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Anniversary of the Synagogue Reopening after WWII Brings Romans Together

Ida Garibaldi
Summer / Fall 2009

On June 4, 2009 Roman Jews cel¬ebrated a particularly blissful event. Sixty-five years ago to the day, Allied soldiers recaptured Rome from Nazi and Fascist troops, entered the ghetto, and on June 5 reopened the Great Syna¬gogue. 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 sixty-fifth anniversary of the reopening of Great Synagogue and commemo¬rated the sacrifice made by the Allies to free the Eternal City from Fascism and Nazism during World War II. Ro¬man 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.  
Italy and the Jews  
Jews have been part of Italian his¬tory and of the history of Rome for over two thousand years. The ancient Italian rite of prayer – the Nusach Italki – is comparable to the Sephardic and Ash¬kenazi traditions. The Nusach Italki has its own music and order of prayers, and it is practiced in the Great Synagogue of Rome. This is often referred to by Roman Jews with familiarity as “the Temple”, despite the fact that the only Temple in Judaism has been the one in Jerusalem. Silvia Haia Antonucci, author and journalist who works at the Historic Archives of the Jewish Roman Community, regards this as an indication of the ancient origins of the Roman Jews.  
Indeed, the first Jews arrived on the Italian peninsula in 586 B.C. and Jews have been living in Rome continuously since the Second Century B.C. The first Jews to settle in the Italian peninsula had left Judea after the destruction of the First Temple. After the destruc¬tion of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. thousands were enslaved and deported to Rome, were they were employed to build the Coliseum. By the end of the First Century A.D. small Jewish com¬munities were well established all over the Italian peninsula: From Syracuse in Sicily, to Pompeii by Naples, to Rome, to Ferrara and Milan in the north.  
Remains of ancient Italian Jewish heritage can be found all over Italy, and are particularly stunning in and around Rome. In Ostia Antica, the harbor city of ancient Rome, sit the well preserved ruins of the oldest syna¬gogue in Europe, which dates back to the IV century A.D. In Rome there are six known Jewish catacombs which were used by Roman Jews to bury the dead. The Arch of Titus (85 A.D.) on the Roman Forum was built to com¬memorate the seizing of Jerusalem and the defeat of the Jewish zealots. A panel inside the Arch shows a Menorah being taken from the Second Temple as a spoil of war.  
Catholicism Becomes Official Religion  
Despite a rocky start, life for the Italian Jews was relatively easy until 380 A.D. when the emperor Theodo¬sius I declared Catholic Christianity the only legitimate religion of the Ro¬man Empire. Discrimination against all other religions became common, and Judaism was no exception. Ro¬man Jews were particularly targeted because they were directly exposed to the will of the papacy.  
Discrimination and oppression were partially ameliorated under the auspices of Charlemagne, king of the Franks from 768 until his death in 814. Jewish rights improved. In the north of the country more communities blossomed, and in the south Jewish schools boomed, especially in Rome and Sicily.  
The armistice between Italian Juda¬ism and Christianity was short lived. In¬deed, from 1000 to 1215, times became less benign. Jews were progressively ex¬cluded from the job market: The newly established professional guilds were for Christians only. Jews were relegated to second-hand trading and money lend¬ing. In November 1215 Pope Innocent the III convoked the IV Council of the Lateran, which, among other provi¬sions, established that Jews had to live in separate neighborhoods and had to be identifiable by wearing a specific item of clothing. Men could choose from a particular yellow or red hat; women had to wear a yellow scarf on their head, as requested for prostitutes.  
The year 1348 marked another turn for the worse in the history of Italian Jews. The Black Plague swept across Europe leaving at least one third of its population dead. However, the dis¬ease seemed to largely spare Jewish communities. The Jews were falsely accused of spreading the plague and became the object of popular anger and retaliation. In fact, Italian Jews lived in secluded neighborhoods where they observed better hygiene that pro¬tected them from diseases such as the plague. Suspicion and distrust never fully disappeared. In 1475 following the accusation of killing a child to perform a religious ritual, Jews were expelled from the Trentino region, in the North-Eastern part of the peninsula. The Jews of Trentino issued an herem of never returning to the region that chased them out. Burgeoning Jewish communities like Riva died out.  
