The 43 Maltese nationals deported to Uganda in 1942 were not the only World War II internees, new research has revealed.
It turns out that a group of 2,000 Maltese people were sent to concentration camps in different parts of Italy during World War II, when Italy thought they were British spies in Libya, at the time an Italian colony.
This was discovered during research for a Television Malta (TVM) documentary which uncovers the story of these Maltese nationals, who survived the war years in concentration camps in Italy.
TVM journalist Mario Xuereb, himself a history graduate, found documents in several archives all over Italy which documented this obscure part of Maltese history, barely ever given a mention – unlike the 43 Maltese exiled to Uganda by the British authorities in Malta, who accused them of being Italian spies.
It was a year ago that Mr Xuereb started looking into claims there were others, this time uprooted from their family lives in Tripoli and deported to Italy, where they spent the war years in concentration camps in various parts of the country. Research led him to documentary evidence in Italy of the deportation from Tripoli of these 2,000 Maltese nationals holding British passports. Malta at the time was a British colony.
Mr Xuereb dug further and managed to find some living internees, who have since established themselves in other parts of the world, including Australia and Canada.
Maltin Internati fl-Italja – Storja Vera (Maltese Internees in Italy – A True Story) is a three-part documentary that reveals the so-far-unknown ordeal of these families during the war away from their place of birth.
The first episode will air on Tuesday, September 25, on TVM at 9.30pm. The other two episodes will be broadcast on September 26 and 28.
Mr Xuereb worked on the production with Italian researchers and historians who were conducting research on the concentration camps built by the Italian fascist regime for war internees.
He told The Sunday Times of Malta that the documents he found during his research, as well as his hours-long interviews with survivors he found living on the other side of the world, exposed the suffering they experienced during their time in Italy: hunger, imprisonment, beatings, rape and death.
The documents include lists of names of Maltese individuals interned between 1940 and 1945. Most of them returned to their homes in Tripoli at the end of the war in 1945 only to find they had lost everything.
His research and interviews exposed their suffering during their time in Italy: hunger, imprisonment, beatings, rape, death
Documents held in Italian archives confirm that among the first to be interned were members of the Cassar family. They were rounded up in late May 1940 and deported to Italy a few days before Benito Mussolini delivered the infamous speech in which he declared war on Britain and France.
Other documents confirm that other Maltese nationals were held in concentration camps and prisons in the Libyan desert, kilometres from Tripoli. In January 1942, 2,000 members of the Maltese community in Tripoli, including children and pregnant women, were deported to Italy on three merchant ships.
Mr Xuereb said that most of the interviews were conducted in Melbourne in Australia, where a good number of the former internees rebuilt their lives. Others shared their stories from Canada.
Parts of the documentary were filmed on-site at two major concentration camps established by the Italian regime during World War II, the remains of which are still standing today.
“This is a part of Malta’s history that seems to have been overlooked by historians over the years. History is not static. We do not know everything, and new facts will always surface.
“In this case, we knew of the internees in Uganda but we knew little, if anything, of the internees in Italy. I believe the main reason was the fact that after the war, the internees returned to Tripoli and then settled in other parts of the world, completely bypassing Malta. Their story had never been told in Malta, and the Maltese here always gave them the cold shoulder, so their story remained a mystery. This documentary uncovers this part of history and sheds light on the hardships they went through at the time,” Mr Xuereb said.
He said that one of the people he interviewed in Melbourne was 90-year-old Romeo Cini, who recalled how his family and other Maltese were threatened if they persisted in refusing to sign documents showing that they had turned their backs on the British. Mr Cini told the documentarian that only 20 Maltese families became Italian sympathisers and avoided the concentration camps.
Another internee spoke about how her father was killed at an Italian concentration camp and how her sister was raped by German soldiers. Others spoke about how Italians in central Italy looked down upon the Maltese because of their roots and taunted them about the outcome of the war.
It is estimated that there were up to 64 concentration camps all over Italy during World War II.
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