This is the accursed anniversary of the roundup of the Jews of Rome in the fall of 1943. Roman Jews did not believe that Mussolini would turn them over to the Nazis, but they forgot about the census of the country’s Jews conducted at the time of the Racial Laws. That census provided the Nazis with a door-by-door guide to the residences of Jewish citizens, and enabled the Nazis to arrest most all of them and ship them to Auschwitz and other death camps.
On the 16th of October, the day that Cecil Roth calls the “blackest day in the long history of Roman Jewry,” a monster raid was unleashed on the Jewish homes in the former Ghetto neighborhood and on the pricier residences outside. More than a thousand victims were loaded onto trucks and thence onto a train. The train passed through Orte, Chiusi, Florence, Bologna and the German frontier. As Roth puts it, “we will perhaps never know at what death-camp in Eastern Europe these unhappy victims of man’s inhumanity to man met their end.”
The Nazi extermination of the Italian Jews went on apace, with Rome as a model. City by city was stripped of its Jews: a hundred in Florence on November 6; thereafter Venice, Ferrara and Genoa. The Nazi occupation forces announced that Italian Jews would be treated as non-citizens; they were to be summarily arrested, and their property was seized.
As the extermination of the Jews gathered momentum, the Jews increasingly went underground.
The Jews…constantly…constantly changed their lodgings, they slept in lofts and stables, they appeared in public as little as possible (some did not venture into the streets for months on end)…the story most conveniently put forward was that they were refugees from the southern provinces, already occupied by the victorious allied forces…Thus, furtively and miserably, in constant fear for their lives, the most part managed to continue their existence from day to day.
A great deal of assistance was given to the Jews by local Catholics, often in exchange for conversion. In Rome, one of the most spectacular cases involved a rabbi who raised a small fortune to provide the Nazis with a quantity of gold from the Jewish Community. The gold was to be used for ransom for the Jews, and once the war was over, the rabbi converted to Catholicism.
Virtually every Jewish family in Italy suffered severe losses. Many had simply disappeared. Out of the 42,000 who had inhabited the peninsula, 6,000 had left, and another 4,000 or 5,000 had been deported.
Of these only a few score returned; the rest lay in unknown graves, in the death camps of Poland and of Germany. There was hardly a Jewish family in the whole of Italy that did not have to deplore appalling losses…so that it became difficult to keep an accurate record. In some places, one person in three was missing; in Trieste, a community which had once numbered 5,500 and was reduced by 1943 to 2,300 was now brought down to only 900…Some ancient communities, such as those of Verona or of Mantua, had received such mortal blows that it was doubtful whether they would ever be reconstituted.
Some of the old centers of Jewish life disappeared altogether, while places like Livorno took on a new identity as a NATO port. Meanwhile, a whole new generation of literature entered the canon, as the memoirs of survivors such as Primo Levi, and the work of the great scholar of fascism, Renzo de Felice, took their place among the fundamental works.
The publication of de Felice’s history of the Italian Jews marks the turning point in the historiography of the whole subject. Many historians have challenged de Felice’s reading of Italian fascist antisemitism, and the most recent interpretations of Mussolini’s doctrines have left little doubt about the intensity of the anti-Jewish campaign.
Even the most outspoken opponents of fascist antisemitism, such as the Neapolitan intellectual Benedetto Croce, saw the widespread popularity of the campaign against the Jews. Croce assisted Jews forced to emigrate, and wrote of his distress at the “cold-blooded dispossession and persecution of the Jews, our fellow-citizens, our colleagues, our friends, who worked for Italy and loved Italy exactly like the rest of us…”
So the anniversary of the Racial Laws reminds us that even in Italy, where for decades people believed that the people were basically good, the Jews were singled out for harsh treatment. We shouldn’t be surprised to see it happen again.