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San.Pancrazio (Parma) il 30
Volontario nella 1div. CCNNXXIII Marzo 1919.
Detenuto prigioniero a Zonderwater dal 1942 al
1947. Blocco 9 campo 41
Ti invio la mia fotografia con tutta la mia squadra.
Bacioni Dante 20/07/1940
Compgnia Comando 123, 1Legione
Divisione 23 Marzo, Ertrea
A mia mamma per ricordo
A Zonderwater, Dante, seduto
quarto da destra a sinistra
A Zonderwater, Dante a
destra con il berretto.
These pictures, kindly submitted by Paolo
Martini, depict the periods 1930-1946 of his
fathers war experiences; kindly note that
any reproductions of these images will have
to be with the permission of the holder.
Queste immagini, gentilmente inviate da Paolo
Martini, rappresentano i periodi 1930-1946 delle
sue esperienze di guerra di suo padrie;
gentilmente notate che le riproduzioni di queste
immagini dovranno essere con il permesso del
South African Welfare Officer
Lt. Francoise Theron,
affectionately know by the
Italian POW's as Francesco.
Background to Mickey Mouse 'orchestra'.
During the Second World War a large group of Italian soldiers were captured by the
Allies in North Africa, and they were sent to a major P.O.W. camp at Zonderwater,
outside Pretoria, in South Africa. My late father was the P.O.W. Liaison & Welfare
Officer, appointed as such by the SA Government because he had worked in Italy
before the war and spoke fluent Italian.
Many of the prisoners had been silversmiths, painters, artists and woodworkers before
going into the war (mainly as conscripts) so time hung heavy for them in the camp. As
a result my father helped to start a labratorio artistico in 1941-42 to relieve the
monotony of camp life. It was a place where they could practise their peacetime skills.
It was probably the most civilised P.O.W camp in the world.
My father was also the most off-beat officer of the war. Because our house was an
hour's drive from the camp my father often packed me into his Jeep and drove me to
the camp with him, to be introduced as his bambino, who had been born in Rome. I still
have a vague memory of being carried (as a five-year-old) on the shoulders of the
prigionieri along the barbed-wire perimeter of the camp. I suppose they were thinking
of their own children on the other side of the war.
One day one of the artists asked my father which contemporary cartoon character was
my favourite, and he replied that, without a doubt, it was Mickey Mouse. So the
woodcarver set about creating a complete Mickey Mouse orchestra - 10 individual
figurines, perfect in every detail. The conductor, the pianist, the strings section, and so
on, about 6" high.
Seventy years later I still have the set in almost pristine condition. It has been lovingly
preserved behind glass for almost 70 years. The orchestra is unique; no other set was
ever made and the artist is long dead. It is still being kept in a locked display cabinet.
I believe it must have some value as a collectible item.
2/Lt. Piet Theron
Zonderwater P.O.W Welfare Officer 1941-42
Pieter Francois Theron grew up as a farm boy in Ermelo, Transvaal, during The
Great Depression of the 1920's. After matriculating he joined the SA Diplomatic
Service, and his first posting was to Rome - as a junior diplomat, a concilieri di
legazione at the Embassy.
He married my mother shortly afterwards, and they were to live in Rome for nearly
seven years, until the war broke out. By then they were more Italian than South
African, and spoke the language fluently. They even tended to speak it to each other
long after returning home. For them 'home' was really their apartment on the Via
Arno in Rome - a place they had left in haste when the war broke out.
I know that my parents had taken a part of Italy with them when they left, because
our home was draped in nostalgia. Paintings and tapestries, packed at the last
minute, photo albums, ornaments, bric-a-brac and hundreds of postcards, pasted
into a book. Per ricordo, as my father always said.
There were ephemeral souvenirs: tram tickets, cash slips for a quick meal of
bolognese near the Veneto, eaten on the run, newspaper cuttings, even receipts for
laundry services, preserved as if one day they might go back to re-pack their clothes
in cupboards of the apartment they had left so hurriedly when the war clouds
The first Italian prisoners of war, after battles in North Africa, were sent to the
remote area of Zonderwater, and my father was transferred from External Affairs
(as it was then known) to a post as P.O.W. Welfare and Liaison officer at
Zonderwater - acting also as interpreter for the authorities.
Given his background and friendly relations with the prigionieri it was inevitable the
my father would eventually end up in trouble.
When a lightning strike killed some prisoners in their conical tent he insisted that
they receive a full military funeral. That entailed finding an Italian flag somewhere,
and this he eventually got from an expatriate Italian who had settled in SA before
the war. That stamped him as a 'suspected Italian sympathiser' and he was placed
under house arrest for a while.
He eventually went back to his civil service post.
But after the war many of the Zonderwater prisoners were reluctant to go back to
Italy, which was politically unstable, and jobs were scarce. The classic Vittorio de
Sica film Bicycle Thieves (1948) highlighted the plight of post-war Italians. At this
time my father was helping countless numbers of his Zonderwater ex-prisoners to
settle in South Africa and to find employment here.
Zonderwater POW art, postcards
sketches sent to Lt Theron during
his time as Welfare Officer
Dante, primo a destra