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Families bring local soldiers’ stories to life

One hundred years ago Nov. 11 Lt. Joe Just, a man who left Penn Yan as a frightened teen just a few years before, found himself in Europe, celebrating the end of World War I with the people of Lyon, France.

At the same time, Corp.Victor Swanson was among the other soldiers in the 77th Division that had advanced the farthest of all the Allied forces against the Germans in the Argonne forest. “We had gone so far that it took us 14 days steady hiking to get back to a rest area,” he wrote to his sister Lillian four months later.

The stories of both of these men who spent much of their post-war lives in Penn Yan are the center of two books — The Immigrante, which has been on sale since early summer, and Going Home, being printed now.

The Immigrante

The remarkable story of Lt. Just, who eventually returned to Penn Yan later in life, is told in a book that takes the reader on a journey through local and world history, beginning in a small town in Italy, where a young mother, Rose, decided to save her two little boys from a vendetta, after their father was murdered, by bringing them to America.

Those two Italian boys, who later became known in Penn Yan as Joe and Frank Just, eventually found themselves joining the military in the early days of America’s involvement in the ‘war to end all wars.’ They had both heard that joining the military was a certain path to U.S. citizenship.

The Immigrante tells the story of Rose Diusto Giovanni, and her sons, Joe (Giuseppe), and Frank (Francisco) as they travel from Macchia-Valfortore, Italy to Ellis Island and eventually to Penn Yan, where they settled into a new home on Benham Street. But life here was difficult.

“Most of the story is fact, taken from a long series of audio tapes that were made before my father’s death. Along with those tapes and numerous stories I heard from WWI vets that lived in and around Penn Yan as I grew up, the story was built as closely to facts as I could make them,” says the author, Joe Just, who graduated from Penn Yan Academy in 1955, and now lives in Washington.

Giuseppe (Joe) runs away from Penn Yan and finds himself alone in Rochester, where he is taken in by a kind family. The other son, Francisco (Frank), grows up in Penn Yan, but then lies about his age to join the Army as a way to achieve his dream of becoming a citizen. Joe leaves Rochester and travels to Detroit, where he too joins the Army with dreams of becoming an Air Corps pilot and eventually a U.S. citizen as well.

Only one of Rose Diusto Giovanni’s sons returns to Penn Yan. Joe lived out his life here, joining the American Legion, raising a family, and dying in 1977.

Joe, the author, says, “For over 60 years, the story has never been far from my mind, and with that, the writing has been a real joy, as I have tried to give the flavor of what it was like to be an immigrant to this nation at a time of collapsing ideas and dreams.”

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