1492 A Crucial Year  
1492 was a crucial year in influenc¬ing the distribution of Italian Jews over Italy. The communities in Central and Northern Italy began to receive consis¬tent influxes from the South of the pen¬insula, where Jews were being slowly expelled following the rule imposed by Spain. Between 1492 and 1541 roughly 37.000 Italian Jews moved north and settled in Central Italy, in and around Rome. With the greater dispersal of Jews, also came important contribu¬tions to Italian cuisine. Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 found refuge in Italy and introduce Italian cuisine to the use of olive oil instead of pork fat, making it a staple of Italian cooking all over the world. Another lesser-known culinary contribution is the eggplant caponata, a cold salad that is now a common Italian dish. It was adopted and made famous by Italian Jews to respect the Sabbath prohibition of cooking with fire.  
The redistribution of Jews in Italy brought scores of new immigrants to the Papal Kingdom, which ruled over Rome and most of Central Italy. For Roman Jews, life quickly worsened. In 1555 most of the regulations estab¬lished by the IV Council of the Lateran in 1215 and thus far not enforced were strictly applied. Jews had to move into ghettos: Venice had established its own in 1516; Rome followed suit in 1555. Italian Jews had to wait for Napoleon to conquer Italy and elevate them to the same status as Christians. When the French emperor swept through the peninsula in 1796, he opened the ghettos and allowed Jews to integrate into public life. For the first time Italian Jews could take up government jobs, go to public schools, and did not have to wear any item of clothing indicating their faith.  
The Restoration following Napo¬leon’s decline removed most of these rights, but during his rule significant steps forward had been taken in ad¬vancing the status of Italian Jews. In 1848 the Kingdom of Sardinia finally recognized Jews as full citizens, start¬ing a trend that would slowly extend to the whole Italian peninsula, and even¬tually reached Roman Jews in 1870. In 1871 there were 11 Jewish members of parliament. By 1874 their number had grown to 15. Between 1907 and 1913 Rome had a Jewish mayor, Ernesto Nathan. These are considered the years of the Italian Jewish Renaissance. Between 1874 and 1904 the Jewish community of Rome built the Great Synagogue, a grand and imposing building that still defines the profile of the city along the Tiber.  
Italian Jews in Fascist Italy  
As Annie Sacerdoti, journalist and author of Guida all’Italia ebraica [A Guide To Jewish Italy] points out: “When in 1922 the Fascist Party en¬tered the government, Jews were per¬fectly integrated in the country and did not fear any anti-Semitism. Some Jews had participated in the founding of the Party, others in the March on Rome; many industrialists and businessmen financially supported Fascism because they believed that they were defending their own economic interests and na¬tionalistic ideas. Jews became promi¬nent in the government: Guido Jung was Minister of Finance from 1932 to 1933, Ludovico Mortara presided over the Supreme Court [Corte riunita di Cassazione] until 1923.” However, in 1936 the relationship between Italian Jews and the regime quickly turned sour. Mussolini drew closer to Hitler’s Nazi Germany and the Axis alliance of 1936 was soon to be followed by the infamous Racial Laws in 1938. In fact, the Italian laws were stricter than the German ones, excluded Jews from the “Italian race” and took away all the rights that they had enjoyed with full Italian citizenship since 1848. Roughly 5,000 Italian Jews of the estimated 30-40,000 living in Italy at the time left their country in search of a better and safer place to live.  
According to the 1938 census, the largest portion of Italian Jews – pre¬cisely 12,828 – lived in Rome. Mi¬chele Sarfatti, author and director of the Center for Jewish Documentation in Milan writes: “In Italy, Jews were persecuted first by Fascism and then by Nazism. 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 Salò Republic, and it aimed at their life.”  
