By Christina Sahovey
Last month, we lost Bruno Sammartino, a wrestling icon and local Pittsburgher who spent much of his formative years in South Oakland, at the age of 82. Many people followed his career as a professional wrestler, and took pride in him being a “hometown boy.” But a story to which many are not privy is how Sammartino’s early life before coming to Pittsburgh was – despite his not being Jewish – deeply affected by the Nazi regime during the Holocaust.
Sammartino was born in the Abruzzo region of Italy in 1935. His family included his parents, Emilia and Alfonso, as well as his six elder siblings (four of whom died as young children). Sometime around 1939-1940, Alfonso escaped Europe and immigrated to the United States, settling in Pittsburgh but temporarily separating the family. Emilia and her children remained in Italy, where the World War was raging on in the backdrop of their bucolic village. In 1943, Nazi SS officers marched into Sammartino’s hometown of Pizzoferrato, carrying guns, killing people, and separating families. The village soon fell under their occupation. With the war raging on their doorstep, Emilia fled the village with young Bruno, his sister, and his brother, taking refuge in a mountain to hide from the Nazis. For the next 14 months, Emilia would sneak down into the village to get food and other supplies she needed to care for her children. All the while his Bruno’s father continued to live and work in Pittsburgh, constantly wondering and worried about his family overseas.
Bruno later recalled about this harrowing part of his childhood, “I’ve seen people die, people buried up there. [I remember] when Mom couldn’t come down [to the village], we went as much as three or four days eating snow because there was nothing else that you could eat … And I remember then getting sick and deathly sick and if the war had continued for another month or two nobody would have ever heard of Bruno Sammartino.”
Eventually, the rest of the Sammartino family joined Alfonso in Pittsburgh, settling down roots in South Oakland. After living on starvation rations for over a year, Bruno was sickly and underweight. He found himself to be the target of bullying in his new school – for being small and scrawny, and further compounded by being a recent immigrant who spoke little English. He began to weight train and wrestle, which would become a lifelong passion. After graduating from the former Schenley High School in Oakland, Bruno would go on to a long career as a title-holding, professional wrestler and (at one time) the World Record holder for bench-pressing. It could also be argued that his harrowing experiences during the Holocaust made him as tough as he was. Having been bestowed the moniker of “The Living Legend,” many fans consider Sammartino to be one of the best wrestlers in the history of the sport.
Perhaps most importantly, Bruno remained very close to his mother, Emilia, throughout his life and never forgot her bravery and selflessness during their time spent hiding on the mountain. As an adult he would visit her regularly in her Oakland home, speaking to her in Italian while munching on biscotti and sipping coffee. He described her as “absolutely my hero,” and delved further into her story and how she impacted him in a this KDKA video:
It took Sammartino 67 years before he returned to Abruzzo, Italy. He revisited the village where he had spent his peaceful childhood prior to the war, and climbed the mountainside where he hid with his mother and siblings, by then inextricable from his life story.
Sammartino’s story is one of survival and overcoming adversity. And as a non-Jew who still could not completely escape the horrors of the Nazi regime, it also stands as a testament to how the Holocaust is truly a human issue.