It’s been a year since the publication of Freedom in Jail by Roberto Assagioli, which I had the privilege to edit and write an introduction to. From its conception to its final release, this project felt like a massive treasure hunt. Some of the 160+ footnotes took me days to research. Others only led me down a dead end with no clear answer in sight.
While I was busy with Freedom in Jail, I was also preparing to make an international move from Germany to Italy. One of the many beautiful and synchronistic events related to this book was that Freedom in Jail appeared in print a few days before my arrival in Italy. In a strange way, the book and Assagioli were here to greet me.
I worked on this book, but this book worked on me, and continues to do so. Gruppo alle Fonti is now preparing an Italian translation for publication in the near future. While helping to prepare for this edition, a number of mysterious footnotes have been resolved and other insights have been uncovered.
Prison was one of Assagioli’s most gratifying experiences
In a 1965 interview with Julie Medlock, Assagioli said:
“One of my most gratifying experiences has been the month I spent in jail in 1940. In order that I should not have a bad influence on other prisoners I was put in a solitary cell. This greatly pleased me because the privacy offered me a welcome opportunity for a spiritual retreat. Such pauses or interludes from the wear and tear of modern life are very helpful and I greatly recommend them (although not necessarily in prison!). I made use of the seclusion for performing a series of exercises of meditation, contemplations, etc. Through them I attained new heights and intensity of spiritual realization.”
He talked about writing “a little book”
In the same interview he said:
“The many notes which I collected about that experience could make a little book on Freedom in Jail.”
He found prison life humorous at times
He also told Medlock:
“When three times each day the guards came to inspect carefully my cell and find out whether I had tried to saw the bars of the window I could scarcely refrain from laughing.”
After his release, Assagioli stayed with Nina Onatsky
Once released from prison, Assagioli wrote that he gave up his apartment in Rome and found a “friendly refuge: N.O.’s pension” (p. 63). We now know that N.O. was Nina Onatsky. But who was she? I spent a day on the internet trying to find out, and I virtually ended up in the Elmer L. Andersen Library at the University of Minnesota.
Nina was the wife of Evhen Onatsky (1984-1979), an Ukranian, who at the time of Assagioli’s release was teaching Ukrainian language at the University of Rome. Nina was “a very noble and refined lady,” university graduate and ran the pensione in order to raise money for her husband’s publications..
In 1943, E. Onatsky was also thrown into Regina Coeli prison! And so the plot thickens…
Onatsky played a major role during the Russian Revolution in 1917, which earned him a high ranking post in Ukrainian politics. He came to Italy in 1920 as chief of the Ukrainian Press Bureau. But then in 1923, the government of Ukraine was overthrown by the Russian communist regime. At that point, Onatzky became a member of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), an international political organization that believed in violently overthrowing Soviet Russia for Ukrainian independence.
At the start of WWII, Onatsky and the OUN was pro-German, hoping that the Germans would help the Ukrainians defeat Russian rule. About the time he must have known Assagioli, Onatsky was writing pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic material (under a pseudonym) for the Germans. He was also secretly acting as a political advisor for the head of the OUN, who the Germans persecuted. Onatsky soon secretly took his place.
Once Onatsky realized that the Germans had no intention of returning Ukraine to the Ukrainians, he switched sides and that’s when the Germans jailed him, later shipping him off to Berlin and Oranienburg prison camps.
In 1945, Onatsky was freed from jail and returned to Rome. Supported by the Americans of Ukrainian descent, he took charge of the Ukrainian-American Relief Committee in Italy. After two years, he and Nina migrated to Argentina where they lived out their years in Buenos Aires. Among the Ukrainian community, Onatsky become a well-known Ukrainian scholar and folklorist.
But the story doesn’t end there! It’s amazing what you can find on the Internet… While in Argentina, he was investigated by the CIA for his anti-communist activities. You can read his declassified CIA file here..
What I learned from all this is just how complicated times were in Rome during WWII. There were no clear cut sides. People had agendas and alliances of their own. The situation was complex and the people and their positions even more so.
Entering prison, entering death
One reader recently pointed out something very striking in the book that I hadn’t noticed before. According to the official prison papers, Assagioli entered prison on 23 August 1940. This is the same day that he died, 34 years later. Symbolically, prison can be seen as death. Both quickly, radically and resolutely transform one’s life.
Life is hard without an ISBN number
Despite my recurring suggestions and for some reason unknown to me, the publishers of Freedom in Jail (Gruppo alle Fonte and the Istituto di Psicosintesi) did not choose to obtain an ISBN number for this book. This means that copies are sitting in the Institute in Florence and on my bookshelf. They are difficult to sell because no internet book dealer will carry the book without an ISBN number. All this contradicts Assagioli’s desire that the book be freely distributed. He wrote:
“Let many copies be sent to prisoners, with a circular letter attached in which I give them personal encouragement and cheer and ask them to write to me” (p. 4).
The Italian post is desperate
Besides being ISBN-less, distribution for Freedom in Jail is further impeded by the Italian post. Despite the hefty cost to mail a book from Italy, it takes forever to arrive. I posted one book (cost $8.50) to the USA on 24 January and it arrived in good shape on June 22, nearly four months later. Express mail costs $11.50, which hopefully arrives a few months earlier…
Freedom in Jail costs €15.00 plus shipping. To order your copy, go to the Contact page or write to loveandwill (at) live (period) com.
 Autobiography of Anthony Hlynka (trans.), printed in Oleh W. Gerus and Denis Hlynka, ed., The Honourable Member for Vegreville: The Memoirs and Diary of Anthony Hlynka, MP, Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2005, pp. 127-128.