Rome's Jews face exodus from historic neighborhood amid property boom

Rosa Moscato left the impoverished but familiar existence of Rome's Jewish quarter only twice in her life. As a child she fled to the countryside with her family to escape Nazi persecution, then returned after the war to marry and raise a family in the cramped neighborhood that housed her close-knit community. The second time there was little Moscato could do as the rundown area experienced a renaissance, leading to a real-estate boom that attracted wealthy buyers and uprooted longtime residents like herself from the neighborhood where popes once forced Rome's Jews to live. Residents and Jewish community officials say evictions and speculative deals are driving out the area's few remaining Jews, often severing their ties to one of the oldest communities in Europe. Of more than 13,000 Jews in the Italian capital, fewer than 800 still live in the Ghetto, according to the Jewish community's archive. After World War II the area housed 6,000 of the city's 11,000-strong community. Moscato, 72, can hardly recognize the cobblestoned alleys she grew up in and the 16th century building where she, her husband and four children shared a two-room flat until 1998, when the family was evicted by owners eager to cash in on the area's growing value. "It was a hole, it was damp and in winter it rained in, but I raised my kids there," she recalls of the top-floor flat overlooking Via del Portico D'Ottavia, the Ghetto's main street. The tiny apartment, which once lacked running water and was served by a makeshift outhouse dangerously poised over the building's courtyard, now has all the trappings of a trendy loft. "When I moved into this home I felt sorry, I felt I was treading on history," says Grazia Anghinelli, a psychologist who refurbished the flat and still welcomes Moscato and her husband when they drop by their old haunt. "But what could I do? It was a great deal." Property values have tripled or quadrupled over the last decade, making the Ghetto as pricey as other parts of downtown Rome. Apartments in the neighborhood now sell for a minimum of €5,000 per square meter (US$660 per square foot), although prices can rise higher depending on location, according to Carlo Ventura, a real-estate consultant at Rome's chamber of commerce. Elegant restructuring projects and tight security around Jewish community buildings have attracted politicians and TV personalities to the centrally located area. Growing traffic restrictions have also shut down many of Jewish-owned textile and crafts shops, and restaurants and Internet points now cater to tourists visiting the Ghetto's ancient Roman and Jewish landmarks. "It's no longer our neighborhood, it's the neighborhood of the police and actors," says Sergio Di Veroli, Moscato's 77-year-old husband. Di Veroli says his own family lived for 250 years in one of the small apartments below the one he shared with his wife. It has not been long since fishmongers and venders of food and clothes displayed their wares in their courtyard and the surrounding streets, as the neighborhood's men shared steaming pots of coffee before morning prayers at the main synagogue nearby. "We were poor but we were like one big family, the doors were always open and we were always together, cooking for our neighbors or helping each other wash our hair," says Moscato. Living in the city since the second century B.C., Rome's Jews were first confined to the Ghetto, then a flood-prone slum on the banks of the Tiber River, in 1555, under Pope Paul IV. Pressured to convert and allowed to hold jobs only as money lenders or rag sellers, the cohesive community continued to live mostly in and around the old Ghetto even after Italy wrested control of Rome from the papacy in 1870, ending the three centuries of segregation. After renewed persecution during World War II, when Nazi occupiers sent more than 2,000 of Rome's Jews to their deaths in extermination camps, the Ghetto experienced a first exodus, as the more prosperous families went looking for better housing, leaving behind mostly low-income residents. Now, officials say, the property boom is hounding out these vulnerable inhabitants - mostly elderly or unemployed who are often paid by owners to leave or are used as strawmen by speculators to buy valuable public housing. "We are at a point of no return," says Riccardo Pacifici, a spokesman and vice president of Rome's Jewish community. "There is a very real risk that in a few years the Ghetto will become a tourist neighborhood with no real Jewish life." And leaving the Ghetto, he says, means more than abandoning old memories, as many former residents find themselves in distant suburbs, far from Jewish religious and social life. Pacifico Di Capua, a 38-year-old former Ghetto resident, now walks some five kilometers (three miles) back and forth to the synagogue each Saturday and on other holy days when observant Jews do not use transportation. Di Capua, who supports himself by working at a clothing stall, says he was evicted in 2001 after his mother died and the owners refused to renew the contract that was in her name. "Even though it's far I try to get back often, everybody knows me here," he says. Despite the changing population, the neighborhood remains the center of the community's life _ housing Rome's main synagogue, a Jewish school, kosher restaurants and shops selling Jewish religious objects. And there are still some residents who hold on to life in the Ghetto, living on their own property or paying subsidized rent in apartments bought by the community as part of efforts to maintain the area's character. "Here my father and my brother lived and these things must not be forgotten," says Roberto Calo, a 75-year-old who lost most of his family in the Holocaust and who has offers from real-estate agencies for his apartment. "From time to time I receive telephone calls and they make me incredible offers, but I wouldn't leave here for any reason."