After two and a half years of disas¬trous war side by side with Nazism, on July 25, 1943 Fascism finally crum¬bled. The Gran Consiglio, the supreme organ of Fascist Italy, forced Mussolini to resign. King Vittorio Emanuele III appointed General Pietro Badoglio to become prime minister, Mussolini was arrested and transferred to a prison on the Gran Sasso, a mountain outside of Rome (on September 12th a Ger¬man commando unit rescued him and transported him to Salò, a small town in the North of the country, where on Sep¬tember 23 he founded the Italian Social Republic and reaffirmed his loyalty to the Axis). Badoglio acted slowly and indecisively. He formally announced that war continued with the German ally, but at the same time he was negoti¬ated the terms of Italy’s surrender with the Allies. Thus, when on September 8, 1943 General Eisenhower announced Italy’s unconditional surrender, the Germans were able to occupy Rome without much trouble. Additionally, Badoglio—a career military man who was lauded under Fascism, and named the Duke of Addis Ababa—did not repeal the Racial Laws during his brief tenure as Italy’s leader.  
German Occupation of Rome  
When the Germans and some Italian Fascists reoccupied the city, life for the Roman Jews took a dramatic turn for the worse. On September 16, 1943, SS Obersturmbannführer (Liutenant-Colonel) Herbert Kappler ordered the Jewish community to surrender 50 kg (110 pounds) of gold in exchange for the life of 200 members of the com¬munity. Roman Jews complied, but it did not placate the Nazis. On October 13, the SS seized the Synagogue, plun¬dered it and then sealed it, officially closing it down. Worse was to come. On October 16 at 5:30 AM 365 Ger¬man soldiers began rounding up Jews throughout the city. Cesare Anticoli, a young Jewish teenager at the time, recalls in a testimony rendered in oc¬casion 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. 1265 people were arrested. On October 18 over 200 people were released, but 1016 were moved to the Tiburtina train station, loaded on cattle cars, and deported to Auschwitz. Only 16 of them came back.  
Pietro Terracina was 15 when he escaped to the roundup on October 16. Informed upon, he was later captured. Deported to Auschwitz, he survived but lost there his father, mother and grandfather. He recalled sadly: “It is absolutely true that behind every Jew who escaped there was a non-Jew who helped him, even risking his or her life. However, behind each Jew who was deported there was a Fascist who informed on him. There are no doubts about this either.”  
Italy’s shameful contribution to the Shoah will tarnish the country’s repu¬tation forever. Approximately 8000 Italian Jews died in the Holocaust, one out of 5 living in Italy at the time. Nevertheless, it is important to high¬light that the survival rate of Italian Jews (80 per cent) was amongst the highest in Europe. And this might help explaining why so many decided to stay after the war.  
According to Emiliano Simone Tizi of the Historic Archives of the Jewish Roman Community, the common suf¬fering of Nazis occupation was vital in forging a common ground among Roman citizens of any creed. This be¬came particularly true in the aftermath of the Ardeatine Massacre, in which the Nazis killed 335 Roman men: 73 were Jewish. On March 23, 1944, a band of Italian partisans attacked an SS unit in Via Rasella, just off Via del Tritone and in the nearby of the Trevi Fountain. Thirty-three soldiers died, unleashing the German reprisal. Ten Roman citizens were to be executed for each fallen Nazi. On March 24 the victims were taken to the Ardeatine Caves, just outside Rome, and shot dead. After the slaughter, the Germans blew up the entrance to the caves, in a sloppy attempt to cover up the massa¬cre. Emiliano Simone Tizi states that: “For two months the Romans agonized because there was not an official list of victims. When the city was freed on June 4, hundreds of people ran to the caves to see themselves if their beloved had been killed … To this day, this is the event that best symbolizes the city’s suffering during the Nazi occupation. In religious terms, the contemporary presence of Christians and Jews cre¬ated a common ground both for future State commemorations and for shared memories.”  
The Liberation of Rome and Reopening of the Great Synagogue  
In the early hours of June 4, 1944 General Sir Harold R. L. G. Alexander, commander of the Allied 15th Army Group, had ordered a leaflet dropping on Rome, advising its citizens that they should refrain from demonstra¬tion and protect transportation facili¬ties and communications: “Your job is to save the city, ours is to destroy the enemy,” read the leaflet. A few hours later, the first Fifth Army units, troops of the U.S. 3d, 85th, and 88th Infantry Divisions and the 1st Special Service Force entered the city, which was in disarray. Rome had been largely spared for most of the war from the bombings that would gravely damage northern Italian cities. However, during the Ger¬man occupation from July 1943 to June 1944 Rome had experienced its share of destruction, hunger and fear. Food was scarce, each citizen was entitled to a mere 100 grams of bread a day. Gas and electricity were rationed. And past sundown the city only had the lights on for two hours.  
