Many Hearts Ache As Rome Excavates an Ancient Cemetery
Menu JTA Search

Many Hearts Ache As Rome Excavates an Ancient Cemetery

Download PDF for this date

The discovery of thousands of copies of Hebrew Bibles during the excavation of the old Jewish cemetery described in the following article was reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on August 13. The volumes date back to the days when printing was invented. The most precious copies are to be preserved, while the rest were reburied with a solemn ceremony.

On the 28th of October of this year, the thirteenth after the Fascist revolution and Mussolini’s march on Rome, a beautiful promenade stretching along the historic Aventine Hill and the neighborhood of the famous Circus Maximus, where in the ancient Roman imperial days the gruesome gladiatorial games were held, will be formally opened.

In order to carry out the project, which is part of Mussolini’s plan to beautify the city of the Caesars and to show the world the colossal monuments of ancient Rome in all their glory, the ancient Jewish cemetery of this archeological area is being destroyed.

When the visitor to Rome surveys the panorama of the city from the Palatine or the Forum Romanum he notices at once, at the foot of the Aventine Hill, the many white tombstones and the fragrant cypress trees of the old Jewish burial ground which is known as the Orto Delli Evrei— the Garden of the Jews.

WHERE ROMAN JEWS LIE

For several hundred years, until 1894, the bones of Roman Jews had rested there. And the tombstones bear the tale of the ambitions and the sorrows of the most beautiful figures in Italian Jewry which for hundreds of years languished in the crowded stone buildings of the ghetto.

The tombstones on the Jewish cemetery near the Aventine Hill— and many of them are of distinct artistic value—have been standing there since the year 1846, which marked the beginning of the more liberal epoch of Pope Pius IX. Up to that time the Papal government had not permitted the sculpting of names over the graves of Jewish dead except in the case of prominent rabbis or other learned men.

The appearance of the old Jewish Aventine cemetery which, within a short time, will have been completely dug up becomes still more impressive as one slowly climbs along the Via Santa Sabina of the Aventine Hill. As one regards the neighborhood, with the Forum nearby, the quietly flowing Tiber and the tall cypresses, one involuntarily recalls that our Roman brethren, who were forced to suffer so many privations in the ghetto and so much debasement as the result of special laws, now rest in one of the most impressive of surroundings, not far from the old patrician villas and the ruins of the days of the emperors.

DEAD MOVE TO VERONA

Now these bones, which have lain here for more than two hundred years, are being transferred to the Jewish cemetery of Verona, which has existed since 1894.

The Jewish community of Rome did everything in its power to preserve the old Aventine cemetery. In 1909, when for some other reason it was being planned to remove the cemetery, the Jewish community succeeded in blocking the proposal. A similar attempt was made twelve years ago, when on the Aventine—one of the Seven Hills upon which Rome stands—a monument to Mazzini, one of the great fighters for Italy’s liberation, was to be erected.

Now, however, it appears that all efforts to keep the cemetery intact were in vain. The construction of the new road is an integral part of Mussolini’s program for making the appearance of the Eternal City more beautiful and more impressive.

The city administration of Rome, it must be acknowledged, promised to do everything possible to compensate the Jewish community and took upon itself the task, difficult and expensive, of moving the graves and bones of the dead to the cemetery at Verona.

CITY COMPENSATES FOR LOSS

In addition it was decided that the Roman city government give to the Jewish community an area of 2,800 square meters, upon which the building of the new Jewish public school will be erected.

In the meantime, the work of excavation is in full swing, and goes along at a truly “Fascist” tempo. Several hundred workers are engaged in excavating the graves, collecting the bones and moving them in locked chests to the Verona cemetery.

Despite the great heat of this summer, little groups of relatives of the dead stand about the open graves and with endless sorrow in their eyes gaze upon what is left of their dearest relatives, their mothers and their fathers, and feel the tragedy of their present wandering, after years of death, to find a new resting place.

In the course of the past few weeks I have seen many painful scenes I shall not soon forget. My Italian friend who led me about among the opened graves gazed with silent glance all about him.

A few weeks more and the old Orto Dell’ Evrei—the Jewish Garden—will no more lie at the foot of the Aventine. The cypresses will remain, but they will no longer speak to the hearts of the Roman Jews and will no longer shade the old graves of our Roman brethren.

The panorama of the white Jewish monuments will disappear from the old Aventine burying-ground which spoke to the emotions and the imagination of every Jewish visitor to the Eternal City.

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund