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October 16, 1943
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Until a few weeks ago, on Friday evenings, at the appearance of the first star, the great doors of the synagogue, those facing the Temple Square, would be opened wide. Why the great doors, instead of the less conspicuous entry at the side, as on all other nights? Why, instead of the narrow seven-branched candlesticks, so many blazing lights, which drew flames from all that was gold, radiance from plaster carvings—stars of David, Solomon knots, and Jubilee trumpets—and lustrous flashes from the brocaded curtain hung before the holy Ark, the ark of the Covenant with the Lord? Because every Friday evening at the appearance of the first star, the return of the Sabbath was celebrated.
Not the thin psalmody of the cantor, lost at the distant altar, but from the choir stall above, amid the resounding praises of the organ, the chorus of young voices raised high in a song of holy love; the old kabbalists' hymn, Lekhah dodi, likrat Kallah, "Come, my beloved, come to meet the Sabbath." It was the mystical invitation to greet the approaching Sabbath, the Sabbath that arrives like a bride.
But it was a disheveled, dirty woman dressed all in black, who arrived in the old Roman ghetto that Friday evening, the 15th of October. Drenched in rain, she can hardly speak, agitation chokes back her words, spittle forms at her mouth. She has run all the way from Trastevere. Just a while ago, at the home of a woman for whom she cleans half days, she'd met a woman, a carabiniere's wife, who told her that the carabiniere had run into a German,and that the German had a list of two hundred Jewish heads of households, who, with their entire families, were going to be deported.
The Jews of the Regola quarter were still in the habit of going to sleep early. Shortly after dark they were all in their homes. Perhaps the memory of an ancient curfew is still in their blood; from the time, when at the first fall of shadow, the gates of the ghetto screeched shut with an inviolable monotony that routine had perhaps rendered gentle and familiar to them, a reminder that night was not a time for Jews; that at night they were in danger of being seized, taxed, fined, imprisoned, beaten. Thus, those Jews accused of plotting in the shadows against world peace and security have in reality for ages been diurnal creatures. From early morning, just after the barest gleam of light, thick and gray as their houses, begins to rise up to the cornices, and like a can opener inserts its spiral corkscrew down into the alleys below, you'll find all these Jews out on the street shouting, calling out each other's names, agreeing, arguing, discussing, setting up trades and deals, carrying on at great length despite the fact that their discussions and transactions may have no great urgency. But these Jews love life; and their need for it, which night denies them, bursts through.
On that evening as well, families were already gathered in their homes. Mothers were lighting candles in Sabbath candlesticks—not the best ones, which had been hidden since the first German plundering—while old men with tephila prayer books in their laps were reciting the blessings and alternating between mumbling prayers and hoarse and angry tirades against their noisy grandchildren. So the disheveled woman had no difficulty assembling a large group of Jews to warn of the danger.
But no one would believe it. They all laughed at the idea. Even though she lives in Trastevere, Celeste has relatives here, in the Ghetto, and is well known to the entire Kehila. Everyone knows she's a gossipmonger, a hysteric, crazy. It's enough to see her gesticulate as she talks, with her wild eyes and that bird's nest hair. And besides, it's a fact that everyone in her family is a little touched. Who doesn't know her oldest son, the one who's twenty-four, thin, hairy, dark and weird, who looks like a haham manqué, and who they even say has epilepsy? How can anyone pay attention to Celeste?
"You have to believe me. Get away, I'm telling you," the woman pleaded. "I swear it's the truth, on my children's heads."
The truth? Who knows what anyone might have said to her? Who knows what she understood? Their laughter, their disbelief, infuriates her. She begins to lose her temper, to use foul language—it's as if she, not the Germans, is their primary threat, and now she feels insulted at not being treated seriously. If she knew how to do it, she would carry on even more, to avenge herself and to finally instill some fear. She shouts, implores, her eyes fill with tears, she sets her hands on the heads of little ones as if she is there to protect them.
"You'll be sorry. If I were a fancy lady, you would believe me! But because I don't have a penny, because I'm wearing these rags ..." and in pulling at her clothes in fury, she tears them all the more.
By now thirteen months have passed, and many who witnessed that evening are inclined to acknowledge that perhaps, if Celeste had been a lady, and not the poor wretch that she is.... Nevertheless on that evening, they returned home, resumed sitting around their tables, eating their dinner and discussing her senseless story. It was clear what had likely gone through the madwoman's head. About three weeks earlier, Major Kappler had threatened Commander Foa, president of the Jewish community, and Doctor Almansi, head of the Union, with the taking of 200 Jewish hostages. The numbers were the same, which explained her confusion. Poor people always learn things after everyone else and always indirectly, but the little that they do get to know, they always believe to be pure gold. By now, the threat of the 200 hostages had been averted. The Germans may be rashanim, but they are men of honor.
