A historic 19th century Jewish cemetery on the island of Malta has been cleaned up by local activists, and translation of the gravestone epitaphs has begun.
The clean-up of the Jewish section of Valletta’s Ta’ Braxia cemetery took place this spring, on April 15, and was carried out by members of the Braxia and Addolorata Army (BADa), a local activist group formed last year to revitalize local cemeteries.
In an article in the Times of Malta, BADa founder Ruth Bezzina wrote that
In a matter of an afternoon’s worth of work our objectives were reached and we could look onto what seemed to be a brand new area. Tombstones we did not even know existed were uncovered, others simply cleaned of too much dust, gates scraped and painted to look good as new. Also worth noting is that we managed to translate the oldest tombstone text, which was very fulfilling for us as a team.
What seems to have been the previous major clean-up took place in the early 2000s, she wrote.
The size of the Jewish section is very small, and includes 120 burials, Ms Bezzina told JHE. She said a team from the university is currently working on some of the transcriptions. The grave markers are mostly Separdic-style horizontal slabs and sarcophagi.
The Jewish section of Ta’ Braxia, adjacent to Valletta’s main Ta’ Braxia International Cemetery, on the road from Floriana to Pieta, is one of three Jewish cemeteries in Malta (there are also half a dozen ancient catacomb burials). It was opened around 1830 (historians differ on dates) and used until 1880, when the Jewish community began using the Marsa cemetery, which is still in use.
The earliest surviving Jewish cemetery in Malta (aside from the catacombs) is the Jewish Cemetery in Kalkara, established in 1784.
As evidenced by the catacombs, there was a Jewish presence in Malta in ancient Roman times. In the Middle Ages Malta came under the Kingdom of Sicily, which had a large Jewish population. But the Jews were expelled from Sicily in 1492. From 1530 to 1798, the Knights of St John ruled the islands and captured and brought back large numbers of Jewish prisoners captured in battles against the Ottomans. The Jews of Venice, Livorno and elsewhere raised funds to ransom these Jewish prisoners, many of whom were kept in slavery, and kept a permanent Christian agent on the island, under whom Jewish slaves were able to maintain a synagogue and a cemetery. A more traditionally organized community developed toward the end of the Knights’ domination and, from 1800, under British rule.