In a little corner of Zonderwater Prison on the Highveld, the memories of many thousands of Italian prisoners of war are cherished and kept safe.
It’s just a pocket-sized museum, a single room, but it holds the stories of more than 100 000 Italians taken prisoner in World War II. Here are books painstakingly handmade, as well as delicate, carved cigarette boxes of inlaid wood, tiny sculptures made with bread dough, the prototype for a fencing sword that was behind Italy’s Olympic gold medals, and sculptures and paintings that depict great sadness and joy.
Just outside Cullinan near Pretoria, the Zonderwater Museum and the Italian Military Cemetery alongside it are a tiny section of what today is the sprawling grounds of Zonderwater Prison. Once the largest prisoner of war camp created by the Allies, Zonderwater was set up in 1941 during World War II, specifically for Italian soldiers captured on Africa’s Northern and Eastern Fronts. At its biggest, the camp held a total of 86 000 men at one time in eight separate blocks.
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Strangely, few people have heard of this chunk of South Africa’s history. But then there are dedicated individuals, like Zonderwater Museum curator Emilio Coccia, for whom every piece in the museum has a special story. In 1970, Emilio left Parma, Italy to work as an engineer on Cahora Bassa in Mozambique, and eventually moved down to South Africa, and Zonderwater.
When I meet him at the cemetery, the dapper gentleman looks like he’d stepped out of a Milan apartment for an espresso, and greets me with a kiss on both cheeks. “Buon giorno, I have just opened the museum but first let me show you some of the graves,” says Emilio. And as we walk through this peaceful cemetery, where you can read the names of every Italian soldier who died a prisoner, so begins a fascinating story.
The history of Zonderwater goes back long before World War II to a critical time when a 12-year-old boy by the name of Hendrik Frederik Prinsloo and his mother were interned here in a British concentration camp in the early 1900s during the Anglo-Boer War. The horror of that time imprinted on Hendrik and, many years later, when Prime Minister Jan Smuts needed someone to run the enormous Zonderwater, it was an inspired choice indeed for Smuts to ask Colonel Prinsloo not to go off to fight in North Africa but rather to run the camp. “I need a man with a heart and wisdom,” said Jan Smuts, and the thousands of Italians that passed through this camp will tell you that was exactly what they got.
Italy entered the war in 1940 on the German side and a large number of Italian troops were sent to protect the Italian colonies of Abyssinia and Italian Somaliland. When the Allies overran the Italian armies in Libya and Abyssinia, more than 60 000 prisoners were taken and it was decided to ship them to Durban, then rail them to Pretoria and put them in a small tented camp next door to a Union Defence Force training camp near Cullinan.
When the camp opened in 1941, by all accounts conditions were appalling. “The prisoners mostly had no shoes, food was being stolen and disease was rife,” Emilio tells me. “The bell tents were supported by steel centre poles – great lightning conductors for Highveld thunderstorms. Some of the first prisoners died from lightning strikes, with many others maimed and burned.”
A New Era
Colonel Prinsloo certainly must have seemed like a knight in shining armour. “He stood no nonsense from anyone and soon reorganised the camp strictly in accordance with the Geneva Convention,” says Emilio, who describes how the POWs were in charge of their day-to-day affairs and the camp was the size of a small town. It had numerous schools, as many Italians arrived illiterate; by the end of the war, the literacy rate in the camp was dramatically improved, with educated Italians taking it upon themselves to write textbooks and readers (1 300 in total) and teach their fellow prisoners.
It is a poignant reminder to see in the museum some of the handwritten books made for these lessons, with grown men teaching each other the ABC, while far from home and desperately missing their family.
There was a 3 200-bed hospital fully equipped with modern operating theatres and X-ray machines. Peter Spargo, now living in Cape Town, tells me that his father, Alfred Hugh Spargo, joined the Medical Corps but was unable to fight up north for health reasons, and was made the senior admin officer for Zonderwater Camp Hospital.
“I was a lively, curly-haired six-year-old and was allowed to visit the camp with my father on Sundays,” reminisces Peter. “The Italians were amazing craftsmen and made me a yacht complete with rigging, and a lovely wooden station for my electric train, among other things. Sadly I don’t have those any more but I still have a beautifully carved casket that an A Ricci gave to my father. The Italians also cooked us wonderful Sunday lunches and served us just outside the gates of the camp.”
There was a shortage of South African doctors at the time as many were away fighting, so the Italian doctors in the camp were given refresher courses by local medical schools. There seemed to be much sharing of medical expertise between the South Africans and Italians. Emilio says, “One Italian doctor was a world expert on skin diseases and he lectured to the South Africans.” He adds, “The Italians have always been great artisans and artists. And the museum is a proud reminder of how they managed to create so much out of so little and work their way into the hearts of the South Africans.” The walls of the museum are lined with art – oils, pastels, pencil drawings, sculptures. One of the more famous POW artists was Edoardo Villa, whose sculpture of the Madonna is in the museum. His ashes are interred in the Zonderwater chapel.
