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58. The Jewish Ghetto as it is today... and its history

By - Giulio D'Ercole

The photo here below shows three women chatting in Piazza di Portico d'Ottavia, in the core of the of the Jewish Getto, just in front of one of the most popular Jewish bakery of Rome.

It looks like a peaceful morning scene, and indeed it is so.... but the history of the Jewish Ghetto in Rome is anything but peaceful.

The Jewish ghetto of Rome was established in 1555 in the Rione Sant'Angelo. It is comprised in the area from Via del Portico d'Ottavia, Lungotevere dei Cenci, Via del Progresso and Via di Santa Maria del Pianto, close to the River Tiber and the Theatre of Marcellus. Basically in the very center of modern Rome. The ghetto of Rome was controlled by the papacy until the capture of Rome in 1870 and the following unification of Italy.

It was Pope Paul IV on 14 July 1555 to establish the Ghetto, initially called "enclosure of the Hebrews".

As a matter of fact though, the Jewish community lived in Rome even before Christianity. What we see today is, obviously, an open neighborhood, but back at the time of the Papal bull the ghetto was a walled quarter with its gates locked at night. Amazingly, having in mind that history always repeats itself, the Pope wanted the construction of the wall being paid by the Jews themselves, for a sum of 300 scudi (the currency used in Rome back then).

Even the area chosen for the Ghetto, a prime one today, was in reality one of the most undesirable quarters of the city, subject to constant flooding by the Tiber River , and way too small (three hectares) to accomodate in human conditions a population of already 3500 people at the time of Sixtus V (late 1580s).

Even more humiliating were the conditions imposed to the Jewish community that revoked them the right to own property ownership and to practicing medicine on Christians, while they were obliged to attend Catholic sermons on the Jewish sabbath.

During Fascism, Mussolini passed the racial laws, in line with the anti-semitic Nazi ideology, and the marginalization and persecution of Jews started. It touched its highest point of shame and cruel implementation when, after Italy signed the armistice with the Allied forces, the German army occupied Rome on September 10th 1943.

At dawn on Saturday, October 16, 1943, Jewish holiday, 365 men of the German Gestapo police, assisted by fourteen officers and non-commissioned officers, carried out the rounding up of members of the Roman Jewish community.

The operation was implemented by Colonel Kappler, under precise orders of Himmler and General Ernst Kaltenbrunner.

The deportees were transferred to the Tiburtina railway station, where they were loaded onto a convoy of 18 cattle cars. The convoy arrived at the concentration camp of Auschwitz where the deportees were divided into two groups: on one side 820, judged physically unable to work and on the other 154 men and 47 women, declared physically healthy. The 820 of the first group were immediately conducted in the gas chambers, disguised as "showers" and suppressed. That same day, their corpses, washed with a jet of water and deprived of their golden teeth, were burned in the crematoria.

The deportees of the other group were partly destined for other extermination camps. Only 15 men and 1 woman returned to Italy. Among those who remained in Auschwitz, only Cesare di Segni survived. The only surviving woman, Settimia Spizzichino, survived the Bergen-Belsen torture.

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