Were the Maltese Tripolini spying for the British?
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Report: Mario Xuereb
Video: Marlon Grima, Charles Ahar, Jason Caruana - Muntaġġ: Joseph Borg
In the late 1930s the Italian authorities in Libya were convinced that the Maltese Tripolini had been recruiting young men from their community to serve in the British Army. These young men would be sent to Malta to enlist.
Even more so the Italian authorities in Tripoli feared Maltese fishermen and other members of the community acting as spies for the British.
Such allegations against the Maltese Tripolini will be analysed and discussed in the historical documentary ‘Maltin Internati fl-Italja – Storja Vera’ (Maltese Internees in Italy – a true story) the first episode of which will be aired on TVM this Tuesday (25th September) at 9.30pm.
Tripoli and most of modern-day Libya had been an Italian colony since 1911. The Maltese community in Tripoli, whose members held British passports, had been established in the the second half of the 19th century and by 1939 had come to number some 2,000 souls.
The Maltese as trojan horses
Evidence uncovered by Television Malta in Italian archives points out how the Italians feared the Maltese Tripolini serving as some kind of trojan horse. TVM’s documentary will show how the Italians feared that the Maltese were informing the British of all the major movements undertaken by the Regio Esercito Italiano in Libya.
Marilinda Figliozzi, an Italian researcher who has been studying the story of the concentration camp at Le Fraschette in central Italy, told TVM that “the Maltese simply could not be allowed to stay in Tripoli.
They [the Maltese] had British citizenship and the Italians were afraid of some kind of guerrilla action they could surmount. So the Maltese were removed to Italy thus severing any possible contacts they might have had with ‘the enemy’ ”.
And yet the former Maltese internees are adamant none of their elders and peers were capable of spying against the Italians.
Concentration camps… even in Italy
The entire Maltese community in Tripoli was eventually removed to internment in Italy and the absolute majority were sent to concentration camps.
Italian historians have shown that during the war in Italy there were up to 64 concentration camps.
Research has shown that life was difficult but bearable: in no way did it reflect what was going on in the death camps at Auschwitz and Dachau amongst others.
Life in the concentration camps
Interviewed for this TVM documentary the former internees in Italian concentration camps recall the difficult lives they led. They were expected to live off little food and with plenty of time doing nothing.
Those who protested were severely disciplined, arrested and sent away from their families for good. Rita Meilak’s father was removed from his family simply because he has protested on the quality of food offered to his children. Some of the Maltese also paid with their lives.
Others tried to obtain food on the black market. Jane Zammit’s grandfather, Paul Cassar, used to stitch money and jewellery into his coat, which incidentally he used to wear all year round for fear of losing his much needed instruments of exchange which he used to acquire vegetables and fruit from the local contadini.
Jane herself recalls how they “were discriminated against simply for being Maltese and for holding British citizenship, for being proud of it, and of course for not being Italian…”
Sharing the Fossoli concentration camp with the Jews
During the latter stages of the war hundreds of Maltese internees were removed to the Fossoli concentration camp in northern Italy. This was considered the last stage for the Jews before deportation to Auschwitz.
Former internee Romeo Cini recalls how at Fossoli Jews were treated differently. “At five o’clock in the morning the German guard would bring us to attention: “Achtung, Achtung”.
Cini says “we would get up, but then we would be told that only the Jews were expected to come out of their barracks.
They would line them (the Jews) up and them in cattle trucks on their way to the Carpi Train Station.”
The story of the Maltese internees in Italy is being told for the first time in a three part-documentary with the first episode scheduled for transmission on TVM on Tuesday 25th September 2018.
It provides insights into life in the concentration camps with exclusive photos taken inside showing hundreds of Maltese posing in spite of their ordeal.
The other two episodes will be broadcast on Wednesday 26th and on Friday 28th September respectively.