On June 4, Roman Jews celebrated a particularly blissful event. Sixty-five years ago to the day, Allied soldiers liberated Rome from German and Italian forces, entered the ghetto and on June 5 reopened the Great Synagogue. After six years of persecution at the hands of Fascism and Nazism, Roman Jews walked back to their neighborhood and their homes, picked up the pieces and started over.
The history of Italian Jews is a long, winding road that cuts through the past and present of the Italian peninsula since the time of the Roman Empire. It came full circle a few weeks ago, when a former Fascist, now major of Rome, presided over the celebration for the 65th anniversary of the reopening of Great Synagogue and commemorated the sacrifice made by the Allies to free the Eternal City during World War II. Roman Jews and gentiles came together to remember the past, heal the wounds, celebrate the present and prepare for the future in an intertwining exercise as ancient as the Roman ruins.
Jews have been part of Italian history and of the history of Rome for more than 2,000 years. The ancient Italian rite of prayer - the Nusah Italki - is comparable to the Sephardi and Ashkenazi traditions. It has its own music and order of prayers, and it is practiced in the Great Synagogue of Rome.
THROUGHOUT THE Roman Empire and the Middle Ages to modern times, life for Italian Jews has been hard and at times insufferable. In the 20th century, Jews initially were persecuted by the Italian Fascist government and later by the German occupation and the much harsher Nazi policies. Michele Sarfatti, author and director of the Center for Jewish Documentation in Milan, wrote: "There were two phases. From September 1938 to July 25, 1943, the persecution took place under the authority of the Kingdom of Italy and aimed at the rights of the Jews. From September 8, 1943 to April 25, 1945, the persecution of the Jews took place under German occupation and with the authority of the SalÃ² Republic, and it aimed at their life."
After two and a half years of disastrous war alongside Germany, on July 25, 1943, Italian Fascism finally crumbled. When on September 8, 1943 Gen. Dwight Eisenhower announced Italy's unconditional surrender, the Germans were able to occupy Rome without much trouble and life for the Roman Jews took a dramatic turn for the worse. On September 16, 1943, SS ObersturmbannfÃ¼hrer Herbert Kappler ordered the Jewish community to surrender 50 kg. of gold in exchange for the lives of 200 members of the community. Roman Jews complied, but their response did not placate the Nazis. On October 13, the SS seized the synagogue, plundered it and then sealed it, officially closing it down.
Worse was to come. On October 16 at 5:30 a.m., 365 German soldiers began rounding up Jews throughout the city. Cesare Anticoli, a Roman Jew who was a teenager at the time, recalled in testimony rendered on the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the reopening of the Great Synagogue that the community had sensed the danger. Those who could had already left their homes. But those who could not were trapped, and 1,265 people were arrested. On October 18, more than 200 were released, but 1,016 were moved to the Tiburtina train station, loaded on cattle cars and deported to Auschwitz. Only 16 of them came back.
According to Emiliano Simone Tizi, of the Historic Archives of the Jewish Roman Community, the common suffering of the German occupation was vital in forging a common ground among Roman citizens of all creeds. The Ardeatine massacre - in which as a reprisal for an attack against their soldiers, the Nazis killed 335 Roman men, including 73 Jews - is the best example, as it formed a crucial moment in the shared Jewish and gentile memory of the war.
When in the early hours of June 4 the rumors of the Allies' arrival spread, Romans and Roman Jews among them began to take the streets. Excitement was widespread, but fear had not disappeared overnight. Mino Moscati, a Roman Jew who was 14 years old at the time, recalls: "I remember that June 4 was a Sunday, because I did not go to work. We heard clanks; I went to the pyramid behind the St. Paul's Gate and I saw American tanks rolling in. A soldier gave me some cigarettes, another one a packet of chewing gum. My father came down from Via Giotto calling out, 'Come home: It's the Germans dressed up!' This was a rumor that was going around, so we went back home with him."
