Thursday, April 28, 2011
The Maltese YAD
around slavery. There is a largely unknown chapter of slavery, which
ended only in modern times. It was a form of slavery conducted smack
in the middle of European civilization.
And the slaves were Jews.
A few days late for Passover, here is the story of the Maltese Yad:
THE MALTESE YAD
By: Steven Plaut
Date: Thursday, April 28 2011
It was the last slave prison and slave market in Europe. The United
States was already an independent country and France was in the tumult
of revolution. The Mediterranean island of Malta was the destination
for the slaves snatched off of merchant ships by an order of Crusader
Knights that had first been set up in Jerusalem in the 12th century.
And the slaves in question were Jews.
The slaves were unloaded at the Valletta Quay even today still known
as "Jews' Sally Port." The city was the headquarters built after the
Great Siege by the Order of the Knights of St. John, better known as
the Hospitallers. For the more than two centuries its slave market
operated, the main purpose was to extort ransom money from Jewish
communities in Europe in exchange for the release of the hostages.
Some captives were used as galley slaves. For some fortunate others it
was really "slavery lite," as they were allowed to leave prison during
daylight hours to hold jobs or even engage in commerce.
Malta is one of the more remarkable places on earth. It contains
antiquities a thousand years older than the pyramids of Egypt. Long
before humans discovered metal, its earliest inhabitants were carving
massive structures out of solid rock, some displaying amazingly modern
thinking about architecture. Its vegetation and landscape look like
the Galilee, while its architecture is simply breathtaking. Its 16th
century fortifications were so powerful that they later served to
defend British and Maltese forces from German and Italian assaults
during World War II.
Malta's devoutly Catholic population speaks a dialect of Tunisian
Arabic (with Phoenician, Italian, French and English words mixed in).
The Maltese like to think of themselves as the world's last surviving
Phoenicians, kin of Hannibal and King Hiram of Tyre. Speakers of
Hebrew and Arabic can make sense of many Maltese words.
Malta is never mentioned by name in the Bible. The word "Malta" is
Phoenician but is from the same root as the Hebrew cognate word for
"taking refuge." The Apostle Paul found himself shipwrecked there,
making Malta long a center of interest for the Christian world.
Jews first lived in Malta in the days when it was still a Carthaginian
colony. Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and Sicilians all came and
left. Eventually the islands fell under Spanish rule. The Jews of
Malta then met the same fate as the Jews of Spain, expelled the year
Columbus reached the Americas.
One of the most famous Jewish residents of Malta was Avraham ben
Shmuel Abulafia, a 13th-century Spanish kabbalist rabbi. A bizarre
character, he dreamed of forging a monotheistic unification of
Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He managed to arrange for an audience
with the pope to lay out the merits of his plan. The pope was
horrified and ordered Abulafia burned at the stake. But the pope died
suddenly just before the sentence was to be carried out, and the
condemned man was released.
Abulafia spent the last two decades of his life as a hermit, evidently
living in caves on the barren and still all-but-deserted island of
Comino, just off the coast of the main Maltese island. There he wrote
several books on Kabbalah, philosophy and grammar.
Abulafia's career is of surprising contemporary relevance. The newest
addition to the Maltese Jewish community is an old man known by all
simply as "The Admor." He claims to be a direct personal descendent of
the hermit kabbalist of Malta. He plans to convert Abulafia's "home"
on Comino into a site for world Jewish pilgrimage.
