Miguel Gotor — Interview with Barbara Faedda; Holocaust Remembrance Day 2024
Europe and the United Nations remember the victims of the Shoah each winter on the anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation in 1945, and the Italian Academy marks Holocaust Remembrance Day annually with an exploration of issues of antisemitism, discrimination and crimes against humanity. Throughout the years, the Academy has broadened its focus to also explore groups that were targeted in the racism and xenophobia of the Nazi and Fascist regimes, and who were persecuted and killed in addition to the six million Jews. Of particular concern recently is the wave of antisemitism, historical denialism, and disinformation, and the manipulating of social media to promote neo-Nazi and neo-Fascist ideas.
This month Barbara Faedda, Executive Director of the Italian Academy, had an interview on Rome’s Jewish culture and history with Miguel Gotor, Rome’s city councilor for culture and a professor of history at the University of Rome Tor Vergata.
Barbara Faedda: Many scholars believe that the presence of Jews in Rome dates to the 2nd century BCE, so we can say without a shadow of a doubt that Jewish culture is a fundamental part of the city’s history. In this regard, how did you conceive of your work as Councilor in relation to your skills as a historian and an educator?
Miguel Gotor: As a historian and university professor, I asked myself—when I took on the role of Councilor for Culture in October 2021, in the Council led by Mayor Roberto Gualtieri—how can I tell our fellow citizens about the Shoah, safeguarding it against the risks of trivialization, relativization, and dehistoricization. The direct witnesses, the people who can recount with strength and courage that “I was there,” are gradually dying out. The challenge of understanding and transmitting this tragic event of our recent past is increasingly difficult, but this is precisely why it is compelling and certainly necessary. For this reason, from the beginning, I considered it crucial to be in a dialogue with and collaborate with the Jewish Community of Rome and with the cultural institutions of the Jewish world, first and foremost the Shoah Museum Foundation, which has been entrusted with the task of building the Museum project, to be located in the area of Villa Torlonia on Via Nomentana (Benito Mussolini’s home). In just over two years in office, I have had many opportunities to discuss these and other realities, and have jointly designed many activities to spread awareness of the history of the Roman Jews and the tragic events to which they were subjected.
BF: In 2010, as part of our yearly Holocaust Remembrance Day series, we invited historian Kenneth Stow, a leading authority on the history of Italian Jews, to speak about Rome’s Ghetto. Now I ask you, as a scholar and as an administrator: what is your view of this unique and profoundly significant place in the city of Rome?
MG: I don’t think that there is any place in Rome that has as strong an identity as the Jewish Ghetto. On the other hand, what explains the peculiarities of this neighborhood is how it was formed. In 1555, Pope Paul IV (Carafa), with his bull titled Cum nimis absurdum, established ghettos in the Papal States. From that year until 1870, Roman Jews were required to reside exclusively in the neighborhood assigned to them and to organize their lives within an area that was circumscribed and closed off to and from the outside. As a result, they had to confine their behavior, work, and socializing to a very limited territorial area, but they still managed to keep their roots and customs firmly in place, until 1870, when the gates were demolished and the rigid limitations imposed by the Papal States were relaxed. To this day, one can still feel and appreciate the community’s sense of belonging, thanks to which the classic aspects of Roman Jewish culture are kept alive (for example, its culinary traditions). I feel this quite often, because my department headquarters happens to sit close by there.
BF: Liliana Segre once said that no one ever really leaves Auschwitz, that it is impossible to get out. Every year the Municipality of Rome organizes a visit by Roman students to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in Poland as part of the Journey of Remembrance. Can you describe how this is experienced by the students—how they are prepared, and how they react once they are on site? Do you see them struggling with awareness and understanding the tragedy—in these generations that are increasingly distant in time from these events?
