Echoes From the Roman Ghetto

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The Portico d'Ottavia is one of those chunks of urban surrealism that you come across only in Rome. From a cavity about 20 feet below street level, the ruin of a massive 2,000-year-old portico thrusts its crumbling marble geometry into the present. The dome of a Baroque church, Santa Maria in Campitelli, peers down from the next piazza like a nosy matron.

A few steps from the ruins, multilingual waiters reel in tourists to dine on their terraces amid pyramids of artichokes. A poster on a palace wall hawks kosher sushi -- coming soon! Bearded men in skullcaps jostle students in tank tops.

No one seems the least bit thrown by this jarring mosaic of times and cultures. Everybody is too busy talking, sipping, pointing, sauntering, forking up something delicious.

For half a millennium, the Portico d'Ottavia has been the heart of Rome's Jewish ghetto, four cramped blocks wedged between the Tiber, the Turtle Fountain, the Theater of Marcellus and the Palazzo Cenci. Amid today's celebration of earthly pleasures, I had trouble finding the small wall plaque that commemorates "la spietata caccia agli ebrei" -- the merciless hunting down of the Jews -- that took place here on Oct. 16, 1943.

Seventy years ago, the world was at war, Rome was occupied by the Nazis, and the ghetto was a virtual prison for a large part of the city's Jewish community. On the morning of Oct. 16, 1943, SS Captain Theodor Dannecker ordered that the prison be emptied.

Trucks pulled up on the cobblestoned piazza beside the Portico d'Ottavia, the neighborhood was sealed, and 365 German soldiers fanned out through the narrow streets and courtyards. Families hid at the backs of their shuttered shops. The able-bodied and quick-witted jumped from their windows or fled along the rooftops. The unlucky were hounded from their homes at gunpoint and herded into the idling trucks. Of the more than 1,000 Roman Jews seized that day and later transported to Auschwitz, only 16 survived.

On a balmy night in April, I sat pondering that dark time with my wife and two of our daughters on the terrace of Ba" Ghetto, a lively restaurant near the Portico d'Ottavia. All around us, waiters were bearing platters of grilled meat and assuring tourists that their fried artichokes alla giudia were the best in Rome. Deep into the night, a sparkler ignited atop a slice of cake and everyone sang "tanti auguri a te" (happy birthday to you) to a 20-something beauty.

It was impossible not to be stunned by the contrast between the festive present and the somber past. Even a dozen years ago, when we first visited the ghetto, the neighborhood felt forlorn and insular. Old, suspicious eyes sized us up as we made our way past kosher butchers and shabby tailor shops. Jews had been confined to these flood-prone riverside streets in 1555 by Pope Paul IV, and in 2001, an aura of melancholy still lingered.

But today the place is a party. Well-heeled Romans flock to the ghetto to "eat Jewish" the way New Yorkers pop down to Little Italy or Chinatown. On that soft spring evening, with Israeli cabernet brimming in our wineglasses and plates heaped with hummus and couscous, we had trouble summoning up the shadows of the past.

In this city's 2,000 years of glorious and inglorious history, the nine-month German occupation (Sept. 11, 1943, to June 4, 1944) is just a nick. But, as I learned in the course of a week spent chatting with bakers and archivists, museum curators and rabbis, cabdrivers and historians, the nick remains raw. "Memories of Hitler and Fascism are still vivid," Alessandra di Castro, director of the Jewish Museum of Rome, told me. "The wound still has not healed."

The deepest wound was inflicted on the ghetto (ex-ghetto, as Ms. di Castro corrected me with fierce pride), but there are other sites around the city that bear witness to the struggle and suffering of those months. With a good map, some bus tickets and a bit of imagination, I was able to tease out this painful, fascinating chapter of Roman history.

From our rented apartment at the foot of the Janiculum Hill, I trekked out to corners of the city that most tourists, unaware of their connection to the war, either avoid or hurry through. A 20-minute stroll along the Tiber brought me to the ex-ghetto, but I had to cross the city on two buses to reach the Via Tasso, site of a notorious SS prison and now a museum. And from there it took another 15 minutes by tram to reach the San Lorenzo neighborhood, which was heavily bombed by the Allies.

