News & Events

World War II survivor, skilled seamstress recounts journey from Italy to Utah

June 17, 2017

Rosie Tonti talks about her life in a refugee camp in Italy after World War II while sitting in the kitchen of her Ogden home on Wednesday, June 14, 2017. Tonti, 95, grew up in Italy. Her father moved to the United State when she was an infant but she wasn’t able to follow for more than two decades.

Story by ANNA BURLESON • Photos by BENJAMIN ZACH • Standard-Examiner Staff 

OGDEN — Rosie Tonti can’t see very well anymore, but the 95-year-old Italian immigrant doesn’t let that slow her down.

Tonti lives with one of her three daughters and stays active. She bakes supremely light, fluffy cookies and attends weekly birthday parties, funerals and anniversaries. She goes to church at 7:30 a.m. every day.

Sitting at her kitchen table in Ogden Wednesday, June 14, Tonti said she doesn’t claim to know the secret to a long and happy life.

“The people say you drink wine but I no drink wine — I drink coffee,” she said with a thick Italian accent.

“What’s the secret to you living so long mom?” her daughter Mary Miller asked again.

Tonti paused.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Because I suffer so much?”

Her answer may be dark, but isn’t coming from a place of pessimism or self-pity. The arc of Tonti’s remarkable story is punctuated by fear, loss, determination, hard work and perseverance.

‘WE CRIED AND LAUGHED’

Tonti (nee Colaizzi) was born in 1921 and raised in San Pietro Avellana, Italy, which was a buzzing transit post of 3,000 people, a town known for its beautiful summer pastures. Her father moved to America in her infancy to support the family, so she grew up in a house with her mother and younger brother.

Tonti can still recount specific dates and locations from her youth — all with the sing-songy Italian accent she has retained for decades.

By the time Tonti was in her late teens, World War II had begun. She remembers German soldiers taking over her hometown — likely sometime after July 1943, when Italy switched from the Axis to Allied side.

On one occasion, her mother had her hide under a bed and scattered children’s’ toys throughout the room.

“I was under the bed — shake, pray, cry — then they came in, opened the door and saw the things that were really for children,” Tonti said. “And then they left and my mama saved me from being raped.”

Their town was eventually evacuated, and her family and neighbors were forced to live in other Italian provinces, where she said they were never welcome. They spent the night in a barn once and often ate spoiled and insect-ridden food because it was their only option.

“What can we do?” Tonti said. “We take it off, the bugs, and eat.”

Tonti said she was taught to sew as a child, and the skill got her a job making parachutes.

Tonti’s brother, Michael Colaizzi, who was a year and a half younger than her, served in the military, where he came down with pneumonia. When their mother arrived at the hospital where he was supposed to be, she was told he died two days earlier and his body was already cremated. He was 21 years old.

Story continues after the photo. 

Rosie Tonti looks at photo of her brother, Michael Colazzi, at her Ogden home on Wednesday, June 14, 2017. Colazzi was in the Italian Army and died during World War II.

“And then they gave what remained of my brother — a suitcase, a dog tag — Mama came back by herself,” Tonti said.

Soon after, Tonti herself came down with pleurisy, a lung disease, and nearly died because of it. After two unsuccessful rounds of trying to remove the fluid from her lungs, she was told to eat raw eggs and horse blood.

It worked.

“In the morning I wake up and I say, ‘Mama, mama, I breathe!’” Tonti said.

Amid the hardship and tragedy, there was Domenic Tonti. The pair started dating just after the war broke out. Like her brother, her beau was also in the military, but he was stationed nearby. During her illness, he stayed by her side.

The two were together for six years by the time the war ended in 1945, but they had to wait another five years before they were allowed to come to America.

“You had to have a number to come here,” Miller, Tonti’s daughter, explained. “And her and my dad could not get married there (in Italy) because it would push their number back as a married couple.”

Tonti made it to Ellis Island at age 28, rode a series of trains across the country and saw her father for the first time since infancy at the Ogden station.

“He looked exactly like my brother, and we cried and laughed,” she said.

MARRIAGE AND SEWING

Rosie and Domenic Tonti finally married March 31, 1951, after 12 years of courtship. That same year, the newly minted Mrs. Tonti started working as a seamstress at Utah Tailoring Mills, where she hand-stitched detail work on many a garment. Her tenure there spanned 48 years.

The mill’s existence seems to have all but disappeared from the internet, save for blog mentions and garments being sold on eBay and Etsy. However, Miller said the company was known for making custom dresses for movie stars.

Tonti didn’t take kindly to upper management trying to interfere with her creativity. She once duplicated a flower she had been asked to make, but then made her own version and sent it to the company’s salesmen.

Hers won them over.

Story continues after the photo. 

Rosie Tonti keeps notebooks filled with samples of the designs she created while working as a seamstress. Tonti worked for Utah Tailoring Mills for 48 years creating custom dresses. She only retired at the age of 80 when her vision was too poor to continue working.

“They said no, we want this rose, we use Rosie’s Rose,” she said.

Miller said her mom made her and her sisters’ clothing, including prom dresses. She would watch her mother come home from work, eat, then go downstairs and sew until 10 p.m.

“She retired at 80, and the only reason she retired was because she got macular degeneration,” Miller said.

Domenic died in 1982, after more than 30 years of marriage.

STRENGTH

Tonti stays busy making cookies, noodles, bread and gnocchi, and spending time with her six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

“The health is pretty good, and the mind pretty good,” she said.

It still doesn’t reveal the secret to her longevity, but Miller answers her own question: “What’s the secret to you living so long, mom?”

“…It’s your attitude,” Miller said. “She has a healthy outlook on life and always sees the positive.”

Elizabeth Atkins sometimes drives Tonti to St. James Catholic Church. If she’s lucky, she receives payment in the form of Tonti’s delicious Italian cookies.

“Every time I talk with her or something I always think, ‘Man I hope I can keep doing that.’ She’s the one who really gets me to go to mass every day. I know I need to pick her up,” Atkins said.

“I don’t know if I have the strength she has.”

Rosie Tonti was born in Italy in 1921 and lived there until she was 29 years old. During that time she survived World War II and spent five years in a refugee camp. In 1950, she moved to Ogden where she worked for 48 years as a seamstress.

Contact education reporter Anna Burleson at aburleson@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnagatorB or like her on Facebook at Facebook.com/BurlesonReports.