The Roman Ghetto

Dushan and Chioma were at Lungotevere de’ Cenci, 00186 Roma, the meeting point for the Ghetto and Jewish Museum walking tour. The tour was about three hours long. They had arranged it through the hotel. Initially, they had planned to explore the Ghetto on their own but Alfredo, the attendant at the concierge suggested the walking tour.

He told them, “You will have a guide from Jewish Roma who will be able to take you privately inside the Museum and the Synagogues. The tour is about three hours long. It is a very popular tour with visitors to Rome.”

It was Friday and they were at the meeting point where they were to meet the tour guide and group. Dushan was wearing his yarmulke and Chioma had a headscarf which she would use to cover her head when they visited the synagogues.

“Is it hard for you to be there?” Chioma asked him as they walked to Lungotevere De’ Cenci, the meeting point for the tour.

“Yes, it is. And I guess it would be hard for any Jew to visit a ghetto knowing the history of such a place.”

“Do you know the history of this one?”

“Yes. This morning while you were in the shower, I went on Google to do a search on the Jewish Ghetto of Rome. I found out that it is considered to be the oldest ghetto in the western world. It was Pope Paul IV who ordered its construction and issued the papal decree Cum Nimis Absurdum, which subjected Jews under his dominion to all sorts of restrictions and humiliations, most notably forcing them to live in ghettos.  The Jews in Rome were confined to this ghetto where they remained in the ghetto until the decree was abolished in the late nineteenth century.”

“Why did Pope Paul IV have the ghettos built and the Jews denied their rights?”

“He was anti-Semitic. The decree to put the Jews in the ghetto was one of the first things he did just two months after he became pope. In addition to making them live in ghettos which were enclosed and locked at night, he also decreed that they were not allowed to own property and required them to identify themselves by wearing a yellow head covering. As far as employment was concerned, Jews were limited to low level trade positions and Jewish doctors weren’t allowed to have Christian patients. Apparently the construction of the ghetto was funded by the Jews themselves and it was built in an area known for flooding. There were only two gates through which the Jews could enter and exit. The buildings which were tightly packed in the ghetto were seven stories high, letting in very little natural light. It soon became the norm or practice for Jews to be confined to certain urban and rural areas to isolate them from non-Jews.”

“It doesn’t make sense that Pope Paul IV venerated Mary, was supposed to believe in Jesus and believed that Peter was the first Pope and he was anti-Semitic. Mary, Jesus, Peter, the other disciples, Paul and the first Christians were all Jews. It’s like a person who experiences racism being racist towards someone else.”

“Like racism, anti-Semitism doesn’t make sense. Popes and people who claim to be Christians and are anti-Semitic are no different from Hitler and those who followed him. Anti-Semitism and racism are born out of hate and ignorance.”

“What happened to the Jews living in the Ghetto during the Second World War?”

“On the morning of 16 October 1943, 365 because the Italian police were considered to be too unreliable, German security and police forces sealed off the Ghetto, which held a large part of the Jewish community at the time, turning it into a virtual prison.  Theodor Dannecker, the recently appointed chief of the Judenreferat in Italy who was tasked with implementing the Final Solution which was the genocide of the Jews in Italy had ordered the Ghetto to be cleared. Some Jews in the Ghetto managed to escape over rooftops. In the raid over 1200 people which consisted of men, women and children were detained. Afterwards, non-Jewish prisoners were released while over 1000 Jews were taken to the Collegio militare in the Palazzo Salviati in Trastevere. Then, two days later, at least 1000+ prisoners were loaded onto Holocaust trains at Tiburtina station and deported to Auschwitz. Only 16 survived.”

Chioma blinked back the tears. “Why didn’t the Papacy held the Jews? Why didn’t the Pope try to help them–prevent them from being deported?”

“Unlike in many other parts of German-occupied Italy, the Italian police in Rome, didn’t participate in the arrests of Jews and the general public objected and resisted such arrests. And that’s why a significant proportion of the Jews in Rome avoided arrest and survived the Holocaust by often often hiding in the Vatican or other Catholic institutions.”