It was helpful before setting out to brush up on history. Rome and Berlin, of course, were allies in World War II -- but when the Allies took Sicily in July 1943 and began massing for an invasion of the Italian mainland, the Fascist axis collapsed. Mussolini was ousted, and the weak new government that took control began secretly negotiating for an armistice.

The Nazis, however, had no intention of letting Italy go neutral. When an armistice was announced on Sept. 8, the German army sprang to disarm Italian soldiers and shore up positions on the Italian mainland. Rome waited and trembled as the Germans closed in.

On Sept. 10, a troop of disbanded Italian soldiers and civilians made a desperate last stand at Rome's Porta San Paolo. The battle raged through the day outside the gate's crenelated twin towers and beneath the Pyramid of Cestius, which looms over the Protestant Cemetery, where Keats and Shelley lie. Some 597 Italian soldiers and civilians, including 27 women, died defending their city, but by day's end the Germans prevailed.

I asked the attendants in the little gift shop inside the cemetery if they knew where the battle had been fought, and one of them directed me to the nearby Parco della Resistenza dell'8 Settembre. I strolled around the rather unkempt park, past parents airing babies in the shade of palms and sycamores. But aside from a plaque commemorating "the soldiers of every corps and citizens of every class who opposed the German invaders," I found little trace of the battle.

Shadows were lengthening as I made my way through the Porta San Paolo and waded into the roaring traffic of the Piazza dei Partigiani (Plaza of the Partisans), a major transportation hub just outside the city walls. Here I caught a tram to the San Lorenzo neighborhood, a working-class district about three miles east of the ghetto.

On July 19, 1943, shortly before the fall of Mussolini, Allied aircraft bombed San Lorenzo hoping to take out a crucial railway pivot point. In the course of the bombardment, some 2,000 to 3,000 Roman civilians died, and a stray bomb heavily damaged the gorgeous Basilica of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura, parts of which date back to the sixth century. I wanted to check out what the church and neighborhood look like today.

The tram skirted the hoary arches of the Porta Maggiore and rumbled through the ugly, gritty but supposedly gentrifying blocks near the vast University of Rome complex. My stop was next to a modern parking lot that might have been in the Bronx. I was about to recheck the map when I spotted San Lorenzo's mellow 12th-century brick campanile rising against a stand of horse chestnuts. The basilica's door swung shut behind me, and the modern world blinked out into the Middle Ages.

Photos in the sacristy show the ruin that remained after an American bomb caved in the roof of the nave and shattered parts of the mosaic floor, one of the most beautiful in Rome. Stone by stone, the crimson and white coils and diamonds were lovingly retrieved and set back into place

As my guidebook instructed, I descended a short flight of steps at the end of the nave to find the tomb of St. Lawrence, who was martyred over hot coals in the year 258.

But the moment that will stay with me came in the 12th-century cloister. Amid the dainty paired columns and drifts of myrtle and herbs, I stumbled upon a fragment of a bomb's casing that was pried out of the rubble in 1943 -- a shard of American steel displayed incongruously in a sacred Roman garden.

In the days that followed, I asked a number of Italians whether Romans harbored any bitterness toward the United States over the collateral damage at San Lorenzo: a beloved basilica in ruins, thousands of citizens killed in a bombing raid gone awry. The answer was always the same: We are still grateful to America because you liberated us from the Nazis.

The Via Tasso, about midway between San Lorenzo and the ghetto, is an undistinguished thoroughfare of 19th- and early-20th-century apartment blocks and schools, with a crumbling arch at one end and the sanctuary of the Scala Sancta (the sacred stairs that Jesus trod) at the other. It looks like a comfortable, convenient place where middle-class Romans and striving immigrants live, though not a spot you'd go out of your way to visit.

But during the nine months of the Nazi occupation, Via Tasso 145 was the most feared address in Rome. It was here in a charmless, smudged yellow apartment house that the SS and the Gestapo had their headquarters, their prison and their torture chambers. During the occupation, the place was so dreaded that Romans never called it the Via Tasso. Instead they would say laggiù (down there), as in, "He was hauled off laggiù."

