“They had not even begun to live”. Just a few words, yet they are gut-wrenching. The epitaph of the Jewish infants who had died before making their first steps. It bears witness to the barbarism that racked the ghetto of Rome on the gloomy October 16, 1943. To remind about it, there is a plaque which goes almost unnoticed, located in front of the Tempio Maggiore, the big synagogue in the Italian capital where on October 16, the local Jewish community, one of the oldest in the world, was supposed to celebrate the Shabbat, the Saturday rest. It should have been one among many others, but it was not. There was war, there had been July 25 and September 8 in a country which five years earlier had greeted Adolf Hitler’s bloody madness and racial laws. And there was persecution which had transformed dozens of unknown places of Eastern Europe and not only in death factories. Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald, who would have known where they are nowadays if millions of people had not known martyrdom in those places? For Italy and Rome it was only a matter of time.
What happened on that horrible Saturday was not a surprise blitz. In the aftermath of the armistice, Herbert Kappler, the lieutenant colonel of the SS in Italy, received an eloquent message from Heinrich Himmler, one of the theoreticians of the “final solution”: “Recent Italian events impose an immediate solution to the Jewish problem in the territories lately occupied by the Reich’s armed forces”. Next September 24, the interior minister made it even clearer: “All Jews, without distinction of nationality, age, sex, and condition, must be transferred to Germany and eliminated. The success of this venture shall be guaranteed by surprise action”. In order to get the most out of a decision which had been already taken, Kappler put an ultimatum to the Jewish community of Rome, represented by the chief Rabbi Ugo Foa: deportations could be avoided only if the community delivered 50 kilos of gold. The collection had been carried out and the swag was shipped to Germany. For the record, there were 3 pounds more than demanded. Kappler advised the head of the central office for Reich’s security, the general Ernst Kaltenbrunner, not to exterminate those people, but to use them as labor force. The answer was indignant: “It is precisely the immediate and complete extirpation of Jews in Italy that is in the special interest of the current political situation and of general security in Italy”. Thereupon: on October 14, Kappler sent a letter to Rudolf Hoess, the head of Auschwitz extermination camp, in which he told him to prepare for the arrival of about one thousand Jews from Italy. On October 16, the horror was perpetrated in the midst of screams, shooting, screams, and broken doors and windows. Vans parked hastily in the ghetto’s square to load hundreds of people treated as beasts.
“I was there” told to Ansa Alberto Sed who at the time was only 14, one of the few survivors among those 1,259 people who were driven away from their homes. First, he made it to escape together with his mother and three sisters, but he was later seized in a warehouse in March 1944. “Only a few people came back from Auschwitz” he says frowning. For years he did not want to remember the experience. The trauma was too big to handle. Then he unblocked and transferred his story first in a book, written by the journalist and an officer of the Italian police, Roberto Riccardi, entitled I Was a Number (edited by Giuntina),and later during hundreds of meetings with schools, youth, prisoners, and common people. Together with 17 other “heroes”, he will receive the honor of “commander” at the Quirinale. A recognition he was not expecting ( “I thought it was a joke when they called”) and which does not cancel the tragedy he lived. “I have never been able to take a new-born in my arms afterwards – he has explained – not even my own children, because in Auschwitz the Nazis forced us to throw babies in the air and amused themselves killing those children, as iff it were shooting to plate. I have never been able to enter a swimming pool, because I saw an Orthodox priest being massacred and drowned by his executioners”. To bear witness to how the Holocaust was the biggest and most tragic part of a horror that involved also other minorities. “The Nazis – he has recalled – killed not only Jews, but also gypsies, partisans, opponents and even Germans because they were handicapped or mentally ill. They knew not what to do with them”. Words that describe how far hatred and aberration can go when man becomes god and the supreme judge who dispenses death.