“That’s good. I’m happy that the police in Rome and the people didn’t go along with what was happening to the Jews and that a good number of them survived the Holocaust because decent people helped them. Still, I can’t get over the number of men, women and children who died in the concentration camps because of an evil dictator and his Nazi followers.”

“I like the fact that Eisenhower insisted that Germans from a nearby town visit the camp to see what had been done in their name. He also required that American soldiers tour the camp so that they could see the evil they were fighting.”

“In a documentary I watched some time ago, the Americans forced the German people from a nearby town to witness the atrocity site, disinter the bodies, place them in coffins, parade these bodies through the town and lay them to rest in town cemeteries. Then, at the end of the ceremony in the cemetery in the presence of dead bodies, the Americans accused the assembled German civilians and the nation of Germany of their guilt for the crimes committed by the Nazi regime. One commentator accused the German people of lying when they said that they didn’t know. I agree with him. How could they not have known? Didn’t they ever wonder where the Jews had disappeared to after they were removed from the ghettos? Didn’t they see how their rights were being taken away–they were denied their rights, how their businesses were vandalized?”

“The German people saw these things but they didn’t care. People don’t care when they are not affected. They were enjoying life as usual. That’s why I’m happy that the Americans forced them to see what their beloved Fuhrer had done.”

“And those in who didn’t believe or were skeptical were forced to acknowledge that these atrocities had taken place. I can’t believe though, that with all the evidence, there are still holocaust deniers.”

“Holocaust deniers argue that Nazi Germany was the victim of a conspiracy contrived by the Allies to brand Nazi Germany the villain of World War II. They maintain that the U.S. and Great Britain concocted wild atrocity stories about the Nazis to cover up their own war crimes. They claim that the Jews joined the conspiracy in order to prey upon the sympathies of the world and extort money from post-war Germany in order to establish the State of Israel.  I wish they were among those who were forced to visit the camps and were forced to bury the dead bodies. Or maybe they should have been there to see Otto Moll, a sadistic Nazi place naked women at the edge of the pits, shoot them in the stomach so they would fall over, and watch them burn to death, beat people with clubs and iron bars, douse people with petrol and set them on fire, set dogs on them, throw them against electric fences, and smash children into concrete walls in front of their mothers.”

They reached Lungotevere De’ Cenci which was located between the Capitoline Hill and the Tiber Island. There was the modern Synagogue of Rome. The museum of the Jewish community of Rome was attached to it. There were eight people waiting there. They introduced themselves. There were three couples, from Canada, England and America and a mother and daughter from Germany. Then, two more couples joined them and last, came the guide, a pleasant woman who looked to be in her mid-thirties. After she greeted them, introduced herself and went over the itinerary, they set off.

Mariella, the guide explained that Roman Jews have been living in the neighborhood and in Trastevere for 22 centuries. It is the only Jewish community alive and present continuously in the same place since before the Diaspora. “Most of the Jewish life of Rome takes place in the Piazza, which is the informal way Roman Jews call their quarter, the former Jewish ghetto, a small pedestrian area where we have a Jewish day school, the kosher butcher, the kosher restaurants, and the Judaica stores.”

The first stop was the Jewish Museum which was situated in the basement of the Great Synagogue of Rome. The museum’s collection included liturgical furnishings, manuscripts, incunabula, historical documents registers and marble works. Afterwards, they visited the seven rooms. In the first room, there were 900 fabrics. Some of them were displayed in the windows while others used in the synagogues of the city.  Most of them are kept in that room and were available to scholars who requested them.  Chioma admired the fabrics, marveling at how beautiful they were. In the second room, were casts of tombstones from the catacombs of Rome and from the synagogue of Ostia Antica, manuscripts from the Middle Ages and maps of the city. In the third room were the events which marked the time of Judaism: prayer, the Sabbath, the annual Jewish holidays and the cycle of life. In the fourth room were the objects which the Jews of the ghetto donated to their synagogues. In the fifth room, language and cuisine, urban space and architecture, education and assistance organizations and daily life in the ghetto in Rome are narrated through objects and documents. In the sixth room was a video of Jews in Rome from Emancipation to the present. The film featured testimonies and the sad period of the Jewish Community during the period of racial laws and of deportation but in the end, its message was one of the message of rebirth, of a lively present, and of hope for the future. And the last room was the the Room of Libyan Judaism, dedicated to the immigration of Jewish refugees transferred to Rome in 1967.

