Prisoners of love at Zonderwater


Prisoners of love at Zonderwater

DEBORAH STEINMAIR was charmed by a nonfiction book about the young Italian men who left such an in indelible impression on our country.


SOMETIMES I am saddened anew by the fact that my father passed away. For instance, while reading this book. How much I would have loved to buy it for him, and how much joy he would have derived from it!

My father got to know two prisoners of war as a young boy. Even though there was a rule that prisoners were not allowed to fraternise with the civilian population, our people were quite hospitable and curious about the neat Italian men who worked on farms and roads. My father and the Italians couldn't exactly communicate but they made music together. Until the end of his life, he played a melody on the mandolin they'd taught him.

I read mostly fiction, and I'm always after the characters. Fortunately, Karen Horn doesn't portray the POWs as a faceless group — she takes turns telling of the exploits of five of them, so the reader invests in their well-being — even of the unwavering fascist among them, Giovanni Palermo. There are also the charming and resourceful Pietro Scottu, a serial escapee with his cute puppy, Chippie; Luigi Pederzoli, who had a wife and children in Italy; Paolo Ricci, a tailor; and Rafaello Cei, a cook.

Jan Smuts's clever plan was to use the prisoners of war as cheap labour to boost the economy in the absence of young South Africans fighting overseas for the Allies. He even had to send England prisoners of war to work there: it put in an order stipulating exactly what skills it needed. The young prisoners often lied about their abilities just to get out and see the world.

Zonderwater near Cullinan was the Union's pride, especially towards the end of the war. The Italians learnt all kinds of skills there, they studied languages, played football, even had a library and a newspaper. The bibliophile in me was moved to read that every prisoner had to have a book to exchange if he wanted to belong to the library. One of them didn't have a book so he simply wrote one.

It was especially after Colonel Hendrik Prinsloo took over the camp that things started to get better. His photograph is in the book: he has a kind, good-natured face. He was in the concentration camp with his mother as a boy and the horrific experiences there inspired him to do better: the prisoners were kept busy, the rows of tents were replaced with huts that the men helped build and they were given decent food.

The Italians were indeed good for our economy but they were also a bit of a headache for Smuts and the authorities of Zonderwater. Only those who wished to sign a declaration that they had sworn off fascism were allowed to leave the camp and work on farms or elsewhere. Not everyone was always honest about their political persuasion when there was a chance to get out and meet women.

The mistake the Union made was to believe the Italians were a homogeneous group with more or less the same characteristics. They were seen as “docile" because they surrendered easily in the war. The fact is that not all of them were soldiers — some were office workers. The group of five whose exploits we follow was quite diverse.

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Horn spent a lot of time in the archives, had manuscripts and letters translated and talked to the POWs themselves: two lived to be more than 100. Her interest was sparked while writing her first book, about South African prisoners of war overseas. I talked to her about her book at the VWB-Cullinan Book Festival, in the shadow of Zonderwater, which is a prison today.

Such a group of restless, curious and hormonal young men was difficult to control. It wasn't that hard to escape from Zonderwater either — you could lie down under a tarp on a truck. The problem was how to get back to Italy or survive outside the camp at all. Some just escaped to explore a bit, then went back.

In a country where the capable young men fought overseas, the neat, dark Italians were very alluring to the female population. They were received with open arms, and more. Passionate love stories unfolded and hearts were shattered. The prisoners of war and their South African girlfriends often wrote to Smuts begging to be reunited, especially since there was often a child on the way. Women also turned to Aunt Issie, Smuts' wife. There are examples of heartbreaking letters in broken English:

Surely you must forgive me everything I did to [your daughter], but you must understand that it happened just through love that existed between me and her. And still today I have the same feeling towards [her] as great as in the past and nobody may prohibit our promise. And therefore I wrote to her almost twice a week, but I am very discounted with her mail, which never arrives.

Please, Sir, forget my wrong deeds and satisfy this sad heart, and tell me where [she] is, and why she does not write, so that I can say that you made me feel happy till the last moment. I am in Zonderwater.

The Italian POWs made their mark here, and not just in the hearts of young women. Some stayed behind after the war and made a name for themselves, such as Gregorio Fiasconaro, who distinguished himself on the local opera scene, and Aurelio Gatti, who founded an ice-cream empire.

On the cover is a atmospheric photo of a prisoner playing a violin he made out of planks and with horsetail hair for strings.

The Italian POWs also pop up in Afrikaans literature, as in Etienne van Heerden's novel The Long Silence of Mario Salviati and Gerda Taljaard's Vier susters, where the sisters fall in love with a prisoner of war who has escaped.

Maybe I'll become a reader of history books, like my father. I'm not the only one — the book had to be reprinted shortly after it appeared on the shelf.

Prisoners of Jan Smuts by Karen Horn was published by Jonathan Ball and costs R340 at Exclusive Books.

What are we listening to?

Peppino Gagliardi sings Settembre:

♦ VWB ♦

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