Thus when on June 4 the rumors of the Allies’ arrival spread, Romans and Roman Jews among them began to take the streets very early in morning. Excitement was widespread, but fear had not disappeared over night. Mino Moscati, a Roman Jew who was 14 years old at the time, recalls: “I remem¬ber 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 ciga¬rettes, 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’s memories are confirmed by another eye witness, Cesare Anticoli, a former Jewish partisan who was 16 when the Allies freed Rome: “On June 4 we walked down Via Flaminia. It was packed with American troops: They were beautiful and they were throwing us cartons of cigarettes and chocolates … I always say I was born on June 4th … After the liberation of Rome, Major Brancia wanted to include my name in the official Partisans List, but my father didn’t want to because he feared that the Germans might come back.”  
Joy and Affection  
American veterans remember the day with as much joy and affection. In an interview given to the BBC Rome Correspondent David Willey in 2004, U.S. veteran Bob Dodge said: “I was among the first troops to enter Rome. The flags were out. The people were all lining the road, the streets were mobbed, they were handing up bottles of wine, throwing flowers at us. All the pretty girls were down there. All you could do was smile at ‘em.”  
Mino Moscati recalls that as soon as possible he and his father, Gino Mosca¬ti, the Great Synagogue shammash, 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 fa¬ther, 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 Ameri¬can Jewish soldiers led by US Army Captain 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,” Mino recalls.  
A thank you letter by Captain Hoch¬man testifies that shammash Gino Moscati became very close to the American troops. His son Mino re¬calls that when asked to provide the American Jewish soldiers with lamps to celebrate the Moadim, Moscati only found some very old, dirty ones. When Capitan Hochman returned them to Moscati shining as if new, the sham¬mash protested that it was not necessary for the Americans to clean them. Ac¬cording to his son Mino, Captain Hoch¬man replied: “Don’t worry, the German prisoners cleaned them for us.”  
The Allies did not forgive Vittorio Emanuele III his collusion with Fas¬cism. The king had to abdicate in favor of his son, Umberto I. General Badoglio was also replaced, and Ivanoe Bonomi became the new prime minister. Ital¬ians did not forgive the Savoy dynasty either. In the first general election of the post-war period on June 2, 1946 the popular vote punished the monarchy and the role it played in dragging the country to war. Italy became a republic, and the Savoy dynasty was relegated to the ash heap of history.  
Coming Full Circle  
Despite the betrayal of their coun¬try and the horrors of World War II, many Italian Jews joined in the hopes of their fellow citizens and after the war ended decided to give life in Italy another chance. In occasion of the 65th anniversary of the reopening of the Great Synagogue, Riccardo Pacifici president of the Roman Jewish Com¬munity noted with emotion that: “It is extraordinary to see how a cultural group like the Jews, so hard hit by the events [of World War II], 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 lays between the Tiber, 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. Customers sit enjoying the passeggiata in an Ital¬ian ritual that repeats itself all over the country. And then again, the Jewish quarter is first and foremost 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, inte¬grating 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 Maximums and overlooks the Palatine and the Aventine ruins. Built in 1950 the Rose Garden hosts over 1100 species of roses divided by regular paths that trace the distinct shape of a Menorah. At the entrance of the garden a headstone in¬scribed with the tables 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.  
Remembering the Past  
More recently the Italian govern¬ment has voiced its commitment to remembering the past and building a common future for all Romans. On October 16, 2008 former Fascist Gi¬anfranco 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 sixty-fifth anniversary of the reopening of the Synagogue on June 4th 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 his¬tory forced Italian Jews away from their fellow citizens. In the words of Riccardo Pacifici: “The memory [of the Shoah] 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 Salò 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.”  
Ida Garibaldi is an adjunct professor of Government at St. John’s University, Rome Campus.

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