Thursday, 17 February 2011

The Arandora Star

The Arandora Star was a ship carrying refugees from Germany to America in 1940. She was torpedoed by U-47, captain Günther Prien, who had sunk HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow in October 1939, with the loss of 800 lives. The loss of life from the Arandora Star is of the same magnitude: 800. Bodies washed ashore in Ireland and the Hebrides over the days and weeks following the incident. Three Italian nationals washed up on shores in the Western Isles; two in Barra and one in South Uist. Oreste Fisanotti was buried in the old cemetery at Borve, Barra; Baldassare Plescia is interred in Hallan Cemetery, Daliburgh, South Uist and Enrico Muzio at the St Barr's Cemetery at Eoligarry, Barra.

Another ten bodies of Italian nationals are buried in marked graves on the shores of Western Scotland; the vast majority, more than 400, were never found or could not be identified. The latter are buried in unmarked graves on the Irish west coast.

In September 2010, the cemetery committee at Hallan opened a website showing all the burials in the graveyard. It gained a lot of interest, particularly after secretary Sandy Stephens highlighted her work with the graveyard and the website in the BBC TV series An Island Parish. As a result, she received a letter from Mrs Rosemary Wonham, which was passed on to me. I have permission from Mrs Wonham to publish it on this website. I am copying it here with only a few amendments to maintain the flow of the narrative.
In 1963 we were newly married, and moved from England to live in Glasgow where my husband was a research student at the university. There we met a Russian lady, who was a friend of our landlady. Her name was Vera Fisanotti (maiden name Maschova). Her husband Oreste and Vera are buried at Borve (St. Brendan's) Catholic buriel ground. [Barra].

Vera's life was extremely sad. She fled from Petrograd (St. Petersburg) during the 1917 Revolution where she was studying to be a doctor. Because of his contacts, her father, a sea captain, smuggled her onto a boat in Odessa bound for Constantinople (Istanbul). All she had was a little bag of precious gems given to her by her father.

Arriving in Turkey was very frightening for her, and she decided to try and make her way to the UK. Eventually she arrived in London, where she got work in an hotel as a chambermaid. It was there that she met and fell in love with Oreste Fisanotti, who was working at the hotel as a waiter, and they married. When the war broke out, her husband was made\an internee, and eventually put on the Arandora Star to be sent to Canada. I am sure you are aware that this ship was torpedoed with a huge loss of life, and Oreste's body was washed up on the Isle of Barra. When her only friend, her beloved husband, died, Vera went to live on Barra to be near his body, as she had nobody else in the world. She stayed there until, I think, the late 1950's. She was advised by the doctors to leave the island as it was not a suitable place for her to live due to respiratory and rheumatism problems. Reluctantly she left and moved to Glasgow. From the day she left Russia to the day she died she had no idea what had happened to her family in Russia. She tried to find information abput her family form the Red Cross, but she was very wary of giving away too much about herself as she still had a great fear of being discovered by the Russians. This was probably irrational, but in 1963, you will remember that Russia was still a closed society. Her story is very sad, and it made a lasting impression on both my husband and myself. We were in our early twenties and had never come across anyone with such an amazing story. When we moved into our landlady's house, Vera was very cold towards us when she visited. As time passed she opened up and became friendly. Later she told me that she was jealous and anxious that we would take our landlady's love away from her.
In addition, Mrs Wonham wrote to me:
Vera and Oreste were married at Holborn, London in September 1936.  Vera, strangely, called herself Vera Rossette.  I do not know whether she just changed her name or did so legally.  I am assuming that she wanted to make herself appear to be an Italian rather than Russian.  As I mentioned in my letter, she was very very nervous of anyone knowing about her Russian background, almost verging on paranoia.  She had a great fear that she would be kidnapped and taken back to her homeland.  However, you will see from the enclosed photo of their graves that, in death she was very happy to acknowledge her Russian origins.
Regarding Oreste, the only extra information I know about him is that he came from Northern Italy, in the town of Mathi, in the province of Turin and the Piedmont region.  I know that before the war a great deal of Italians (particularly Northern Italians) came to the UK to find work.
I am pleased that Oreste and Vera are now back together again, reunited in death.
May they Rest in Peace.

This is the gravestone at Borve, Barra
Picture courtesy Alan Davis (via Rosemary Wonham)

No comments:

Post a Comment