Maria Pepe from Oppido Lucano (Basilicata) hoped for the impossible and that one day, she might discover information about her father’s time on a farm in Australia.
Michele Pepe’s journey as an Italian solider and prisoner of war is like thousands of others: captured at Bardia Libya, sent to British POW Camps in India, arrived in Australia, sent to work on a farm, repatriated and arrived in Italy in 1947. But every Italian prisoner of war took home with them unique memories and sometimes photos.
Maria hoped that two photos her father kept, might help her locate the farming family. It is remarkable that not only has the Bruce family been found, but that both families have kept safe the same two photos. Mr KW Bruce from Riverton South Australia employed Michele to assist him on his mixed farm . “The broadacre crops grown on the farm were wheat, barley and peas. Mick helped to milk 25 cows every morning and evening. The farm also had 100 pigs, 500 sheep and about 100 chickens.” Heather Jackson (nee Bruce) recalls.
Michele’s Service and Casualty Form records that he was sent to farm work on 13.5.44 and left 7.3.46.
Michele Pepe with the Bruce family Riverton SA c. June 1945
(photos courtesy of Maria Pepe and the Bruce family*)
The two photos captured Michele with his farming family. In one photo he is happy, nursing a baby and standing with the farmer and his children. The other photo has Michele with Mr and Mrs Bruce and their four children. Maria Pepe writes, “My father always spoke about those three children so close to him. He often spoke about the suffering of leaving them to return to Italy. He told me, … [the young girl] cried when he left for Italy.”
Heather Jackson (nee Bruce) is the little girl in the photo and has provided invaluable information to Maria Pepe. “Michele (or Mick as the family called him) lived in a 4 room cottage in which he had the use of 2 rooms and a bathroom. This cottage was about 30 metres from the family home. Mick joined the family to eat all his meals,” Heather remembers. Maria remembers her father talking about, ‘the great humanity of Mr and Mrs Bruce who took Michele as one of the family.’
The Bruce siblings remember and reflect upon Sundays and Mick’s journey into town to attend church as Heather recounts: “Mick borrowed a horse and sulky to travel 5 kilometres into Riverton alone to attend the Roman Catholic Church service at 8 am on Sunday mornings. He would park the sulky and horse in the Methodist Church yard and walk to his Church. The Bruce family were Methodists, so he felt it only correct to park the horse and sulky in the Methodist Church yard. The Bruce family’s Methodist church service was much later in the morning, well after Mick returned from his church.”
A gesture of respect from a prisoner of war to a farmer.
The documenting of this history can be sometimes, one sided: an Australian farming family memories OR an Italian family memories. It is special when this history can connect both families. Maria has shared with the Bruce siblings, a little about Michele’s life after his return to Italy, and Heather has shared with Maria and her brothers details about farming life in the 1940s and special memories of Mick.
Wedding Photo: Elena and Michele Pepe 1948
(photo courtesy of Maria Pepe)
And Michele’s reflections of his time in Australia and being a prisoner of war will resonate with many Italian families: “Australia was beautiful and rich, but here in Italy, I feel like a king in my home.” (Maria Pepe)
* Heather Jackson (nee Bruce) believes that the photos were taken around the time of Michele Pepe’s birthday. The baby girl was born in April 1945 and Michele Pepe’s birthday was in June. This would have been Michele’s 28th birthday.