Last of the ‘Tripolini’: how 2,000 Maltese were imprisoned in fascist Italy WW2 camps

LONG READ • In 1942 Maltese migrants from Tripoli were bundled up to Italy, where they were told by the former minister Carlo Mallia, to renounce British citizenship and become sympathisers of fascism. They refused, and were incarcerated in concentration camps in central Italy

INSET: Prof. Carlo Mallia, the former UPM minister of Malta, who became the leader of the Fascio di Combatimento Maltese... he wanted his fellow Maltese to give up their citizenship and become fascist sympathisers to avoid being interned in the concentration camp
INSET: Prof. Carlo Mallia, the former UPM minister of Malta, who became the leader of the Fascio di Combatimento Maltese... he wanted his fellow Maltese to give up their citizenship and become fascist sympathisers to avoid being interned in the concentration camp

A Television Malta documentary has tracked down survivors and children from the over 2,000 Maltese nationals who in 1942 were forcibly removed from Tripoli in Libya, where their families had migrated, to concentration camps in Italy for refusing to renounce their British citizenship.

“My sister was raped by German soldiers,” one survivor has told the journalist Mario Xuereb, who travelled to Italy to the Fraschette concentration camp and searched for documentation on the Maltese, and to Australia where many of the internees later migrated.

“They were told they could regain their liberty by becoming Fascist sympathisers,” Xuereb says. “Most of them stayed loyal, but that loyalty was hardly repaid.”

 

A new Television Malta documentary will reveal in stunning detail the extent of the forced internment of the Maltese migrants of Tripoli during World War II, when they were transported en masse to Italian concentration camps under fascist command, and later under Nazi German soldiers.

Mario Xuereb, the journalist who has unearthed the documentation with the names of the internees, travelled to Canada and Australia to meet survivors of the camps, to discover stories of exploitation, death, and the hopelessness of the migrants when they were finally freed by the Allies.

“It is a forgotten story, because the migrants in this saga never returned to Malta: they found nothing waiting for them in Tripoli when they returned, they lost everything, and they had nothing to go back to in Malta. They remained in ‘exile’,” Xuereb says of his research and encounters with survivors of the Fraschette camp, in Alatri, province of Frosinone in the region of Lazio.

Perhaps one of the most disconcerting parts of the saga of Maltese migrants from Tripoli, is the role played by Carlo Mallia, the former Unione Politica Maltese minister who left Malta to lead the Irredentist Maltese Group during World War II.

Giovanni Cassar, documents found in the Italian archives
Giovanni Cassar, documents found in the Italian archives

By 1911, Tripolitania and the Cyrenaica had been taken under Italian control. Maltese migrants in Tripoli had been long established since the 1800s. “A thriving business community coexisted peacefully with Libyans and Italians at the time,” Xuereb says. The Maltese were a community of merchants, shopkeepers, builders, bakers, fishermen, and other business trades. They jealously preserved spoken Maltese. And during the 1911 Italian invasion, the Maltese remained neutral, maintaining good relations with both the Arabs and with the Italians.

But this peaceful coexistence started being undermined as fascist influence in Libya started engaging in a campaign of obstruction, to encourage Maltese subjects to renounced their British citizenship. The Maltese migrants would be monitored by Italian police, occasionally jailed, and even excluded from social functions.

When on 10 June, 1940, Italy entered the war, already several Maltese migrants had been placed under arrest and jailed by the Italian secret police. These were the first security measures undertaken to expel from Tripoli some 60 Maltese, who were arrested and taken to the prisons in Tripoli. Amongst the first were people like Carmelo Cini, whose son Romeo would later recount in sheer detail the ordeal of the Maltese in the Italian concentration camp of Fraschette.

But it was in January 1942 that the relocation of over 2,000 migrants – practically the entire Maltese community – began.

Names of the Maltese migrants in Tripoli found in the Italian archives
Names of the Maltese migrants in Tripoli found in the Italian archives

“The Maltese by then were being suspected of not collaborating with the Italians. The Italians were themselves usurping business contracts away from the Maltese, while the Maltese were being accused of spying on the Italians for the British crown. Slowly, slowly groups of migrants were being held under arrest outside Tripoli in concentration camps, until finally they were all sent to Italy,” Mario Xuereb told MaltaToday.

On 15th January 1942, the entire community was placed under arrest and within two days, women, old people and children were taken to a school building with their suitcases. On the 18th January, the migrants were placed on three merchant ships – the Gino Allegri, the Nino Bixio and the Lerice – and left in very rough seas, passing through a Mediterranean sea that was littered with mines.

