Found in a Tel Aviv Trash Can: A Glimpse Into Jewish Life in Pre-war Rome

A deciphered guestbook from a Jewish hotel-restaurant opens a window into a shaky refuge that served Jews who were trying to escape Europe and save their lives.

In July 1939, only a few months before WWII broke out, Dr. Joseph Burg, future cabinet minister in several Israeli governments, came to a small guesthouse-restaurant in Rome. According to his son Avrum Burg, his father was in Rome at that time helping European Jews obtain immigration certificates.

Like many Jews, he picked this particular restaurant since it was the only one then serving kosher food in Rome. Upon leaving, he wrote a few words in the guest book, as many others had done before him. However, instead of a simple dedication, Burg wrote a four-line acrostichon, in which the first letters made up the name of the guesthouse’s owner, Pines.

Seventy years later, a man called Ariel Shalom was walking down Reines Street in Tel Aviv, when he noticed a hand-written book lying in a garbage can. He picked it up but was unable to decipher anything. After consulting with friends, he sent it to Yad Vashem, where it turned out to be the guestbook of the same guesthouse. After some research and with some luck, family members of the owner, Yitzhak Eliyahu Pines, were located. Deciphering the inscriptions in the book opened a window into a shaky refuge that existed in Rome, serving Jews, mainly from Eastern European, who were trying to escape Europe and save their lives.

Pines was born in Belarus, and reached Rome after fleeing a pogrom in his home town. In 1922, he established his guesthouse, which quickly became an important fixture in the Jewish community, as attested to by the guestbook’s inscriptions. The stormy period sweeping over Europe’s Jews at the time is well-reflected in the numerous languages in which the guestbook’s dedications are written, including Hebrew, English, Hungarian, Polish, Yiddish, French and Russian. Moshe Lavi, one of Pines’s grandsons now living in the United States, says that the book was his grandfather’s pride. “As a child I knew of its existence”, says Eldad Lavi, another grandson who lives in Israel, “but I forgot about it for many years."

Lavi remembers the guesthouse well. “It was in the center of Rome, right across from the Parliament, and occupied a whole floor in a large building." He is beholden to the guesthouse, since that is where is parents met. His father was a Libyan Jew who was in Rome on business. He stayed at the guesthouse, where he met and fell in love with the owner’s daughter.

An Italian Jew named Augusto Segre wrote of the guesthouse and its guestbook in his memoirs. “At the Pines guesthouse I enjoyed an invaluable vantage point, from which I could view, for the first time in my life, a much broader Jewish life than I was acquainted with. The kind Mr Pines, who spoke several languages, always tried to identify his guests’ country of origin and turned to them in their language. He was almost never wrong."
 

Yad Vashem Archives