If you've seen the classic Roberto Rossellini film "Rome, Open City," you'll have some idea of the sinister atmosphere of sadism and despair that infected the Via Tasso. Former apartments were walled off into tiny cells where political prisoners and captured partisans lived in the dark with no bed or toilet. The Italian writer Corrado Augias was an 8-year-old student at a boarding school that backed up on the Via Tasso. "Even after so many years," he writes, "I can still clearly remember the screams that sometimes broke the stillness of the night and penetrated all the way inside our dormitory."

The former Gestapo headquarters is now the site of the Historical Museum of the Liberation of Rome, with displays devoted to the brutality of the Nazi occupation and the response of the Roman people. Artifacts are sparse but heartbreaking: a sock embroidered with the words "courage my love" that a wife or mother smuggled in, a tortured prisoner's bloody shirt, a mournful portrait of Colonel Giuseppe Cordero di Montezemolo, an officer in the Italian Army who organized the Roman resistance. The SS interrogated and tortured Montezemolo at Via Tasso for 58 days, but he uttered not a word.

On the museum's second floor, five prison cells preserve the incredibly moving messages that prisoners scratched on the walls. "Addio piccola mia -- non serbarmi rancore un bacio," one prisoner wrote ("Farewell, my little one, don't harbor any bitterness on my account, a kiss.")

The next day, a balmy Sunday, my wife and I decided to get out of town and join sweater-clad Romans and ski-pole-toting German trekkers for a leisurely saunter on the Appian Way. Though just a few minutes by bus from central Rome, the road seems to slumber 2,000 years in the past. The original colossal cobblestones, heaved and rutted by time, still pave the way. Along the margins, villas peep from behind hedgerows and grain fields lie open to the sky. Aside from the occasional jet overhead and the whine of a Vespa, the illusion of classical antiquity was nearly complete.

But the shadow of the war fell here as well. At a crossroads just past the Catacombs of San Callisto, a sign points the way to the Fosse Ardeatine. We followed a country lane sunk deep in birdsong and drew up at a gate that resembles a tangled wrought-iron thorn bush. Beyond a lawn hemmed with flower beds rises a high stone wall with a black rectangular cavity incised in the bottom. Inside, in the perpetual twilight of caves and tunnels, is the site of a notorious Nazi massacre. Just as the Via Tasso meant torture during the German occupation of Rome, so the Fosse Ardeatine meant slaughter.

In retaliation for a partisan bombing on the Via Rasella (near the Barberini Palace) that killed 33 German soldiers on March 23, 1944, the SS ordered that 330 Romans -- 10 for every German -- be put to death. The city quaked as the Nazis did their culling. Partisans imprisoned at the Via Tasso, political prisoners from the Regina Coeli prison in Trastevere, former soldiers, Jews, farmers, students, even a priest ended up in the ranks of the condemned.

For some reason 335 men -- five more than the required number -- were transported on March 24 from Rome to the Fosse Ardeatine, a quarry for pozzuolana (a volcanic ash used to make cement) near the Appian Way. The victims were shot point blank inside one of the caves. When the last man was dead, the executioners exploded dynamite to collapse the cave and seal off the bodies.

The memorial at the Fosse Ardeatine is all the more powerful for being perfectly simple. An opening in the cliff's side ushers you from daylight to the darkness of the tunnels. A single light flickers in a chapel. Bronze gates guard the spot where the corpses, stacked five deep, were discovered after the city was liberated. Inside the mausoleum 335 identical slabs of granite cover the tombs of the slain.

Fabrizio Genuini, the affable guard at the memorial's entry, told me as I left: "Many come to Rome to see the Colosseum and the catacombs at San Callisto, but relatively few people aside from school groups come here anymore. Memory is short."

On June 4, 1944, two and a half months after the massacre, the American Fifth Army entered Rome from the south and east with little enemy resistance. "My God, they bombed that, too!" one G.I. marveled when he saw the ruins of the Colosseum.

In fact, the Germans had retreated, "wild-eyed, unshaven, unkempt, on foot, in stolen cars," in the words of one witness, without destroying a single building or bridge. In the end, Rome had little strategic value, and the Nazis were aware that it would have been a public relations disaster to wreck the Eternal City.

Toward the end of our Roman holiday, I returned to the ex-ghetto to chat, to eavesdrop and to eat. But my real motive was to check the pulse of the place 70 years after incomprehensible suffering.