The migrants were reunited in Fiuggi, a tourist locality at the top of a mountain range, where they were placed inside the hotel Grande Albergo: the hotel had been closed for years, but taken under the control of the fascist bureaucracy to organise political internees. For days, the migrants were kept under quarantine, before being granted leave to stroll around the village. Some other migrants had been placed in boarding houses at Montecatini Terme and other localities in Tuscany.

According to the account of one survivor, Romeo Cini, the migrants were enjoying a comfortable life in Montecatini and Fiuggi in the days following their arrival in Italy. What they were unaware of, is that “a big concentration camp was being constructed in a valley surrounded by the mountains of the Ciocaria. The locality was in the neighbourhood of the small city of Alatri, at the foot of Fumone, a small village perched at the top of the mountain. The concentration camp was named Le Fraschette. At that time, who of us could have imagined that soon we would all end up in that camp?”

Fraschette, the Italian concentration camp, in 1943
Fraschette, the Italian concentration camp, in 1943
Fraschette, as it stands today in 2018
Fraschette, as it stands today in 2018

 

Mallia demands fascist loyalty

In August 1942, the migrants were visited unexpectedly by a Maltese delegation of fascists who were leading Fascio di Combattimenti di Malta. Xuereb mentions both Prof. Carlo Mallia, a former ally of PN leader Enrico Mizzi, and Umberto Biscottini.

Mallia was a Gozitan who in 1919 was a member of the National Assembly for the UPM, the precursors of the Nationalist Party. He was minister from 1924 to 1926, but in 1937 he was dismissed from his professorship by the secretary of state for the colonies because of his fascist Italian sympathies. Shortly afterwards he left Malta for Rome, where he became the leader of the Irredentist Maltese group. In June 1940 he broadcast a strong pro-Italian speech to commemorate the Sette Giugno.

“Mallia was sent to speak to the Maltese migrants, because they were actively promoting a ‘policy of discrimination’ – he went to the Maltese to tell them to renounce their British citizenship and become ‘sympathisers of fascism’ to evade a fate in the concentration camps, and be able to live in Italy and be paid a stipend. Maybe some 20 of the migrants accepted, the rest refused,” Xuereb says.

In Romeo Cini’s account, he mentions a “Rev. Fr Chetcuti and Mr Mizzi” during that meeting. “Carlo Mallia introduced himself as ‘the representative of the Maltese Fascist Party’… the visit went for several days... They informed us that we would be transferred to Fraschette unless we made a declaration that we were, at the least, sympathizers of the Fascist Party.

“However, the majority of the community mistrusted their interest in us… our clear refusal left the representatives of the Maltese fascist party perplexed. So much so that Carlo Mallia in his last address in the great hall of the Grand Hotel at Fiuggi said these exact words: ‘I leave you with my best wishes but before bidding you goodbye, permit me to tell you that you do not know the British and when you come to know them, I ask you to remember me’. With those words he bid us goodbye and from then onwards we never saw him again.”

Cini says that “to agree to those proposals of conformity with the fascists appeared to us to be treacherous to the people of Malta who were fighting a war in favour of the British… our sense of solidarity with Malta would have changed into one of great cowardice.”

 

Evacuated from Fraschette in 1944, the Maltese migrants were taken to Fossoli. Romeo Cini stands second from right
Evacuated from Fraschette in 1944, the Maltese migrants were taken to Fossoli. Romeo Cini stands second from right

To Fraschette and Fossoli

By September, a small group of ‘sympathisers’ had moved out of the Grand Hotel and placed at another hotel. In October, the non-sympathisers started being shipped out of the hotel to the concentration camp.

“We all trembled and were anxious to follow them and join them in their fate whatever it might be,” Cini wrote of this period. “From the 1st October, since we already knew the conditions at the concentration camp and the treatment which was faced there, my father wasted no time in informing the Swiss Legation in Rome by way of letters sent secretly, asking for immediate intervention and urgent help for the Maltese families.”

Cini says the Maltese were settled in barracks where they slept on straw mattresses.

“Lunch, or better, the stale food, was disgusting and insufficient. Hunger began to be felt from the very first days… the Swiss legation responded with the necessary urgency assuring us of their immediate interest. They started with the despatch of food parcels which continued to reach us regularly every month from 5 January 1943.

“There were months of sorrow. I remember that chestnuts, when we could find them, were the only things one could acquire to diminish the terrible hunger. I also remember that some Italian soldiers assigned to guard duty along the closures of the camp gave part of their bread ration to children, human gestures much appreciated by us.”

