Rome May Cancel Plans for Holocaust Museum

After a decade of municipal foot-dragging, possibly intentional, the city's Jews may set their sights on a smaller memorial in an existing structure.

Luca Zevi

MILAN, Italy – Rome may soon cancel its plan to build one of the world’s largest Holocaust museums ־ due to a request by the city’s own Jewish community.

Fearing that the project, initiated 10 years ago but never implemented, will in any case never see the light of day, a group of local Jews ־ including Holocaust survivors and their descendants – has petitioned the mayor to support instead the creation of a smaller memorial in an already-existing structure, formerly a shopping mall. The head of Rome's Jewish community also supports that proposal.

Last Thursday, representatives of the Jewish community met with members of Rome's city council to discuss the possibility of taking the project in that direction, but no decision was made.

In 2004 then-Mayor Walter Veltroni announced the plan to build a

Holocaust museum, intended both as a commemoration of the 1,024 Roman Jews deported to Auschwitz in 1943, and as an education tool for the general public. Since then, however, not a single brick was laid.

The official construction plans, submitted by architects Luca Zevi and

Giorgio Tamburini, were finally approved in 2012 – but no construction began then either.

Zevi and Tamburini designed a 5,000-square-meter facility to be built inside Villa Torlonia – a former residence of dictator Benito Mussolini, which has been turned into a park featuring several museums, ranging from archaeology to modern art – at a cost of 21 million euros. It would have been Europe’s second-largest Holocaust museum, after Berlin’s Jüdisches Museum.

In truth, the project has proceeded at an extremely slow pace, even by

Italian standards, to the point where some have begun to doubt the good will of the municipal authorities involved.

“In recent years there has been strong pressure inside the [city’s] administration not to build the museum,” Zevi tells Haaretz.

Between 2008 and 2012, Rome was governed by the conservative Mayor Gianni Alemanno, who was a member of a neo-fascist group before joining the mainstream right. Some believe he was uncomfortable with the whole museum project, even though he formally endorsed it.

“It seems pretty obvious to me that the city has been dragging its feet,” says Leone Paserman, the former president of Rome’s Jewish community, who now heads the Fondazione per il Museo della Shoah, a nonprofit that has promoted the construction of Rome's Holocaust museum.

Paserman says that “anti-Zionist sentiment, or even some form of latent anti-Semitism” may have played a role in the delay. “What we’ve seen during the recent war in Gaza might have made things even worse,” he says, referring to what some see as growing anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment in the past months as a result of Israel's Operation Protective Edge.

Since 2013, Rome's mayor has been Ignazio Marino, from the left-leaning Democratic Party. Asked by Haaretz for a comment on the museum project, a mayoral spokesman denied that the city has reneged on its construction, but could not offer an explanation for the foot-dragging. He conceded that the fears in the local Jewish community that the facility will not be built any time soon are “understandable.”

For his part, Riccardo Pacifici, the current president of Rome’s Jewish community, has ruled out the possibility that political motives may be behind the delay in construction of the museum, and blames it on Italy’s “monstrous bureaucracy” and economic crisis.

Moreover, Pacifici supports the idea of abandoning the original project in favor of building a smaller memorial in an existing building.

“We have to think twice before insisting [on this project]. At a time when so many Italian citizens are struggling economically, we don’t want to send the message that the Jews are diverting resources away from other public sectors. It could fuel anti-Semitism,” he explained to Haaretz.

But others in the community fear that if they stop insisting that the municipality build the museum, they may end up with nothing in return.

“We’re not talking about simply moving the location, it’s about either building the museum or not building it at all,” says architect Zevi, who is himself Jewish. “It took eight years to get the initial project finally approved ... How long would it take to do the same for a new one, even if it’s in an existing building?”