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Walking in my Father’s Footsteps

Imagine spending your 21st birthday in a South African Prisoner of War camp during World War 2. You haven’t seen your family since you were 17. You’ve survived an arduous journey down the west coast of Africa, and then been sent inland to the dry place - the Zonderwater detention camp. This is where my father, Eugenio Piergiovanni stayed until the beginning of 1946. He was finally released at the age of 25.

These were my thoughts as I looked around the Zonderwater Museum and Military Cemetery that is located just outside Pretoria in South Africa. In January 2018, with my two sisters, my mum and my eldest daughter, we’d made the journey to a site which commemorates and respectfully acknowledges not only those prisoners who died in the camp (over 250) but those foreigners who fought for their country and had been captured by the allies. This is acknowledged as the largest Prisoner of War (POW) camp in the Southern Hemisphere of the Commonwealth forces which housed over 63,000 prisoners at any one time during World War 2.

Eugenio Piergiovanni in the Zonderwater POW Camp (1946); Emilio and I in the Museum

Cemeteries have a peacefulness that is spiritual; it is a sanctuary. And it was here with the sound of a fountain merrily splashing water, that we were welcomed by Emilio Coccia, the President of the Zonderwater Association ex POW Block. This debonair gentleman explained that he’d been in South Africa for over forty years, and before retirement had been an engineer involved in the Cabora Bassa scheme (largest hydroelectric scheme in Southern Africa).

I cannot express my appreciation for the opening of Zonderwater on a non-public day, as it provided the incredible opportunity for my discovery of a photograph proclaiming the presence of my father in this camp. Despite records confirming his incarceration, and my father’s diaries providing much information for the book, GOODBYE to Italia, discovery of this museum photo was an overwhelming moment for all of us.

As I reflect on that visit, I have a sense that my writing journey, that only seriously commenced in 2012, with the intent of creating a legacy for our children and grandchildren, has brought me to this moment. There was a sense of completing a circle as I gazed at my father’s mischievous face in that black and white grainy photo. Almost as if to say, peek-a-boo! My father may have passed on many years ago but at that moment, he was definitely there beside us as we walked in his footsteps at Zonderwater.

Marisa Parker - Author


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