Q & A

How did you come to write a book about the Jews of Rome?

I was in the Vatican being given a tour by a friend, a Roman Jewish art historian. We were headed down a long corridor toward the Sistine Chapel, when she stopped to point behind us to an equally long corridor that had been roped off. She pointed to a fireplace about a third of the way down that corridor and said, “That is where my grandparents slept during the Holocaust. They were hiding from the Nazis.” When I realized that the Vatican had protected Jews under its roof, I said to myself: “There’s a story here. I can’t let this go.” It took years of research into many other matters, but that was the starting point.

When did Jews first arrive in Rome?

We cannot say for sure, but probably they arrived as part of a Hasmonaean/Maccabaean delegation from Judaea around 140 BCE. About two hundred years later, an obscure Latin text notes that a Roman procurator charged with cases involving non-citizens ordered the expulsion of all Jews from Rome in 139 BCE on the grounds that they were infecting the citizenry with their religious beliefs. In fact, the expulsion never took place because the procurator did not have the authority to carry out his order. But this is the earliest mention of Jews in Rome.

Where can I go in Rome to learn about Roman Jewish history?

The city or Rome is an open-air museum, and in fact it is an open-air Jewish Museum. You can go to the Arch of Titus which commemorates the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and depicts the Temple Menorah and other treasures being paraded through the streets of Rome. You can visit the Lateran Church that according to Jewish legend houses the twin pillars robbed from the entrance to the JerusalemTemple. Roman Jewish pilgrims to that Church came every year on Tisha B’Av to remember the destruction and watch the pillars “weep” salty tears. You can go to the corner of the Via Portico D’Ottavia and the Tiber River and see the archaeological remains of the Ghettarello, the second Ghetto—yes there were two Ghettos. And you can walk the area that was once the Ghetto where Pope Paul IV enclosed the Jewish community in 1555 and where they stayed enclosed until 1870. Once there, look down. In front of numerous houses there are bronze plaques embedded in the cobblestones naming the Jewish fathers, mothers, and children captured by the Nazis on October 16, l943 and sent to Auschwitz. There is a small Jewish Museum in the basement of the majestic Tempio Maggiore. You can visit both. And there is so much more.

Is that Temple Menorah secretly hidden in the basement of the Vatican Museum?

No. After being paraded through Rome during Titus’s Triumph, the Temple Menorah was housed in the Temple of Peace. Almost non-existent remains of that Temple can be found near the Forum of the Emperor Nerva which is now across the street from the Roman Forum. When Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410 CE, or maybe when it was again sacked by the Vandals in 455, more than likely the Temple treasures including the Menorah were taken and melted down. There are several legends about the ultimate fate of the Temple Menorah. One recent one has it waiting to be found at the bottom of the Tiber River near the Isola Tiberina. None of the legends are true. Stefan Zweig took one such legend and wrote a wonderful novella, The Buried Candelabrum that is well worth reading.

Why did Michelangelo carve his statue of Moses with horns on Moses’ head?

Many people who go see Michelangelo’s statue of Moses at the Church of Saint Peter in Chains in Rome believe that the projections on top of Moses’ head are devil’s horns, an antisemitic swipe at Jews who, for some haters, sport horns because they are demonic. There are horns sprouting from Michelangelo’s Moses, but they were not intended as antisemitic. The horns resulted from a mistake in translation by Saint Jerome who between 390 to 405 CE translated the Hebrew Bible into Latin. At Exodus 34: 29, 30 and 35 the Hebrew text says that Moses skin was “radiant,” “qaran.” Saint Jerome mistakenly read the Hebrew as “qeren” “horned.” About a thousand years later, Michelangelo, working from the Latin translation, depicted Moses as Saint Jerome had described him, “horned.” The horned Moses was no impediment for Jews coming to see and admire Michelangelo’s work. Their presence was so constant and noteworthy that Giorgio Vasari in his Lives, makes them a part of Michelangelo’s biography.

