Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry Aug 2015, revised Dec 2017 and Aug. 2021


                        The Islands of Sicily
 
                              —or the Island of the Sirens?  & The King of Lampedusa (WW II 'capture of the island)

The only official Island of the Sirens that I know of is a 1943 20th Century Fox musical by that name —but only in Italian. The original English is Coney Island, starring Betty Grable and probably some other people. I mention this because as I was looking for ways to spend my enormous wealth, I came across an article on a new wet wrinkle for the “discerning” (super-rich)—namely, portable islands:

Want to own your own island but can't find one in your desired location? The world's first portable islands will let the super-rich create eco-friendly getaways anywhere on Earth. Each island home will adhere to the customer's every need - with the renderings including options such as swimming pools, boat docks and greenery.

I was undecided —towing fees would be enormous. "Middle of the Pacific Ocean, please, and step on it." What else have they got? Ah...

If you're more interested in a traditional private island, then take a look at these stunning and remote properties.

There were some in the Caribbean, Maine, and, lo and behold, Italy; those were listed, strangely, as the Island of Sirens, Italy.

Even in Naples, when we say “Sirens” we think of “Siren Alley” (as it is known to the less discerning of us), the length of coastline that makes up the eastern side of the Sorrentine peninsula, that stretch known as the Amalfi coast. They have Li Galli islands, for example, but nothing called Island of the Sirens. I think the only place that calls itself the Anything of the Siren(s) besides all the restaurants (even some in the Alps) —the only piece of land that could remotely be compared to an island— appears to be Lo Scoglio delle Sirene [The Rock of the Sirens] just off the island of Vulcano in the Aeolian archipelago north of Sicily. Nice rock, but no swimming pool, boat dock or greenery. It's in this photo somewhere, a shot of the rest of the Aeolians taken from Vulcano.


T
he Italian constitution specifies that “Sicily, with the Aeolian islands, the Aegadian islands, the Pelagie Islands, Ustica and Pantelleria, constitutes an autonomous region.” (Sicily, of course, is the Big Island, but for the rest of this discussion, I am not counting it as an island. It's the mainland. This is about the islands around Sicily.) The above-mentioned islands and archipelagoes are part of the Italian region of Sicily. There are big and small islands, all in all over 100. None of the small ones are inhabited; 18 of the larger ones are. Taken together, the islands around Sicily make up a bit more than 1% of the total land area of the region of Sicily. That is, about 285 km² out of 26,000 km² for all of the region of Sicily. About 33,00 persons live on the islands around the Big Island of Sicily.

The main groups of islands or archipelagoes around Sicily (see map at top) are the Aeolians, the Aegadies, and the Pelagie islands; smaller groups are the islands of the Stagnone and the Cyclopean Isles, to the west and east, respectively, of the main body of Sicily. Individual islands are Ustica to the north in the Tyrrhenian sea and Pantelleria in the Sicily channel to the south. From a geologic and historical point of view, even the Maltese islands (south of Sicily, shaded light-grey on the map) that now make up the Republic of Malta, are part of the so-called "Sicilian archipelago". On the other hand, the Pelagie islands, particularly Lampedusa and Lampione, are really a peripheral part of Italy, politically; geologically and geographically, they are part of the continent of Africa, meaning that they rest on the African tectonic plate.

Specifically:

the Aeolians (named for the Greek god of the wind) - Group of seven main islands: Lipari (the largest; thus, the Aeolians may also be called the Lipari islands), Vulcano, Salina, Stromboli, Filicudi, Alicudi and Panarea. Strombol (pictured) and Vulcano are both active volcanoes and erupt frequently. Scientifically, the archipelago is part of a "volcanic arc" that includes the nearby island of Ustica (mentioned below) and a series of submerged volcanoes to the north named Magnani, Vavilov, Marsili and Palinuro, as well as two that are unnamed. The Aeolian islands are on the UNESCO World Heritage List because of their scientific importance (from the UNESCO description):

The Aeolian Islands provide an outstanding record of volcanic island-building and destruction, and ongoing volcanic phenomena. Studied since at least the 18th century, the islands have provided the science of vulcanology with examples of two types of eruption (Vulcanian and Strombolian) and thus have featured prominently in the education of geologists for more than 200 years. The site continues to enrich the field of vulcanology.

