In 1938 – when fascist dictator Benito Mussolini passed a series of racial laws that expelled Jews from schools, the army and major professions – many Italian Jews dismissed the new regulations as a hollow show of support for Adolf Hitler, believing they would never be enforced or would soon be quietly repealed. Most could not imagine that just five years later, many members of the country’s millennia-old Jewish community would be deported and murdered in Nazi concentration camps.
One of the few who saw the approaching storm was Pacifico Di Consiglio, a 17-year-old Roman Jew, who reacted to fascism’s first official anti-Semitic act by signing up at a boxing gym near the city’s ancient Jewish ghetto, sensing that in the years to come he would have use for self-defense skills.
Nicknamed Moretto (Blackie), because of his dark hair and complexion, this quiet giant rarely spoke about his wartime activities after surviving the Holocaust. It was only after his death in 2006 that his family managed to piece together the real-life story of a Jew who turned the tables on his Nazi persecutors with reckless bravado and narrowly escaped death several times.
Based on testimonies from survivors, letters, diaries and a short interview that Moretto gave in 1998 to Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, his story has now been publicized in Italy by a book – “Duello nel Ghetto: La sfida di un ebreo contro le bande nazifasciste nella Roma occupata” ("Duel in the Ghetto: A Jew challenges Nazi-Fascist Gangs in Occupied Rome") – written by journalist Maurizio Molinari and historian Amedeo Osti Guerrazzi.
Molinari, currently editor in chief of the Italian daily La Stampa, spoke about the new book, which has been published only in Italian to date, on Saturday at Tel Aviv's Italian Cultural Center. The event was one of a few organized by local Italian institutions, including the embassy, commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day, last Friday.
Molinari said that when he was growing up in Rome he often met Moretto and was impressed by “this austere and very well-respected character.”
“He was always there on important occasions for the Jewish community, but he was always silent,” Molinari recalled. “No one really knew who he really was.”
Born in 1921 into a large and financially struggling family from the old ghetto, Moretto acquired an early distaste for the fascist regime’s uniformed parades and raucous nationalism. After 1938, his pugilistic skills became useful when he organized groups of Jewish youths to fight off gangs of fascist thugs who would raid the ghetto to attack the inhabitants or damage property, according to Molinari’s book.
But his real test came later.
In September 1943, after Mussolini was overthrown and the Germans reacted by directly occupying northern and central Italy, Moretto and a friend left Rome for the countryside, seeking to join the Resistance. They failed to find any partisan band, and when they returned to Rome they were shocked to find the usually bustling narrow streets of the ghetto nearly deserted.
On October 16, Nazi forces raided the neighborhood and other areas of the city with a strong Jewish presence, deporting 1,023 people to Auschwitz. Of these, only 16 would survive the Holocaust.
Hunting the hunters
“After the raid, Moretto chose to stay there, in the ghetto, and not just to hide, but to challenge those who were still hunting for Jews,” Molinari explained to the audience at the cultural center.
While the raid had been a terrible blow to the community, it was seen as a failure by the Germans, who had planned to arrest as many as 8,000 Jews. Many had been warned or managed to flee their homes at the last moment, seeking refuge in convents and with friendly Catholics in the city and the surrounding countryside. But some, unable to find a permanent hiding place, had returned to the ghetto, and became the favorite prey of gangs of fascists, spies and collaborators engaged in the lucrative business of betraying Jews and handing them over to the Nazis.
Although Moretto had a chance to join his fiancée, and future wife, Fortunata Di Segni in a convent where she and the rest of their families were in hiding, he chose to stay and protect the remaining Jews of the ghetto. It was there that he engaged in a dangerous duel with Luigi Roselli, the leader of a fascist gang, who himself lived just inside the neighborhood.
Moretto staked out a nearby restaurant where the fascists would congregate and, using a gun he had bought on the black market, started shooting at members of Roselli's group – according to "Duel in the Ghetto," he didn’t stick around to see if he had hit anyone. Taking a more sophisticated approach, he began strutting about in broad daylight dressed in an elegant suit and a white overcoat in the ghetto, passing in front of Roselli’s house, where he soon caught the attention of Annida, the niece of the fascist leader.
“It was very typical of him to be out in the open, not to hide,” Daniele Di Consiglio, Moretto’s grandson – who is 38 and moved to Israel in 2014 – told Haaretz. “He wanted to live as a free man and was not afraid to show his enemies that this neighborhood was his home and no one would be able to hunt him down.”
The young Annida fell in love with the strapping, elegant boxer, and from then on would spy on her uncle when he received phone calls from Gestapo headquarters and warn Moretto about upcoming raids, giving him and his fellow Jews precious time to escape.
Once, when Annida failed to warn him in time, Moretto and a group of friends were captured by Roselli’s gang. According to Annida’s testimony, when the gang leader searched the Jewish boxer, he found a necklace that belonged to her: In a rage Roselli confronted his niece, but ultimately kept the episode secret for fear that his German minders would not look kindly upon him for having a traitor in the family.
Meanwhile, Moretto and his comrades had been taken to police headquarters, where they managed to escape by jumping from a second-story window. Moretto broke a wrist in the fall but still managed to flee – while carrying on his back a friend who had broken a leg.
According to Molinari’s book, Moretto escaped death at least two more times. One night he was randomly seized in the street by two drunk German soldiers, who drove him out of the city, ostensibly to execute him. “He was given a shovel to dig his own grave, but instead used it to eliminate the two Germans,” Molinari said, recalling Moretto’s own testimony.
In May 1944 – just a month before the Allies, fighting their way through southern Italy, reached Rome – Moretto was betrayed as he once again tried to contact local partisans. This time he was taken to SS headquarters, where he was accused of killing several German officers and was tortured for information on other hidden Jews.
After days of beatings he was put on a truck convoy with other prisoners headed for Fossoli, a transit camp in northern Italy that functioned as a waystation for Auschwitz. Using his last strength Moretto punched one of the guards and jumped from the moving truck. A prisoner who jumped after him was cut down by machine-gun fire, but Moretto managed to escape and make his way back to Rome.
Despite his many injuries, he finally managed to contact the Resistance and take up arms, joining Allied forces as they liberated the capital on June 4, 1944.
After the war, Moretto didn’t stop fighting to protect Jews. He fingered many collaborators and testified at the trials of Roselli and other fascist collaborators (famously stopping to punch one of them in the face before taking the stand). He later became known as the community’s unofficial “defense minister” for his work in organizing security details to protect Rome’s Jews, who faced attacks by neo-fascist groups in the 1950s and later by Palestinian terrorists.
“He never really stopped, he was not interested in recognition, only in guaranteeing our safety, and he did so quietly and discretely,” recalls his grandson Daniele. “He didn’t talk much. He acted.”