On October 18, 1943, the German occupiers of Italy deported 1,035 Jews from Rome. The sweep was part of their drive to exterminate the Jews of Italy too, after the Fascist regime headed by Benito Mussolini "failed" to do the job for them.
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The Nazis had entered Rome on September 10, shortly after occupying central and northern Italy, which now became the “Italian Socialist Republic.” They lost little time obtaining the registration lists of Rome’s approximately 12,000 Jews, with the ultimate purpose of a "razzia" – a roundup.
Come September 26, the Nazi powers demanded that the Jewish community of Rome pay over 50 kilograms of gold as a ransom. The Jews were given 36 hours to come up with the metal, or face the immediate deportation of 200 of their members.
The neighbors come to help
Chief Rabbi Israel Zolli went to the Vatican for help. Indeed, he was advised that the Jewish community could borrow whatever amount of gold was needed, to be repaid after the war. Some sources say the Vatican capped its offer at 15 kilos of gold, worth over $600,000 in today's market prices.
In fact, it did not become necessary to take a loan from the Church. Citizens of Rome, both non-Jews and Jews, streamed into the city’s synagogues to turn over such items as gold jewelry, watches and cigarette cases to help with the ransom.
Jewish writer Giacomo Debenedetti described the scene at one synagogue in this way: “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.”
The roundup begins
Nonetheless, the gold payment only delayed the inevitable. On October 16, the Germans entered the city’s Old Jewish Ghetto to begin rounding up Jews.
By then, however, most of the Jews had gone into hiding. About 4,000 of them found sanctuary in various Roman Catholic institutions, including within the Vatican itself.
In the end, 2,091 Roman Jews were deported, approximately half of them to Auschwitz, where 839 died. By the end of World War II, only 102 of the deportees were alive.
However, at the end of the day, most of Rome's Jews had been able to avoid deportation. The same was true of Italian Jewry in general, with some 40,000 out of 50,000 surviving the war.
One who survived was the chief rabbi of Rome from 1940 to 1945, Israel Zolli, who also held a doctorate in philosophy – and who would convert to Catholicism before the end of the war, in February 1945. He would teach philosophy at a number of Italian educational institutions, including the Pontifical Biblical Institute.
Zolli was a fierce apologist for Pope Pius XII (1876-1958), who has been criticized for being silent in the face of Nazi atrocities (pleading neutrality) – for instance, the pope did not protest following the infamous Kristallnacht (night of broken glass), and was in general charged with not doing enough to help the Jews during the Holocaust. He did issue a diplomatic protest at the Nazi order to expel the Jews, and Pope Pius XII is also known to have sheltered Zolli and a number of other Jews as well during the Holocaust. Among other places, Zolli was given sanctuary in the very Vatican itself, and at the papal residence.
In the year 2000, a stone plaque was unveiled at the Tiburtina train station from which those Jews who had been captured, were taken to Auschwitz.
With writing by David B. Green and Ruth Schuster. The original version of this article was published on October 18, 2012.