submitted by Kytherian Cultural Exchange on 18.05.2009
TWO: Interview on Australian Broadcasting Commission, Televison's, Australian Story.
Tony De Bolfo - The author behind the story of the journey of the Dall’Italia All’Australia.
In Search of Kings
Hi I’m Robert Di Pierdomenico but you can call me Dipper. I’m a former Aussie Rules player. Now I’m a Channel Seven boundary rider. Tonight’s first Australian Story is about sports writer and journalist Tony De Bolfo, who like me has Italian heritage. What started, as an interest in his own family’s journey has become an obsessive quest. To unravel the story and mysteries behind this amazing family who arrived here seventy years ago.
Tony De Bolfo
I can’t begin to imagine what must have been going through the passengers’ minds when they arrived in this foreign land. Maybe there was the pioneering spirit and they thought aw well, it can’t be any worse than what we’re leaving and let’s give it a go.
Many of them stayed and the legacy of their lives continues in this country.
Well I have an Italian background my grandfather together with his two brothers came to Melbourne in 1927 aboard the Re d’Italia. There was nothing romantic about this voyage. Passengers preoccupied themselves for those 46 days by basically playing cards, for the most part it was a laborious, monotonous and horrible trip. My grandfather lived until he was 78 or 79. He died in 1981 and I was only 18, 19 at the time. I never really got the opportunity to ask him why did you come here or .. why did you leave and what were you leaving behind and what were you coming to. So I never had that opportunity to broach this subject with my grandfather which is why I am eternally grateful that my great uncle, my grandfather’s brother, has lived long enough to tell me this story, at a time where I do have this interest now in the past and why I’m here.
Tony talking to his Great Uncle
You never got back to see Mum unfortunately.
Never .. never I could have gone from .. as soon as the war finished I could have gone. But I had malaria
And when you arrived you went straight to work.
Went straight to work. Yeah
It’s worked out alright.
It worked out alright.
Two years after I conducted that interview I fossicked through a passenger list containing their names and the names of 107 other passengers and quite truthfully it’s become an obsession to find out what happened to all 110 passengers aboard that ship.
Kate De Bolfo, Tony’s wife
These passengers have become more real to him I think than his own family. He knows when they were born when they died, everything about them. I don’t think he knows when my birthday is though.
Tony talking on phone
Hello Mrs. De Bortoli..yes er.. Tony De Bolfo is my name …
I recall it was late in 1997 that I sat down at the kitchen. I was on holidays, I had nothing to do and I was basically wasting my time. And at that stage I recall referring to this passenger list which I’d had for some time and thinking to myself okay I know what happened to the De Bolfo’s but what happened to these other people. I went to a phone book and picked out a corresponding name to that that was on the passenger list. I dialled the number and said to this person " have you ever heard the name", this particular name of the passenger, the woman said "it was my father" and proceeded to tell me this amazing story about her father’s life.
Tony on phone
Look thanks a lot anyway .. Sorry to trouble you.. bye bye.
Normal people don’t look up phone books and call people and I thought people would hang up on him. But the things that people have told him have been extraordinary and even stories that haven’t been to do with the ship, that people would start talking to him about their lives and he comes away with the most amazing tales. And when they find out who he is too, sometimes they’ll trade stories. They’ll talk football with him and he gets to ask them some questions about their family.
For eighteen years I’ve been a football writer in Melbourne and predominantly I’ve preoccupied my time writing about knees and hamstrings and whatever.
People who do know Tony as a football writer when he says he’s working on a book, they say, aw which footballer now and they’re expecting some other biography.
To be honest I was surprised and it had nothing to do with football as well. This is a whole new side to him and it’s been great for him to be obsessed with something else other than Carlton.
What I found with these stories is that they involve people who lived long enough ago that the stories are interesting but they remain in the memory of their descendants so consequently there is still that emotional aspect to it.
In my research of the life of Cristiani Rigarni I was told by his son that young Guy Rigarni was actually playing at Melbourne at the time.
Guy Rigarni talking to Tony at football
Getting a bit flogged.
Come back in the second half
Kick a couple of nice ones.
I approached Guy and introduced myself and I said to him, "by the way do you realise that your great grandfather and my grandfather were on the same ship", and he was stunned. And from then on we’ve had a common link I guess and Guy like so many of the descendants as I’ve said before, is really enthusiastic and equally as positive about this whole project, as I am.
See you soon.