The Aeolians together have a total stable population of about 14,000 persons, but, as an increasingly popular summer vacation destination, are swarmed with at least 200,000 visitors during that period.


the Aegadies - are the three islands of Favignana, Marettimo, Levanzo and a few smaller rocks in the sea, 7 km off the western coast of Sicily between Trapani and Marsala. It is interesting anthropologically as there are traces of early human habitation from the Stone Age. Historically, the islands were in the hands of the Phoenicians and were the site of the last  naval battle of the First Punic War in which the Romans defeated the Carthaginian fleet and definitively annexed all of Sicily. The stable population of the three islands is a few hundred persons, but the summer tourist trade adds to that number considerable. The islands are the site the Protected Marine Reserve of the Aegadies Island, instituted in 1991 and the largest of its kind in Europe.


this section revised Dec 2017

the Pelagies - The Pelagie Islands are the three small islands of Lampedusa, Linosa, and Lampione, located in the Mediterranean Sea between Malta and Tunisia, south of Sicily. To the northwest lies the island of Pantelleria (information below) and the Strait of Sicily. Lampedusa (image, right, shows the northeastern cliffs of the island) has a stable resident population of about 8,000 and is the largest and best-known of the Pelagies. It houses the much used and sorely overused Immigration Reception Center (IRC)*. It works small miracles handling refugee "boat people" desperate enough to try the notoriously perilous, often deadly, flight from Libya. The neighboring "island" just to the west, Lampione, is really an uninhabited rock with a lighthouse. Lampedusa is also the site of a marine protected area, instituted in 2002, concerned with preserving the Loggerhead Sea Turtle. To the northeast of Lampedusa, about 40 km away is the island of Linosa (image below, lef).

Officially, the name of the town (comune) is Lampedusa & Linosa. It is the southernmost administrative unit in Italy, in the province of Agrigento, in the region of Sicily. Linosa is beyond the aspirations of immigrants and still has a stable resident population of about 500. It is recently being touted as not a bad place to settle down if you don't mind that little lump in the landscape, imaginatively named
—wait for it!—Monte Vulcano. The island has a stable population of about 450, got its first phone in 1968 and now has a water desalinization plant. If you are a quiz show contestant, you'll want to know that Linosa is just to the north of the sea-bottom Linosa Trough, a manifestation of tectonic goings-on much deeper down. Thus, Lampedusa and Linosa may be parts of the same town, but they are on two different continents.
       *I note here the death, in August 2021, of one of the IRC's benefactors, Dr. Gino Strada. See this link for notes on his work.

The  Jewish  "King  of  Lampedusa"

The longest-running Yiddish play featured the incredible true story of a British Jewish hero of WWII

One of the most popular Yiddish plays of all times was The King of Lampedusa, a musical based on the incredible true story of Sydney Cohen (1919-1943), a Jewish soldier during World War II. Cohen’s real-life adventures were so astonishing they almost seemed like one of the Yiddish plays, full of twists and turns and improbable coincidences, that entertained Jewish audiences who flocked to Yiddish-speaking theaters.

Sgt. Cohen, the "King of Lampedusa"
Sydney Cohen grew up, like so many British Jews in the 1920s and 1930s, in impoverished circumstances in Britain’s
East End. His parents died when he was just a child and he lived with his sister Lily, scraping a living by working as a tailor’s apprentice. When World War II broke out, Sydney joined the Royal Air Force, eventually becoming a Flight-Sergeant, flying a Swordfish Torpedo Bomber on sorties against Nazi Germany.    
(Image on right: from L. Mangiafico, who adds that Cohen was only 23 when he took the surrender of Lampedusa and that the woman in the image is likely his sister, who was two years older.

On one flight on June 10, 1943, Sgt. Cohen was flying back to his base on Malta when his navigation system went haywire.
“The plane had a fit of gremlins so we had to make for the nearest land,” Sgt. Cohen later explained. The three-man crew turned towards a tiny island in the Mediterranean: the hostile Italian island of Lampedusa (image). At defended by 4,300 Italian Axis troops. (The top image on this page shows the precise location.)

