I refer to the article ‘Bread and circuses’ by my cousin, John Vassallo (October 21).

Dear John, my father, your Uncle Frank, liked to recall that his cradle linen had been embroidered by four princesses. It sounded like a fairy tale but it was true. Ironically, he was born on Bastille Day 1920.

By then, your grandfather and mine, Enrico Carlo Vassallo (Nannu Harry) had earned his fees as the most prominent lawyer of his day by obtaining British passports for these emigre Russian aristocrats earning also their gratitude and friendship. You find this shameful aid to aristocrats and oppressors. It’s your choice, I don’t feel the least twinge of shame.

When my father’s princesses came to Malta, they may not have been penniless but their life of privilege (those of them who’d had it – title doesn’t always mean wealth or power) had been abruptly ended and they knew that, when the resources they had managed to bring with them ran out, they would be destitute and without the means to earn a living in most cases. Helping them out, even for a fee, was an act of human solidarity.

How can you compare providing legal assistance to formerly privileged refugees in distress to obtaining passports for oligarchs and tax dodgers? To imply that your grandfather was an amoral, grasping, shyster lawyer is light years away from the facts.

Our grandfather is almost never remembered or mentioned in the press, just the way he would have liked it. He was so averse to blowing his own trumpet that I hesitate to blow it for him but here goes.

Enrico Carlo (Harry) Vassallo was born the eldest of 10 children in 1874 to Harry and Laura née Mifsud. Harry’s father was a ship chandler and shipping agent (founder of H. Vassallo Limited), his grandfather, Cesare, was still in harness as chief librarian at the Public Library, in Valletta at the time.

However, the family income came under serious strain. Harry Jnr did his utmost to relieve the pressure by studying hard, so hard that he was first in class throughout his education, winning and retaining his scholarship at St Ignatius College.

He read law at the university and was awarded a scholarship to Oxford, returning with an MA in 1895. His appointment as dean of the faculty of laws at the tender age of 29 was welcomed with acclaim as undoubtedly deserved.

I can reveal that the Russians were not the only princesses in his clientele and among the aristocrats was Lord Strickland whom he assisted in many cases, including his successful defence of the Strickland family claim on Sizergh Castle, in the Lake District. He also assisted peasants, carpenters and engineers but also the Anglo-Egyptian Bank, as legal adviser.

Wealth is a burden to a devout Christian, or it should be- Harry Vassallo

He has often been described to me as a saint. He refused the offers made to him on several occasions to become a judge because, with the death penalty still in the law, he would run the risk of having to take another person’s life.

Accepting elevation to the bench, he would also have deprived his fellow Maltese of his constitutional law consultancy, which they valued enough to have him at the 1919 National Assembly held at the Maltese crisis point of post-WWI political and economic tension coinciding with the  June 7 bread riots.

Elected president of the Chamber of Advocates, it fell to him to defend the Italian language before the 1931 Royal Commission. In the transcript, I can almost hear his voice calmly and steadfastly making the case for a language that had been our official language since 1530 when Italy itself was still a geographic expression.

With professional prominence came wealth. However, wealth is a burden to a devout Christian, or it should be. The street in Siġġiewi, Triq Nerik Vassallo (where did the ‘Nerik’ come from?) labels him as a philanthropist. Ironically, the man who made his fortune from surgical verbal precision has been assigned a name he’d never had.

Philanthropist he was. And so was his wife, Hilda. Their charity work led them to the slums of Valletta, their home town, to the Mandraġġ. He was also a benefactor of St Gregory’s church, in Sliema and the Carmelite church, in St Julian’s.

Quite exceptionally, he bought land in Naxxar specifically for it never to be developed, binding it by servitude for the view of Gozo to be preserved in favour of the people of Malta for all time. To this day, Maltese and visitors stop to watch and photograph the sunset.

In WWII, all his properties,  including his Sliema home and country house in Naxxar, were requisitioned for military purposes. He refused the compensation offered despite the significant damage done by the troops billeted in them. Again, his conscience forbade him profiting from the war in any shape or form.

He was instrumental in arranging for the Jesuit community in Malta to be separated legally from its Italian Province to avoid the seizure of its assets as enemy property for the duration of the war.

He died in 1945. All my life he has been the grandfather I never knew, held up to me as an icon of decency, propriety, self-discipline, coherence, diligence and consistent effort. He remains a precious inspiration to me when all landmarks of public and private morality seem to have gone adrift.

Dear John, I hope you will trouble yourself to learn a little more about E. C. Vassallo, your Nannu Harry, and perhaps set the record right. Meanwhile, I must thank you for obliging me to break my 12-year silence and share my icon with the global public.

You may also want to make amends to Marie Antoinette,  who never uttered the words you ascribe to her.

Harry Vassallo is a lawyer, former chairperson of Alternattiva Demokratika, a member of cabinet at the European Commission, senior legal counsel at the Representation of Malta to the EU during Malta’s presidency and briefly Malta’s Guardian of Future Generations.

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