Tag Archives: Giovanni Ragusa

It started with George

This story started with George aka Giovanni Ragusa, Italian Prisoner of War on Eric Behrendorff’s farm outside of Boonah.  At 94 years old Eric had clear memories of George that he shared with me for this project.  In 1944, Eric was  a young farmer of 22 years while George, slightly older at 32 years was also a farmer from Calascibetta on the island of Sicily.

Giovanni Ragusa

Giovanna Ragusa aka “George”

(from the Collection of Antonio Ragusa)

Fast forward 72 years and the story entitled His Name was George has connected Australians and Italians once again.  Antonio Ragusa, son of Giovanni has shared this father’s memories as a thank you to the Behrendorff family.  Antonio writes, “Dad never spoke of his imprisonment.  We knew he had been captured in North Africa and then sent to India and finally to Australia.  He worked in what he called ‘British labour camps’.  He learnt a little English and also to  strum the guitar.  He never played the guitar at home, but every so often he would say an English word.  We understood that he had a great nostalgia for Australia and the children.  Dad returned to Calascibetta and to his life as a farmer.  He married my mum in 1953 and then my brother and I were born.  In the mid 1960’s we moved to northern Italy where dad worked as a labourer until retirement.  He died in 1999, a month and a half after my mum died.  He had just turned 87 years.  In his personal papers, he have a small number of photos taken at the time he was working on a farm.  We did not know who the people were in the photo but we knew that that dad had a special connection to this family”.

Giovanni Ragusa Italy

Giovanni Ragusa

(photo courtesy of Antonio Ragusa)

After 72 years, Antonio Ragusa now knows the names of the people in the photos, thanks to Eric Behrendorff’s son David.  Antonio also now has details about his father’s movements between North Africa and Italy.

Giovanni Ragusa Eric Berhendorff

The Behrendorff Extended Family

George, John and Mary Schultz, Winifred, Bruce Abbot (boy in shorts) Nell Behrendorff (lady in hat), Phyllis, Eric Behrendorff (man in hat with tie) Rose and David Wieland (Eric’s parents in law)  Taken in John Street Boonah

(from the Collection of Antonio Ragusa)

Antonio says, “Grazie a te, mi hai fatto conoscere ancora meglio mio padre… thanks to you, I know my father better”.  Once upon a time language was an insurmountable barrier, but translation programs has aided the Ragusa and Behrendorff families  to communicate and exchange stories and memories of a time when an Italian POW nicknamed George worked on the farm of Eric Behrendorff.

Eric and Joanne.jpeg

Eric Behrendorff and Joanne Tapiolas October 2017

In October 2017, I had the pleasure of spending time with Eric. Eric spoke with melancholy of those war time years.  A time when you were scorned because you had a German surname, a time when you had charcoal burners fitted to your trucks to ‘power’ them and a time when ‘George’ was brought to a farm out Boonah way.

Eric said that sometime after George left the farm, he planted an avenue of olive trees.  Maybe George had  told him they would grow well or maybe they were a gentle reminder of a time when Italian prisoners of war worked on Queensland farms.

His Name was George

Back in those days, we grew potatoes, vegetables and we had a dairy out at Moogerah about seven miles from town.  Besides the ploughing, seeding and harvesting of the crops we had the twice daily task of milking our herd of 60 Friesian dairy cows.  It would have been the beginning of milking machines back then, but they weren’t that good.  The Cream Cart would collect the milk and take it to the Butter Factory in Boonah.  The cream would be skimmed to make the butter and the by product, butter milk would then be turned into a powder.  The buttermilk powder was used to feed the calves and for cattle.

George was a good match for our farm because of the work he did back in Italy.  We were lucky because he had knowledge of animals.  In Italy, he had about 100 ewes which were milked every morning.  Then they would make cheese with the milk. He could ride a horse and was good with all jobs around the farm. George was a hard worker.

Giovanni Ragusa

‘George’ Giovanni Ragusa Boonah

(from the Collection of Antonio Ragusa)

I was about 25 years old and my wife was 20 years old when we welcomed George.  Mr Collins used to be our school teacher and he was in charge of the Prisoner of War Centre in Boonah.  It was located on Railway Street where Dover and Sons are now.  It used to be the aerated water and cordial factory.

George came to us after he had been at the Moffat’s farm and probably was with us about 6 months.  He was never any trouble.  He ate with us and slept in the house.  He missed spaghetti and he told my wife how to cook it up using his family recipe, the proper way.  It was a good cheap meal.  The spaghetti would come out on the canteen truck.

The canteen truck also brought out other things for the men to buy.  Things like chocolate, shaving sticks, cigarettes.  George was clean shaven and would shave every day.  I know not sure whether that was the regulation or not.

We used to call them the “Red Army”, because of the coloured uniforms they had to wear.  George taught me some Italian but he would say in stilted English, “no possible, Eric learn Italian.”  He had pretty good everyday English.

George told us that he was in the Horse Brigade and during a battle he was knocked from his horse and he made out he was dead.  He said that they did what they could to survive. He had no respect for Mussolini and it was like he would spit and stamp it into the ground and curse and huff if Mussolini was talked about.

We didn’t go out much in those days because of the petrol rationing, but on a Sunday we would go and visit my wife’s parents in John Street Boonah.  I don’t remember taking him to church, but if he asked, I would have taken him.

Giovanni Ragusa Eric Berhendorff

‘George’ Giovanni Ragusa with Eric Behendorff and family Boonah

(from the Collection of Antonio Ragusa)

My brother Amos had two Italians.  Frank was a beautiful man.  Tony was a bit ‘funny’, I think a bit irrational at times, or easy to get upset. Their names were Francesco Di Lucca and Antonio Di Renna.

George didn’t want to leave our place when they had to return to Gaythorne.  He said that he would sooner stay working on the farm rather than wait around at Gaythorne until he could go home.  He had one regret, and that was that he would have liked to have been with us, when our first baby was born.  I think he wanted to meet our baby and have that connection with us.  After they were sent to Gaythorne at Enoggera we made the trip to Brisbane to say goodbye to him.  He told us that he wanted me to go visit him in Italy and he would welcome me and give me a good time and show me around.  We corresponded with him and him with us.

I have never forgotten his name: Giovanni Ragusa. But we called him George.

Eric Behrendorff

boonah-ragusa

Prisoner of War/Internee: Ragusa, Giovanni

(National Archives of Australia MP1103/2, 64947)