. However, the intense fighting soon claimed the life of his 19-year-old brother, Lieutenant Guerrino Iezza, who perished while courageously delivering his regiment to safety. The Nazi occupation of Campobasso unleashed a reign of terror on the Campobassani; German troops frequently attacked the townspeople, forcing many to hide or flee. Following the Allied invasion of Italy, Campobasso was the site of heavy fighting, as German and Canadian troops vied for control. During October and November of 1943, a battle between German and Canadian troops killed 38 civilians, including Secondo Bologna, Campobasso's bishop, and destroyed numerous homes, the city hall, town archives, and other public buildings.
PHOTO: (L-R) Brothers Bonifacio, Michele and Guerrino Iezza
In the aftermath of the war, the people of San Polo Matese discovered that a return to normalcy would prove elusive. Basic necessities such as bread, soap, and shoes were scarce. Widespread unemployment caused tension in the closely-knit community. The town's train station, a critical transportation link and economic lifeline, had been destroyed. In 1952, Elena Santillo, who had been widowed years earlier, sought passage to the United States with her three children, Dina, Livio, and Antonio. The same year, after completing his term as mayor, Michele Iezza, along with his wife, Rosa, and their six children, Salvatore, Clara, Antonio, Silvio, Rita, and Generosa, immigrated to Canada. Shortly thereafter, the Iezza's entered the United States via New York and traveled west to California.
PHOTO: Livio Santillo, left, with his mother, Elena, and brother, Antonio (seated) and sister, Dina.
After arriving in Los Angeles, both families settled in Echo Park, a historic section of the city east of Hollywood and north of downtown. Michele Iezza found work as a chef at the Ambassador Hotel, the site where Robert F. Kennedy would be assassinated a decade later. Salvatore and Clara, the eldest Iezza children, worked to contribute to the family's livelihood, while their mother Rosa remained at home to care for the younger children. At that time, Echo Park was home to a sizable Italian community, and was not far from where Rosa's father, Antonio Campanaro, lived.
PHOTO: Tony Campanaro, left, with Classical Hollywood era comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy and Tony's trained mule
Tony Antonio, or "Tony" as he was best known, immigrated to Los Angeles in 1909 to work in the early motion picture industry. His principal employer was Hal Roach Studios. Tony was an expert animal handler and organ grinder who trained and managed a menagerie of show animals, including Josephine the monkey, and dogs Pal and Pete, the canine icons in the Our Gang series.
PHOTO: Pete, Tony's most famous canine, and puppies
Tony himself appeared in various Our Gang, Abbott and Costello and Laurel and Hardy comedies, including Bored of Education (1936) and The Kid from Borneo (1933). Meanwhile, Livio Santillo, age 16, found a job working on the railroad to help support his mother and siblings. He later opened a small Italian deli in Echo Park. After growing up together in San Polo Matese, Clara Iezza and Livio were reunited in Los Angeles, began to date, and were soon married.
PHOTO: Clara and Livio soon after they were married.
Livio and Clara were blessed with three children: Anthony, who would become a realtor and later, an executive at Chicago Title; Elena, an art educator; and Rosanna, who was also an educator. Rosanna passed away in 2005 at the age of 39. Livio and Clara taught their children the importance of hard work and frugality.
PHOTO: Elena with Monkey Caption: Elena Santillo, daughter of Livio and Clara, with her grandfather's famous monkey, Josephine
For over 35 years, Livio worked as a baker at Four-S, a commercial bakery in Northeast Los Angeles that produced the world-famous "Dodger Dog" buns. The couple scraped together their earnings and invested in real estate, often purchasing distressed properties that required considerable restoration. Livio and Clara's children worked alongside their parents, painting, doing yard work, and preparing the properties to be rented. As a landlord, Livio defied the de facto segregation of the era that barred ethnic, racial, and religious groups from living in certain communities. "If they can pay the rent and are honest people, I will provide them a place to live," he would say. Livio was passionate about real estate and a major proponent of home ownership. Although he was not a realtor himself, Livio provided guidance to many of his friends, family members and tenants, encouraging and assisting them in purchasing their first homes, asking for nothing in return.
PHOTO: The Santillo family in the 1980s
Livio and Clara also imparted to their children the importance of preserving their heritage; the children attended Italian language classes at St. Peter's Italian Church and participated in generations-old traditions, such as making wine, sausage, and cheese at home. For years, the Santillo and Iezza families lived within a few blocks of one another in Glendale, California, and would gather every Sunday for dinner.
PHOTO: The Santillo family, front row Livio and Clara Santillo, standing (L-R) Elena Santiillo Valencia, Anthony Santillo and Rosanna Santillo Passick
While Livio passed away in 2003, Clara can be found cooking and baking for her children and six grandchildren, Anthony, Breanna, Christopher, Adriana, Francesca, and Luke, and volunteering regularly in her parish.
PHOTO: Livio Santillo shares a special moment with his granddaughter, Adriana
The Santillo family is proud to be a Founding Family of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles, supports the Museum's mission of promoting a deeper understanding of Southern California's diverse heritage and preserving the stories of families, including their own, for generations to come.
PHOTO: Anthony Santillo and daughter Breanna at a recent IAMLA event