    Swordfish Torpedo Bomber

“As we came down on a ropey landing ground we saw a burnt hangar and burnt aircraft around us,” Sgt. Cohen recalled. The crew made a bumpy landing, then exited their bomber with their hands raised, ready to surrender to the Italian troops. Instead the Italians were in no mood to fight. “A crowd of Italians came out to meet us and we put our hands up to surrender but then we saw they were all waving white sheets shouting, ‘No, no. We surrender!’ The whole island was surrendering to us,” Sgt. Cohen recalled.
Sgt. Cohen asked to see the commandant of the island but before he could be escorted an air raid began and the surrendering Italian troops ran for cover. The island had been the subject of sustained Allied air raids and the Italian troops had had enough. “I concluded that the nerves of my hosts were a bit jagged,” Sgt. Cohen dryly recounted later. Eventually, the Italians signed a formal note of surrender and allowed Sgt. Cohen to refuel. He took off and flew to nearby Tunis, bringing news of Lampedusa’s fall to British forces with him

Lampedusa’s capitulation to the British came at a key moment. In the summer of 1943 Britain was braced for invasion and was being mercilessly bombed by German airplanes. It seemed that Germany might win the war. Yet the mass surrender of Lampedusa gave Britain and its allies a glimmer of hope. Strategically, Lampedusa was the first of what would be a series of
capitulations of Axis troops to Allied forces. Psychologically, the capture of Lampedusa was a much-needed shot in the arm for Britons who feared they were losing the war.

“Lampedusa Gives in to Sgt. Cohen!” was the headline on the front of the Sunday Pictoral newspaper in Britain on June 13, 1943, when news of the surrender broke. “London Tailor’s Cutter is now ‘King of Lampedusa’” screamed the front page of the News Chronicle. The story was covered by all the British newspapers and many foreign papers, all documenting the incredible story.

One newspaper that missed out on the coverage was the Jewish Morning Journal of New York. Their London correspondent was a Czech-born journalist named S.J. Charendorf, who wrote up the news item, and was on his way to the Ministry of Information to send in his story, when it suddenly occurred to him that the incredible tale of Sgt. Syd Cohen would make a great Yiddish musical - and Der kenig fun lampeduse (The King of Lampedusa) a wonderful title. He ran straight home and started writing, producing a play designed to raise the public’s morale. He took some liberties with the plot and renamed Syd Cohen Sam Silverman in his play.

Charendorf also added a comic second act in which a grateful Winston Churchill offers the young Jewish pilot any reward he
might name. The pilot asks for an independent Jewish homeland in the ancient land of Israel, which was at the time administered by Britain. In the play, Churchill informs the pilot that he cannot or will not grant the Jewish people a homeland, but he offers something else instead: the Italian island of Lampedusa. Thus, the pilot becomes “King” of the
tiny island.

The King of Lampedusa had its debut in 1943 at the New Yiddish Theater in Adler Street in London’s East End. The great British-Jewish star Meier Tzelniker helped produce the musical, commissioning songs and helping write the lyrics. He starred in the musical and his daughter Anna Tzelniker played a role. It ran for months to packed houses. Non-Jews as well as Jews packed into the Grand Palais every night. Even though the musical was in Yiddish, it was easy to follow the well-known plot, and the music numbers appealed to everyone. It closed in 1944 when German bombing of the East End of London intensified and made it too risky to go out of doors at night.

The King of Lampedusa was translated into Hebrew and performed at the Hamatae Theater in Haifa, in modern day Israel. Sgt. Sydney Cohen got to watch that performance in 1944 when he was on leave from Malta and visited the ancient Jewish homeland. It was the only time Sgt. Cohen would get to see the wonderful musical his actions inspired.

In the musical, the “King of Lampedusa” returns home to a rapturous welcome. Unlike the real life Sgt. Cohen, his theater equivalent had living parents to embrace him on his return.The actual Sgt. Cohen had a much grimmer fate. As he was flying home from Malta after his military service, on August 26, 1946, his plane crashed into the Straits of Dover. The wreckage was never found; his sister Lily was never able to give Sydney Cohen the Jewish funeral he deserved. Sgt. Cohen continues to live on in the hearts and memories of the thousands of people who watched his play, and gained courage and hope during the darkest hours of World War II from his actions.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
An Afterthought

It's striking how much staying power Der kenig fun lampeduse has had. The University of Southampton's Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations performed it once in June 2019 as a radio play and lecture-recital (they promise more performances!) That takes a lot of work: find the original text (finally located in New York City!); find the original musical scores and orchestrate them (copy the parts for different instruments (behind the cast in this image); hire some professional musicians; and hire a cast (who with proper voice coaching should be able to make it all sound Yiddish.) The idea of rediscovering ‘The King of Lampedusa’, of bringing to life the legacy of this play through acting and music was primarily the work of Katie Power and Abaigh McKee, PhD candidates at the Parkes Institute. The project was the culmination of five years of research.

