Remembering Italian prisoners of war at Zonderwater cemetery Print E-mail
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Wednesday, 03 December 2008 23:23
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Fallen heroes of the Second World War were commemorated at the Zonderwater Italian Military Cemetery outside Cullinan on Sunday 2 November. The ceremony memorialised the 67th anniversary of the opening of the cemetery in remembrance of the prisoners of war (POW) who died there.

Italians, South Africans of Italian descent, military officials and visitors watched as the ambassador of Italy, Elio Menzione, laid the first wreath.

The cemetery turned into a colourful display of wreaths and poppies at each grave and at the three huge crosses at the entrance. Parachutist landed and presented the South African and Italian flags to the Italian Ambassador. As the four Harvards flew by, the flags were hoisted.

The dignitaries took the salute when the South African and Italian National Anthems were sung.

Two Italian choirs, Valli Alpine and Giuseppi Verdi, led the singing of the two national anthems accompanied by the South African Air Force Band. Emilio Coccia, resident of the Zonderwater Block Ex-POW Association, said the ceremony is to remember all soldiers who died selflessly for their beliefs and their country.

“We pay tribute to them teaching the generations to come that we will remember the fallen heroes.” Gert Grobler, representative of the South African government, referred to the legacy left by the people of Zonderwater and the respect and friendship that developed between the South Africans and the Italian POWs. He said Zonderwater symbolises the triumph of the human spirit over difficulties.

The basic Italian camp was stationed at Zonderwater between 1941 and 1947. Prisoners were sometimes moved to other POW camps in South Africa or stationed at local farms.

Giuliano Lippi, who arrived from Italy in 1966, still lives in South Africa and said that this is a special occasion which has a special meaning for the Italian community. “This lovely, well-kept place unites us and every year we return to pay tribute to those long gone and to mourn the effect of war on all mankind,” he said. About 90 000 Italian prisoners lived at Zonderwater. The prisoners were divided into blocks and competition was rife amongst them.

A score of well-trained sportsmen participated in various athletic contests, competed on the twenty soccer fields, played tennis and a variety of other sport. They were farming, gardening, doing maintenance work and the twenty four miles of road had to be maintained. Italian postal clerks at the Central POW Post Office handled a huge number of airmail letters and parcels. During 1943 there were 3 325 444 outgoing and 3 144 831 incoming letters.

A scene from ?II Cardinale? with an all-male cast and costumes, dcor and props created by the prisoners themselves.
Photo: Emilio Coccia

A score of well-trained sportsmen participated in each of the various contests. Camp Commandant, Col H F Prinsloo distributed the prizes to the winners.
Photo: Emilio Coccia

In the museum on the cemetery premises each square meter tells its own story. It houses special items of art, crafts, photos and memorabilia commemorating the unique spirit and talent of the people they represent.

Zonderwater POW camp had its own hospital, education and broadcasting system, newspaper and theatre. Stage props were made from an unbelievable variety of materials and actors, choirs and orchestras regularly staged operas and operettas such as‘Cin-Ci-La’ and ‘La Principessa degli Zingari’.

The museum would gladly accept and take into custody any items, photos and anecdotes that could preserve the memory of what happened so many years ago.

For more information, contact Emilio Coccia, curator of the museum, at 012-667-2640.

Italian Special Force, Carabinieri, D Cruciani and G Rainer, carried the wreath of the Alpini National Association to the monument.


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