The Allied bombing of Rome on July 19 marked a crucial turning point in Italy’s involvement in the Second World War. With the razing of the capital, popular support waned among the Italian people. Benito Mussolini, his reputation in tatters, was arrested and replaced as leader by king Victor Emmanuel III. The new Italian government entered into secret negotiations to agree an armistice with the Allies. But the Germans soon got wind of their plans to switch sides. The events, for Rome’s Jewish population, would be catastrophic.
After signing the armistice at the beginning of September, Italy plunged into chaos. Confusion reigned over the government and military as they awaited the arrival of the Allies from Sicily. The Nazis seized the opportunity to strike. On September 10 they assaulted Rome, and met with meagre resistance from beleaguered fighters, they occupied the Italian capital.
The Nazi occupation of Rome
Darkness descended over Italy in the late summer months of 1943. Yet for Rome’s Jewish population, the darkest days were still to come. Entrusted with maintaining order during the Nazi occupation was Herbert Kappler, SS Lieutenant Colonel Commander of the Gestapo in Rome. Kappler established his headquarters on the Via Tasso – an innocuous-looking building that instilled terror in anyone deemed a threat to the Nazi occupiers, since transformed into the Historical Museum of the Liberation.
A man of no moral integrity, Kappler exploited his power over the Rome’s Jewish population. He had immediately got to work registering the city’s Jews – some 12,000 at this time – in the wake of the Nazi occupation. Now, with the Final Solution looming, he would set about extracting their wealth too.
On the morning of September 26, Kappler summoned the President of Rome’s Jewish Community, Ugo Foà, and the President of the Jewish-Italian Community, Dante Almansi, to his headquarters. There, after an uncharacteristically cordial greeting, he told them that the Germans considered the Jews “the greatest enemy they were fighting” and that while the Germans had no need for their lives, nor those of their children, they did however have need of their gold.
Kappler delivered Foà and Almansi an ultimatum: deliver to his headquarters 50kg of gold within 36 hours of he would deport 200 people of the Jewish community. He then dismissed them, leaving them with the desperate task of meeting his demands. Foà and Almansi immediately told the Rabbis of the community, the chief of whom, Israel Zolli, went straight to the Vatican for help.
The Church agreed to assist with whatever loan the Jews needed, so long as it was repaid after the war. Some sources even suggested the Vatican contributed 15kg (worth more than $600,000 in today’s money) to the cause. It seems that in reality, however, this contribution was never needed.
The Gold of Rome
Faced with a death sentence for 200 of their fellow citizens, Rome’s population came together. Jews and non-Jews alike streamed into the city’s synagogues to hand over whatever gold they could spare: jewellery, watches, coins, even cigarette cases. The voice of one Roman-Jewish writer, Giacomo Debenedetti, describes the scene at a synagogue:
“Cautiously, as if afraid of being refused, uncertain whether to offer gold to the rich Jews, some ‘Aryans’ presented themselves. They entered the hall adjacent to the synagogue full of embarrassment, not knowing if they should take off their hats or keep their heads covered, according to Jewish custom. Almost humbly, they asked if they could – well if it would be all right to … Unfortunately, they did not leave their names.”
By the expiration of the 36-hour deadline, the Romans had managed to accumulate 80kg of gold and 2,021,540 lire. Accompanied by an armed escort, Foà and Amansi delivered the gold to Kappler’s headquarters on the Via Tasso. The remaining gold was hidden and later used to finance the nascent Israeli State.
Did the Jews guarantee their safety from the Nazi occupation?
Foà and Almansi weren’t greeted by Kappler, but by his subordinate, Schutz. The SS officer weighed the gold, using scales able to hold only 5kg at a time. Schutz falsely claimed they had brought only 45kg. So when Foà and Almansi requested a document proving his receipt of the consignment, he stubbornly refused.
But this ultimately did not matter. The gold was transported to Berlin where it was stored inside the office of Kaltenbrunner, the chief of the Reich’s Central Security Office. When Berlin fell 2 years later, the gold was still there. Rome’s Jewish community felt an initial wave of relief at having got together their ransom. Yet within a day the Nazis entered the Great Synagogue of Tempio Maggiore and looted a number of important documents and a vast sum of money.
Within less than a month, Kappler implemented orders for the Final Solution. On the morning of October 16, 1943, 365 German soldiers stormed the Jewish Ghetto. Going house to house, they set about rounding up its Jewish residents, who had been confined there since the Nazi’s first occupied Rome.
Sensing what was coming, many of the Ghetto’s residents tried to flee, making dashes across rooftops or hiding – and hoping – behind barred doors. But few managed to escape, and of the 1,000 Jews that were rounded up that day and loaded into trucks borne for Auschwitz, only 16 ever made it back.
Remembering Rome’s Nazi occupation
Visit the Jewish Ghetto these days and you’ll struggle to find the one small plaque commemorating ‘la spietata caccia agli ebrai’ – the brutal hunting down of its Jews under the Nazi occupation. To such an extent does this harrowing event still festers as a wound in the memory of Rome’s Jewish community that reminders of it are too painful to be ubiquitously commemorated.
But visit today and you’ll witness the annual commemoration of the events of 76 years ago, serving as a reminder that in the face of adversity this community has grown ever closer together, and claiming the ultimate victory in its solidarity.