70 years ago – 16 October, 1943
The English College is located only a short distance from the historic Jewish Quarter of Rome. It’s an area steeped in history, with many of its buildings incorporating vast swathes of ancient and medieval Rome in their structures. At the far end of “The Ghetto“, as it’s called, is the magnificent Teatro di Marcello, which is itself surrounded by other impressive sites of archeological and historical interest, such as the Campidoglio on one side and the Portico d’Ottavia on the other. Dominating the entire quarter is the great Synagogue, which dates from the late nineteenth-century, and replaces a much older structure. Nowadays, the area is popular with tourists who wish to try the very specific flavours of Roman kosher cooking, and in spite of the increase security bollards and police posts, it is a peaceful and beautiful part of Rome in which to enjoy an evening passeggiata, and maybe take an aperitivo.
However, it was not always so, and yesterday, the People of Rome remembered one of the most terrifying events of the last century: the deportation of the Roman Jews.
The Nazi occupying forces commenced their roundup of the Roman Jews on the 16 October, 1943. The “Raid of the Ghetto” started at 05.30 in the heart of the historic Jewish quarter near via Portico d’Ottavia, Arenula and the Teatro di Marcello. Simultaneously in the the rest of the city, which had been divided into 26 operational areas by the German Command, the “Hunt for Jews” progressed without mercy. The captured Jews were initially imprisoned at the Military College in via Lungara, awaiting transportation to concentration camps.
The first group of 1,023 men women and children, young and old, departed from Tiburtina station in sealed cattle wagons on 18 October, bound for Auschwitz – Birkenau. Amongst their number, 244 were children, the youngest being the son of Marcella Perugia, born the day before departure. 188 were senior citizens, born before 1884: the eldest, Rachel Livoli, was 90-years-old.
Upon arrival at Birkenau, the majority were sent immediately to the gas chambers; only 149 men and 47 women avoided this immediate fate. At the end of the war, only one woman, Settimia Spizzichino, will have survived, along with 16 men.
Upon hearing the news of the deportation, Pope Pius XII gave orders to priests, monks and nuns to do all that they could to shelter and protect the Jews from the Nazis. Many enclosed houses of female sisters, which had not seen a man within their walls for centuries, now provided much-needed sanctuary for hundreds at a time. The Bridgetine convent in Piazza Farnese, next to the English College, sheltered many Jewish families, breaking an enclosure which had existed prior to this event for 700 years.
By the time of Rome’s liberation, another 1,000 Jews will have been deported. However, the number would have been much higher had it not been for the decisive action of Pope Pius XII and the valour of many Roman laity, priests and nuns, who acted on his call to save their fellow Romans.
When I was a young lad growing up in the relative safety of the UK, when thinking of the atrocities of the Nazis, we used to say, “Never Again!”; yet, in spite of this harsh lesson from history, there are many places in our world – today – where entire populations are being wiped out. Thankfully, subsequent Popes, and others of goodwill, continue to speak out against these acts of barbarity, and at least some people hear them, and take a stand.