MOSCATI RECALLS that as soon as possible he and his father, Gino Moscati, the Great Synagogue sexton, ran to the ghetto. It was June 5, and the roads of Rome were not yet safe. On the road to the Great Synagogue father and son ran into a sniper, who was quickly taken care of by American artillery. Moscati recalls: "Then [US Army] Captain Bergman arrived and he told a soldier to get a tool to open the door of the temple. We opened them together, the doors that had been sealed. It was the soldiers, me, my father, the temple's doorman Edmondo Contardi and his wife Gemma, who were Catholics and who used to switch the lights on and off on Shabbat. Dad immediately turned on the ner tamid, and opened other doors. Everybody walked in, a crowd of Jews gathered in front of the temple: There were people who were sweeping the floor, people who were dusting, and lots of hugs and kisses."
Then on Saturday, June 10, the Great Synagogue was crammed with people enjoying their freedom, but also mourning their losses. Every Friday after that first one, the American Jewish soldiers led by US Army Capt. Jacob Hochman prayed in the Great Synagogue: "They were doing Arvit after us. They were so many and it was so moving to see them praying all together," Gino recalls.
Despite the betrayal of their country and the horrors of World War II, most Italian Jews joined in the hopes of their fellow citizens and after the war ended decided to give life in Italy another chance. On the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the reopening of the Great Synagogue, Riccardo Pacifici, president of the Roman Jewish Community, noted with emotion that "it is extraordinary to see how a cultural group like the Jews, so hard hit by the events, decided to stay even after the war in the places that witnessed its persecution. What happened after June 4 shows how the Roman Jewish community is rooted in Rome. Our community does not only claim out loud that it belongs to this city, but also that this city belongs to our community."
TODAY THE Jewish neighborhood lies between the Tiber River, the Capitol and Largo Argentina, just south of the Pantheon. It is mostly spared by the tourist circus and thus it still has a distinct Italian flavor, one that even traditional Roman neighborhoods like Trastevere are beginning to lose. All the bars and restaurants have tables outside overlooking the main street, Via del Portico d'Ottavia. Residents stroll through the neighborhood, enjoying the Italian ritual of a passeggiata. The Jewish quarter is also the fulcrum of the Roman Jewish community. With 15,000 members, the Roman Jewish community is the biggest in Italy, and it is working hard to find a balance between remembering the past, integrating in the city and preserving its own identity.
For its part, the city of Rome has tried to heal the wounds of the past among its citizens. One of the most beautiful spots in the city is the Rose Garden, which sits just above the Circus Maximus and overlooks the Palatine and the Aventine ruins. Built in 1950, the Rose Garden hosts more than 1,100 varieties of roses divided by regular paths that trace the distinct shape of a menora. At the entrance of the garden a headstone inscribed with the tablets of Moses recalls the original nature of the site. The area used to be the ancient Roman Jewish cemetery, built in 1645 and relocated in 1934 within the larger complex of the Verano Monumental Cemetery.
More recently the Italian government has voiced its commitment to remembering the past and building a common future for all Romans. On October 16, 2008 former Fascist Gianfranco Fini, president of the lower house of Italy's Parliament, visited the Roman ghetto to remember the events of 1943-44 and to meet Alberto Mieli, who was deported to Auschwitz on April 5, 1944. The two shook hands on the stairs of the Great Synagogue.
The celebration for the 65th anniversary of the reopening of the synagogue brought together Roman Jews, representatives of the Italian government and of the city of Rome, the Italian army, delegations from Allied countries, former partisans and ordinary Romans. The past was remembered as a warning for the future, but also as a way to heal the wounds that in the darkest days of Italian history forced Italian Jews away from their fellow citizens. In the words of Riccardo Pacifici: "The memory must include persecution, indifference, informants, annihilation and bloodshed, but it also must include those who fought against Fascism, the Italians who saved Jews risking their own lives, the partisans, the Allied troops and those who did not join the SalÃ² Republic and instead fought to free Italy from Nazism and Fascism. It is a mistake, today, to remember the Shoah only focusing on the gloomy side of that story. There have been many lights illuminating such dark times."
The writer is an adjunct professor of government at St. John's University, Rome Campus.