Professor Giovanni Gullace gave me my first real lesson in honor.
Our paths crossed early in my life, late in his, when I entered graduate school at a university in upstate New York to study French Literature. I’m guessing he was in his mid 60s when we first met. But his crumpled expression and shuffling gait, along with a dull bald pate, thick glasses, and grizzled salt and pepper beard, endowed him with an ancient air which, I suspected, made him a sworn enemy of modernity. He was cantankerous, gravelly, and brilliant.
Dr. Gullace’s scholarship crossed six centuries of Italian and French literature and philosophy. I first came under his tutelage when I signed up for his semester-long seminar on 18th century literature, specifically the philosophe Denis Diderot—whom on the first day of class Professor. Gullace, to my delight, labeled a “blabbermouth.” After that, I made myself alert to everything he said, both in and out of class.
He, in turn, took a rough, avuncular interest in my behavior, mostly critical. At our first faculty-student party, the music started, and some of us got up to boogie down. As we bumped and swiveled to the beat, I noticed Gullace shaking his head in disgust. I sidled over to him. “What’s the matter, Professor Gullace? You don’t like the music?”
“Ah! You all’a dance’a like animali,” he snorted in his halting Italian accent. “You’a know nothing of grace and beauty.” With that, he swirled a scarf around his neck and bee-lined for the door. He would make other observations as a round-about way of giving me advice: “You fool around too much, M.” (He always called me by my last name). “Don’t wait’a too long to get’a married.” Or career guidance: “You waste’a you time with too much study. Get’a you degree and then find a job… so you can’a get married.”
What perplexed me most about his back-handed advice was how pedestrian it was. After all, this man had built a life-time portfolio of celebrated work that included seven books and countless articles and reviews as well as decades of teaching in Europe and America. Comments from other faculty also hinted that the professor had lived through some grave times in Europe before, during, and after WWII. Why then, I wondered, did he not share any greater insight than the equivalent of floss after every meal?
But that changed one night over dinner at his house.
In wine, truth
That evening wasn’t the first time he had invited me to share a meal with him, his wife—an Italian mother in the grandest sense—and his daughter of marriageable age—a delicate, witty graduate student in the English Department. I could never decide if these family dinners were meant to pair me off with his daughter or that he just wanted some lively male counterbalance to the household female hegemony. Either way, everyone enjoyed the get-togethers.
As this night progressed, and the wine flowed, I, like any eager student, tried to turn the conversation towards the literary or philosophical. I began sharing what I considered meaningful events in my own still green life. Gullace listened while I briefly recounted a youthful escapade that had influenced much of my thinking. When I finished, the professor sighed, looked straight at me and began, “Listen…”
Here—in my words—is what he told me:
War and remembrance
After the outbreak of World War II, Giovanni Gullace, the young Italian literary scholar and teacher, was drafted into Mussolini’s army to fight alongside Italy’s ally, Nazi Germany. Instead, Captain Gullace was soon to find himself interned as a traitor in a German prisoner of war camp.
By July 1943, soon after the allied invasion of Italy, Italians had soured on Mussolini’s dreams of war, and Italy’s king put out an arrest warrant for Il Duce. In September of that year Italy’s prime minister declared an end to hostilities against the allies and sued General Eisenhower for an armistice.
Having lost its primary ally, Hitler sent out an ultimatum to Italy’s armed forces: either continue fighting with Germany or face arrest and internment as enemies of the Reichs cause, and Captain Gullace was one of them. Thus, he sat in a detention camp in Germany, along with other Italian and allied prisoners.
Here’s where my memory of parts of the story gets vague. But what’s certain is that Captain Gullace was the ranking officer among the Italian prisoners and thus fell to him the position of point man for all dealings with their captors.
9 mm negotiations
The Germans had decided that a confession had to be extracted, which required the ranking Italian officer to sign a document implicating him and all the Italians in treason—a severe charge with severe penalties. Gullace refused.
Then, in a scene later made famous in The Godfather, the German interrogator took out his Luger, pointed it at Captain Gullaci’s temple, and assured him that soon either his signature or his brains would be on the paper.
At this point in the telling, Professor Gullace paused for effect while a small ironic smile passed across his face. “And’a that, dear M., was’a my… Existential Moment.”
“What happened?” I asked. “You signed it?”
“No, M.,” he said quietly. “I could never sign such a document… It was a question of honor.”
“But you’re here and alive,” I stated the obvious. “Why?”
“Ah, well,” said my esteemed professor. “I didn’t sign, and’a they didn’t shoot… that was all’a there was to it.”
Never the wrong decision
So, the Germans decided not to shoot, and one young Italian officer kept his honor and probably saved his men from something worse. A lucky day for them and a lasting lesson for me. No, I don’t kid myself that I would have had the pluck to make the same courageous choice. Instead the value comes in simply knowing that honor worth dying for does—or did—exist.
And that’s something to cling to as I grow older in an age gone oblivious to history and a culture drowning in narcissism.
As I was leaving that night, still mulling Gullace’s “existential moment,” he stopped me at the door. “M.,” he said as he shook my hand. “One’a thing: Never worry about whether you past decisions was’a right or wrong… The fact that you still alive means you never made’a the wrong decision.”
Thank you, Professor Gullace. It was an honor.