Chronological / Destinations / Europe

The Oldest Romans of Them All

During the years he was general manager of Rome’s Excelsior Hotel, Paolo Lorenzoni was a presence on the legendary Via Veneto. But he grew up on the other side of the Tiber River in Trastevere, the ancient Roman area, which by then had become a largely a Jewish neighborhood. “I learned a lot of words from the Jewish dialect because I was always playing football with the Jewish boys. My first job at the Excelsior was banquet manager, and when I met with people who were planning weddings and bar mitzvahs at the hotel, I could understand what they said to each other.”

Titus's Arch, Rome, Italy
Titus’s Arch

Nevertheless one day, when Paolo, by then the Excelsior’s general manager, received a phone call from the Israeli ambassador, he was at a loss to understand. “The ambassador wondered whether I could arrange for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to pass through Titus’s Arch in the Roman Forum. It was after hours; all the buildings and monuments were closed. It was such a strange request. Nevertheless, I quickly arranged for the visit.”

But any of Paolo’s boyhood friends, indeed any Roman Jew, could have told him why Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to pass beneath the nearly 2,000-year-old monument. Erected by Emperor Domitian to honor Titus’s conquest of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the arch has a bas relief on its underside depicting the leaders of the Jewish revolt being led into Rome as slaves. The Jews of Rome vowed at that time never to pass beneath the image of defeat and enslavement, and the promise passed from generation to generation, until 1948 when the modern state of Israel was born. Since then, the Jews of Rome deliberately walk under Titus’s Arch — in the direction leading away from Rome. Netanyahu is not Roman; still he felt the need to participate in this symbolic passage.

It is this sense of time, where centuries can be so easily collapsed, that distinguishes the Jews of Rome. They trace their origins to ancient Rome, one of the oldest centers of Jewish life in the western world. Indeed, many say the Romans with the longest lineage are the Jews.

Manlio Dell’Ariccia, Rome, Italy
Manlio Dell’Ariccia Descends from Jews Who Came to Rome from Jerusalem Before the Destruction of the Second Temple

Manlio Dell’Ariccia is a descendent of Jews who came to Rome from Jerusalem before the destruction of the Second Temple. A director of the Joint Distribution Center, his roots in Italy run deep. “We claim the purity of ancestors who came to Rome in ancient times. But there has also been emigration throughout the following centuries, particularly after the expulsion from Spain in 1492. We have many synagogues, but all belong to the Roman Jewish community.

“Roman Jews have never been considered foreigners,” he added. “Nevertheless for more than three hundred years, they were obliged to live in the ghetto and forbidden to work in many professions. Their oppression lasted longer than elsewhere in Europe because Rome was governed by the Vatican.

“After the ghetto was demolished in 1870, the Roman Jews were at last free, but once the fascists came into power, their rights were restricted once again.

“When the Germans arrived in Rome in the fall of 1943, they summoned the leaders of the Jewish community and told them there would be no deportation if they received 70 kilos of gold within three days. The day the gold was delivered, a Polish woman approached my mother and told her, ‘Be careful,’ she said. ‘Today they take your gold; tomorrow they will take you.’ And sure enough, the next day – October 16th, the second day of Sukkoth — the Germans went to the ghetto area, rounded them up, and deported them. My mother, however, had taken the woman’s advice and found a place where she and her family – eight in all — managed to hide.”

Sergio Di Veroli, Computer Specialist, Rome Italy
Sergio Di Veroli, Computer Specialist, at His Computer

He went on, “Before the racial laws were passed, my mother had a maid in her employ. After she was forced to leave, this maid moved to Riano, a small town not far from Rome. Now she found out where my mother and her family were hiding. She came to them and said, ‘We will move you to my village.’

“Everyone in the village knew they were hiding Jews and kept their secret until a few days before the American troops entered Rome when the priest of the village knocked on the door and told them ‘Run, run. The Germans are coming to pick you up.’ Someone had betrayed them. They hid in a cave for two weeks until the Americans arrived. All survived.