The first passenger that Tony contacted, who was still alive, was Francesco Lanza. And he was so excited, he could hardly contain himself and was going to meet this man the next week. And I happened to be at work the next day and was flicking through the newspaper and a page fell open at the obituary and there was a name Francesco Lanza and he’d died the day after Tony had contacted him. He was absolutely horrified and in that same afternoon he then tracked down a woman passenger, Enunciata who was still alive and she was in respite care for the week and he insisted on going to interview her .. the very next day just in case she popped off as well.
Enunciata Perconi was a amazing woman who I was fortunate to have met before her death midway through last year. These are photos of her at 19 and at 90. She had a fight with her mother in her local town. Her mother slapped her on the face and she said to her mother "mum I’m leaving, I’ll never return" and she didn’t.
Guiseppe Toranto known as the madman was involved with the New York mob and got out with his life after a shoot out with a fellow in the early twenties. And for all intention purposes was an upstanding citizen who lived quietly in Melbourne and died peacefully at a Retirement Village in Frankston about ten years ago.
Maria Carbonetto was an amazing woman. She was a devout fascist who for her politically beliefs was interned in Tochura during the war. She was a devoted mother to three children to separate fathers. In time she landed work at the Victorian Ballet Company as an accomplished maker of tutus and according to her daughter this changed her life for the better.
What I’ve learnt is that these passengers er.. left their country at a time of great upheaval both economically and politically er.. The world was on the brink of the great depression and in Italy Fascism was on the rise. I’ve since discovered that my grandfather was in fact quite an active socialist..
Showing old photographs
..and here in the photograph wearing a big gold white stetson hat is my grandfather.
…and he probably left for political reasons. They were labourers and tradesmen by profession, manual labour so they had very few skills. They had to start again in a foreign land during depression times. They lived through world wars and they survived them. Given that the name of the ship was Re d’Italia, the King of Italy, I always thought that a great name for this book would be "The Kings of Italy" in recognition of the passengers that were aboard this ship. To me they were great men and women..they were heroes. So to me they’re Kings anyway.
When Tony started I thought he would give up fairly quickly. He’s not the kind of person to really stick at something unless it gets under his skin and then he’s like a dog with a bone and won’t let it go and this turned out to be one of those things and it’s just .. um he’s never waned in his desire to get to the end of this list.
Well of all the life stories that I’ve uncovered of the passengers of the Re d’Italia none is as sad or as tragic as the life story Antonio Gnata. Gnata’s niece who came to Australia after the second world war knew only that her Uncle had died prior to the war and he was buried in Stalwell Cemetery.
Ellenor Musumeci, Stalwell Genealogical Society
We checked with the Stalwell Cemetery records and there was only just one line that he was there. We found where we thought the grave was but as it was unmarked we got in touch with the cemetery trust and they worked out exactly where it was.
I was able to find out that Antonia Gnata died in 1938 and I felt that well it was a short life what happened. The circumstances must have been unusual to say the least. A week later Ellenor rang me to say "Do you really want to know this story" and I said, "Yes of course I do." and the story was horrific. Gnata was a quarryman who worked in a bluestone pit in Stalwell.
You’ve got to remember that he was on his own.. probably had poor command of the English language if at all. His brother had gone back to Italy from Melbourne the year before, I understand he was desperately ill and needed money for treatment. He didn’t have it. I guess one thing led to another and as a consequence this shocking thing eventuated.
This is the account of Antonio Gnata’s death as reported by the Stalwell News of Wednesday. June 1st, 1938.
Stalwell News Article
Grim tragedy, man killed at quarry head badly mutilated. An awful tragedy occurred at Mr. Snell’s quarry at Wild Cat Hill on Monday Morning. The victim being an Italian named Antonio Gnata who’d been engaged as "powder monkey" at the works.
On the morning of May 30th, 1938, went down to the quarry armed with two sticks of gelignite, which he proceeded to put in his mouth and he, committed suicide.
The newspapers of the day at Stalwell revealed that an inquest was subsequently held into Gnata’s death and at that hearing a letter that Antonio Gnata himself had penned and had left in his hut was presented to the Court. The letter was addressed in a tan? to his Mother and father and a short note explained in some part the reasoning for what he was doing.
As far as I understand that note never made it back and his mother until the day she died said, "why hasn’t he written to me, why hasn’t he written to me". I believe the remaining members of Gnata’s family had to lie to her saying look you know, he’s okay or they had to make up a story just to appease her. Had she known what had happened she would have been left heartbroken and that would have killed her outright I would have thought.
Letter translated into English
Goodbye father and mother. we’ll see you in the other world.
Hugs and kisses from your beloved son.
Nothing can keep me from the destiny that wants me.