MG: In 2023, I accompanied some Roman high school classes to Auschwitz-Birkenau, along with Mayor Gualtieri, in the Journey of Remembrance organized by the Municipality of Rome. It was a powerful and very absorbing experience, for all, including—I think—for the young people, precisely because they were far removed in time from those events: they were shocked by the sense of atrocity and abomination those places still transmit. The power of this initiative, which is repeated every year, lies in the involvement—when possible—of survivors of the Shoah, who are the most invaluable witnesses of that history. In 2023, we were accompanied by Tatiana Bucci and Sami Modiano, who were in Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, when the Soviet soldiers of the Red Army arrived to liberate the camp, and who returned to those places once again, with enormous courage, to tell us their stories. I believe that it is imperative to continue with this project—which will be repeated this year—precisely to offer the young people a concrete account, made even more dramatic by the presence of direct witnesses, of the horror of Nazi extermination. We think that these journeys of remembrance designed for schools are also an important experience to counter phenomena of intolerance and racism today and to promote the building of a community based on democratic participation, critical thinking, and the sharing of rights while respecting others. Today more than ever, in a time when hatred, prejudice, racism, extremism, antisemitism, xenophobia, indifference, and the will to power continue to challenge the conscience of individuals and peoples, the remembrance of the Shoah must stand as a perennial reminder entrusted to new witnesses, such as the boys and girls who participate in the Journeys of Remembrance every year.
BF: The roundup of Jews in Rome on October 16, 1943, is one of the saddest and darkest days in the history of Rome and Italy. Of the 1,259 people forcibly taken from their homes, most were deported to Auschwitz. Only 16 survived. After 80 years, what remains of that horror and how does Rome deal with that memory now?
MG: At dawn on October 16, 1943, more than a thousand Roman Jews—men and women of all ages—were seized, house by house, by a special SS squad led by the Nazi Theodor Dannecker, who had come from Berlin to definitively resolve the Jewish question in the capital, which was to be accomplished by arresting all the Jews residing in the city and deporting them to concentration camps. The captured Jews were detained for two days at the Military College in Via della Lungara and on October 18 were loaded onto a freight train, which took them from Tiburtina Station to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. At the end of the war, only 16 of that convoy returned. Rome has never forgotten that day, which represented one of the most painful wounds in its millennia-old history. That terrible day is commemorated every year with a march organized by the city of Rome together with the Jewish Community and the Community of St. Egidio, a Catholic organization that operates in Italy and around the world. But in 2023, when the 80th anniversary of the roundup was observed, our administration, thanks to extraordinary funding passed by the Italian Parliament in the latest budget law, wanted to build a more extensive program of initiatives, with the specific intent of safeguarding, deepening, and transmitting to new generations the memory of the darkest period of Italian and European history. The cultural events that we designed to commemorate the roundup of the Roman Jews aimed to engage a diverse audience, of all ages, through widespread and participatory activities: conferences, urban walks, screenings, gatherings, performances, and exhibitions, as well as the journeys of remembrance themselves. I would like to mention in particular the exhibition, hosted in the halls of the Capitoline Museums, whose title, “The Drowned, October 16, 1943,” echoes Primo Levi’s book The Drowned and the Saved, published in 1986. The exhibition is built chiefly from photographs, documents, and everyday objects that were left behind in the hastily-abandoned homes on the morning of October 16 and were later recovered; with these, it recounts the daily life of some of the families who did not return from the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The subjects of the exhibition lived in various districts of the city, because many Jewish families moved to other neighborhoods after the opening of the Ghetto in 1870—after being so long confined to a bounded sector of the historic center of Rome. They were taken from those new neighborhoods with the same methods and timing as those residing in the Ghetto. The children’s items are particularly poignant: the school smocks, homework notebooks, and pencil cases that belonged to the children who were taken from their homes on October 16 and went to their deaths at Auschwitz.
BF: In addition to the Ghetto, what are other places of Jewish culture in Rome that are particularly representative and important? In talking about the artistic and cultural contribution of the Jewish Community of Rome, what are the elements that immediately come to mind?
MG: The leading testaments to the Jewish Community of Rome are in the Ghetto, where Roman Jews resided for more than three hundred years (in the Ghetto is the 1904 Synagogue, the largest in Europe), but before the year 1555 most Jewish homes were concentrated in Trastevere, an ancient district on the right bank of the Tiber River. From some Latin inscriptions we can piece together the presence of one or more synagogues in Rome, but—so far—no structures attributable to them have been identified. The Synagogue of Ostia, the ancient port of Rome at the mouth of the Tiber River, is known and can be visited.
