Major Kolbe was probably transferred from Cassino to Adernò (later renamed Adrano) in Sicily towards the end of 1917, as one of the paintings he brought back is marked “Christmas 1917”. It and a second one depict a courtyard surrounded by buildings, however it is the painting with the view over Etna that helped me identify his place of internment as being the monastery of Santa Lucia in Adernò.
The monastery takes up the whole of the north side of the via Roma of present day Adrano and overlooks a large triangular park. Behind it are the narrow streets which form the old town and beyond are the south-western slopes of Etna rising towards its smoking central crater. The 200 metre long imposing facade is divided into two parts by the church. Its doors remain resolutely locked today, and a peep through the key-hole reveals a scene of total neglect, with fallen beams and masonry strewn about. This is probably because it has remained untouched since the monastery’s closure in 1902. The buildings to the right of the church became a school in 1908, but those to the left were given over for public use, later becoming the Austro-Hunagarian POWs’ place of internment. Both sets of buildings extend to the street that runs along the back of the monastic compound and overlook inner courtyards which have since been built on. The right hand side now houses not only the school but a pensioners’ social club and a fire station and the left hand side a school (in the premises previously occupied by the POWs) and a post office. The ground floor of the facade is given over to cafés, political parties and offices of various kinds.
Josef Kolbe left no description of the camp, the only surviving papers being his poetry, dated February 1918. The following is drawn from an account of life at Adernò written by a fellow officer, F. Ed. Hrabe, who arrived at the monastery on 6 February 1919, by which time Josef Kolbe had already been released. During Hrabe’s internment about sixty officers (German, Polish, Ruthenian and Hungarian) were housed there, together with their servants, for whose services they paid. The first problem to be overcome was obtaining new clothes and shoes to be worn at mass, during excursions outside the camp, for “il corso” (the evening and Sunday morning promenade) and around the camp, though the main item of clothing worn during the summer was swimming trunks, owing to the intense heat. According to Hrabe, the Sicilians had an aversion to water and washing, which they considered bad for one’s health: “far male”. This had perhaps more to do with the fact that mosquitoes were known to breed in water courses and ponds and were responsible for infecting humans with malaria (“bad air”). Josef Kolbe found this out to his cost, suffering from bouts of the disease that he picked up in Adernò for the rest of his life. The prejudice against water meant that there were no showers in the monastery before the prisoners took it upon themselves to build some. They were then requisitioned when it was deemed necessary for the Italian military to take a bath!
The officers were housed in the monks’ cells on the lower floors, whereas the rank and file were assigned the first floor, which was no doubt much hotter in summer, especially as the rear windows were bricked up (see Colonel F. Christian’s paintings below). Some of the officers had a view over the main street of Adernò, from which they could watch the comings and goings of the local populace, especially in the summer, when “il corso” took place from midnight until 2 am, after which the internees were at last able to sleep until well into the morning, when the heat would once again make it impossible. Hrabe shared his cell with a fellow officer, together with a crab, which lived in a water-filled bowl and was fed on worms, and a gecko, which was allowed to roam the walls and ceiling and keep the fly population down. Food for the officers did not seem to be in short supply. Bread with lettuce, sliced lemon, tomatoes or peppers became the favourite breakfast fare. Warm dishes of rice, macaroni and mutton appeared seven times a week on the varied menu, and all cooking was done with olive oil.
Hrabe seems to have developed a liking for Italy and Sicily and a genuine respect for the priests and nurses who showed him kindness and nursed him back to health. It was with some trepidation that he returned home to Bohemia a year later, not knowing what the economic and political circumstances would be.
Views of the POWs’ courtyard, to the left of the church
In Feindeshand: In der Gefangenschaft, 3. In Sizilien, F. Ed. Hrabe