20 Jan, 2014
One of Malta's many waterfront playgrounds for the jet set.
One of Malta’s many waterfront playgrounds for the jet set.

The Jews of Malta figured importantly in the most important battle that you never heard of.  Most of us know remarkably little about Malta, a tiny island archipelago nation in the Mediterranean Sea. Located squarely between Sicily and Africa, only about 20 miles long and 5 miles wide, it stood as the gatekeeper of Mediterranean transportation for many centuries.  By the middle ages, the population of this dry, rocky and unforgiving place was almost 1300. About one fifth were Jewish.

Suleiman the Magnificent, Sultan of Turkey and pitiless emperor of the Ottoman Empire controlled the greatest fighting force in the world. In 1565, he sent a huge force of more than 40,000 soldiers on more than 200 slave galleys to capture Malta and thereby dominate the Mediterranean–the key to Europe. He planned to wipe the barren rock of Malta clean, annihilating the 700 Knights of St. John who defended it. In the spring, after the Mediterranean had calmed from its winter storms, the galleys set forth from Turkey. Arriving in late May, they laid siege to the Maltese fortresses.

Volumes have been written about the four month siege and the continuous battles that raged with unspeakable fury. For days the invaders pounded Fort St. Elmo into rubble but by night the Knights, assisted by the local citizenry, sent reinforcements and supplies by boat to the fortress located strategically at the mouth of the Maltese harbor. Because the Fort was being sacrificed in a doomed holding action, the resupply boats were suicide missions.

In the last days of St Elmo, the Grand Master of the Knights, Jean Parisot de Valette, allowed one final volunteer force to attempt to bring relief to the doomed fort. Anyone who went on such a mission faced certain death. Nevertheless, two Jews of the island chose to join the relief expedition. In her history of the Order of St John, Claire-Eliane Engel comments that during the Great Siege, “les juifs de Malte avaient ete d’une loyaute au-dessus de tout eloge” [the Jews of Malta had behaved with a loyalty above all praise].

During the month of June, in battles so horrid that human heads were used as cannonballs, the Turks lost 8,000 of their crack troops while most of the defenders perished before giving up St. Elmo. After St. Elmo’s fall, the Knights, along with the residents including Jews, fell back to Fort St. Angelo. Valette realized that if vitally strategic Malta fell, the Muslim Ottoman Empire would soon dominate the Mediterranean. Even Rome would be in Peril, radically changing the course of European history.

One Joseph Cohen, the Jewish slave of a tavern keeper in Valletta overheard Muslim slaves conspiring against the Knights in his tavern. The mutiny was to start with the murder of the Grand Master. With great peril of his being found out by the conspirators, he gained an audience with the Grand Master and told him what he had overheard. For his loyalty he was set free from bondage and awarded a house (Monte di Pieta) in Merchants street by Valette.

During July and August, Valette urged his small contingency of Knights and residents to superhuman feats of bravery and endurance against overwhelming odds. The furnace-hot temperatures of those months along with rampant disease among the Turks and a brilliant defense by Valette wore down the Turks.  112 days of siege left the food supply of the invaders too short to allow them to remain for the winter and the seasonal window during which the Mediterranean was navigable in their small slave galleys was closing. After an unimaginably bloody series of battles and finally withdrawal, of the 40,000 Ottoman troops who had set sail from Constantinople only some 10,000 made it home.

A view from one of the fortresses of Valetta
A view from one of the fortresses of Valetta

Four hundred years later, from 1940 to 1942, Malta was once again under siege as the Axis forces tried to remove the British from the island. The Royal Air Force and Navy based on the island attacked Axis ships and Rommel’s troops in Africa. Rommel warned, “Without Malta the Axis will end by losing control of North Africa.” He resolved to bomb, or starve Malta into submission by attacking its ports, towns, cities and Allied ships supplying the island. Malta was one of the most intensively bombed areas during WWII yet it never fell.

Our personal invasion of Malta was much more peaceful. The objective was simply to photograph the synagogue and meet members of the Jewish community, not to dominate the Mediterranean. We arrived by high-speed hydrofoil ferry at Valetta, the island’s largest city, named after the venerable Grand Master Valette.  Driving off the ferry into the dark night was much like being regurgitated into a wild roller-coaster Disneyland ride. Winding streets laid down centuries ago, cacophonous traffic hurtling through nearly impenetrable darkness soon conspired to get us lost in the spaghetti-like maze of a really creepy industrial-port area. Our GPS eventually sorted us out, leading us to an oasis (AKA Hilton Hotel).

Present day Malta has a population of over 400,000 yet there are only between 100 and 200 Jews. The old synagogue was in such disrepair that it was pulled down as part of an urban renewal project. With help from the Maltese Government a condominium, suitable for a synagogue and community center, was located and financed. The lay-led Sephardic congregation meets and prays in their new premises located in a middle-class neighborhood with the unlikely name Ta’ Xbiex.

The Malta Synagogue
The Malta Synagogue

Malta has a reputation as a spa-resort, tax-haven and good place to get your money laundered. The only laundry we tried was the one at the Hilton. We can say without hesitation that the island is fascinating and its Jewish community is warm, engaging and eager to have visitors join in their Shabbat. Sitting for a moment of reflection in the synagogue, I pondered that the entire course of Western European history had hinged upon Joseph Cohen, a Jewish slave.

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