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Sunday, 25 October 2015

Bari, Sacrario dei caduti d'oltremare

Bari, Sacrarium of those fallen overseas

The reason for my trip to Bari, in southern Italy was to visit this military cemetery. (An aside, I also had an extra language lesson! Being that it's a military cemetery or war cemetery I translated the English terms into Italian and was met with puzzlement. It turns out this particular site is called a 'sacrario' which translates into English as sacrarium, and I had to look that word up too! It means sanctuary, that does have a nicer connotation for those who visit their war dead, to visit a sanctuary, rather than a cemetery.)

Visiting the sacrarium was a step into family history for me as my mother has a family member whose remains are interred there. Other family members from my mother's side of the family had visited in the past and Mum had expressed an interest in going there as well, we happened to be in Italy at the same time so I organised the travel details for us to visit.



The Sacrarium from the road. 

It was built in the 1960s to house the remains of Italian soldiers who died in foreign lands, in Ethiopia, Libya, Greece, Albania and Yugoslavia (now listed as ex-Yugoslavia). From what I've been told the Italian government took the decision to transfer the remains of soldiers buried in foreign cemeteries when those buried in Africa were at risk of their graves being desecrated in the early 1960s. The remains of those in Europe were also transferred. In my mother's family's case their relative was killed in what was then Yugoslavia and had originally been buried in a cemetery in Ljubljana (now in Slovenia).



The Sacrarium is on two levels, up the stairs there are the main vaults holding the remains of the soldiers, it's divided into locations. We then knew to look in the Yugoslavia section (the Italians spell it Jugoslavia) and then it's in alphabetical order (not rank) to it's easy enough to find who you are looking for. The staff there were very helpful and found him for us and brought a ladder so I could go up and take a picture as his name plate was right at the top!)



Once up the steps there is this internal courtyard with the vaults around it.



From the courtyard looking across to the entrance and the sea beyond. It is a very nice setting.



At the back of the courtyard there is a staircase from which you go down into the crypt. There along the walls are lists of names, again divided into countries. This list is for those who died in Greece or Yugoslavia and whose remains were not found.



There are also plaques listing the number of remains that they weren't able to identify, so in Yugoslavia, there were 4,500 unknown soldiers.



This is the altar in the crypt, there is also a separate chapel that opens out into the grounds where a weekly Mass is still held.



I didn't know this when I took the picture, I was just taking a general grounds photo. But the arches in the background are a replica of a roman aqueduct from the Libyan war cemetery where the remains of those killed in Libya were initially buried. The central arch apparently was the entrance to the war cemetery.



The arches in the background represent the major African campaigns where Italian soldiers died.

The Sacrarium was both a lovely and sad place to visit. Lovely as it's a beautifully maintained way of honouring those soldiers who lost their lives and sad when you consider that they lost their lives due to decisions that their leaders had made.

I also learnt the actual story of my family member, our family comes from the peninsula of Istria, between WWI and WWII it was part of Italy. As the war progressed men were conscripted in the Italian army, my ancestor was 28 at the time (which was in the older age group) but he was an educated man, he was a teacher and was conscripted at the rank of Lieutenant. During the time he was serving in the army he was still studying and only 20 days before he was killed he had gone to Turin to take his final exams for his doctorate so he could be a professor. When I heard that part of his story my initial reaction was "What a waste". His family were devastated to lose him, but also what a waste to cut his life so short and deprive the world of the potential that he had. I also know that he spoke 5 languages, including English which was unusual at the time considering where he lived. (As children, my brothers and I loved to explore my mother's old family home, where many generations had lived. The attics were full of all sorts of interesting things, I remember being surprised in finding old books in English, my brothers found the uniform studs and sash from a military uniform. It turned out these had all belonged to this relative.) The other story I had been told about him was that he had helped 3 Jewish doctors escape from Italy (and the influence of the Nazi campaign of imprisonment and eventual extermination). The mother of one of these doctors wrote a letter to him thanking him for what he had done, it's a prized family possession held by an elderly aunt. 

My relative is only one of the 70,000 whose remains are interred at the sacrarium, so there are 70,000 other stories of men whose lives were mourned and cut short.




It's hard to see but this sign lists:

Those fallen in wars who are identified 34,461

Those fallen in wars who are not identified 40,389

The other lists are the amounts of soldiers who are interred at the sacrarium and the decorations they received.



Although this sign states it's the fallen from 1940 to 1945, that may have been the case initially when bringing the remains back to Italy. It now houses the remains from earlier campaigns such as Albania which predate WWII.

Bari also has a separate war cemetery which houses the Commonwealth War Graves. (The taxi driver with whom we had a confused conversation, at first thought we meant that cemetery, as while Mum and I sound like native Italian speakers, we don't know all the correct terms! We kept saying 'war cemetery' rather than 'sacrarium'. Although the 'war cemetery' as the taxi driver called it isn't 'The American cemetery' once we established we wanted the Italian one! It's the British and Commonwealth forces who are buried there.)




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