“Like many Jewish families,” Manlio added with some feeling, “mine was rescued by Italian people. My mother’s former maid became a Righteous Gentile. We still are in touch with her children; I consider them my brother and sister.”

“Italian Jewry seems to have suffered less comparatively speaking, but we don’t agree with the trend of not emphasizing the evils of Italian fascists,” said Elena Mortara, a professor at the University of Rome. “They created policies that made life between 1938 and 1943 unlivable. Jewish teachers could not teach in public schools, Jews could not own a radio. They could not have a Christian maid. They could not own shops.”

“But in many cases, Gentile neighbors ran their shops for them,” said Elena’s husband, Sergio di Veroli, a computer specialist who, like Manlio, traces his Roman ancestry to ancient times. “Overall they were overwhelmingly supportive.

Elena Mortara Teaches American Literature at Rome University, Rome, Italy
Elena Mortara Teaches American Literature at Rome University

“It was impossible for any of the Jews of Rome, to conceive of what was being planned,” he added. “This is important to understand, “the lack of perception of danger in this moment. My family had no idea of what was awaiting them.”

Sergio’s family moved from one hiding place to another, finally finding sanctuary with a member of the Resistance. The day the Germans left, three jeeps filled with Americans drove up the road. “It was a fantastic image,” he recalled.

With Sergio and Elena as guides, we walked through the dark and narrow streets of the old ghetto where Roman Jews were required to live from middle of the sixteenth century until the end of Vatican rule. It is a bustling area filled with pedestrians, shops and restaurants. Elena pointed out an ancient gate. “At one time there were four gates to the ghetto,” she told us, “one on each corner. There was a church on every corner as well that Jews were compelled to attend.”

Elena bristled as she spoke of these attempts at forced conversions. They resonate with a cause close to her heart: the battle to prevent the beatification of Pius IX who was pope at the time of the abduction of the brother of her paternal great-great-grandmother. In 1858, Vatican guards seized six-year-old Edgardo Mortara from his home in Bologna and secreted him to Rome. There he was raised as a Catholic and became a priest who frequently lectured on the miracle of conversion.

The seizure stemmed from an incident that occurred when he was two years old and suffering from some childhood illness. A servant girl sprinkled him with water at the time. Four years later, she told a friend of the crude baptism she had performed. Somehow the report reached the Inquisition in Bologna, and an old church law stipulating Jewish children who were baptized by laypeople must be raised Catholic was applied. The boy was abducted; his conversion zealously defended by Pope Pius IX who adopted the child as his son. Though not the first nor last of such incidents, the case of Edgardo Mortara became an international scandal that hastened the end of the Vatican’s temporal rule.

Rome's Great Synagogue, Rome, Italy
Rome’s Great Synagogue

Beyond the old ghetto, Rome’s great synagogue rises on the banks of the Tiber. Accompanied by Sergio and Elena, we entered the vast, high and dark sanctuary. The cantor was intoning prayers in a manner that brought to mind Manlio’s comment that Roman Jews are neither Sephardic, nor Ashkenazi, but unique unto themselves.

After the services, we stepped out into the night air. Before us the river was shimmering in the moonlight. Hours before standing at this very spot, Elena had called our attention to the late afternoon sun reflected in the Tiber. “Look,” she said, “a Roman sunset.” She pointed to an ancient ruin on a piece of land that jutted out from the island glowing in the light of the fading sun. “It is so typically Roman; it’s what everyone loves about Rome.”

There is the painful history of an oppressive Vatican regime ruthlessly exercising temporal powers; even closer in memory is the painful history of a fascist government. But there are also the Italian people and the special quality of Rome. “Some people say Italian Jews are a bit chauvinistic,” Manlio had told us. “Perhaps. But I feel very proud to be an Italian Jew, to have the heritage of centuries. As long as I want to live in the Diaspora, it is okay that I live in Rome.”


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