* * * * *
It is hard to exaggerate the importance of the 1565 Great Siege of
Malta. For Renaissance Europe, it was Masada, Betar and the Warsaw
Ghetto all wrapped up into one battle, with the important difference
being that the besieged knights won. Suleiman the Magnificent's army
had marched all the way from Istanbul to the gates of Vienna. But a
mere 700 knights of the Order of the Hospitallers, supported by
several thousand Maltese auxiliaries, beat off a force consisting of
between 30,000 and 50,000 janissaries and other elite soldiers serving
Originally set up as a medieval order of knights in Crusader Jerusalem
to run a hospital for pilgrims (hence their name), the Hospitallers
were in the Holy Land until Acre fell to the Saracens. They moved
briefly to Cyprus, and then took up positions in the waters just off
They fortified Rhodes and defied the Turks for centuries until, in the
early 1500s, their bastion finally capitulated to the sultan. In a
sense it was the final showdown of the era of the Crusades. The
knights moved their "langues" to the new front line of Christendom,
Malta. And, yes, Humphrey Bogart fans, they really did pay the Spanish
king an annual "rent" for the island consisting of a falcon, just like
in the movie. But it was a live Maltese falcon trained to hunt, not a
statue made of gold.
In May 1565 the Ottomans landed on Malta shortly after they had sunk
half the fleet operated by the knights in a naval battle off Tunis.
The Turks converged on Fort St. Elmo, which later served as a kind of
Masada symbol for centuries of Europeans. With its small garrison of
defenders, the fortress held out for a month against the Ottomans.
While eventually overrun, the knights and their valiant resistance
broke the back of the Ottoman invasion. The sultan lost 8,000 of his
best fighters in taking the fort. The rest of the Turkish troops were
by then running low on supplies and water. When word came of a relief
force of knights arriving from Sicily, the Turks broke and fled back
The Great Siege was one of the most vicious, but also most decisive,
battles in pre-modern European history. Prisoners were brutally
massacred by both sides. The 70-year-old grand master of the knights,
Jean Parisot de Valette, ordered the wells near the fort poisoned to
stop the Ottomans. That poisoning evidently served as the inspiration
for a scene in the malicious "Jew of Malta" play, written by
Christopher Marlowe, ostensibly about the Great Siege of Malta.
The heroism of the knights in St. Elmo prevented the Mediterranean
from being transformed into an Ottoman lake, and probably spared much
of Christian Europe from being overrun by the Turks. In addition, it
would inspire the Maltese themselves in 1940-43, when Malta was
suffered through thousands of bombing attacks by Hitler's Luftwaffe.
The blockaded island played a critical role in interrupting supply
lines to Rommel's Axis forces in North Africa and directly contributed
to their defeat. Letters of thanks and homage to the people of Malta
written by Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt are engraved into
the walls of buildings around the city of Valletta.
Not far from the fort of St. Elmo, a different kind of siege would
take place soon after the victory of the knights over the Turks. After
the Great Siege, the navy of the Order went prowling for Ottoman ships
to plunder, but quickly discovered that kidnapping merchants plying
the waters of the Mediterranean was more profitable. And commercial
ships at the time carried a particularly large number of Jewish
Though the treatment of Jews by the knights back at Rhodes had been
civil, there was money to be made from capturing Jewish merchants and
holding them as slaves until Jewish communities, mainly in Italy,
ransomed their release. Thus, not far from Fort St. Elmo, the Jewish
slave prison and slave market of Malta were erected.
For many years Malta carried for Jews emotional associations with
misery and mistreatment. In Vale of Tears (Emek Habakha), the 16th
century historian and physician Joseph Ha-Cohen told the tragic tale
of a ship of 70 Saloniki Jews captured and enslaved by the knights.
Still nominally under Spanish rule, the Inquisition was also
established in Malta after the Great Siege.
A popular Jewish prophesy circulating at the time warned of the demise
of four evil regimes, with Malta leading the list. The Malta slave
prison and market were closed down only when Napoleon evicted the
knights from the island, having stopped there along his route of
advance into Egypt and Palestine.
* * * * *
At the beginning of the 20th century, the lone synagogue still active
in Malta operated quite literally in the shadows of the Fort St. Elmo
defensive outer walls. From 1915 to 1920, the rabbi of Malta was
Nissim Ohana, whose granddaughter Pnina happens to be my wife. (I've
written before about another chapter of his life, when he served as
the rabbi of Gaza before World War I. See "My Gaza Roots" -
Rabbi Ohana arrived in Malta on a transport ship escorted by two
British destroyers due to fears of imminent U-boat attacks. The small
Jewish quarter in Malta's capital city was just a few steps away from
the knights' fortress. It was wartime, and Rabbi Ohana was invited by
the British colonial authorities in control of Malta to wear a British
officer's uniform while performing his duties. He tended not only to
the needs of the small local Maltese community but also to the Jewish
refugees who had reached Malta and even some Jews who were among the
prisoners of war held on the island.
