ROME, ITALY – Micol Piazza, our guide on a tour of the historic Jewish quarter here, is full of emotion as she speaks, and I tremble as I listen to her recount the horror of the German roundup of some 1,000 Roman Jews on Oct. 16, 1943.
Most of them lived on these few blocks, in what for centuries had been a ghetto.
Piazza says of the Nazis, “With the help of the Italian police, they had the names of the Jews. They were right here. It was Shabbat. Sukkot. People were sleeping in their homes.’’
The Nazis swooped in.
“They go knocking door by door, catching people. They give them a slip of paper... ‘You have to be ready in 20 minutes. Take your food, take your clothes, take your jewels, take your everything, and when you’ll be back, everything is in order.’”
Piazza spits out the next word:
The Jews were deported to Auschwitz. Only 16 survived.
In the shadow of the Great Synagogue of Rome, the old ghetto, which existed from 1555 to 1870, remains a magnet for Rome’s Jews. Only 400 Jews remain in this increasingly upscale neighborhood, but there are thousands of others in the city, and they still drop in for the Kosher restaurants and bakeries. Some send their kids to the day school. And of course the synagogue draws crowds on Shabbat and the holidays.
“We always find an excuse to come over here,’’ Piazza says.
She says Jews don’t call this area the ghetto. They call it “the piazza,’’ or just “Piazza.’’ Her family name stems from that term.
Piazza, who is 41 and spent a year studying at Boston University, works for Jewish Roma, a walking tour company. She is personable and informative, with a nice touch, especially with folks from the United States. Here she describes contrasting life styles:
“In America, it’s like if you were born in New York, go to study in Minnesota, you work in California and you end up your life in Boca Raton…” She chuckles. “That is the American Jewish story. In Italy, the people are born, live and die in this city. We don’t have this mentality of moving. No. An Italian Jewish mother wants to keep her kids close…I’m sure that your kids live very far away from you…I live between my mother and my mother-in-law.”
In the 16th century, Pope Paul IV forced all Jews into the ghetto near a smelly fish market hard by the flood-prone Tiber River. They were surrounded by Catholic churches, and over the centuries were pressed to convert – even forced to go to church and endure the sermons. Still, they persevered, maintaining a complex of five synagogues. You can see artifacts from those old congregations in the Jewish Museum of Rome. It is in the basement of the Great Synagogue, which was completed in 1904, 34 years after the unification of Italy and the end of confinement in the ghetto.
The museum includes magnificent torah covers, rimonim, art work and other treasures. I liked a detail Piazza pointed out. One tableau depicts a Shabbat dinner table, replete with a plastic challah. During Passover, she reports, the challah is replaced by plastic matzah.
The museum reaches deeply into the history of Rome’s Jews, which stretches back over 2,000 years. What may be the most poignant exhibit is from a much more recent time: the German occupation that began in September 1943. The Nazis soon demanded – in a meeting right in this building – that within 36 hours the Jewish community collect and turn over 110 pounds of gold – such as rings – or else deportations would begin. With the help of gentiles, the goal was met. Here in a display case are receipts given to those who donated. (As if the gold wasn’t enough, the Germans later seized the receipts as well.)
The promise of no deportations was, of course, a lie.
Indeed, shortly before the Oct. 16 roundup, a Catholic woman who knew Piazza’s father’s family, aware of Nazi brutality in other countries, warned them not to trust the Germans. The family was too poor to have contributed to the gold collection, so they became especially fearful.
During our tour last month, Piazza brought us to a 300-year-old building. She stood in front of a set of reinforced wooden doors. A clothing shop now uses the space inside for storage. But in 1943 it was a stable owned by the Catholic woman.
She told Piazza’s grandmother to grab her kids – including Piazza’s father, Vittorio, not yet 7 – and hide in a basement beneath a trap door in her stable.
“This Catholic lady gave them food, water, medicine, clothing – all the things they needed – and she risked her life to save them,” Piazza said.
The family hid for more than seven months, until around Rome’s liberation on June 4, 1944.
In several spots in the old ghetto you see embedded in the pavement shiny metal markers, or “stumble stones.’’ They also are found elsewhere in the city and in other countries. They mark the places where Nazi victims once lived. They list names, birth year, date of capture, the concentration camp they were sent to, and, often, the date of death. In one spot in the ghetto, we came upon markers for 12 people swept up by the roundup – 10 of them with last name of Sabatello.
For Roman Jews, said Piazza, the era is “still burning in our souls.’’
There are all kinds of stories from the occupation, according to Piazza. Her mother was not yet born, but Piazza says her maternal grandmother and family survived by hiding in the countryside. Many youngsters were sheltered in convents – and were baptized. “I know a lot of people who have Jewish last names, but they’re not Jews at all.’’
Most of the buildings that have survived in the old ghetto are from the 18th and 19th centuries. On a wall you can see a striped imprint where one of the gates stood. Jews, confined to such occupations as pawnbrokers and rag dealers, could circulate beyond the gates during the day but had to be back at night when the gates closed.
Visiting the ghetto area afforded my wife, Elizabeth, and me an opportunity to sample some appealing cuisine. We stopped in a bakery that makes “Jewish pizza’’ – a fabulous dense pastry with almonds and candied fruit – and later ate in a restaurant serving the traditional treat of Jewish fried artichokes.
The most impressive destination had to be the 1,000-seat Orthodox Great Synagogue with its soaring square dome.
Piazza points out its 12 imposing columns representing the 12 tribes, the rainbowed ceiling that promises no more floods, the sand-colored walls reminiscent of the 40 years in the desert, the three balcony sections for women, plus one on ground level for handicapped ladies.
In 1986, John Paul II came here, the first recorded visit of a pope to a temple. Subsequent popes have followed.
This synagogue has a feature I’d never seen before. In front of the rows of seats are wooden drawers – lockers of sorts. Piazza explained that Rome has no eruv. You pay for one of these drawers, and you don’t have to carry your prayer book and tallit on Shabbat – you can keep them right here.
M. CHARLES BAKST is a retired Providence Journal political columnist.