One of Cullinan’s most fascinating heritage sites is the Zonderwater Italian POW camp, now a small museum and cemetery about 30km east of Pretoria.
The camp was opened in 1941 to house Italian soldiers who had been captured by the allies fighting in North Africa and was the largest allied POW camp of World War II, with a capacity for 100 000 prisoners.
The initial conditions were appalling but improved immensely under the leadership of Hendrik Frederik Prinsloo, who had himself been imprisoned during the Anglo-Boer wars. It is Prinsloo’s personal experience of Boer War concentration camps that is credited with the humane treatment of the prisoners during the six years that the camp functioned.
Zonderwater housed numerous schools where illiterate Italian soldiers learnt to read and write and the prisoners organised regular music galas, theatre productions and art exhibitions.
Today the one-room Zonderwater museum, which overlooks the well-tended military cemetery, is lovingly curated by first-generation Italian immigrant Emilio Coccia. Inside is a poignant collection of artworks made by the prisoners, including paintings, sculptures and musical instruments, as well as handwritten illustrated textbooks.
One of the most famous former prisoners, Edoardo Villa, stayed in South Africa after the war and became a celebrated sculptor. Some of his sculptural pieces can be seen in the grounds.
Visits by appointment only. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call Emilio Coccia on +27 (0)12 667 3279 to organise a visit.