Contrary to general opinion, Jews are not distrustful by nature. Or to put it more clearly, they are distrustful in the same degree that they are perceptive about small matters, but credulous and disastrously ingenuous when it comes to large ones. In regard to the Germans, they were ingenuous, almost ostentatiously so. There are several possible reasons for this. Convinced by centuries of experience that it is their fate to be treated like dogs, Jews have a desperate need for human sympathy; and to solicit it, they offer it. To trust people, to rely on them, to believe in their promises, is precisely such a proof of sympathy. Will they behave this way with the Germans? Yes, unfortunately. With the Germans there would also come into play the classic Jewish attitude toward authority. Even before the first fall of Jerusalem, authority has exercised absolute, arbitrary, and inscrutable power of life and death over Jews. This has operated in such a way that both in their conscious and unconscious minds authority has assumed the form of an exclusive, jealous, and omnipotent God. To distrust His promises, whether good or bad, is to fall into sin for which sooner or later one will have to pay, even if that sin remains unexpressed, and is only an intention, or a mumbled complaint. And finally, the fundamental idea of Judaism is justice. The mission of the Jews was to bring this idea to Eastern civilization. Renan makes this expressly the theme of his interpretation of the entire history of Israel, including the great eschatological statements, including the Messianic wait, and the promise that on that Day of the Lord, tomorrow or who knows when, He will light His dawn at the height of the millennia precisely to bring back the reign of justice upon this earth.
For these reasons, Rome's Jews had a certain kind of faith in the Germans, even—we should say particularly—after all that happened on September 26. They felt as if they had been inoculated against further persecutions. Any such would have been an injustice, and their natures would not allow them to believe in that possibility. To show fear would have meant to antagonize the Germans—to reveal their antipathy to them. And finally it would have been a sin against Authority. So, on that evening, the Jews laughed at crazy Celeste's message.
(We beg forgiveness for this digression, and for any others in which we might indulge, but in order to understand the full horror of the drama which we seek to reconstruct, it is necessary to know the people involved a little better.)
In fact, on the evening of the 26th of September, 1943, the presidents of the Roman Jewish community and of the Union of the Italian Communities had been summoned—through Doctor Cappa, a police official—to a 6 P.M. meeting at the German Embassy. They were received with frightening courtesy and "politesse" by SS Major Herbert Kappler, who made them comfortable and spoke to them for a few minutes about this and that in conversational tones. Then he went to the heart of the matter. Roman Jews were doubly guilty, as Italians (but less than two months later a German-Fascist decree, sponsored by Rahn, Mussolini, and Pavolini, will no longer recognize Italian Jews as citizens of Italy, and what then Major Kappler?), for their betrayal of Germany, and as Jews because they belong to a race eternally inimical to Germany. Therefore, the government of the Reich was levying a tribute of 50 kilograms of gold, to be produced before 11 A.M. of the following Tuesday, the 28th. Nonfulfillment would result in the roundup and deportation to Germany of two hundred Jews. Essentially, a little less than a day and a half to find 50 kilograms of gold.
Responding to the difficulties which the two Jewish representatives pointed out in opposition to the plan, the Major countered with a concession; he would furnish motor vehicles and men for searching out the gold. The two Herren would not accept? That's all right. It's as if it were never said. But in the same generous vein, he would extend the time for an additional hour. They asked him what the value of gold was in lire. Kappler understood the implications. "The German Reich," he answered, "has no need of lire. And if ever it should need them," he smiled, "it can always print them." Then he considered it appropriate to complete his presentation by announcing that in dealing with him there was no possibility for recalcitrance. Otherwise, he would take personal responsibility for the roundup. He had done so in several similar circumstances and had always succeeded very well at that type of operation. With which remark the subject appeared to be closed and the meeting was concluded.
Italian police headquarters, which was immediately informed of the exaction, did not respond. There were repeated messages, visits, telephone calls. Silence, to use a cruel allusion, was more than ever golden. So the same evening and the next morning the most influential members of the community, along with those known to be discreet, adept in business, and well-to-do, were gathered together. Disconsolate and distressed, they discussed the thing and declared it not doable. But the most forceful of them prevailed, and the collection of gold began. Word had already run through the Jewish community. Nevertheless, the offerings came very slowly at first, with a kind of uncertainty. It was during this period that the Vatican announced officially that it was putting 15 kilograms of gold at the disposition of the Jewish community to make up any eventual shortfall.
