No, they were not in the cast of the Sopranos. The cousins were part of the approximately 90 000 Italian Prisoners of War who were imprisoned in South Africa from 1941 – 1947. And the two of them, worked om my Grandpa’s farm in the Laingsburg district.
I decided to try and find some official trace of Francesco and Giuseppe Cantatore, starting at the Zonderwater Prisoner of War Cemetery and Museum, some 10 km outside Cullinan.
The camp started off being basic tented accommodation. In due course a hospital was built, a most efficient sewerage system installed and clapboard, brick, concrete and corrugated iron structures erected to house the single biggest prisoner of war population in Allied territories. None of that remains today.
The site now comprise of a small museum and chapel as well as 252 graves. All beautifully kept within this tranquil setting.
Prisoner deaths occurred for a variety of reasons: disease, accidents, lightning strikes and shooting by the guards (there were 700 attempted escapes with Enrico Mottalini famously reaching Cape Town !!)
Camp life was superbly well organised and run by Colonel Hendrik Fredrik Prinsloo who was the camp commandant. His fine treatment of the prisoners of war, stands greatly to South Africa’s credit for all time. Recognition for his achievements was amongst others to be awarded with the Order of the Star of Italy as well as the Papal Order of Good Merit.
22 Orchestras and theatre companies held special performances in aid of charities at the time. And 28 major football teams were organised into a league.
At the Northern end of the terrain stands a striking statue of an angel, holding a lamp of remembrance. It was consecrated in 1963 in Milan, before it was sent to South Africa.
Before I drove back home, I took one more photo of the striking metal art work at the entrance, the handiwork of famed sculptor, Edoardo Villa himself a prisoner of war here at Zonderwater. After his release, he remained in South Africa, and be greatly missed, as he passed away on Sunday 1st of May 2011.
My search for evidance of the Cantatores, were a bit fruitless. After various visits to the Military Archive as well as the State Archive, all I found were two names on the list of soldiers, to be deported back to Italy.
But the close contact Francesco and Giuseppe had with the Kleinkaroo family they lived with from 1943-45 on the farm Rietvlei, still echoes in the fact that a distant cousin, 80 year old George Neft, can still court to 10 in near perfect Italian.
Need to know more: Contact Emilio Coccia 012 6673279