On the night between 15 and 16 October 1943, the Jewish ghetto of Rome (a neighborhood populated by artisans and small traders, behind the Theater of Marcellus) was awakened by the sound of gunshots and detonations, which became increasingly insistent. “The brave approach the windows,” he wrote a year later in the magazine Mercurio Giacomo Debenedetti, one of the greatest literary critics of the twentieth century -. Through the closed shutters you can see on the street, under the fine and slimy rain, between the flashes of rifle fire and the flashes of firecrackers, groups of soldiers shooting in the air and throwing bombs against the pavements. From their helmets you would think they were Germans. Now the “jorbetin” (soldiers) also started screaming and shouting: torn, angry, sarcastic, incomprehensible voices and shouts. What do they want? Who are they angry with? Where are they going? In the houses everyone is now standing. Neighbors come together to gain courage, and vice versa all they can do is scare each other. The children scream. What can you say to children to silence them, when you don’t know what to say to yourself?”.
The roundup is the culmination of an anti-Jewish repression that began immediately after the German occupation of Rome. At the end of September, Major Herbert Kappler, at the time responsible for the detached command of the capital’s Security Police, summoned the president of the Jewish community of Rome, Ugo Foà, to the German embassy and imposed a bounty of 50 kg of gold on him to be delivered within 48 hours, under penalty of deportation of 200 Jews to be rounded up in the ghetto. The community’s guilt is double, explains Kappler: as Italians, for the betrayal of 8 September, and as Jews, because they belong to the race of Germany’s eternal enemies. Faced with the threat, the Israeli community mobilizes and collects the sum requested to avoid deportations.
In reality, the raid on the gold is only the beginning: a few days later the raid on the Community headquarters follows, with the removal of archives, registers and two million in cash; then the search of the libraries of the Rabbinical College, with the removal of incunabula, codes, parchments, rare editions, ancient volumes which were loaded onto two railway carriages headed for Bavaria. When the loot is secured, the deportation begins: at the beginning of October Himmler sends a mobile intervention group to Rome, made up of around a hundred SS men commanded by Theodor Dannecker. They were the ones who went into action on the night of the 15th/16th: they blocked the access roads, broke down the doors of the houses, and snatched Jews of all ages from their homes. Hour by hour, panic spreads in the ghetto: «complaints mixed with shouts come from Via del Portico di Ottavia – Debenedetti writes -. They get everyone, absolutely everyone, worse than you could imagine. In the middle of the street, the rounded-up families pass in a slightly disjointed single file: resignation is imprinted on their faces, even stronger than their suffering.” An SS man at the head and one at the rear guard the column and push it forward with the butts of their machine guns.
The roundup lasts until the early afternoon of the 16th and the place of concentration of the victims is an excavation area near the Theatre: there the military trucks arrive, which shuttle to the Lungara College, transformed into a prison: «from the trucks comes lower the right side and start loading. The sick, the disabled, the reluctant are stimulated with insults and pushes. The children, torn from the arms of their mothers and grandmothers, undergo the processing of parcels when the van is being prepared in the post offices. And the trucks leave again.” The “loot” is high: 1259 Jews (including 207 children), the vast majority captured in the ghetto, some in other Roman districts.
The victims are Italian; the rakes are German; there are non-Jewish Italians who help as they can, hiding someone in the nearby accommodation. But the men who provided the information are also Italian, the people in charge of the Police Headquarters who gave the lists are also Italian, the black shirts who directed the raiders along the streets of the ghetto are also Italian. «Among one group and another of rounded-up Jews, with the surly frown of inspectors and the satisfied air of a festival day, some republican fascists can be seen circulating». It is the nascent fascism of Salò, where the anti-Jewish policy will lead to the leadership of the General Inspectorate for Race Giovanni Preziosi, one of the most livid, fanatical and disturbing figures of fascist anti-Semitism, and where many republican militia will be active accomplices of the deportations.
For two days at the Lungara College, identifications are carried out and around 200 prisoners are released because they were identified as non-Jews or children of mixed marriages, but for the remaining 1,022 the fate is sealed. At dawn on October 18, they were all taken to the Rome Tiburtina station, piled onto cattle cars and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. According to the documents kept in the Auschwitz Museum archive, only 149 men and 47 women passed the selection and entered the camp, because in those days a typhus epidemic was raging and the introduction of new prisoners would increase the risk of contagion. Only seventeen survive the prohibitive conditions of the camp: the last survivor, Lello Di Segni, died in 2018.