Life was not easy. A smallpox epidemic hit Malta in those years and a
son of the rabbi perished. At the same time the rabbi's wife fell
seriously ill and was hospitalized in a church hospital serving as the
quarantine center. It was Tu B'Shvat 1916. She felt acutely
uncomfortable in the ward, which was bedecked with crucifixes and
portraits of the Virgin Mary and from which most of the patients were
"released" only after dying from the disease.
In her fevered torments that night, the rabbi's wife dreamed that her
father, a noted Jerusalem kabbalist, came into the room dressed in
princely attire. In the morning her fever broke and she was sent home
in a horse-drawn carriage. But she believed the dream was a sign that
her father had just died. The rabbi prohibited mourning, insisting
dreams are not a permissible basis upon which to sit shiva.
It was only two years later, with the war over and communications with
the Land of Israel reestablished, that she learned her father had
indeed died in Jerusalem the very night of her hospital vision.
In those days Jews on the streets of Valletta were often harassed
because they failed to make the sign of the cross when passing through
the many intersections displaying Christian statues and symbols. So
the Maltese Jews learned to use back alleys to avoid confrontations.
* * * * *
On our visit to the Malta National Library, the librarian did not seem
to know what a rabbi was. Her best suggestion about finding documents
on Rabbi Ohana was to check the baptism records at the local parish.
Shelley Tayar, whose late husband was head of the Jewish community,
was more helpful. Well into her 80s, the feisty unofficial archivist
for the community told us what she knew about Rabbi Ohana's days in
The Tayars (also spelled Tajar; the word means merchant) had migrated
to Malta from Libya 200 years ago. Her father-in-law accompanied Rabbi
Ohana on his rounds and duties during World War I. Shelley couldn't
take her eyes off my Greek fisherman's cap, which she insisted made me
look exactly like the milkman Tevya. She was also hosting a Brazilian
Catholic couple exploring the husband's Maltese Jewish roots. His
grandfather had left Malta for Brazil back in the days when Rabbi
Ohana lived in Malta.
The synagogue behind the St. Elmo fortress was moved in 1979, when an
entire block of houses was demolished to make room for a road. The
current synagogue is located across Marsamxett bay from Valletta and
has about 100 congregants. About half of these are members of the
Ohayon family. Special candles that burn pure olive oil are lit in the
synagogue every day.
Reuben Ohayon, the community's young acting rabbi and cantor, showed
us around the premises, but our special interest was in the
furnishings still in use that are remnants from Rabbi Ohana's era.
These include lamps and decorated wooden chairs, including one on
which the head of the community sits. There are also several Torah
scrolls left from Rabbi Ohana's days back in the old synagogue. One of
those scrolls had been sold to the Jewish Museum of New York to raise
money for the community.
But perhaps the most dramatic item we found that had been left behind
by Rabbi Ohana was a yad pointer, used for reading the Torah scroll.
"This is the yad used by your grandfather," Ohayon told my wife.
* * * * *
It is late afternoon. We are in the large Hall of the Inquisition in
Birgu, across the Grand Harbor from Valletta, near the knights'
fortress of St. Angelo, the fort that was never captured by the Turks
during the siege. The building's dungeon cells are part of the tour,
as is the Inquisitor's Torture Chamber.
I check the time and decide to conduct my own small impudent defiance
of the Inquisition, just a few centuries after the fact. I slip into
the Inquisitor's courtyard and daven the afternoon Minchah prayer.
"You see," Rabbi Nissim Ohana's granddaughter winks at me as I reenter
the building, "in the long run the Inquisition lost and you just won."