Tony outside hut
It’s hard to believe that this little hut might have been the last place, in which Antonio Gnata had lived and penned his final letter to his mother and father.
Gee have a look at this. No running water, no electricity. And yet Gnata probably had it better than a lot of the Italians that lived in tents over the back but gee they had it hard didn’t they.
What I’ve found really interesting in the research is the paper trail and how much is left behind by a person who may not have even been here for a long time. I mean big brother’s watching you know. There is something there on everyone. It’s amazing what you can find. The public records Office had the original letter that Gnata penned to his mother and father. Oh it’s a very emotional thing to do. To see um the final words of er a troubled man that.. but even worse to think that probably this letter never made it back to the people that he’d penned it for. To die in a quarry in Stalwell halfway around the world and so far from the people you love, must be a very very lonely way to go.
For people on this ship, it’s like a little microcosm, there have been some great success stories and some really heartbreaking tragic stories and there’s a little bit of everything in every single one of these stories.
With Gnata too he was so excited about being able to find the grave and organise people to come and do a service up there. That was a real highlight for him, I think. It really meant a lot.
Ellenor talking to Tony
His mum was still alive and she was blind and she used to fret because she hadn’t heard from him. So they used to.. apparently they used to make up letters from him.. She never knew that he had died.
I informed his niece Maria of what had happened.
So on the 30th May 1998, sixty years to the date since Antonio Gnata died Maria, her brother Tony, their families and myself, together with Ellenor, arranged to meet Father Tudot at the cemetery. Maria put flowers on that man’s grave for the first time in sixty years. It was a very emotional occasion and since the service was conducted a plaque was put on this man’s grave which now gives him an identity and as Maria said if my mother was only alive to know this she would be grateful for what has happened and the chapter can now be closed.
The reaction of the descendants has been ninety-nine point nine percent positive.
Tony visiting and being greeted by Salents
How are you?
So many of the descendants have said to me "gee if only we’d had this opportunity to really sit down with our fathers or our mothers and get their story first hand. Unfortunately when they die it’s too late. When one of these old timers dies there goes another encyclopaedia.
Meeting the Salents
Always very pleased to see you.
Pleased to see you too. Gee you look well.
Unfortunately with time there aren’t many passengers left now. But one man I’m pleased to say is still going strong is Ampelio Aquasalentay lives in Sydney . He’s 95 and is going well.
I have had difficulties in the sense that I can’t speak a word of Italian unfortunately. In tracking down Mr. Aquasalentay we didn’t account for the fact that he’d actually changed his name to Salent by deed poll in the 1950’s and was living in Sydney.
I recall making contact with Mr Aquasalentay for the first time and addressing him by his original name. And he got a shock and said "how did you know my name" and so on I went explaining the story to him.
Looking at old photographs
That’s before you left.
This is my fam … all my brother, all my family.
Amalia Salent, Ampelio’s daughter
We’d always thought you know, dad’s got so much history behind him that it would be, one day you know, we should sit down and write it down or video record or do something with it but you just never do. And then Tony came up, out of the blue and that’s how it’s all sort of progressed.
Tony’s certainly become a common thread for all these people. A lot of them have been very interested to hear what happened to other people who were on the ship as well. The people that he’s made contact with haven’t just been one off phone calls, they’re family friends now.
Ampelio saying goodbye to Tony
Thank you very much.
It’s a pleasure.
At last count I’d believe I’d accounted for what became of 95 of the 110 passengers who disembarked this ship. But those passengers I haven’t traced, I’m 99.9 percent certain, returned to Italy, because I believe I would have found something on them here by now if they’d remained in this country. So though I have 15 passengers unaccounted for I remain optimistic that we’ll get there and we’ll unravel the mystery of what happened to the last fifteen.
There’s a new bridge that’s actually towering above number 19-north wharf which is exactly where the ship arrived. But it’s still an emotional place for me because I know that that’s where my forefathers arrived and it is really interesting to think that a small group of 110 people could achieve so much in a lifetime.
Sometimes I’m a bit worried when it comes to an end because he has got himself so involved with these lives I don’t quite no what he’s going to do when it’s finished. I’m wondering if I’m going to wind up with a lost soul on my hands at the end of it.
The greatest achievements really I think is that they prepared better lives for their next of kin. All of us who have some connection with these people that came to this country have an enormous thank you to extend to them. Life’s a lot easier now than it was seventy years ago when the whole story started for them I suppose.
Tony De Bolfo hopes to reunite the surviving passengers and their descendants next year when his book is finished.
Teacher, journalist, poet and author, Sydney NSW Australia
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