Special Interview a Victory, but Possibly Pyrrhic
Menu JTA Search

Special Interview a Victory, but Possibly Pyrrhic

Download PDF for this date

The Jewish catacombs of Italy, which are to leave the custody of the Vatican and become the responsibility of the Italian government, has placed the Italian Jewish community on the brink of an historical cultural victory — which might turn out to be a pyrrhic victory unless there is sufficient support from world Jewry.

This is the message Tullia Zevi, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, brought here in a speech to the Jewish Museum and in a later interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. The meeting at the Jewish Museum marked the beginning of the Italian Jewish Heritage Foundation of America.

“This is our common roots, because, after all, the roots of American Jewry are in Europe, “Zevi said in an interview in a New York cafe. “Your roots are our roots and we want to be the custodian of our common roots with your help.” Zevi specifically is seeking financial support and archaeological expertise to aid in Italian Jewry’s maintenance of the catacombs.

It is difficult to determine the amount of money needed for the catacombs, Zevi said, before detailed plans are drafted on the extent of conservation and exploration needed for the project. “Experts have indicated $5 million as a realistic basis for a well structured project over a three to four year period,” she said.

There are about a dozen major Jewish catacombs — underground burial networks going back to the first century BCE and spanning the next five — known to have existed in Italy. Archaeological explorations dating back to the 1600’s testify to their existence in Rome, Sicily, Sardinia and the southern region of Apulia — especially Venosa and Bari.


Scholars estimate that in Imperial Rome, underground labyrinths were lined with up to 100,000 tombs. The tombs provide priceless information on the daily lives of Jews in the earliest European diaspora. “We are your past, you are the great present,” said Zevi.

Since Italy’s reunification in 1870, and more formally since the 1929 Condordat between the Italian government and the Holy See, some Jewish and Christian catacombs in Italy have been under the control of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for Sacred Art.

In February 1984, the Secretaries of the State of Italy and of the Vatican signed a revised version of the Concordat under which the Holy See agreed to relinquish its management of all “non-Christian” catacombs.

Though Italy’s 35,000 Jews had long and anxiously awaited this move, they now fear that lack of funds and archaeological know-how might well impede the restoration, further exploration and, above all, conservation of the catacombs.

“We are gratified by our victory, but we fear that this victory, unless we find the help of our fellow Jews in the United States and Canada, may turn into a defeat because we may find ourselves with something we can’t take care of because we don’t have the means and the know-how,” Zevi said.

According to Zevi, in the first century CE perhaps seven percent of the Roman Empire’s total population was Jewish, and Rome alone had about 40,000 to 60,000 Jews and 13 synagogues.

The epigraphs in the catacombs — about 75 percent in Greek, most of the rest in Latin and a small number in Hebrew — reveal the wide range of arts, trades, and professions of early Italian Jews: from the artists, actors and scribes to lawyers, bankers, physicians, merchants and sailors — as well as their family, social and religious community.

A 1981 archaeological excavation of the catacombs of Venosa — since closed for safety reasons — revealed the interesting fact that Jewish and Christian sections were located in “such proximity to one another” as to suggest “a high level of interaction in their communities” up to the ninth century, according to Prof. Eric Meyers of Duke University, who co-directed the Italian American Archaeological team with Prof. Cesare Colafemmina of Bari University.

Most of the Jewish catacombs were plundered in the long centuries before the Vatican authorities took over their supervision, and their treasures still surface at private auctions. These thefts stopped with the Vatican take over in 1929.


Zevi also spoke at the Jewish Museum for the need to preserve Jewish libraries and archives, as well as synagogues in small towns in Italy. Some of these synagogues are located where once flourishing Jewish communities no longer exist. “There, conservation poses a problem,” said Zevi.

“In a number of cases we were able to apply a formula which is proving satisfactory: the synagogue is sold to the municipality for a symbolic sum, so that funds can be allocated for its restoration. In exchange, we are assured that the Jewish character will be maintained, and that it be used only for cultural activities of a high standard, such as lectures and concerts,” Zevi told the Jewish Museum gathering.

For example, she cited the city of Pitigliano, once described as “the little Jerusalem,” according to Zevi, where an agreement was recently signed with the municipality for the restoration of a synagogue destroyed by a landslide 25 years ago, and of the old Passover oven nearby.

In an effort to rescue at least some of the books, documents and other archival materials, an old car repair shop near Rome’s main synagogue has been purchased for a proposed Italian National Jewish Library and Heritage Center. About $350,000 has been allocated already by Rome’s regional and provincial authorities for restoration of the building. Zevi estimated that about $3 million is needed for the Library and Heritage Center.

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