Do Roman Jews eat Italian food like pasta and pizza?

Everybody loves pasta and Roman Jews are no exception, but Pizza is another story. The first time ever that the word “Pizza” appears in writing is in Hebrew. The philosopher Judah Romano, in commentary on Maimonides Mishna Torah no less, mentions that in Rome they had a flat round bread, “Pizza,” or in Hebrew, peh, yod, zade, heh that is like focaccia. Romano was writing in the 1300s so he was not writing about Pizza as we know it. Tomatoes were not introduced into Italy until after the discovery of the New World in 1492. But before what we now know of as Pizza became Pizza, Roman Jews already had a word for it.

How would you evaluate Pope Pius XII’s response to the Holocaust? Was there a Holocaust in Rome?

Yes, the Holocaust reached Rome in the Fall of 1943 when the Nazis occupied Rome after the fall of the Fascist government. On October 16, 1943 they rounded up over 1000 Jews and sent them to be killed at Auschwitz. During the next eight months they continued to capture 1000 more Jews for deportation to the death camps. Rome was liberated by the Allies on June 5, 1944. Approximately 6000 of Rome’s 8000 Jews survived the deportations. During that time Pope Pius XII, who was Pope for the full duration of World War II, did not actively oppose the Nazi occupiers, and he remained mostly silent about the murder of the Jews throughout Europe. After the War and after his death in 1958, he was severely criticized for his silence, while on the other hand he has been nominated for sainthood. It must be noted that separate from Pius XII, many Catholic clergy and lay persons in Rome, and Italy in general, acted courageously to shelter and save thousands of Jews. The Vatican itself sheltered seventy Jewish families. It has been said that for every Jew who survived in Rome there was a Catholic who made that possible. It has also been said that for every Jew who was turned in to the SS in Rome, there was another Catholic who collected the 5000 lira reward. Nothing is simple and there is no black and white. David Kertzer, in his new book on Pius XII, The Pope at War, based on recently released archival material, has the best take on Pius XII. He was a good man who nevertheless failed at the moment in history when he was needed most. I spend many pages in Chapter 10 of my book reviewing the controversy and coming to this conclusion as well. History is not a Hollywood movie. Heroes are hard to come by, and by casting someone as a villain you may feel temporary gratification. But the task of the historian is often to understand someone other than yourself. That demands that you not ask of a historical personage what you yourself would like to be or what you would like him or her to be. I had to view Pius XII as a person in his own time and with all his responsibilities and complexity. He deserves that respect and treatment. I hope this comes through in Chapter 10.

How has the Catholic Church changed its position on Jews since the end of World War II?

I address this issue in Chapter 11, and it is one of my favorite chapters. After the War, the Church had to reevaluate its attitude toward Jews, and to its credit it did. Again, it is not so much a story of heroes and villains as it is a story of goodness and goodness prevailing. After much debate in 1965, the Second Vatican Council issued Nostra Aetate—In Our Time—absolving the Jewish Community of the alleged crime of Christ killing and retracting the Catholic doctrine of supersessionism which held that the Jewish Religion had been superseded by Christianity. It was an enormous change in Catholic doctrine. At the end of the 19th Century and at the beginning of the 20th, Catholic publications based in Rome published a continuous stream of antisemitic articles. However, by mid-century, Pope John XIII and Pope Paul VI moved the Church away from that demagoguery and the result has been impressive. Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and the present Pope Francis have genuinely reached out to the Roman Jewish Community and the response by the Jewish community through the late Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff and the present Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni has been positive in return. The cover of my book testifies to the good feeling among them. And it must be added that even when the Ghetto was in place, Rome’s Chief Rabbi could be a friend to the Pope. In the 1830s, Rabbi Moisè Sabbato Beer was so much a friend of Popes Leo XII and Gregory XVI that his nickname in Rome was “l’amico del papa” “the Pope’s friend.”