Meanwhile things had begun to improve. By then, all of Rome had learned of the German outrage and had been moved by it. Warily, as if fearing a refusal, as if intimidated to be coming to offer gold to the wealthy Jews, several "Aryans" appeared. They entered the room adjacent to the synagogue uncertainly, not knowing whether they ought to remove their hats or keep their heads covered as, all of them knew, Jewish ritual required. Almost humbly, they asked if they too could ... if it would be acceptable.... Unfortunately, they did not leave their names. One would have liked to have a record of them for those moments when we lose faith in our fellow beings. Which brings to mind a fitting phrase that George Eliot used, "The milk of human kindness."
The collection station was set up in one of the Jewish community offices. The police, whose deaf ear finally began hearing, assigned men to keep order and stand guard. The flow, in fact, had begun to be remarkable. At the table sat a trusted member of the community. Next to him, a goldsmith assayed the offerings, and another weighed them. At the very first, word had been sent out that cash contributions were not acceptable. This would have slowed the flow of metal. Gold objects often represent cherished memories, which tend to become even more memorable, and more cherished, at the moment of parting from them. Moreover, during periods of war and disasters, gold has proved itself the best and most portable asset for dire emergencies. Cash, on the other hand, would have come in plentifully and quickly. It would, however, have created a problem, not least, the risk of locating that much gold on the black market. But the metal already was beginning to pile up, and so many people had come offering gold for sale, that they even began to accept cash and to buy gold on the basis of varying prices. The woman at the newsstand on the Ponte Garibaldi helped greatly with these purchases.
By 11 A.M. Tuesday morning the full amount had been gathered, with even a surplus of more than two million in cash, which was put aside in the community safe. The collection room was closed and locked. Outside the door, along with police agents, sat the goldsmiths and several community representatives. A cultured and witty German opera-lover might perhaps have joked about these Fafners guarding their treasure. Instead, as their wives had brought these good people food, far from vomiting flames, they ate their meal in peace. Their consciences were clear. There had been moments of anxiety, feverish clock-watching, but all things considered, their work had gone well.
A call was put in to the German ambassador in order to obtain an extension of a few hours. It was a precaution in view of the prompt attainment of their goal, to forestall any increase in the demand. The blessed naiveté of the shrewd! As if the Germans wouldn't have had spies. Nevertheless, they obtained an extension until 6 P.M., at which hour three automobiles set off from Lungotevere Sanzio with the gold, the two presidents, the two goldsmiths, and a police escort, again led by Doctor Cappa, in the direction of Villa Wolkonski.
Let alone sink to the formality of receiving them and of "collecting" all that gold, Kappler didn't even deign to appear. He had a secretary tell them in the antechamber that the ransom would have to be deposited on via Tasso. This is perhaps the first appearance of via Tasso in the criminally black chronicle of the German occupation. The convoy leaves via Wolkonski, turns the corner, and reaches the infamous street.
On via Tasso the Jews found themselves before a certain Captain Schultz, certainly one far more cruel than the Schultz of our old Latin grammars. The man was assisted by a goldsmith and a weigher, both German. The gold had been packed into ten of those cardboard containers, the size of large file boxes used in offices to store correspondence. To repeat, there were ten—and each contained five kilograms of metal. To weigh and examine them must have been the easiest thing in the world to do.
But 8 P.M. came and went and neither the presidents nor the goldsmiths had yet returned to their residences. The tick-tock of the clocks in the silence of those homes were to their families like the gnawing of anxiety, measuring out minute by minute ever more grievous conjectures. An absurd trilling of the telephone. But the men weren't calling. Their friends were, those who had worked most assiduously with them to collect the gold, and who now hung up their phones with words meant to sound confident, and yet sounded mournful.
Finally the four men returned, filled with that mixture of relief and exhaustion that completely takes over one's being after an enormous strain. The feeling was a little like that of someone who returns from having accompanied a loved one to the cemetery along a long road in inclement weather, when one was already exhausted by bedside vigils and anxiety. You eat something, throw yourself in bed, try not to think of it any more.
Excerpted from OCTOBER 16, 1943 EIGHT JEWS by Giacomo Debenedetti. Copyright © 2001 by University of Notre Dame. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.