Hidden history: Dehumanisation and death at Loveday

The small Riverland town of Loveday was the home of South Australia’s largest internment camp. It’s history is one far from love, having targeted civilians of certain ethnic origins and being a site of 134 deaths and one murder. (Image source: The Australian War Memorial CC)

By Lorenzo Polisena | @LorenzoPolisena

Loveday, a small town around 230km from Adelaide and about 9km from Barmera, has a hidden history far from love, rocked by the scandal of its internment camp discrimination. The town’s name might make you think it is a quaint place in rural South Australia but its past, during World War II, shows an oppression of people from Italian, German, and Japanese origins. It highlights a history of racism based on fear and indifference, with significant loss inflicted, tarnishing a place with a name as sweet as Loveday.

Grandchildren of migrants know the common rhetoric of their struggles, sacrifices and racist encounters fought, with such speeches ringing a loud and long echo. Hearing their hard-hitting experiences is one thing but discovering the depths of those struggles is another. Beneath these memories lay the reality of the fate risked by many migrants, as one broken international law led to one preventable death at Loveday, among countless around Australia.

During WWII, the Australian Government passed the National Security Act of 1939. Which, among other things, gave the government a free pass to intern innocent civilians in camps all around Australia. The Act was discriminatory, to say the least, because it only targeted people of certain ethnic origins. The Loveday Internment and Prisoner of War Camp was the largest in the state. Thousands of Italians were interned at Loveday from 1941, to its closure in early 1946.

Image source: The Australian War Memorial CC

La Trobe University’s Dr Ilma Martinuzzi O’Brien has heavily documented their stories, but also understands the stories personally as a daughter of an internee at Loveday. Dr O’Brien has detailed the stories of Loveday in her 2013 book, The Internment Diaries of Mario Sardi, which follows the life of an Italian internee. As a daughter of an internee, it impacted her family well beyond her father’s time at Loveday.

“It certainly affected my father’s career, he was never employed in a public company after that…he’d been to university as well,” Dr O’Brien says.

Dr O’Brien went on to explain how the rest of the family were impacted, saying her “mother, who wasn’t Italian, was always very annoyed about it, she thought it was terrible that he had been ‘taken’; which was the word commonly used to describe internment.”

“I don’t think the laws were discriminatory, but the way they were implemented were, because the evidence used to intern them was never legally tested; it was often hearsay or prejudice.”

“There was a lot of discrimination…yes there was [racism]… there was certainly a lot of anti-Italian sentiment, even well before Italy entered the war,” Dr O’Brien says.

The internment of Italians, among other foreign civilians, were based largely on ethnic origins, not on security risks. There had been foreign civilians who threatened national security and were interned to protect Australians. However, the racial profiling of innocent Italians wasn’t the end, but the beginning.

Image source: Smith’s Weekly, 1940 (front page)

During the operation of Loveday, 134 internees and one prisoner of war died. 134 innocent civilians died in one of the most remote parts of South Australia alone. The National Archives of Australia prove there were numerous transfers ordered for medical attention of those interned at Loveday. A question which may never be answered is: if any of the 134 internees who died had received proper medical attention sooner, would they have lived to be freed from Loveday?

Many of the 134 deaths were due to illness, with several by suicide and one murder. The sole homicide was of Mr Francesco Fantin, originally from Vicenza, Italy. Mr Fantin was well-known for his anti-fascist beliefs and his opposition to the fascist governance of Italy, which is what authorities at the time believed to be the motive for his murder. Due to a greater number of fascists than anti-fascists, some internees were reluctant to come forward regarding the murder for fear of retaliation. His murderer, Mr Bruno Casotti, only spent two years in prison for manslaughter.

Editor of the Queensland newspaper La Riscossa, Mr Frank Carmagnola, on September 10 1942 sent a letter to the Loveday Camp Commandant. In the letter Mr Fantin is proven as an anti-fascist, but still remained in Camp 14a despite the evidence. It should be noted that La Riscossa was regarded as an anti-fascist publication. Regardless of the newly received information, Mr Fantin died two months later.

“Mr Fantin was a correspondent for such paper…I know that his sympathies and his actions were all definitely anti-fascists and that he was not in any way disloyal either in thought or deed…It is regretted that a man of such views should be imprisoned in camp with a number of definite fascists,” Mr Carmagnola wrote.

Mr Fantin’s death highlighted how the internment of Italians were largely baseless, and such racial profiling led to unnecessary deaths. Loveday serves as a reminder that treatment of other ethnicities should not be based on colour of skin or by the content of character, but by the colour of character.

“To avoid racism and discrimination is the main message, to treat everyone equally and fairly,” Dr O’Brien says, especially after Loveday.

Image source: The Tribune, 1942 (front page)

An empathetic speech led by South Australian Member of Parliament Hon Tony Piccolo in 2012 said, “The manner in which people were ‘rounded-up’ was often crude and embarrassing…police knocked on the door and arrested people without due process. People were dragged away in front of their families…thrown into prison cells and temporary camps, their internment was unedifying and humiliating, stripping them of their dignity.”

“Mr Fantin’s killing reflected the authorities’ view that all Italians were the same. In reality, they are as diverse, like any other community.”

Article 81 from The Geneva Conventions of 1929 mandated that civilians who, “fall into the enemy’s hands and whom the latter thinks expedient to detain, shall be entitled to be treated as prisoners of war.” In the case of Loveday, this meant Italian civilians were classified as POW’s. A lack of justified legal proceedings resulted in innocent people being interned unnecessarily. Piccolo also mentioned how the Australian policy, at the time, was a mistake.

Piccolo also affirmed the allegations that the high levels of fear led to Italians being interned on “weak and unsubstantiated intelligence information”.

“At the time, the Government policy was to control the Italian community, by picking out the leaders and interning them…[Italians] advocated peaceful coexistence,” Dr O’Brien says.

Article 81 also stated that if a foreign individual, in a civilian capacity, is a risk to the national security of a country, they can be interned. However, with weak or no intelligence information at all, the authorities interned people via rumour. This made it endlessly possible for innocent Italians to die unnecessarily on Australian soil.

The story of Mr Fantin is one of many, not including other ethnic groups interned around Australia and the world. This piece of hidden local history discloses the story of Italians who silently endured discrimination; all of whom paid the price, with their freedom and many with their lives.

Hon Piccolo said, “Like all internees, life in the camps left an indelible mark,” just like the death of Mr Fantin and the 134 at Loveday.

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