The Jews of Rome have been part of the Roman Empire since its founding. In their very public synagogues, stone epitaphs, and marble sarcophagi, Roman Jews have refused to hide in plain sight or assimilate. Instead, throughout the Eternal City’s history, the Jews of Rome have openly celebrated and shared their culture and traditions while expressing their refusal to be marginalized or forgotten—and in doing so, by sharing their heritage, they have contributed to the fabric and history of Rome.

The current Jewish community supports and promotes both the Jewish Museum of Rome and the Historical Archive of the Jewish Community of Rome’s (ASCER) mission of historical preservation and education. Their museum educators and archival scholars offer specific insights into the Roman Jewish culture, religion and traditions which others not from the community will less easily be able to provide.

Whether you’re in town visiting for the first time or a local looking to learn something new about a community that pre-dates Christianity, the possibilities are endless with the interactive activities and unique experiences from Italian Roman Jews who not only educate you about their history but share with you authentic religious and cultural Roman Jewish life from their great-grandparents, their grandparents, their parents, and their own generation as Roman Jews.

The Jewish quarter in Rome is located between the foot of the Capitol hill and banks of the Tiber River, an area of great importance, as evidenced by a wall placque in Via Portica d’ Ottavia that commemorates “qui ebbe inizio la spietata caccia agli ebrei”: this is where the merciless hunting down of the Jews began.

The silent response of Pope Pius XII during the deportation of the Jews of Rome on October 16, 1943, is universally known. However, how does a non- Jewish tour guide authentically and genuinely relate this personally?

The Jewish Museum of Rome and the Historical Archive (ASCER) has been addressing anti-Semitism through education from Jewish guides and scholars. This educational effort focuses on ensuring that learners are equipped with relevant knowledge, skills and competencies. Special consideration is given in particular to the many non-Jewish grade school through high school children who visit. Guided tours through the museum and the Jewish quarter empowers younger visitors to comprehend and appreciate differences, that contributes to recognize a culture of human rights and to resist stereotypes and most importantly, misconceptions—possibly leading to discrimination and violence against Jews.

The quarter is often referred to as the Jewish ghetto came into existence because of a papal bull of 1555. Within days, all the city’s Jews were crammed into the medieval section bordered by the Ponte Quattro Capi, the portico d’Ottavia, the Piazza Giudia and the river, a roughly seven-acre area with 130 houses.

A copy of the document is on display in Room 2 in the Jewish Museum that summarizes the following rules concerning the primacy of the Christians:

  • All Jews had to live only in one quarter to which there was only one entrance and one exit, and be thoroughly separated from the Christian residences.
  • In each and every state, territory and domain where the Jews were living, they could have only one synagogue.
  • They had to be recognizable everywhere they went wearing something yellow in color- men usually a hat and women some other evident sign such as a shawl/scarf.
  • They could not have nurses or maids or any other Christian domestic help.
  • They could not work or have work done on Sundays.
  • They could not incriminate Christians in any way.
  • They could not in any way fraternize with Christians.
  • In account books detailing their interaction with Christians, they were restricted to using Latin or Italian terms exclusively.
  • They were limited to the trade of rag-picking and could not trade in grain, barley or any other commodity essential to human welfare.
  • Jewish physicians could not take care of Christians.

For three centuries a walled/gated ghetto separated the city’s Jews from the rest of the Christian population. In Room 2, there is a map of the former ghetto showing two main streets running parallel to the Tiber, several small streets, and alleys. Inside the ghetto the population was stratified: out of approximately 3,000 inhabitants, about 200 were the wealthy families, often descendants of the Jews that arrived from Spain, and lived in Via Rua, while the poorest lived in Via della Fiumare.

The ghetto space was overpopulated, and extraordinarily measures had followed population growth. To get a better perspective of the living conditions, museum educators refer to a digital display table in room 2 that shows how the Jews built upwards; one floor above the other with additional row houses with annex constructions protruding in every which way.

