ITALY'S DARKEST HOUR - EPISODE 5: THE RAID OF THE JEWISH GHETTO IN ROME

Tuesday, 04 August 2020 15:41 Written by
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Today I will tell you about a very sad episode, which has left its mark on the city of Rome and beyond: the raid of the Jewish Ghetto in Rome. An episode that some of the oldest Romans still remember. My intent is not to judge, but simply to let you know about a piece of our history, sad as it is.

In 1938 the fascist regime, imitating the Nazi regime, had issued the infamous "Racial Laws", introducing racial discrimination in Italy’s everyday life, public and private. Anti-Semitism had never been an issue in Italy, and Jewish Italians had lived for centuries without being harassed. They were simply Italians of Jewish religion. But Mussolini wanted to prove to Hitler that he was just as tough, and so he had the Racial Laws issued.
No one ever enforced them but superficially. Indeed, in the territories occupied by the Italian Army, Jews enjoyed almost absolute freedom. Until September 8th, 1943, when the Germans occupied Italy.
The decision to deport all Roman Jews was taken in Berlin immediately after the occupation: the deportation should cover "all Jews, regardless of nationality, age, gender and condition". Colonel Kappler, head of SS intelligence in Rome, General Rainer Stahel, the military commander of Rome, and Consul Moellhausen, Germany's highest diplomatic authority in Rome, opposed to it. The relationship with the neutral state of the Vatican, which appeared to be the only possible mediator between the Allies and Germany, was at stake. From the early days of the occupation of Rome, a delicate balance existed between the Germans and the Vatican, including the German acknowledgement of the extraterritoriality of some areas of Vatican City and Rome itself, tacitly extended to churches and convents, and the planned raid could have compromised it.
The answer from Berlin was harsh: deport Roman Jews immediately. The order came directly from Himmler, the head of the SS. In the German diplomatic circles in Rome, it aroused many fears of a decisive stance against deportation by the Pope, which could result in the end of any relationship between the Vatican and the Nazis. In a letter to Berlin after the raid, the Ambassador to the Vatican, von Weizsacker, reported that: "The Curia (the high-ranking Vatican priests) is particularly impressed because the action took place, so to speak, under the Windows of the Pope."
The cautious pressures from Vatican officials, who thought this was the best way to get at least some results, achieved nothing in the immediate and did not change the fate of any of the arrested. Much has been said about the position of the Catholic Church towards the Nazi regime: this is one among many episodes in which prudence prevailed over the defence of the weak. The Catholic Church was terrified by the fact that the Germans could activate all the weapons in their possession against its followers and its ministers, first of all the Pope, and accuse it to support the enemy, any enemy.
There were about 12.000 Jews in Rome at the time. On September 26th, Kappler asked the Community for 50 kilos of gold, which should have prevented the deportation of 200 heads of the families. The gold was collected in full, even with the help of non-Jewish Romans. No order for this request came from Berlin, and Kappler himself later said that it was his initiative, trying to change Berlin’s mind about the planned deportation.
After this episode, some of the Roman Jews were reassured, while others decided to hide, fearing deportation. Many, especially among the poorest, simply did not know where and how to hide, they had no money to do it, no idea that it was a matter of life or death. Many also thought that raids like the ones perpetrated in Poland could not happen in Rome, in the heart of Western civilization. Not in the Pope’s backyard, He would protect the Jews, "his Jews", given the centuries-old privileged relationship between Popes and Jews in Rome.
The leaders of the Jewish Community instructed their fellows to carry on their normal lives. In vain Chief Rabbi Israel Zolli, of Galician origin and therefore well aware of what was happening in Eastern Europe (he had 2 brothers murdered as early as 1942, one in a ghetto, the other in a camp) had insisted, from the early days of the occupation, that all synagogues and community offices be closed, cult suspended and Roman Jews warned to flee.
The raid began at dawn throughout the city. The Nazis had the lists of the 1938 fascist census, which they crossed with the lists of taxpayers taken from the Jewish Community. The lists, originally in alphabetical order, had been reorganized by neighbourhood, streets, buildings, interiors with the cooperation of the Italian police. The operation was conducted exclusively by the SS, no Italian police force participated, not even the fascist one.
1266 Jews were arrested. 252 of them were released in the afternoon of the first day because they were mixed or Jewish spouses of a mixed marriage. The others left on October 18th for Auschwitz and here, for the most part, were killed right after arriving.
The raid was seen by the Germans as an almost total failure. To his justification, Kappler cited the lack of widespread anti-Semitic sentiment among Italians, and the passive when not active resistance implemented by them in the face of arrests: fascists who protected Jewish neighbours and hosted them in their homes, and many such incidents.
The persecution, the hunt for the Jews, continued with the help of Fascists and many more victims, but there were no more raids like this one. Perhaps because of some kind of silent pact between the Nazis and the Vatican: sometimes the Nazis pretended not to know that some churches and monasteries were full of Jews, deserters and political opponents. A hissing phrase by Weizsacker, in his report of October 28th, seems to confirm this pact:
"Since no more actions will be taken against the Jews here in Rome, it can be considered that this issue, unpleasant for the good German-Vatican agreement, is over".

Read 366 times Last modified on Tuesday, 13 October 2020 13:44
Marcello Cordovani

Marcello Cordovani is the founder and co-owner of VITORITALY. He is also the Tour Manager of the private tour of Italy

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