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Category: Interviews »

Subject: Early History »

Laura Mecca on civilian internment and Italian prisoners of war in Australia

Laura Mecca and Mara Moustafine.

Historian Laura Mecca tells of the experience of Australian Italians who were interned as "enemy aliens"; and Italian prisoners of war in Australia including those who returned as post-war immigrants.



Date Added:

30 March 2009


source not available


mov (Quicktime);

File size:

9.8 MB




That was a very sad period for the community, the community was absolutely subdued, they lost the protection of the Italian Government and that of the Australian Government because they were enemy aliens. Mussolini wouldn’t give a damn about the Italians that were around the world when he declared war.

Only approximately one hundred and sixty Italians were interned in Melbourne, which is quite interesting because Sydney had over 600 – 680 or something like that. Why? I mean Melbourne was really the centre of all the anti-fascists. There were many pro-fascists, there are photographs of the Cavour Club all in black shirts. Even photographs of children dressed as Balilla in front of the club. The Catholic Church, Archbishop Mannix  played a big role in protecting the Italians.
He protected them through Father Modotti, he protected the Italians in Melbourne. So the Italians were not interned – in many cases they were warned and asked to leave the town. So they left the town and they went out to relatives in the country, so they were saved. So very few Italians were interned like Ginese Triaca or Dr Sontoro, very strong Fascist supporters. Many of the Melbourne internees were released soon after.
18,0000 prisoners of war came to Australia. And a large number in Victoria. Now, these people came mainly from India after they were caught in North Africa and they were sent to Australia. So many Australian men were at war, so, you know, the country was depleted of man power. So they said, “Why don’t we do this international exchange?” Because the same happened to the Australians who were interned in Italy, they were sent out to work in the farms. So – except that the number was very limited. But, you know, they offered them to come to Australia and work here and go out in the farms and work, which they did. I mean, all these young people, they came from farming background originally.
They were the real ambassadors, they really conquered the heart of the hard core Australian conservatives which were the farmers. And they opened their doors, for the mass migration of the 1950s. So definitely an enormous contribution. And they were loved, like anything, and the Australians really embraced them and they became sons for a lot of people. So they stayed here long periods. Unfortunately at the end of the war Italy did not have the money to pay back under the convention of Geneva, the money that the Australian Government kept giving them on a monthly basis – nor did they have the ships to take them back.
So they had to stay here, some of them stayed here until 1947. Yet very few were allowed to stay on [after the War when they were repatriated] . Only those who were caught on board the ship Romolo in Perth, were allowed to stay in Australia without being repatriated. There was quite a number of them though that came back as migrants sponsored by the same Australian farmers and by many fellow Italians whom they had met here. So [for some it was  sad period] , but other Italians had it very, good here in the farms, they were treated very well.          03:45
End transcript