Life in the Roman Ghetto was one of devastating poverty, due to the severe restrictions placed upon the occupations that Jews were allowed to perform. Roman Jews were allowed to work only at unskilled jobs, such as in the shmatte business (clothing, but literally rags). Jewish women were particularly skilled in sewing and known for style and stich that is known as “Roman Jewish”.

One of the most important textile heritages in Rome can be found in room one in the museum. This room houses a precious collection of approximately 900 liturgical woven fabrics, but also embroidery, lace dress and furnishings. They are available to scholars wishing to examine them and are of extreme importance for their historical and art-historical value.

The right of the Jews of Rome to work outside the ghetto was always controlled by the papacy. The process of emancipation was slow and besieged with many difficulties. Jews found themselves facing great economic hardship, and many were extremely poor. These restrictions lasted officially until 1849 when Pope Pius IX abolished the ghetto. However, it was not enforced until 200 Jewish soldiers under the command of two Jewish Officers, Captain Giocomo Segre and Lt. Riccardo Mortara, opened the breach in the ancient walls of the ancient city near Porta Pia at dawn on September 20, 1870.

Giorgia Caló and Francesco Leone produced a detailed and beautifully illustrated catalog “1849-1871. The Jews of Rome between Segregation and Emancipation” in both Italian and English. This work demonstrates how the Jews not only became a significant part, but also assisted in the co-founding the Italian nation! During the first World War (1915-1918), the process of emancipation during which the Jews gained true freedom and rights as Roman citizens, allowed them to fight side by side with their fellow Italian citizens assembled in Rome. Museum educators point out how Italy’s declaration of war and the call to arms represented an opportunity to finally legitimize Jewish integration within Italian society. There were 5,000 Jewish soldiers, half of them being officers, which required them to have a higher education degree or diploma. This demonstrates how Jewish communities were better educated than others throughout Italy. However, it is important to note that the Roman Jewish situation differed significantly: three generations of ghetto life and their late abolition made their Jewish integration different. At the onset of the first World War, many of the Roman Jews were working in small businesses, and their level of education was inferior to other Italian Jews.

Starting around 1922, with the rise of fascism, it was not until the end of 1935 and the beginning of 1936 when Mussolini began to adopt an anti-Jewish policy. The real turning point of persecution and racism against Jews occurred in 1936 during the meeting of the members of the Grand Council of Fascism. It was not until September and November of 1938 when the Italian anti-Jewish measures were issued and countersigned by Victor Emanuel III of Savoy.

Continuing in room 6, where an oil canvas is displayed portraying Ugo Foà, in a judge’s cap and gown, after being appointed public prosecutor to the Rome Court of Appeal in 1934. Following the issue of the racial laws, Foà was removed from his position. From 1941 to 1944, he served as the leader of the Jewish community in Rome.

On September 25th, Herbert Kappler, the chief of police of the German occupation, summoned the President of the Jewish Community of Rome. Ugo Foà, and the President of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, Dante Almansi, requiring them to come up with 50 kilos (110 lbs) of gold within 36 hours. If unable to meet his demand, 200 members of the community were to be deported. When it came to saving Jewish lives, that is, human lives, after a desperate search and exhaustive collection, in which also non-Jewish citizens participated. The Jewish community and its presidents were able to deliver 50 kilos of gold to Kappler. In the end, Kappler did not honor his word and ordered the Final Solution and on the 16th of October the German Raid of the Ghetto took place. Jews were arrested and taken to a Military College located just down the street from the Apostolic palace in the Vatican, as Pope Pius XII remained silent. On October 18, 1022, Roman Jews were transferred to Tiburtina train station, crammed into freight trains towards Auschwitz-Birkenau. Only 16 survived: 15 men and 1 woman. The one-woman survivor tells her personal experience in the documentary in Room six of the museum.

The Jews of Rome have shared their history with emperors, kings and popes, yet their history is less known to both local and international visitors.

It is insiders from the community who can share their thriving culture, religion, and genuine perspectives of what it is like being a Roman Jew, Europe’s oldest Jewish community in the world.

Whether you have a day or a week in Rome, a guided visit through the Jewish Quarter (former Ghetto) with a member from the community is authentic and genuine. They are members from the community who tell you the history of their people—the Jews of Rome.