Rabbi Vittorio Della Rocca was only 11 years old at the time, but he will never forget a historic Shabbat at Rome’s Great Synagogue 60 years ago this month. It was June 9, 1944 — just five days after Allied troops had liberated the city from the Nazis.
And on that first Friday night of freedom, an American Jewish chaplain led 4,000 Jews in the Shehecheyanu prayer.
“It was an incredible scene of joy and euphoria,” Della Rocca says. “There was a black spot, though, as everyone among us started counting to see if they could find all their loved ones.”
The Rome temple was the first large synagogue to be liberated in Europe.
The American chaplain was Lt. Morris Kertzer, a young rabbi from Iowa City, Iowa. Attached to the U.S. Fifth Army, he had landed with thousands of other U.S. troops at Anzio and witnessed the Allied liberation of Rome on June 4.
Kertzer died two decades ago.
But this month, almost 60 years to ! the day after that historic Shabbat service, the Rome Jewish community presented a hand-lettered scroll of appreciation to Kertzer’s son, David.
A professor at Brown University, David Kertzer has gained renown in recent years for his books on Italian Jewish history.
They include “The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Anti-Semitism” and “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara,” which recounts the story of the abduction by the church and forced conversion of a young Jewish boy in Bologna in 1858.
“For my father and for all Jewish American soldiers, to participate in the liberation of Europe was an extraordinary experience,” Kertzer said.
“My father’s experiences here had a big impact on me, and it’s not really a coincidence that I chose the field of study that I did,” he said.
During World War II, deportations of Italian Jews began only after the Nazis occupied Italy in September 1943.
Many Jews in Rome found refuge in the homes of ! Christian friends or in Catholic institutions, but methodical round-up s and searches led to the deportation of more than 2,000 Roman Jews to Auschwitz. About 8,000 Italian Jews in all were deported.
The Rome community’s award, presented by the city’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, and the president of the Jewish community, Leone Paserman, came during an international conference June 16-17 that was held to honor the synagogue’s 100th anniversary
“During their 10 months of occupation, the Nazis had sealed the synagogue but didn’t desecrate it,” Paserman said. “On that first Friday night after the liberation, Jews from all over the city emerged from hiding and made their way to the temple.
“It’s important to remember that the war was still going on elsewhere, and there would still be 11 months before peace was declared,” he said.
Rabbi Kertzer himself wrote vividly about his experiences in Rome in a book of memoirs published in 1947.
Accompanied by another Jewish chaplain, Aaron Paperman, he entered Rome in “a jeep sandwiched! between a tank and a truck” as part of an impromptu military parade, cheered on by a millions Italians. The two rabbis immediately sought out the local Jewish community.
“We were probably the first tourists since 1939 to ask, ‘Dov’ e’ la sinagoga, per favore?’ ” Kertzer wrote.
“The following Friday, on the ninth day of June, the first large synagogue in liberated Europe opened its doors,” he wrote.
“Four thousand men, women, and children streamed into the high-domed house of worship. Vast though the temple is, every inch of space was occupied,” he wrote.
In his brief, English-language sermon, Kertzer told the Jews of Rome that the Allied soldiers shared their burdens and stressed the sense of unity that bound Jews worldwide.
“We Americans, from all walks of life, wearing the uniform of America, have flocked to the house of God. And we saw Jewish soldiers from England and Canada, Jewish soldiers wearing the insignia of Eretz Yisroel, proudly enter your b! eautiful synagogue to join in prayer,” he told them.
Kertzer did n ot conduct the service alone — he shared the bimah with Israel Zolli, the elderly and controversial chief rabbi of Rome, and at least two other rabbis.
Zolli, however, is almost never mentioned by Italian Jews, and his role in the liberation celebration was not brought up when Kertzer was honored.
The reason is painful, embarrassing and bitterly ironic.
After the liberation, Jewish community leaders accused Zolli of having abandoned his post and his congregation during the Nazi occupation and fired him as chief rabbi. The Allies reinstated him, but the conflict split the community.
In February 1945, just six months after the joyful liberation Shabbat, Zolli effectively ended the dispute by announcing his conversion to Roman Catholicism.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.