Interesting insight into the life and customs of the Roman Jews can be found in the funerary inscriptions in the Jewish catacombs of Vigna Randanini, on the Appian Way. From the 4th or 5th century, Jews were allowed to be buried in a cemetery near the Porta Portese (the ancient gate in the Aurelian walls); from 1645 onward, Roman Jews were buried in an area on the slopes of the Aventine Hill (one of the Rome’s seven hills). In 1934, a Jewish burial ground was created within the larger cemetery of Verano. Today’s Municipal Rose Garden, inaugurated in 1950, was built next to the Jewish cemetery of the Aventine; in memory of the ancient funerary use—in memory of the many Jews buried in that place—the paths around the rose beds are laid out in the form of a Menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum that is a symbol of Judaism.
Since you asked about Rome’s artworks marking Jewish history, I would point to a sculpture that does not directly concern Roman Jews: it is a powerful image in the Forum. This relief, preserved in the fornix of Emperor Titus’s arch commemorating the capture of Jerusalem in 70 CE, shows a group of soldiers as they plunder the Menorah as spoils of war.
BF: What initiatives does the city of Rome promote around Holocaust Remembrance Day? How do you think that over the years and generations this anniversary can remain a current and effective tool for transmitting memory and historical awareness?
MG: For Holocaust Remembrance Day, established in Italy in 2000, the date of January 27 was chosen since on that day in 1945 the gates of Auschwitz were opened. Since 2005, it has become an international civil holiday, recognized by the United Nations. On that date, the extermination of the Jews—and of the Sinti, the Roma, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, soldiers, and political opponents from all over Europe—is commemorated with ceremonies, gatherings, and events aimed in particular (but not only) at schools and young people. This is not a simple observance but a reminder of how important it is to study what happened in the past. Remembering, listening, knowing, and reasoning are valuable tools to be used to activate our antibodies against intolerance and barbarism and to challenge the temptation to forget, ensuring that what happened will never happen again. Every year, on the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Rome organizes the initiative “Memory Generates the Future,” consisting of a large number of events that, for about a week, commemorate the facts and the horror of the Shoah and its victims. This initiative is also an opportunity to remember the resistance, the struggle, and the courage of those who dedicated their lives to bearing witness to the tragic events of this shameful page in the history of the 20th century and to sensitize younger generations, and others, to memory and solidarity. The extensive program being developed for 2024, in view of January 27, will include exhibitions, gatherings, book presentations, events for schools, film screenings, concerts and other performances—spread across different spaces of the city and organized in collaboration with city institutions and with national, Roman, and neighborhood associations, as well as, of course, the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities, the Jewish Community of Rome, and the Shoah Museum Foundation.
BF: The role of the younger generations in combating racism, antisemitism, and discrimination is crucial. Regarding Holocaust Remembrance Day 2024, do you have a particular message for young people—in the US and Italy, and throughout the world?
MG: The fire of antisemitism continues to burn in Italy and across the whole world. Despite a policy of remembrance adopted by many institutions, which has clearly borne fruit, we still have to face some persistent facts and ask ourselves why antisemitism has not disappeared, where today’s antisemitism comes from, and what characterizes it: is it the link with anti-Zionism, or the link with racism and neo-Nazism? Today’s antisemitism is not a phenomenon that belongs to the past but something that belongs to the present, to the time we are living in. In recent decades, a united Europe has developed a policy of remembrance and identity based on the Shoah. The memory of European unification and its very identity are based on the rejection of Nazism, Fascism, racism, antisemitism, and any form of hostility toward Jews in Italy and Europe. All the countries that suffered the Nazi occupation and consequently, the Shoah, have a link with antisemitism that is still strongly conditioned by that history: particularly Italy, which under the Fascist dictatorship in 1938 became the subject of shameful racial and racist laws. I am convinced that we must all together continue to boost this challenge in schools, among families, in the academic community, but also in the cultural world more broadly, beyond the institutional rituals of the days of remembrance and around public commemorations and special anniversaries.
I would like to conclude by recalling the words Primo Levi wrote for the Italian pavilion at Auschwitz: “Visitor, look at the remains of this camp and think: no matter where you are from, you are not a stranger. Make sure that your journey was not in vain, that our deaths were not vain. Let the ashes of Auschwitz be a warning: make sure that the hideous fruit of hatred, whose traces you have seen here, doesn’t produce a new seed, not tomorrow, not ever.”
—Translated by Samuel Fleck