Arandora Star – When Fiction Serves Truth
I have known, and lived with the story of the Arandora Star for many years. I was a young reporter in local newspapers back in 1990 when a book arrived for review. It was “The Italian Factor” by Terri Colpi (a book I still treasure) which is THE guide to the Italian community in the UK
I scanned the book and immediately found myself gripped by the story of the Arandora Star – a passenger liner forced into war service which was sunk in 1940 carrying many hundreds of Italian prisoners who were being deported to Canada. (articles about the Arandora Star on barganews.com can be see here )
A flick through the index and a trawl of the phone book later, I found a survivor – the late and rather wonderful Rando Bertoia – a watchmaker living and working on Glasgow’s southside. I arranged an interview, in my youthful enthusiasm expecting him to rant about the injustice of the event, about the lack of lifeboats, the barbed wire, the locked doors which entombed prisoners in the bowels of the ship while it sunk to the depths of the Atlantic Ocean … I sensed a great scoop. Instead I discovered a forgotten tragedy that was to play a major part in my life.
Rando was no loudmouth. His was no cause celebre. When questioned about his sense of injustice or the crimes committed against him, in a still small voice he smiled sadly and said to me with great dignity, “These things happen in war”.
It was the most eloquent and dignified commentary on the tragedy I ever have or ever will hear.
“I feel a tinge of shame that Italy declared war on Britain. Some Italians here blame the British for sending out a ship (the Arandora Star). I can’t see that. Britain was trying to defend herself and we were enemies inside Britain. They thought they better send us away as we would pose a security risk.” – Rando Bertoia
Over the years my story became ever more entwined with the Arandora Star story. I served as chair of the fundraising appeal which eventually created the world’s largest monument to those who died, next to St Andrew’s Cathedral in Glasgow.
It is a truly beautiful and fitting installation, with mirrored plinths, quotes form the scriptures in Italian and English along with extracts from the great Italian writers – Dante, Petrarch and the rest. There is a fountain, a maze of mirrors, and at the end an olive tree – sign of peace and reconciliation, planted in the soil of Tuscany 200 years ago, and gifted by its people to our monumental garden.
It was one of my great satisfactions in life to see Rando present with the First Minister of Scotland and the Archbishop of Glasgow and singers from the Opera House of La Scala in Milan, for the opening of that monument.
And so any new book about the tragedy instantly attracts my attention.
Natalie Dye’s “Arandora Star” takes the dramatic historical reality and superimposes on it a hugely vibrant cast of fictional characters. I was anxious lest the tragedy be lost in the novel’s plot. But the opposite is true. The author has cleverly created a novel which serves the truth – not the other way round.
If you want to find out about one of the great forgotten tragedies of World War II read this novel.
If you want to understand the psyche of the UK Italian community read this novel.
And if you just want a cracking story that will move you to tears, read it too.
It is 1940. Lily, who is in her 20s, is trapped in a deeply unhappy marriage to Albert, an older, violent man who is tormented by his experience of shell-shock in the First World War. Lily finds comfort in the colourful characters who frequent the town’s Italian cafe, becoming close friends with the owner, Maria, and her son Antonio, a widower with a young son.
The relationship with Albert deteriorates with his jealousy of Lily and he brutally rapes her. She finds the strength to leave Albert and her friendship with Antonio soon grows into love. But their happiness is overshadowed by the spectre of Albert who is intent on destroying both of their lives. He seizes his chance when Italy enters the Second World War.
Albert falsifies information, incriminating Antonio. He is arrested, interned and held in appalling conditions in various makeshift camps with many other innocent Italian men living in Britain. Maria and Lily are desperate for news but they are reassured when they receive a letter from Antonio, explaining that he is Warth Mills camp, a derelict cotton mill in Lancashire. He asks them to send food and clothes to the camp.
But Antonio and the other Italian men in the camp are put on the Arandora Star, a vast cruise ship hastily refitted for war, which is to take them to Canada. On board are Italian, German, Austrian and Jewish internees. That night, the Arandora Star sails unescorted and without a red cross to indicate she is carrying civilians.
At dawn, a German U-boat returning home, and with only one faulty torpedo left, spots her and Nazi captain Gunther Prien fires his last torpedo. Within half an hour, the Arandora Star is sinking to the bottom of the Atlantic.
Although the story has been fictionalised, the tragedy of Arandora Star and the internment of Italians have been extensively researched and are historically accurate. The husbands and sons who were rounded up under Churchill’s demand to ‘collar the lot’ caused great suffering and grief to the families that remained. The Commander of the Warth Mills camp was subsequently imprisoned, and in the following years tens of thousands of Italians had been released as the internment policy was quietly dropped. – Arandora star – Natalie Dye
Through this work, more people will come to know the great story of so many acts of courage and the great sadness of so many Italian families across the UK whose lives were changed and indeed destroyed by Mr Churchill’s callous comment: “Collar the lot”. The cafe owners and waiters, the writers and musicians who were dragged away from their families, soon to perish on the Arandora Star were never any threat to Britain or its war effort. Their story is here told in an accessible and dramatic way.
As it says on the base of the new Arandora Star Memorial, next to St Andrew’s Cathedral In Glasgow – Non vi scorderemo mai (We will never forget you)
This novel is an important contribution to the ongoing commemoration of what was essentially a war crime.
Source – the blog of ItalianScotland editor, Ronnie Convery – www.ronaldopatrizio.wordpress.com
Among those lost on the Arandora Star were the following Barghigiani:
Agostini, Oliviero 29.04.1904
Bertolini, Vincenzo Silvio 14.06.1876
Biagioni, Ferdinando 06.07.1895
Da Prato, Silvio 27.02.1878
Poli, Amedeo 10.03.1896
Rocchiccioli, Caesar 06.12.1909
Togneri, Giuseppe 19.03.1889