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Refugees across the channel

Frank Bezzina, Charles Bezzina: Ir-Refuġjati Maltin f’Għawdex fi Żmien il-Gwerra
Malta, 2017

When safely protected by the thick glass screens of our televisions, we daily witness the regular migration of thousands of miserable refugees who had to forcibly leave their homes, little do we imagine that, there but for fortune, they could very well be us.

Indeed, just a couple of generations ago, scores of Maltese had to leave the security of their home towns and seek shelter in safer places away from the harbour area which was being regularly poun­ded by enemy bombs. A good number, generally those with sufficient means or connections, even made their way across the channel to the relative safety of Gozo.

This large-scale evacuation of people would contribute to the greatest demographic and social changes in Malta and in Gozo, exposing people of different cultures to others of completely dissimilar lifestyles. As a result, the islands would never be the same again, for better or for worse.

The story of these refugees has never been treated in any depth. The latest book by the late Frank Bezzina (1925-96) and his son Charles is indeed a valuable record of an episode that saw about 5,000 Maltese making their home in Gozo, which then had a population of just about 25,000. To put it into perspective this would be like 80,000 migrants settling in Malta today.

Frank Bezzina had, before his death, established himself as Gozo’s war historian, making use of his own invaluable eyewitness accounts and the thousands of records and ‘souvenirs’ he had managed to amass as a young man ‘enthralled’ by what was happening around him. He was just a 16-year-old boy when the war hit the islands but he already had in him the genesis of a historian’s curiosity.

His work has been scrupulously continued by his son Charles, who inherited not only of his father’s unique cache of records but also his own indefatigable desire for research, both among written records but also with the ever-diminishing numbers of actual survivors.

The Maltese had a great social impact on the Gozitans who were at first quite unsure what to make of these ‘liberal’ intruders and their ‘sinful’ ways. Gradually, however, these doubts faded away. Many sincere networks of friendship were born and fostered, many of which outlived the war years. Not a few refugees were to find the love of their lives across the channel as well.

The refugees were a boon to the island’s economy. Many of them were of good means and the money they spent transformed the lives of the majority of the Gozitans who were, as always, canny enough to turn a penny.

A valuable record of an episode that saw about 5,000 Maltese making their home in Gozo

The first chapter, which gives an overall assessment of the Maltese refugees in Gozo, had actually been written by Frank Bez­zina in 1993 but has been updated by Charles. Although the very first refugees had crossed the channel a mere two days after Mussolini’s declaration of war and the first aerial bombings, the trickle became a river after the fierce bombing raids on HMS Illustrious in January 1941, which ravaged the Three Cities in particular. Frank Bezzina also authored a chapter on hospitals in Gozo during the war.

At first, as Joseph Said of Nadur recalled, accommodation was hard to find and some refugees even sheltered under trees, in the valleys, and in caves in fields. Grad­ually almost all found a decent abode, with at least 466 people settling in the seaside homes of Marsalforn alone in 1942, which became a mini-Sliema.

Marsalforn incidentally be­came the seat of Bonnici’s printing press after its owner, Antonio Bonnici, moved from Malta at the beginning of the war. He managed to find quite good business in printing diverse items such as wedding invitations, tombola papers, holy pictures and de­ceased people’s memorial cards.

Yet the seaside resort was not totally immune to warlike activities. Several floating mines made their way to shore, as did parts of airplanes and the occasional German pilot corpse.

No fewer than four orders of religious nuns moved to the relative safety of Gozo. Bishop Giu­seppe Pace offered his elegant private residence in Marsalforn to the Hierosolymitan nuns of St Ursula. The house has just been levelled in the name of progress.

One of the long-lasting effects of the migration, and of which Gozo is still reaping the spiritual benefits, was the founding of MUSEUM centres for boys. Ironi­cally centres for girls had been established in Gozo in 1915, only eight years after the society had been set up by St George Preca in Malta, and had done well.

Centres for boys were the outcome of the work of Emanuele Bianco, a Society member from Ħamrun who had to move to Gozo owing to work exigencies in 1941. That year, the St Vincent de Paul residence was transferred lock, stock and barrel to Gozo, and Bianco, a compounder, had no option but to follow.

The first centre in Victoria initially Maltese refugee boys, but soon the locals started being drawn to it. Even the second Gozi­tan centre at Xewkija was set up by another Maltese refugee, Willie Buhagiar, a foreman with the Telephones Department.

The Society also introduced their iconic Baby Jesus processions with its young members on Christmas Eve. Another refugee, Vincenza Dimech, from Floriana, was instrumental in introducing the young boy’s sermon during the midnight Mass. In 1942 and 1943, the sermons were delivered by two young boys who were to leave their indelible marks on Malta’s historical and cultural heritage: Ugo Mifsud Bonnici and Peter Serracino-Inglott respectively.

Charles also writes about seve­ral Maltese individuals who had important roles to play in those dark days. One outstanding personality who had actually moved to Gozo before the war was Antonio Scotto, a dyed-in-the-wool imperialist better known as Anton or Tony Scott, and who was an able and relentless organiser, especially for, but not only, Xagħra.

The refugees were also instrumental in introducing theatrical productions, such as plays, farces, and comedies, a heritage that would eventually lead to the two finest opera houses in the islands. The stay of so many individuals, many of them of means, also left a most positive economic effect, not least with the money they had to pay in the black market.

One of the merits of this book are the interviews with three surviving eyewitnesses: André Zammit, Ugo Mifsud Bonnici and Victor Wickman. They provide charming extended reminiscences of their boyhood in Gozo, although the older members of their families must have had very different perspectives of the events happening around them.

Both Zammit and Wickman had strong Gozo family connections from before the war, but the Mifsud Bonnicis left Cospicua, then quite a cosmopolitan area, and the change for them must have been great indeed.

For young people it was a life of adventures in a still-idyllic Gozo, with occasional, mostly good-natured rivalry with the local boys, as exemplified in keen football matches between the boys of Ta’ wara San Franġisk and those of Tat-Tiġrija. Ironically, out of this rivalry, many lasting friendships were born.

When the siege of the island was lifted in late 1942, several families started to drift back. Others waited until the surrender of Italy in September 1943, others stayed a bit longer, while some others decided to make Gozo their permanent home.

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