In 1940, Italy entered World War II as an ally of Nazi Germany. Over the next three years, Italian armies suffered crushing losses under Mussolini’s leadership. As a result, in May 1943 Italian leaders deposed Mussolini, and in September 1943 surrendered their nation to the Allies.
That surrender caused German forces to quickly occupy central and northern Italy. After September 1943, German and Italian Fascist troops in those areas seized and deported about 9,000 Jews to Auschwitz or other camps, where most died in the gas chambers or from disease and starvation.
Today, Holocaust memorials in Italy commemorate these mass murders.
Described below are representative examples in Rome, Ferrara, Bologna, and Florence. The most common types are plaques, free-standing monuments, brass “stumbling stones” and exhibits in Jewish museums, which typically also provide information about the oppression of Jews before the war.
Rome has Italy’s oldest Jewish community and many Holocaust memorials. The majority cluster in and around the Great Temple (Tempio Maggiore) on the banks of the Tiber.
In this neighbourhood, over a thousand Jewish men, women, and children were arrested on the night of October 16th, 1943. Two days later, most of those people were deported to Auschwitz, where all but a few died.
Rome's main synagogue in the city's Jewish Ghetto. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP
The synagogue’s ground floor is a museum that uses objects and wall panels to tell the story of the Jewish community in Rome, from antiquity to the present. In the final room, panels titled “The Oppression of Civil Rights” and “The Persecution and 16 October 1943” describe the maltreatment of Jews before and during the war.
Noted are the racial laws instituted in 1938, which limited the rights of Jews and segregated them from the rest of the nation. Jews were not allowed to attend or teach in state schools and universities. They could not marry Christians or write for newspapers. Thousands lost their jobs.
These and other dehumanizing strictures caused some Jews to immigrate to the United States or other places where they could live unmolested. However, most stayed in Italy, where their situation rapidly worsened after German forces occupied Italy and began large-scale deportations.
Next to the panels hangs an oil portrait of Ugo Foa, who led the local Jewish community during the war. In the same room a film about the history of Italian Judaism includes a section about the October 1943 roundup of Jews in Rome.
A work of art commemorating the arrest and deportation of Jewish citizens, at Via della Reginella 15. Photo: Anne Saunders
After leaving the museum, walk to the side of the site that parallels the river. There, a massive wooden entrance door is flanked by two large inscriptions. One lists the names of Jews killed in the massacre at the Ardeatine Caves in Rome (March 1944). The other commemorates the 6 million Jews killed across Europe during the Holocaust, a number that includes thousands of Italian Jews.
The synagogue’s front portico overlooks a street called Via del Tempio. The plaque on building 5 (a school) quotes Lamentations 1.18: “Hear, all you peoples, and behold my suffering; my maidens and my young men have gone into captivity.” It then adds (in Italian): “In perpetual memory of the 112 pupils of these schools killed in the Nazi extermination camps.”
The plaque at Via del Tempio 5. Photo: Anne Saunders
At Via del Tempio 2, the Jewish Cultural Centre (Centro di Cultura Ebraica) has a small shop with books about the Holocaust.
Small brass “stumbling stones” (Stolpersteine) are embedded in the street at the centre’s entrance. These “stones” are actually small brass plates that a German artist is placing in front of the homes of people deported during the Holocaust. Each plate bears a name and the person’s date and place of death.
'Stumbling stones' commemorating Jews deported to Auschwitz, on Via del Tempio. Photo: Anne Saunders
Stones also have been placed in front of several doors on Via della Reginella, a street that parallels Via del Tempio. In addition, on the façade of Via della Reginella 15 hang ten small works of art, including a frieze that depicts the roundup of Jews in this neighbourhood.
From Via della Reginella turn on to Via del Portico d’Ottavia, where two more plaques (in Italian) commemorate the arrest of Jews and subsequent deportations between October 1943 and June 1944.
This handsome city has Italy’s newest Jewish museum, the National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah (another word for Holocaust). Its buildings occupy several acres in a quiet section of Ferrara. The complex is less than a mile from Ferrara’s magnificent Este castle, and a 30-minute train ride from Bologna.
This national museum was inaugurated in December 2017. The complex is not yet completed, but its first permanent exhibit is open to visitors. Its subject, “Jews: An Italian Story. The First Thousand Years,” is well designed and informative.
The National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah in Ferrara. Photo: Anne Saunders
The permanent exhibit on the Holocaust/Shoah will open in the fall of 2019. The remaining permanent exhibits will be installed over the next two years. Museum officials also are planning temporary shows on Jewish history and culture.
In the museum’s lobby visitors may watch a gripping film of interviews with Holocaust survivors.
This Jewish museum is in the heart of Bologna. It uses wall panels and screens to review the history of Judaism in the region Emilia-Romagna, whose capital is Bologna. One room highlights the names of Jews deported from the region’s major cities, such as Piacenza, Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and Bologna.
Adjoining the central train yards on Via Matteoti, a spacious plaza holds a tall monument dedicated to victims of the Holocaust.
Bologna's striking Holocaust memorial. Photo: Anne Saunders
Inaugurated in 2016, this memorial consists of two massive blocks of steel that converge to form an increasingly narrow path. That narrowing is meant to convey the sense of confinement experienced by those deported to the camps.
A large stone monument stands in the garden of Florence’s synagogue on Via Luigi Farini. It is engraved with the names of the hundreds of local Jews deported to the camps.
The magnificent synagogue, used by the Germans as a stables and warehouse during the occupation, was restored to its former glory after the war and is open for tours.
The Grand Synagogue of Florence. Photo: Paolo da Reggio/Wikimedia Commons
The museum next to the synagogue displays objects and documents related to the history of Florence’s Jewish community.
Other Holocaust memorials in Italy
Venice: home to one of oldest Jewish communities in Italy (and the source of the word 'ghetto'), the city has a Jewish museum, several synagogues and two striking Holocaust memorials in the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo.
Trieste: on the outskirts of the port city lies the only Nazi death camp on Italian soil, Risiera di San Sabba, which is today a moving museum dedicated to its victims.
Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP
Milan: Binario 21, the platform in Milan's Central Station from which trains carried Jewish Italians to their deaths, has been turned into a Holocaust memorial that includes video accounts by survivors and one of the original wagons used for deportations.
Santa Maria al Bagno: some 150,000 concentration camp survivors passed through this small fishing village in Puglia during and after World War II, many of them on their way to Israel. The Museum of Memory and Welcome tells the story of the town's former displaced person camp.
Anne Saunders is a research associate at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, USA. Her publications include a travel guide to the WWII sites of Italy and the translation of a book about WWII combat in Tuscany.