Guide experienced tragedy, triumphs - Catholic Courier

Guide experienced tragedy, triumphs

On Oct. 16, 1943, the Nazis occupying Rome burst into the Jewish ghetto and began rounding up more than 1,200 Jews, many of whom were later killed.


Angelo Pavoncello was among an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 Roman Jews who escaped being captured by the Nazis. A few days before the roundup occurred, he had fled to Frascati, south of Rome, where he found refuge with a family who hid him from the Nazis.

He had seen signs of the coming persecution when he was just a little boy growing up in fascist Italy during the 1930s. According to The Guide to Jewish Italy, Benito Mussolini, Italy’s dictator, decided in 1938 to take a page from his ally, Adolf Hitler, declaring that Jews did not belong to the Italian race. Jews were barred from Italian schools, military service, public employment and business ownership.

"You don’t feel like you’re part of the country," Pavoncello said, recalling those days. "You’re an enemy."

On Oct. 16, 1978, Karol Wojtyla — who had a number of Jewish friends and spent World War II as a underground seminarian in Poland — was elected Pope John Paul II. This new Bishop of Rome would do much to heal the wounds created by such horrors as the roundup of Jews in his diocese exactly 35 years before his election date.

Today, Pavoncello is a tour guide at Rome’s Grand Synagogue, Tempio Maggiore. He recalled Pope John Paul II’s April 13, 1986, visit to the synagogue where he prayed with Rome’s chief rabbi. It was the first time a pope had ever done such a thing.

Pavoncello said the pope brushed him as he walked by.

"People told me that was good luck," Pavoncello said with a smile.

He also recalled the pope calling the Jews "our big brothers." It was one of many such gestures the late pope made during his pontificate, which also included a visit to Israel; establishment of diplomatic relations with the Jewish state; and an apology for Catholic anti-Semitism.

Pavoncello said the Rome synagogue also has seen its share of horrors, including an Oct. 9, 1982, attack by the Abu Nidal terrorist group. One child was killed and 37 people were wounded in the attack. To this day, security guards protect the synagogue’s entrance and search worshipers before they enter.

Pavoncello’s life embodies the sadness and joy that has been the lot of Jews throughout Italian history. According to The Guide to Jewish Italy, Jews have lived on the Italian peninsula since almost 200 years before the birth of Christ. Italy’s Jews are, in fact, the oldest community of the Jewish Diaspora. As in other lands, Jews in Italy have sometimes thrived and at other times suffered at the hands of their neighbors.

According to various histories, one example of Jews’ mixed fate stands in ancient Rome — the Arch of Titus. The arch stands at the eastern end of the Forum, the center of Rome’s civic life. Bas-relief depictions on each side of the arch commemorate the victory of Titus, the Emperor Domitian’s brother, in the Jewish Wars from 66-70.

One depiction shows a procession of Jewish prisoners carrying a seven-branched menorah to Rome after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. In later years, this arch was a place where popes annually forced Rome’s Jews to pledge loyalty to them. The arch also witnessed a triumphant moment in Jewish history when Israel was established in 1948. Then, Rome’s Jews walked beneath the arch, fulfilling a pledge not to do so until Israel was free.

Roberta Borg, former president of the Jewish Community Federation of Greater Rochester and a member of Rochester’s Jewish-Catholic mission to Rome, said visiting such sites as the Grand Synagogue and the Arch of Titus made her realize what tremendous pressures Jews faced in Italy.

"Yet this tiny community was able to survive the most dire of all circumstances and continues to add to the fabric of this magnificent country," she said.

Today, Jews are a thriving community in Italy, according to Pavoncello, who noted 40,000 Italians are Jewish.

"We make such a noise, the Gentiles think we are a million," Pavoncello said with a laugh.


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