When they were finished with the seven rooms, they toured the two synagogues–The Major Temple and The Spanish Temple. They spent some time there and then, left to tour the Ghetto area. They visited Palazzo Mattei, the historic palace of the noble Mattei family. They walked through that archway and entered a huge palace. They couldn’t visit the palace’s upper floors, but were allowed into the two courtyards.  Mariella explained to them, “The Mattei family lived in the area that today makes up the Jewish ghetto. When the walls were built around the ghetto, they became the guardians of the gate. This allowed them to control who came in and out of the Jewish Ghetto. They charged a fee and made a fortune controlling this gate, especially from Jews who needed to leave to bury their dead.”

“Basically, they got rich off the Jews,” Dushan muttered under his breath.

After leaving there, the group walked to the The turtle fountain located in Piazza Mattei where they took photos. They went through Portico d’Ottavia, Via del Portico d’Ottavia which was considered to be the main drag in the Jewish Ghetto. There were many things for them to see on and off that street. Before continuing the tour, the group stopped at the Kosher Bakery, Boccione, where the same family had been running the business for the last 300 years. There they enjoyed the famous Pizza Giudia and the Ginetto, the Cheese Cake with chocolate or with cherries. Mariella taught them how to speak the Ghetto’s version of Yiddish, the giudaico-romanesco and they learned how the Roman Jewish traditions were different from any other community.

They resumed the tour. From the Jewish Ghetto, they crossed the Pons Fabricius or Ponte Fabricio which was the only access to the Isola Tiberina. The bridge was built in 62 B.C. It replaced a previous wooden one which had been destroyed by a fire.  It had two large arches and the inscription carved into the stone commemorating Lucius Fabricius as its builder. In Isola Tiberina, they found a hospital, a church, and a few restaurants. Many people were just walking on the island close to the water. Mariella informed them, “Historically, the island was used as an area of medicine and quarantine during the times of Ancient Rome. According to legend, when the ancient Romans were transporting the sacred snake from Epidaurus in Greece, the snake jumped off the boat and laid to rest on the island, which prompted the Romans to immediately build a temple to Asclepius.”

Leaving there, they visited the Teatro Marcello, a 2000 year old structure with the capacity to hold 20,000 spectators. It bore a striking resemblance to the Colosseum. They could only visit the outside of Teatro Marcello, though. “During the summer, you can attend a classical music concert outside,” Mariella told them. 

“Maybe we should find out if there’s a concert we can come to,” Chioma said to Dushan.

When the tour was over, they returned to the meeting point where it began. They all thanked their guide, Mariella and she thanked them for choosing Jewish Roma Walking Tours and was happy to inform them that, “Jewish Roma offers other tours such as the Coliseum, the Arch of Titus and the Roman Forum and the Jewish Vatican tour and Academic tours. There is also day trips to Naples and the Amalfi Coast and to Tivoli. And we offer cooking classes as well. Visit our website for more information.”

The group said goodbye to her and to each other and then, went their separate ways.

“Are you glad we came?” Chioma asked Dushan as they headed back to Piazza Navona.

“Yes, I am. It was very a informative and humbling experience.”

They didn’t say much after that and when they returned to the hotel, they showered and ended up taking a nap after making love. They woke up in time to go downstairs for dinner before going for a walk.

Sources: Walks of Italy; Wikipedia; Civita Vecchia; And Then I Met Yoko; Jewish Roma; Wikipedia ; Center for Israel Education; Wikipedia; Facing History; Rowman & Littlefield; Museum of Tolerance; The Museum; The Roman Guy

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