What Was It like to Be a Jew in Nazi Occupied Rome?

Victor Failmezger

Twentieth Century World War Two
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During the nine-month Nazi occupation of Rome, a period filled with repression, starvation, roundups and murder at the hands of their one-time allies, the local Gestapo Chief, SS-Obersturmbannführer Herbert Kappler, often turned his attention to Rome’s Jews. Two weeks after the 10 September 1943 German occupation of Rome, Heinrich Himmler, the Chief of the German SS, directed Kappler to round up Roman Jews for deportation to Auschwitz.

SS-Obersturmbannführer Herbert Kappler, head of the Gestapo in Rome. (Reproduced with kind permission of Piero Crociani)

The growth of Nazi influence in Italy

Jews had been living in Rome since before the time of Christ and the repression of Jews had started slowly with the accession of Mussolini to power. Italian Jews did not feel threatened by Italian Fascism because they were well integrated within society. But in the late 1930s, as Nazi influence grew in Italy, discrimination increased.

Jewish children and teachers were banned from public schools, denied employment and fired from government jobs. Many changed their names and took steps to hide their Jewish identity and their assets.

Jewish life was centered in the ancient Ghetto of Rome, established in 1555. It faced the Tiber Island in an undesirable section of the city due to frequent flooding. The Ghetto was only about five acres with 3,000 people crowded inside; the gates were locked at night. Although no longer walled, by 1943 it was defined by an atmosphere of intrigue and pervasive fear.

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In response to Himmler’s directive, Kappler summoned two of Rome’s Jewish leaders to a meeting on 26 September. He demanded that they hand over 50 kilos (110lb) of gold within 36 hours or 200 Jews would be sent to labor camps in Germany. Kappler believed that demanding the gold would lull the Jews into a false sense of security which would make a later mass roundup that much easier.

After much difficulty, by the morning of 28 September, the goal was met. At the 1943 US official rate of $35.00 an ounce, the 50 kilos of gold was worth $61,600. Kappler sent the gold to Berlin.

The roundup of Jews from the Ghetto of Rome

Already bad, the Jewish predicament was about to worsen with the early October arrival of SS-Hauptsturmführer Theodor Dannecker, a Nazi specialist on the Jewish ‘problem.’

The 31-year-old Dannecker had organized a highly effective roundup of Jews in Paris. Before 05:00 on the morning of 16 October 1943, the streets in and out of the Ghetto were sealed and the entire area encircled by German troops and police. Since most of the working-age men had fled at the first sign of trouble, women outnumbered men two-to-one. It was thought the Germans were looking for men for labor gangs and that the women would be released.

The roundup was over by 14:00 with the arrest of 1,259 Jews, 689 women, 363 men, and 207 children. They were taken by truck to the Military College along the Tiber River.

Dannecker’s drivers, not knowing the most direct route, drove to Saint Peter’s, less than a mile from the college and stopped in front of the Vatican to sightsee with the Jews locked in the trucks. Shortly after arriving at the Military College, a baby boy was born to a 23-year-old woman and two elderly died.

The Military College courtyard where Jews were held after the roundup. (Author Photo)

The arrested Jews represented a cross section of society. In addition to laborers and second-hand-clothes sellers, there was an Italian admiral who was so feeble he was carried off in a car. He was also the father-in-law of the American atom bomb scientist, Enrico Fermi.

The scene in the college courtyard was one of incredible chaos. Babies cried and terrified parents tried to quiet them. When a boy, taken to see a dentist, was returned after treatment, many were convinced that they were going to Germany to work and not to be killed. One man even went out a back door, bought cigarettes and returned.

Over the next two days, 237 non-Jews and some who were only partially Jewish were released. A Christian woman, refusing to abandon her tiny Jewish charge, remained.

Journey to Auschwitz

They were transported to the Tiburtina Railway Station. That morning the wife of one prisoner returned to the city and was shocked by the news that her husband and five children were prisoners. She raced to the station and ran along the 18 parked boxcars shouting for her family. Recognizing a voice, she stopped and pleaded with the German guards to open the door to the boxcar and she struggled aboard.

Soon after 14:05 the cars began moving. On that train were 1,022: 419 men and boys, 603 women and girls, 274 were children younger than 15 years old. Only 15 men and one woman would return.

Not knowing that Jews were on it, Allied aircraft attacked the train as it left Rome. A German guard was wounded, but the train rolled on.

A railway boxcar that according to Antonio Palo, director of the Disembarkation Museum, Salerno, Italy, was one of those used to transport Jews, POWs and others between 1943 and 1944. (Author Photo)

At Auschwitz, Dr. Josef Mengele, the notorious Nazi medical experimenter, made his selection. He divided the surviving Jews into two groups. The first group of 821 men, women, and children were judged not suitable for work. They were put on trucks and told they were being sent to a rest camp. They were gassed that same day. The second group, 154 men and 47 women, were walked to separate male and female work camps.

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Sanctuary and reprisals

For the Gestapo, the Roman Jewish problem was not over. For every Jew captured and sent to Auschwitz, 11 remained in the city desperately searching for hiding places. Some found sanctuary in Roman Catholic religious institutions; churches, convents, and monasteries. Of the estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people hiding from the Germans in Rome, more than 10,500 were Jews.

On 23 March 1944, Roman partisans attacked a German police contingent in via Rasella and almost immediately 33 Germans died. Hitler demanded that 10 male civilians be killed to avenge the attack and Berlin told Kappler that he could meet his quota by adding Jews to the list.

Many Jews were turned in by 18-year old Celeste Di Porto, a Jewish turncoat. Her roundup method was simple: she would see a man in the street that she knew to be Jewish and greet him; now identified to her Gestapo informers, the man was seized. If he denied being Jewish, Celeste pulled his pants down to show he was circumcised. Celeste was responsible for the arrest of one third of the 77 Jews who were to be executed in the reprisal.

K-Syndrome

Inexplicably, during the whole of the German occupation, the Gestapo never raided the Fate Bene Fratelli Hospital on the Tiber Island. The hospital also cared for Jewish patients, some of whom were not actually sick. These were identified as having K-Syndrome, a supposedly highly contagious disease which could be fatal. It was entirely fictitious.

The ruse was created by posting the symptoms, including severe coughing, in the hospital under the heading, morbo di K (K’s disease). Of course the K stood for Kappler. When Germans visited the hospital, the ‘patients’ were instructed to cough. That scared away the Germans and it was claimed that 65 Jews suffering from K’s disease were saved in this manner.

Victor “Tory” Failmezger is a retired US Naval Officer. His recent works include the popular American Knights (2015). Rome: City in Terror is published by Osprey and charts the Nazi occupation from 1943-1944 and was published on 17 September 2020.

Featured image: German Tiger I tank in front of the Altare della Patria in Rome in 1944. (Credit: Bundesarchiv).

Victor Failmezger