The Gold of Rome: an Incredible Story from the Nazi Occupation

Photo of the Ghetto's liquidation during the Nazi occupation

Italians are well-versed in the wartime story of the Gold of Rome. The events that befell Rome’s Jewish community during the Nazi occupation of Rome were immortalised in Carlo Lizzani’s eponymous feature-length film. Few outside Italy are familiar with the story of the Gold of Rome, and the impossible ultimatum the Nazis gave the Rome’s Jews before raiding the Jewish Ghetto in October 1943.

Background to the Gold of Rome

The Allied bombing of Rome on July 19 marked a crucial turning point in Italy’s involvement in the Second World War. With the razing of the capital, popular support waned among the Italian people. Benito Mussolini, his reputation in tatters, was arrested and replaced as leader by king Victor Emmanuel III. The new Italian government entered into secret negotiations to agree to an armistice with the Allies. But the Germans soon got wind of their plans to switch sides. For Rome’s 12,000 Jews, the consequences would be catastrophic.

After signing the armistice at the beginning of September, Italy was plunged into chaos. Confusion reigned over the government and military as they awaited the arrival of the Allies from Sicily. The Nazis seized the opportunity to strike.

On September 10, German assaulted Rome’s Porta San Paolo between the modern districts of Testaccio and Ostiense. They met with determined yet meagre resistance from the city’s beleaguered fighters, and in the ensuing battle, 597 Italian men and women were killed in defence of their capital.

The Nazi occupation of Rome

Darkness descended over Italy in the late summer months of 1943. For the next nine months, the Nazi occupation of Rome would bring hunger, deprivation, and persecution for some, resistance, torture and execution for others.

Yet for Rome’s Jewish population, the darkest days were still to come. Entrusted with maintaining order during the Nazi occupation was Herbert Kappler, SS Lieutenant Colonel Commander of the Gestapo in Rome. Kappler established his headquarters not far from the Church of Saint John in Lateran on the Via Tasso. Since transformed into the Historical Museum of the Liberation, this innocuous-looking building instilled terror among Rome’s population. Anybody the Nazi occupiers deemed a threat would be arrested and taken inside, and few would ever resurface.

From his base in Via Tasso, the morally bankrupt Herbert Kappler ruthlessly exploited his power over Rome’s Jewish population. He immediately got to work registering the city’s Jews – some 12,000 at this time – in the wake of the Nazi occupation. Now, with the Final Solution looming, he would set about extracting their wealth too.

Kappler’s ultimatum

Photograph of Herbert Kappler, one of the protagonists of the Gold of Rome saga
Photograph of Herbert Kappler, one of the protagonists of the Gold of Rome saga

On the morning of September 26, Kappler summoned the President of Rome’s Jewish Community, Ugo Foà, and the President of the Jewish-Italian Community, Dante Almansi, to his headquarters. After an uncharacteristically cordial greeting, Kappler informed them that the Germans considered the Jews “the greatest enemy they were fighting” and that while the Germans had no need for their lives, nor those of their children, they did however have need of their gold.

Kappler then delivered Foà and Almansi an ultimatum. They would deliver 50kg of gold to his headquarters within 36 hours of he would deport 200 members of their Jewish community. Kappler then dismissed them, leaving them with the desperate task of rallying Rome’s community to meet his demands.

Foà and Almansi immediately told Rome’s Rabbis, the chief of whom, Israel Zolli, went straight to the Vatican to seek the help of the Church. The Church agreed to assist with whatever loan the Jews needed, so long as it was repaid after the war.

Some sources suggest the Vatican contributed 15kg (worth more than $600,000 in today’s money) to the cause. It seems that in reality, however, this contribution was never needed.

The Nazis in Rome's Jewish Ghetto during the Gold of Rome saga
The Nazis in Rome’s Jewish Ghetto during the Gold of Rome episide

The Gold of Rome

Faced with the death sentence for 200 of their fellow citizens, Rome’s population came together. Jews and non-Jews alike streamed into the city’s synagogues to hand over whatever gold they could spare: jewellery, watches, coins, even cigarette cases.

The voice of one Roman-Jewish writer, Giacomo Debenedetti, describes the scene at a synagogue:

Cautiously, as if afraid of being refused, uncertain whether to offer gold to the rich Jews, some ‘Aryans’ presented themselves. They entered the hall adjacent to the synagogue full of embarrassment, not knowing if they should take off their hats or keep their heads covered, according to Jewish custom. Almost humbly, they asked if they could – well if it would be all right to … Unfortunately, they did not leave their names.”

By the time their 36-hour deadline was up, the Romans had managed to gather 80kg of gold and 2,021,540 lire. Accompanied by an armed escort, Foà and Amansi delivered the gold to Kappler’s headquarters on the Via Tasso. The remaining gold was hidden and later used to finance the nascent State of Israel.

The Raiding of the Ghetto

Scene from Carlo Lizzani's film, The Gold of Rome
Herbert Keppler weighing the gold in a scene from Carlo Lizzani’s film, The Gold of Rome.

Foà and Almansi weren’t greeted by Kappler, but by his subordinate, Schutz. The SS officer weighed the gold, using scales able to hold only 5kg at a time. Schutz falsely claimed they had brought only 45kg. So when Foà and Almansi requested a document proving his receipt of the consignment, he stubbornly refused.

Yet the Nazi’s obstinacy ultimately did not matter.

The gold was transported to Berlin where it was stored inside the office of Kaltenbrunner, the chief of the Reich’s Central Security Office. When Berlin fell 2 years later, the gold was still there. Rome’s Jewish community felt an initial wave of relief at having managed to pay their ransom. Yet within a day the Nazis entered the Great Synagogue of Tempio Maggiore and looted a number of important documents along with a vast sum of money.

Within less than a month of the Gold of Rome saga, Kappler implemented orders for the Final Solution, and on the morning of October 16, 1943, 365 German soldiers stormed the Jewish Ghetto. The Nazis went house to house, rounding up Rome’s Jewish residents, who had been confined there since the Nazis first occupied Rome.

Scenes from the raiding of the Jewish Ghetto in October 1943
Scenes from the raiding of the Jewish Ghetto in October 1943

Sensing what was to come, many of the Ghetto’s residents tried to flee, escaping across rooftops or hiding – and hoping – behind barred doors. But few managed to escape. Of the 1,000 Jews that were rounded up that day and loaded into trucks borne for Auschwitz, only 16 ever made it back.

Remembering Rome’s Nazi occupation

Take a Rome Jewish Ghetto tour today and I’ll show you that only one small plaque commemorates ‘la spietata caccia agli ebrai’ – the brutal hunting down of Rome’s Jews under the Nazi occupation. Such is the extent to which this harrowing event still festers as a wound in our community that reminders of it are too painful to be ubiquitously commemorated.

But today’s Jewish community remembers its past in other ways.

We still tell stories about the Gold of Rome and other examples of communal and individual heroism. We remember the Holocaust’s victims through the Golden Stumbling Stones embedded outside their houses. And every October we commemorate the events of 1943 as a reminder that in the face of adversity this community has grown ever closer together, and claiming the ultimate victory in its solidarity.