The Malta Independent 18 November 2018, Sunday

Henrietta Chevalier: the unsung Maltese heroine

Marika Azzopardi Sunday, 3 February 2013, 10:00 Last update: about 5 years ago

History is composed of facts and happenings eventually documented in history books and which change and shape the story of people's lives in a determined manner. What very often goes undocumented are scraps and snippets of private stories that back up the greater picture. Stories of people who remain out of the limelight, yet play a considerably important role in the bigger scheme of things. This is just such a story – that of a Maltese woman called Henrietta Chevalier.

Just a few months ago, her memory was commemorated with the inauguration of a tiny memorial garden dedicated to her and situated in the Malta Aviation Museum in Ta' Qali. Trying to fathom out the connection, I meet up with Ray and Mary Rose Polidano who volunteer with the the Foundation managing the museum.

“We 'discovered' Henrietta perchance, some two years ago whilst viewing a TV movie called 'The Scarlet and the Black'. The 1983 movie stars Gregory Peck in his later years, with the script being based a true story written in the 1967 book by J.P. Gallagher called 'The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican.”

“In the movie, the protagonist is an Irish priest called Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty, who, trapped in Rome when it was occupied by Nazi soldiers, managed to help hundreds of Jews and Allied prisoners of wars escape to safety.

“This he did at great personal risk and with the collaboration of several courageous civilians including, namely, Henrietta Chevalier.

“Although Henrietta is not mentioned by name in the movie, she is referred to with a code name of Mrs M. My wife and I were both intrigued by the story and the Maltese connection and began amassing as much information as we could, through old books and internet searches. At some point we reached a dead-end and nearly gave up on any further information coming our way. Then we came across a letter published in a local newspaper and written by a woman whose father had been interned and who had known Henrietta personally. We met this woman and eventually, as we researched further, we discovered that one of Henrietta's nephews was married to one of our own distant relatives, which was quite a strange coincidence. We met several other Maltese people who actually knew of her existence and eventually even traced more of her relations here in Malta and abroad.”

But who was this enigmatic woman?  Henrietta Chevalier was born Scerri to what seems to have been a well-to-do family living in Sliema, Malta. She married Thomas Chevalier, a Maltese man whose surname is now extinct on the islands. He worked with the British travel company 'Thomas Cook' and some time before the outbreak of World War II was sent to represent the company in Rome. The couple had six children before tragedy struck twice over. Thomas Chevalier died prematurely just before war was declared and Henrietta and her children found themselves trapped in Rome as Mussolini declared war in 1940.

“It is still unclear how she managed to avoid deportation or imprisonment for herself and her children, since she had a British passport at the time, as all other citizens of Malta did. She possibly  sought protection from the Vatican. What is certain is that she became one of the few trusted people who helped O'Flaherty save hundreds of  foreigners trapped in Rome. There were three other Maltese men involved, all of them priests, namely Fr Ugolino Gatt, Fr Egidio Galea, Brother Robert of Mary alias Louis Pace and Fr Aurelius Borg. We have information about all of these except the latter.”

Henrietta's task was to act normal – the widowed mother of six children living in Rome. Yet she was instrumental to hiding several POWs and Jews in her home; preparing food to feed the several endangered people hidden in varied hideouts around Rome. Her life between September 1943 and June 1944 during which period the Rome Escape Line was active, was highly dramatic, with great risk-taking and danger.

Eventually, Henrietta Chevalier returned to Malta after the war. She apparently returned alone since her children probably married, moved elsewhere or remained in Italy. The British awarded her for her courage and valour with an MBE received in 1945. In Malta nobody apparently took notice of her. From then onwards, little if anything was heard about her and she passed away quietly in July 1973 at the age of 72 years. “We still cannot fathom how this woman remained un-appreciated in her own country, for all the work and risks she ever took. It is reckoned that some 4000 prisoners were helped escape via what was known as the Rome Escape Line. What is certain is that her contribution in the whole plan was incomparable. It is the reason why we decided to dedicate the as yet undedicated little garden here, to her memory.”

Mr Polidano explains how the Malta Aviation Museum is regularly visited by many foreigners, not only aviation fanatics  or ex service-men and women, but also by people seeking information about their ancestors who were at war in Malta, who were based here, lived here and possibly also perished here. “We come across several heart-rending stories of lost soldiers being sought by distant relatives. Stories come together piecemeal but when the parts fall into place, some stories are quite extraordinary. When we decided to create the little garden here, we asked for contributions to help purchase trees and in no time at all, the garden was designed and landscaped. Now it is finally complete with this dedication to Henrietta Chevalier who, although not linked to aviation, is a Maltese heroine, female no less, whom we feel deserves some sort of recognition. The small inauguration ceremony we held was highly significant also to her distant relations who were present for the event. We wish to render homage to this extraordinary woman – I hope our little garden will serve its purpose well.”

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