As Emilio shows me around the museum and tells me snippets of people’s stories, I am touched by how much hard work, love and compassion the items represent. An Italian cabinet maker was taught by a South African to make violins and ended up making 23, three of which are in the museum. “There was a lot of music in this camp,” says Emilio. “There were 27 music ensembles and a brass band.”
Now, every year, there is a memorial service with a brass band on the first Sunday in November, and it’s attended by more than 1 000 people. A helicopter flies overhead and drops rose petals on the graves, while the young children dance about and try to catch the petals. I think any Italian soldier would be happy for children to be dancing around his grave.
“When we visited my father I remember being picked up by the Italian POWs and being kissed,” says Peter Spargo. “I could never understand why the men cried.”
The postal service run by the POWs handled 6.4 million items in 1943 and many of those letters must have held longing, and news of young children that fathers had not seen for years.
The relationship between the POWs and the South African military seems to have been one of huge respect and camaraderie. Italian artisans carved rugby trophies for Colonel Prinsloo to award at sports days, and every year a two-week exhibition was held at which the Italians could display and sell their handiwork, from paintings and carved cigarette boxes to silver or pewter jewellery and beautiful leather-bound books. Half of these proceeds went towards the needs of the POWs.
Such was the trust and growth of relationships that many prisoners were sent to work on projects such as road building, and assisted on farms. Italian prisoners planted 53 000 peach trees on the farm Olivedale, now a suburb in Johannesburg north. The POWs played a major role in building the Du Toitskloof and Outeniqua passes, and many of the old stone bridges across South Africa are the work of Italian stonemasons.
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Emilio’s eyes twinkle as he says, “One researcher has extrapolated that there were probably up to 3 000 illegitimate children born as a result of Italian POWs working throughout South Africa.” I can only imagine how exotic and attractive some of those young Italian soldiers must have seemed to South African women.
The Zonderwater POW camp only closed in 1947 as there was a shortage of transport after the war. (Imagine having to stay in prison for up to 18 months after war ends?) However, many Italians, like Edoardo Villa, chose to return to South Africa, and have created a thriving Italian community here. When I ask Emilio why he and other Italians give so much time to this museum and cemetery he says simply, “We are here because they were here.” What could be clearer than that?
- During World War II, murals were painted by Italian POWs in the Cullinan Mine Recreation Hall. They were boarded over just after the war to improve the acoustics to show ‘talking pictures’.
- For more than 40 years, these murals lay hidden and forgotten until a mining engineer and passionate historian, John Lincoln, heard rumours and decided to investigate. “I got permission, I had the right kind of labour and we went searching,” says John. “That was the start of the Heritage Society.”
- Eight murals were uncovered, all damaged, but three years later they were restored. The artists were identified as Valentino Buson and Giovanni Fornaciari. At the time their work was so highly thought of, they were requested to paint murals elsewhere, including at Potchefstroom Military Hospital, to decorate a facility for shell-shocked UDF troops.
Colonel Hendrik Prinsloo
- He was taken prisoner by the British at the age of 12 while carrying arms in his father’s commando during the Anglo-Boer War and was placed in a concentration camp with his mother. He later served in France with the South African Brigade in World War I and was awarded the French Croix de Guerre.
- At the end of World War II, he received an Order of the British Empire, and two awards from the Italians, one from the Pope. In 1947, he assisted in revising the protocols on the treatment of prisoners of war, according to the Geneva Convention.
- He farmed near Ermelo in the then Eastern Transvaal and was a passionate sportsman.
- When he was buried in Carolina in 1966, his coffin was carried by eight Italian ex-prisoners of war, one of whom had carved an angel for his grave.
- Land was donated by the Italian government to South Africa for a cemetery for South African soldiers at Castiglione dei Pepoli in Italy. In turn, the land of the Zonderwater Italian Military Cemetery was donated to the Italian government. It is maintained by the close-knit, local Italian community.
- The Zonderwater Block ex-POW Association was formed in 1947 by former POWs who remained in the Union and lived in the Pretoria area. Twenty years later it included former POWs living in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town – about 300 members here in South Africa and in Italy (honorary members, including the former Italian state president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who visited Zonderwater in 2002).
- Every year on the first Sunday of November is the Annual Memorial Service at 10h00. Anyone is welcome to attend.
- The cemetery is now on the land of Zonderwater Prison but can be visited if organised in advance.
Why the name Zonderwater?
Zonderwater means ‘without water’ and yet there were rivers there. One story goes that this farm and the neighbouring one were renowned for their mampoer but the next-door farm had a reputation for watering down its mampoer. Zonderwater supposedly became known for not adding water.
Words Sue Adams
Photography Sue Adams; Supplied