On a bright afternoon, the cafes were crowded; waves of tourists were sampling kosher fast food and artisanal cheese and biscuits; visitors from the United States, Israel and Germany were queuing up at the security checkpoint of the Jewish Museum of Rome beneath the imposing fin de siècle Tempio Maggiore.

In a few hours, the restaurants lining the Via Portico d'Ottavia would fill, and the sound of unconstrained voices would echo off the walls, cobblestones and columns.

Yet I couldn't help hearing an undercurrent of sadness and anxiety. At the unmarked corner shopfront of the Boccione Jewish bakery, a local landmark for two centuries, the proprietor, Bianca Sonnino, cut me an extra-large slice of pizza ebraica (Jewish pizza) -- not pizza at all but a dense nutty-fruity coffeecake. Signora Sonnino told me proudly that Boccione has been her family's business for generations and that her mother devised the recipe for torta della ricotta.

But when I asked about the war, she teared up. A gentile woman hid her family, she told me, but close relatives were among those who were deported to Auschwitz and never returned. "After the war, the ghetto was nothing," she said. "It was a dead zone."

Now some Roman Jews worry that the area is becoming too lively. Gentrification has jacked up apartment prices beyond the reach of most of the families who lived here for centuries, indeed millenniums. The narrow lanes around the Portico d'Ottavia are usually filled with a cosmopolitan collection of well-heeled bohemians and tourists. A Jewish school recently opened a block from the synagogue, though most of the children commute from other neighborhoods. The ex-ghetto is still the beating heart of Jewish Rome, but increasingly Jewish Romans come here only to pray, to eat, to celebrate and matriculate.

In a few years, the last survivors of the Nazi occupation will be gone and the events of those terrible nine months will take their place in the flusso di Roma, the ebb and flow of Rome's vast tidal history. But for now, amid the joyous clamor of the ghetto, the voices of those who endured that time can still be heard.

IF YOU GO

On the evening of Oct. 16, to commemorate the anniversary of the roundup of 1943, a torchlight procession will gather in Trastevere and march across the Tiber to Largo 16 Ottobre in the ex-ghetto.

Where to Eat

Ba" Ghetto, Via del Portico d'Ottavia, 57; (39-06) 6889-2868; kosherinrome.com. Classic (kosher) Roman Jewish cooking with a zesty Mediterranean twist, including couscous, hummus and falafel. A kosher dairy branch is up the street at Via Portico d'Ottavia, 2/A.

La Taverna del Ghetto, Via Del Portico d'Ottavia, 8; (39-06) 6880-9771; latavernadelghetto.com. Baccalà, fried zucchini flowers, pasta with broccoli and sausage, meatballs, goulash, grilled tuna. The food here is kosher, hearty and traditional.

Giardino Romano, Via Portico d'Ottavia, 18; (39-06) 6880-9661; ilgiardinoromano.it. Roman-Jewish specialties -- planked and fried artichokes, tripe, oxtail, abbacchio (lamb) -- served indoors in an attractively restored 16th-century palace, or outdoors in a quiet back garden or on the festive terrace near the Portico d'Ottavia. Not kosher, but open on Friday night and Saturday.

Pasticceria "Boccione" Limentani, Via Portico d'Ottavia, 1; (39-06) 687-8637. You'll probably have to wait in line and the service may be gruff, but it's worth it for the pizza ebraica, the ricotta e visciole (wild cherry) tart and the slice of history.

Museums and Memorials

Explorations of the ghetto should begin at the Jewish Museum of Rome, Via Catalana; (39-06)-6840-0661; museoebraico.roma.it. A museum visit includes a tour of the Tempio Maggiore upstairs. Closed Saturday. Admission 10 euros.

Basilica di San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Piazzale Del Verano, 3; (39-06) 446-6184; basilicasanlorenzo.it.

The Historical Museum of the Liberation of Rome (Museo storico della Liberazione), Via Tasso, 145; (39-06) 700-3866; museoliberazione.it. Closed Monday. Free admission.

Fosse Ardeatine Memorial, Via Ardeatine, 174; (39-06) 513-6742. Free admission.

David Laskin, a frequent contributor to Travel, is the author of "The Family: Three Journeys Into the Heart of the 20th Century," due from Viking in October.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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