Xuereb says that several Maltese died in the camp during Allied bombing campaigns. His interviews with survivors are set to reveal the stories of desperation inside the camp.

“Maltese women were raped by German soldiers who were administering the camps later on. They suffered aerial attacks by Allied forces. Some of the Maltese were killed by German soldiers for trying to escape the camp. And unbeknownst to the Maltese interned there, the Jewish detainees were being slowly shipped out to the death camps.”

Xuereb shows me the photo of a little boy who met a gruesome end when he fell inside a boiling cauldron in pitch black darkness. The episode is recounted by Romeo Cini:

“One evening in early December 1942, whilst we were lined up along the tables of the dining hall awaiting the rations, the light went out accidentally, leaving us for several minutes in the dark… a boy of about four was seized by panic and escaping the control of his mother, started to run between the two long rows of tables. He tripped and fell into the cauldron which was full of boiling soup which was to be distributed. The soldiers assigned to distribute the rations became aware of the fall and pulled him out of the great pot. They took him immediately to the hospital in Alatri to treat him, however, all attempts to save him were in vain. The poor boy was so badly burnt that he died immediately after his arrival in hospital.”

That child was named Gaetano Falzon and is buried in the cemetery at Alatri where other Maltese also rest in peace.

Xuereb says life in the camp was desperate and lugubrious, but at least they evaded the horrible fate of the death camps in the rest of Europe. People like Romeo Cini’s father was recognised by the Swiss Legation in Rome as the representative of the Maltese, and worked to improve food rations and relations with the administrative authorities of the camp. Cini writes that the Maltese even passed rations to Slavic detainees who were not recognised by the Red Cross as recipients of their munificence.

Xuereb also says that a chapel dedicated to St Francis was built at the centre of the Fraschette camp, the ruins of which stand to this day: nuns from a nearby convent ran a school for the children, as the Maltese were allowed to practise their religion.

On Armistice Day on 8 September 1943, as General Pietro Badoglio and the Kingdom of Italy officially declared war on Nazi Germany, two German jeeps arrived at Fraschette.

“They came so suddenly that we initially believed that they were the British, but quickly we realised that they were Germans coming to disarm the Italians who escaped. Some of them hid in our quarters,” Romeo Cini writes in his memoir. “We gave them civilian clothes to allow them to escape. The Germans advised us not to leave the camp so as not to become involved, in those days of their merciless and massive invasion of Italy.”

And then, a tragedy struck the Maltese. About 20 migrants who had been interned in Villa La Silva near Florence were separated from their families. One of them, Natalino Aquilina, tried to escape to avoid falling in the hands of the Germans. “At that very moment the Germans arrived to take control of the Maltese civil internees. They saw Natalino escaping. Despite their order to halt he continued running in the hope of saving himself, but was mortally hit,” Cini writes.

TVM cameraman Marlon Grima and journalist Mario Xuereb with internee Romeo Cini
TVM cameraman Marlon Grima and journalist Mario Xuereb with internee Romeo Cini

 

Migrants once again

As the invasion of Sicily led to the intensification of bombing in Italy, by 1944 American fighter-bombers were attacking the area. Several Maltese died in the attacks.

Xuereb says the attacks prompted an evacuation of the camp to Rome, and finally to the concentration camp of Fossoli outside Florence. The camp was divided into different sections with barbed wire, with machine-gun towers at the corners. The guards were fascists of the Republic of Salo under the command of the Gestapo.

By April 1945, the German troops were in full retreat. By then the Maltese had been released to farmsteads and Italian homes as the Germans fled the camps.

Xuereb has collected dozens of interviews with survivors of the camps and relatives of the Maltese migrants who were interned in these concentration camps.

“When the migrants were shipped back to Tripoli, many of them returned to find nothing of what they had owned. So those who did not have a house, ended up spending up to two years in a new concentration camp run by the British forces.

“They requested compensation for war damages with the Governor and the Foreign Ministry in London. A ridiculous compromise was proposed, 27 pounds sterling per family, or the equivalent in blankets and bed sheets. It was deeply humiliating,” Xuereb says.

“By the mid-1950s, all these migrants were leaving Tripoli to go to far-flung places like Australia, which is where I met the survivors. None of them came to Malta. They were after all, the Maltese of Tripoli. And after their ordeal in Italy, having sworn allegiance to the British crown, they returned home to find nothing. So that’s why they are a forgotten people.”

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. The other two episodes will be broadcast on Wednesday 26th and on Friday 28th September.

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