From the street fighting that heralded the German occupation to the Gestapo repression that followed, Rome – City in Terror: The Nazi Occupation 1943–44 is the gripping story of the German occupation of Rome from the Italian armistice in September 1943 until the Allied liberation of the city on 5 June 1944. In today's blog post, author Victor Failmezger recounts the events that took place on October 16, 1943.
It is October again and I am reminded of the tragic events that took place in Rome 77 years ago. On October 16, 1943 the German rulers of the city rounded up more than 1,000 Jews and sent them to Auschwitz. Shockingly, in light of the total number of Jews and others murdered in Nazi death camps, it is a relatively small number; however, in the Eternal City and the seat of Roman Catholic Christianity it remains a horrific memory.
During the nine-month-long Nazi occupation of Rome (September 1943–June 1944), a period filled with repression, starvation, roundups and murder at the hands of Italy’s one-time allies, the local Gestapo Chief, SS-Obersturmbannführer Herbert Kappler, often turned his attention to Rome’s Jews. Two weeks after the German occupation of Rome, Heinrich Himmler, the Chief of the German SS, directed Kappler to round up Roman Jews for deportation to Auschwitz.
Jews had been living in Rome since before the time of Christ and repression of them had started slowly with the accession of Mussolini to power. In the late 1930s, as Nazi influence grew in Italy, discrimination increased. Jewish children and teachers were banned from public schools; Jews were denied employment and fired from government jobs. Jewish life was centered in the ancient Ghetto of Rome, established in 1555. It faced the Tiber Island in a section of the city that was undesirable due to frequent flooding. The original Ghetto was only about five acres with 3,000 people crowded inside, and the gates were locked at night. By 1943 it was no longer a walled enclave.
In response to Himmler’s directive, Kappler summoned two of Rome’s Jewish leaders to a meeting and 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. By late morning on September 27, the goal was met. At the 1943 US official rate of $35.00 per ounce, the 50 kilos of gold was worth $61,600. Kappler sent the gold to Berlin.
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 that Saturday, the morning of October 16, 1943, the streets in and out of the Ghetto were sealed and the entire area encircled by German troops and police.
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, leaving the Jews locked in the trucks.
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 American atom bomb scientist Enrico Fermi. Shortly after arriving at the Military College, a baby boy was born to a 23-year-old woman, and two elderly people died.
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.
They were transported to the Tiburtina Railway Station. That morning the wife of one of the prisoners, who had been out of the city, learned that her husband and five children were in a boxcar. She raced to the station and ran along the 18 parked train cars, shouting for her family. Recognizing a voice, she stopped and pleaded with the German guards to open the boxcar door and she struggled aboard. Soon after 14:05 the cars began moving. On that train were 1,022 people – 419 men and boys and 603 women and girls – of which 274 were children younger than 15 years old. 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. One young man jumped from the train through an open door as it sped northward.
The journey finally ended at Auschwitz. In the five days since the train left Rome it had stopped multiple times, sometimes for hours, but this felt different. It was dark and in the small hours of the morning and, with the exception of some barking dogs, it was eerily silent. And then there was the smell. Not just the acrid smell of vomit, feces, urine and human sweat that rode with them in the railway boxcar, but another, strange and cloyingly sweet, oily smell flavored with diesel fuel and other unidentified and unpleasant odors that sank heavily to the ground.
Arminio Wachsberger tried to comfort his small, whimpering daughter, who shivered in the intense cold. Speaking German, he was forced to interpret for the Nazis. Along with his wife and daughter, he had been loaded into the last boxcar, where fewer Jews were stuffed inside. This allowed the Wachsberger family the “luxury” of lying down to snatch some fitful sleep during the journey.
At dawn, Dr. Josef Mengele, the notorious Nazi medical experimenter, arrived at the rail siding and made his selection. He divided the Jews into two groups. The first group of 820 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. Wachsberger was only one of 16 who returned to Rome to tell his story.
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, about 10,500 were Jews.
The above was adapted from Victor Failmezger’s Rome – City in Terror: The Nazi Occupation 1943–44, which published on September 17, 2020.