Family secrets are on display in new drama based on Italian Montrealer's history

Montreal barber Gino Chiarella kept a secret about his family for decades. Now it's the subject of a brand new play called Winter's Daughter.

Barber Gino Chiarella kept this secret for decades. Now it's the subject of a play

Michaela Di Cesare plays the role of Maria in Winter's Daughter, which tells the story of Gino Chiarella's long-held family secret — that his mother was both adopted and Jewish. (CBC)

Before he visited Calabria, Italy in 1966, Gino Chiarella never had any reason to doubt his heritage.

Raised in St-Leonard as a second-generation Italian Montrealer, Chiarella never questioned his family history, until he visited his maternal grandparents in Italy while on his honeymoon.

It was there that he learned a surprising family secret.

"Gino's grandfather was not really his grandfather," said ​​ K. David Brody, a Montreal writer who turned Chiarella's story into a piece of short fiction. "They had adopted Gino's mother who had been abandoned at the grandfather's farm by a couple who were peddlers."

Not only was Chiarella's mother adopted, she was actually from a Jewish family.

Gino Chiarella is well-known in Montreal's Italian community and worked as a barber for more than 50 years. (CBC)

After learning this secret, Chiarella didn't breathe a word to anyone, not even his mother.

"He had made a vow to his grandfather in Calabria  ... that he would not tell this family secret," Brody explained.

In Brody's story, The Peddler's Daughter, he describes how a poor couple asked to leave their young daughter in the care of a pair of farmers, promising to return for her after they'd made some money in Naples.

"They never returned," said Brody.

That story is the inspiration for a new play, Winter's Daughter, which dramatizes how "a couple copes with tremendous trauma and loss, while wrestling with how to care for a Jewish child suddenly abandoned in their care."

Jesse Stong wrote the play Winter's Daughter, based off Gino Chiarella's family story. (CBC)

Produced by ​Tableau D'Hôte Theatre — and presented at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts — the stage adaptation focuses on the decision of Maria and Giuseppe during that tense moment in 1921.

​​Jesse Stong, who wrote the play and workshopped it with Brody and Chiarella himself, described it as a sort of  "coming-out story."

Chiarella kept his grandfather's secret for decades, only starting to tell people after his mother and grandparents died.

Stong said the play is all about Chiarella's family history, but it doesn't feature him as a character; his mother is only four years old when the action of the play takes place.

In the play, Maria (played by Michaela Di Cesare) finds the Star of David necklace and doesn't immediately realize what it means. (CBC)

"It's about his grandparents at this moment in time when they're faced with a huge struggle," Stong said.

Stong explained that Maria and Giuseppe knew the peddler's daughter was Jewish because they found a Star of David necklace in the pocket of her coat.

When they realized the child's parents weren't coming back, they raised her Catholic as one of their own, hiding away the memento.

This necklace was gifted to Chiarella during that visit to Calabria so many years ago, presented as proof that his family has Jewish roots.

To this day, Chiarella said he's not sure why his grandfather decided to tell him the secret.

"He had to tell somebody and he picked me," he said. "Why? I don't know."

Tableau D'Hôte Theatre will be presenting the world premiere of ​​Winter's Daughter at the Segal Centre from Nov. 27 to Dec. 8.

About the Author

Marilla Steuter-Martin has been a journalist with CBC Montreal since 2015.