As a regular visitor to Rome, the author  finds the gloss taken off her romantic notions of the city by the discovery of a relative’s brutal wartime death at the hands of the SS and local Fascists. By Penny McDonald.

Rome’s Ghetto

A section of the Jewish Ghetto in Rome.
A section of the Jewish Ghetto in Rome.

Paola is famous for her artichokes. It’s one of the things I remember most about that holiday. Eating Paola’s artichokes in her apartment and signing the family tree with my children, our names underlined on a large piece of parchment below ancestors going back 300 years. One branch of the family had managed to stay here in the Ghetto. There’s a photo of us at the apartment, together for the first time.

Others hadn’t been so lucky. There was a relative I hadn’t known about who died a senseless and brutal death in the war. Giorgio had gone into hiding alone when the Nazis occupied Rome after Mussolini’s fall, hoping to save his wife and children.

We always stay in the historic centre of Rome, much to the amusement of relatives who think it’s a bit cheesy and touristy. I love it. Especially in winter. Everything I want to see is within walking distance of our hotel near the Trevi Fountain. As it turned out, the hotel is close to where it all started, the incident that led to Giorgio’s execution, halfway between the fountain and the Palazzo Barberini on the Quirinal Hill.

Finding out about Giorgio and the Roman family’s suffering during the war, I couldn’t enjoy Rome in quite the same way. Hunger, displacement, poverty and death had marked their lives and three generations of men had died or been shot.

Every Roman knows the street name Via Rasella. On March 23, 1944, the Italian Resistance exploded a bomb hidden in a garbage bin as a column of German SS soldiers marched past, killing or fatally wounding 33 of them. A communist partisan, dressed as a street sweeper, lit the fuse to 18 kilograms of TNT packed around metal shards, then hurried away up the hill where his girlfriend was waiting with a coat to cover his street-sweeper uniform.

It’s early morning and it’s quiet when we walk up Via Rasella. Cars and Vespas trundle up the cobbles in single file; the shutters are drawn, the cobbles freshly hosed. Unless you know where to look you wouldn’t notice pockmarks high in the ochre stucco of one apartment building.

From the rooftops, more partisans had tossed grenades, before vanishing. The surviving SS troops responded with their machineguns, leaving the pockmarks still visible. The bullet holes are carefully preserved. We continue up to the 17th-century Palazzo Barberini, now housing an art museum with a Caravaggio and other treasures. After the ambush, civilians were lined up under guard against its walls.

Hitler had given the direct order that 10 Italians be shot for every soldier killed. The SS and local Fascist police pulled men and boys out of apartments, shops and bars around Via Rasella. To make up the quota, the SS went to the Gestapo prison at Via Tasso, and the Regina Coeli jail picking out prisoners at random, and adding 75 Jews to the list. Giorgio was betrayed by a neighbour.

By the following afternoon, the target had been reached and exceeded. The SS loaded the prisoners, hands wired behind their backs, onto covered trucks and set off along the Appian Way to the south of Rome, pulling up at the Ardeatine Caves, a labyrinth left by quarrying since Roman times.

The SS marched the prisoners five at a time into the tunnels, made them kneel, and shot each one in the back of the head. The commanders, Lieutenant-Colonel Herbert Kappler and Captain Erich Priebke, used their own pistols to demonstrate how it was done and fortified their soldiers with cognac. It took six hours to execute all 335 prisoners.

Then they blew up the entrance to the caves. Posters went up around Rome: “The order has been carried out.”

The Gestapo prison at Via Tasso, previously the German cultural embassy when Mussolini ruled, became the Museum of the Liberation of Rome in 1955. When I visited with my son, there were no tourists, only school groups.

It’s a block of grisly horrors: forlorn graffiti on the cell walls; instruments of torture; walled-up windows and a sink and draining board; there are papers about the deportation of Jews from the Ghetto direct to Auschwitz and names of collaborators and informers. One isolation cell is just one-and-a-half square metres.

In Cell One there’s a list of names selected for the cave, sent by the Italian police headquarters. Cell Five held a Resistance commander who refused to talk, and was dragged out to the truck convoy, no longer able to walk. During Kappler and Priebke’s reign, 2000 men and women were held and tortured at Via Tasso 145-155.

I watch black-and-white footage of the cave being opened up for the first time in July 1944 after the Germans retreated north. Some of the footage, including the war trial of Fascist police chief Pietro Caruso, was shot by director Luchino Visconti, himself a member of the Resistance. Women are crying as they wait outside the cave; workmen inside sort through bones and rags with careful attention; every relic is set aside for identification and coffins are lined up for what remained.

The road to the cave, along the old Appian Way, runs through tawny countryside with villas and cypress pines. Catacombs containing the graves of early Christian martyrs line the road. At the turnoff to the Ardeatine Caves, there is a security gate, a sweep of clipped lawn, a skyline of cypress and pines up above, and a square entrance cut into a low, sheer cliff of porous stone. The tunnels, dimly lit, are empty and cold.

Outside is a mausoleum, an open-sided vault with square blocks over the remains of each victim: line after line of black tombs, some with photographs etched into the nameplates on top – ordinary Italian faces, many with spectacles, some poignantly young. A low concrete lid adds to the feeling of claustrophobia.

We find the grave we are looking for. It was months before the family discovered Giorgio’s fate. They bought flowers and rode a bus to the cave. By candlelight, they could only identify him from a patch on his coat and his glasses case. In the photograph on his tomb, he is a young man of 36 and he is smiling at the camera.

The British arrested Kappler in 1945 and turned him over to the Italians. A tribunal in 1948 sentenced him to life imprisonment. In the 1970s he developed cancer and his wife smuggled him out of the prison hospital in a suitcase. Kappler died in Germany in 1978, revered by neo-Nazis.

Priebke escaped to Argentina on a Vatican passport along the so-called “rat lines”. The Italians had him extradited in 1995. He insisted the victims were terrorists and that he was just following orders. After many appeals, Priebke also was sentenced to life imprisonment. But by then he was judged too old for prison and spent the rest of his life in Rome under comfortable house arrest, dying aged 100 in 2013. Both Germany and Argentina refused to accept his body for burial. In Italy neo-fascists and anti-fascists clashed around his coffin. The Italian military eventually buried it in a secret location to prevent it becoming a pilgrimage site.

This remains a risk. In March this year, on the 73rd anniversary of the massacre, Stefano Pavesi of Italy’s right-wing Northern League described the Via Rasella bombing as “a vile act committed by the partisans”, and the Ardeatine massacre was its “logical” consequence.

For many years a newspaper owned by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s brother, Paolo, ran a campaign calling the Via Rasella partisans “terrorists”, though in 2007 a court ruled the ambush a legitimate act of war and the massacre a war crime. Berlusconi, at 81, is set on a comeback in troubled Italy; his Forza Italia and allied Northern League won in regional elections in November in Sicily.

We are a noisy gathering in the old Ghetto, three generations, celebrating ancestors known and unknown, the ties of blood now variously Jewish, Catholic and atheist, our DNA twisted by war. We especially enjoy Paola’s artichokes and other Sephardic morsels that have enriched Rome’s cuisine centuries after expulsion from Spain, and surviving the more recent genocide. Feeling content, we put on our coats and scarves and head into the cold night air to our hotel near the Via Rasella.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 16, 2017 as "In the ghetto".

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Penny McDonald is a journalist studying Italian at Sydney University.

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