The Jewish Ghetto

I’ve been reading a lot lately about Italy and World War 2 and I’ve gotten a bit obsessed with the topic. The other day, I paid a visit to the Jewish Ghetto to remind myself of an infamous incident that occurred there in October 1943, not long after the German occupation of Rome.

But first, a potted history of the Jewish community in Rome. Dating back some 2200 years, it is the oldest in Europe. The relationship between the Ancient Romans and the Jews had its ups and downs. The Romans tried to ban circumcision, which they mixed up with castration, Pompey the Great sacked Jerusalem in 63 B.C., and Titus destroyed the Temple of Solomon in 70 A.D., pretty much ending the Jewish nation for the next 2 000 years. You can see some guys carrying off the sacred menorah on the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum.

This relief from the Arch of Titus shows Roman soldiers making off with the menorah.

On the other hand, Julius Caesar was a great defender of Jewish rights and there was great wailing and gnashing of teeth – so say ancient sources – in the community when he died.

Things got a bit worse once Christianity became the official religion of Italy but mostly the Jews were tolerated and the community prospered and grew, especially after Ferdinand and Isabella expelled all the Jews from Spain in 1492. The Spanish Jews came to Rome because it was relatively safe. In 1555, the ex-Grand Inquisitor and rabidly anti-semitic Gian Pietro Carafa became Pope Paul IV. He immediately issued the Papal Bull Cum Nimis Absurdum, which takes its name from its first words “Since it is absurd” (…and utterly inconvenient that the Jews, who through their own fault were condemned by God to eternal slavery…”) and confined the Jews to a ghetto consisting of four streets across from Tiber Island, in an area once occupied by a fish market. About 4 000 people lived in the ghetto, which was dirty, incredibly cramped and frequently submerged by the river.

The Portico di Ottavia – built by Augustus to commemorate his sister – was used as a fish market in medieval times. Today, it sits in the middle of the ghetto.

About 4 000 people lived in just four narrow streets like this one.

Papal restrictions on the lives of the Jews – in terms of what professions they could hold and the degree of oppression they faced – tightened and loosened over the next several centuries. In the early 19th Century, they were forced to attend Catholic services at least twice a year on pain of heavy fines. Swiss Guards beat them up if they fell asleep.  It was not until 1871 and the unification of Italy that the walls of the ghetto were destroyed and the Jews were given equal rights.

Ok, finally getting to the point.  In 1938, Mussolini’s Fascist Council  established a series of racial laws stripping the Jews of their rights to marry non-Jews, own businesses, hold public jobs and attend public schools. Fascist newspapers launched a massive anti-Jewish campaign. Italy was pretty live-and-let-live in terms of anti-semitism at the time and one theory has it that Il Duce pushed the laws through to curry favour with Hitler. Another, that he was trying to consolidate his empire using that old party trick of creating a common enemy.

Italy surrendered to the Allies on 8 September 1943. The Germans occupied Rome on the 10th. Two weeks later, the head SS guy in Rome, Herbert Kappler, demanded  from the Jews a tribute of 50 kilos of gold to be delivered within 36 hours.  With the help of many non-Jewish Romans (even the Vatican pitched in!), they succeeded. But the gold wasn’t the point and on 16 October 1943, 1 022 Jews, including 200 children, were seized from the ghetto and sent to Auschwitz.  Only sixteen – fifteen men and one woman – survived.

“In perpetual memory of the 112 students from this school who perished in Nazi concentration camps.”

Today, the ghetto is a lively spot, filled with shops and restaurants, including the famous Giggeto. See what my friend Elizabeth has to say about it.

The place to come for great Jerusalem artichokes.

There are plaques all around recalling that awful day.

Plaque commemorating the seizure of the Jews in October 1943.

And a very nice museum featuring fabrics, art and documents describing the history and traditions of the Jews of Rome.

Entrance to the Jewish Museum of Rome, right behind the Great Synagogue.

You can visit the art deco Great Synagogue – with a guide – which was built in 1901. The reason for the guide is security. In 1982, the synagogue was attacked by terrorists belonging to the Abu Nidal Organization. One child was killed and thirty-seven adults were injured. Though the group escaped, one member, Abdel Osama al Zomor, was arrested a month later trying to smuggle 132 lb of explosives into Greece by car. He was eventually extradited to Italy where he was sentenced to life in prison.

The Great Synagogue in Rome. The park in front is dedicated to the memory of the two-year old boy who was killed in a terrorist attack there in 1982.


5 responses to “The Jewish Ghetto

  1. This is a really interesting museum although I didn’t get to tour the synagogue. Now I want to come back to eat though!! Thanks for this!

  2. Thanks so much for this post. Several years ago, I did a series of interviews in Milan with survivors of the holocaust in Italy. I was moved to hear their stories — and to learn about a piece of history that is seldom taught in the US.

    The wonderful Centro di Documentazione Ebraica Contemporanea helped us with this project.

    Jeff Goodman

    • Hi Jeff. Thanks for sharing this. I got very interested in the subject after reading the Alexander Stille book, Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism. I have looked quickly at your interviews and am excited to read them more thoroughly. Happy to hear from you after all there years.

  3. Pingback: Pallanza and more war stuff | My Life: Part Two

  4. Pingback: Erich Priebke/16 October 1943 | My Life: Part Two

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