When thoughts turn to the Jewish experience in Europe the Italian experience is often overlooked. During my most recent trip to Italy I focused my attention on the Jewish experience in Rome.
In 2006 I was awarded a Success Through Academic Research (STAR) Independent Project scholarship, through the University of Alabama, Huntsville. My goal was to look at the Holocaust with fresh eyes by changing geographic locations. Having been to Dachau, Auschwitz, and Auschwitz-Birkenau I wanted to take a look at the Italian experience of the Holocaust. I began my two week visit to Italy in Rome.
When speaking of Jewish life in Europe all roads literally lead to Rome. It was under Julius Caesar that Jews were welcome into Roman life and became a thriving part of the culture. I included walking the paths of Ostia Antica to visit the ruins of a fourth century BCE (Before the Common Era) synagogue.
As the bookend to the visit to Ostia Antica I included a visit to the Arch of Titus near the Coliseum. Featured as part of Titus’ triumph in 70 CE is the sacking of Jerusalem and the carrying away of the Temple goods. These visits laid the foundation for the hot and cold relationship that Italians have always had with its Jewish citizens.
In Rome I visited the Jewish “Ghetto.” Walking the streets I had to look past the restaurants capitalizing on the Jewish cuisine of Rome. Everywhere there were signs advertising carciofi all giudia (Jewish artichokes). I took time to note the Carabinieri stationed in guard houses on all sides of the Great Synagogue of Rome. A sign of hostility still exhibited toward Jews by those who deny the Holocaust the right of Israel to exist. I took in the ancient gates that had been erected and added to the ghetto. While some were attractive their intent was to contain the Jewish citizens of Rome. My visit included the Jewish Museum and Great Synagogue. This is a beautiful, living place of worship.
One of the most powerful moments was visiting Fosse Ardeatine, the location of the retaliatory massacre against Italians when 33 Nazi soldiers were killed by the resistance. On 23 March 1944, 33 German soldiers were killed when members of the Italian Resistance set off a bomb. It was ordered that 100 Italians would die for each German life. You will note that the number murdered exceeded the 1 : 100 ratio. Of the 335 killed, 75 were Jewish, this was a higher number than if selected by the percentage of the Jewish population. Italian Jews made up 1% of the population while they represented 22% of those selected for the retaliatory act.
Today, the Fosse Ardeatine stands a national monument. It is a peaceful place that honors those who died in the caves. After World War II the bodies were re-interred with honor, with their identities listed on the tombs. At the top of a hill is a small museum that recalls the War, German occupation, and privations throughout Italy after peace was declared.
Reaching Fosse Ardeatine is easy, but at the same time a challenge. The official name of the stop that most tourists take to the Catacombs of St. Callisto is Fosse Ardeatine. It is the #218 from St. John Lateran Square (Piazza di S. Giovanni in Laterano). Instead of crossing the street to go to the catacombs you walk straight to the monument. Do not be surprised if your bus driver and other tourists tell you you are going the wrong way. We had several people try to "correct" our mistake.
I highly recommend that you step off the tourist treadmill and visit these important locations in Rome. They are slices of Roman history that will reverberate throughout your life and give depth to your larger world experience.