If you ask, Why go to all this work for something that is over and done with? you got the first part —it's over. You failed the second part —it's not done with. Relations between Jews and non-Jews need work; so do relations between Christians and Muslims and relations between believers and atheists. If you say, let's just respect those we disagree with, I salute you. You're a good person. Very lonely, but good.
 

the islands of the Stagnone - These are four islands (termed a 'microarchipelago') of San Pantaleo (Mozia), Isola Grande, Schola, and Santa Maria that make up the perimeter of and small islands within the Stagnone lagoon, off the coast of Marsala in the west, the largest lagoon in Sicily. San Pantaleo (Mozio) was an ancient Phoenecian colony, and the whole lagoon is today a protected regional nature preserve.


the Cyclopean Isles - another microarchipelago, these isles (pictured) are located in the shadow of Mt. Etna in the east.  The Cyclopean isles are thought to have been at one time joined to the mainland. The isles consist of Lachea, the large faraglione (rock), the small faraglione, and four other prominent rocks arrayed in the form of an arc. The name reveals the role they play in Homer's Odyssey. Indeed, these isles were the abode of the one-eyed monsters called the Cyclopes. The rocks in the water are said to be the missiles hurled by the blinded cyclops Polifemus at the fleeing Ulysses:
Ripping off the peak of a towering crag, he heaved it
so hard the boulder landed just in front of our dark prow
and a huge swell reared up as the rock went plunging under--
a tidal wave from the open sea. The sudden backwash
drove us landward again, forcing us close inshore...
--Homer, The Odyssey, book IX lines 538-542 (trans. Robert Fagles)
Ustica - The single island of Ustica is 67 km/41 miles NW of the city of Palermo on Sicily. It is about 3.5 km long and 2.5 km wide and has a stable population of about 1300. It is not part of the relatively nearby Aeolian group. It is isolated and surrounded by relatively deep water, which makes is attractive for scuba diving, the main tourist draw. It shows evidence of stone-age inhabitants and may have been settled permanently from the Aeolians. It has been more or less constantly inhabited in historic times: Phonecians, Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans; as well, there was a Benedictine monastery built on the island in the 6th century AD. It was the site of  battles between Christian and Muslims and the victim of numerous Saracen raids. It was fortified by the Kingdom of Naples in 1759 and in more recent times served as an island of exile for political prisoners under Mussolini in the 1920s and '30s. In spite of the scarcity of water, there is an ongoing attempt to develop tourism.

Pantelleria - [2016, established as a National Park] is a single island in the Strait of Sicily, 100 km/62 mi southwest of Sicily and 60 km (37 mi) east of the Tunisian coast, which can seen in the distance. The island is part of the Sicilian province of Trapani. It has an area of 83 km2 (32 mi2) and is the largest volcanic satellite island of Sicily.
The island is the summit of a largely underwater volcanic complex that last erupted in 1891 below sea level. The stable resident population is about 7700. The island is of enormous anthropological interest because of the presence of unearthed dwellings and artifacts dated at 35,000 years old. As well, there are ancient tombs similar to the Nuraghe of Sicily. In historic times, the island was in hands of the Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs and then Norman Italy. Pantelleria was also crucial in WWII to the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943 since planes could be based within striking distance of Sicily. Pantelleria has an airport and is a popular tourist destination, holding as it does a large nature preserve, a natural lake (pictured), hot springs, and many items of archaeological and geological interest. Additionally, the island inhabitants maintain a unique method of vineyard cultivation that has found a place on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Details here.


A
s far as I know, none of the inhabited islands are up for sale. That wouldn't make sense, anyway, since there are already private property owners on them and they might be standing by to repel boarders. What you want is a small uninhabited island that is owned by the state or, most likely, the region. That is, semi-autonomous regions in Italy such as Sicily and Sardinia have some liberty in what they can sell off, and with the wave of privatization currently going full blast in Italy, you might be able to pick up a few acres to plant your palms and boat harbor. I hear that in Sardinia, Santo Stefano island is for sale, but so far nothing is going in Sicily, again as far as I know. Me, I'm holding out for Coney Island.


image credits: top - "Isola di Sicilia": Hanhil based on NordNordWest derivative work: Yiyi -license  CC BY-SA 3.0 at Wikimedia Commons;
 - Aeolian photo,
mmarkos90 wikipedia; Lampedua, J. Sciberra; Cyclopean Isles, gnuckx; Pantelleria, Francesca Fabbrica.


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