No other event in recent history has challenged and shaken the Vatican and the Jews of Rome as much as the SS raid on October 16, 1943.
Under the eyes of Pius XII the venerable Jewish community had been arrested and deported to Auschwitz.
The event continues to be a trauma for both parties.
At sunset on Friday, October 15, 1943, the Jews of Rome celebrated as usual the beginning of the Sabbath in their houses. It was a special Sabbath, the third day of the one-week Feast of Tabernacles Sukkot in the year 5703 of the Jewish calendar. A few hours later nothing was as before. The field-tested SS commando officer Theodor Dannecker let his men swarm out to capture the Jews of the Eternal City.
Most of the Jews still lived in the old ghetto of Rome. For centuries, the district has remained unchanged in the heart of the Eternal City, near the Tiber Island. The ghetto stretches a few streets up the river Tiber behind the ancient Roman theater of Marcellus. Not until 1870 the walls around the Jewish quarter were torn down. Since then, Romans and immigrants of non-Jewish origin have also moved there.
Opposite of the ruin of Marcellus’ theater and the ancient Portico of the Octavia the magnificent synagogue is located. It was built directly on the riverbank in 1904. A few steps away you will find the Tiber Island, from where you can reach the Trastevere district. Many Jews also live there traditionally. On the eastern side of the Tiber was their first settlement, which was assigned to them.
On that Friday evening, a poorly dressed woman hurried over from Trastevere and started to scream in the streets of the ghetto. Many families had just lighted the Sabbat candles in their homes and had gathered for prayer. Some people curiously leaned out of the windows. Others went straight out into the street to see what was going on.
The woman was quickly surrounded by curious people.
Many knew her well. It was Signora Celeste. They considered her queer, a bit meshuga, and scandal-craving. Signora Celeste was crying and moaning loudly: The Germans are coming and taking many Jews with them! This evening, in Trastevere, she had learned of a long list of Jews from the wife of a Carabinieri, where she was in service. All people on this list should be taken away by the Germans.
Celeste wasted no time. She ran to the other side of the Tiber to warn everyone on this rainy cold October evening. No one believed her Job’s news. Did she forget that the Jews had paid ransom in gold only two weeks ago?
Signora Celeste did not cease crying and moaning: "Believe me! Be sure to get away from here. ... I'm telling the truth! I swear by the heads of my children!" Finally, she threatened that everyone would be sorry if they did not flee now. It was in vaine. Celeste gave up and complained that they had certainly believed a rich woman. But because she was poor, had nothing, and walked in rags, they didn’t listen to her.
The Jewish journalist and survivor of the roundup, Giacomo Debenedetti, researched this little episode in autumn 1944 after Rome was freed by the Allies. Some, who he asked, agreed with Celeste. They would have believed a rich signora more easily. Debenedetti remarked, "On that evening they returned to their homes, sat down around the table for dinner, and discussed the strange story."
Towards midnight, many people woke up with a start in their house in the streets and narrow alleyways of the ghetto. They had already gone to sleep. However, sporadic gunshots and the loud bawl of men drove them out of their beds. Only a few had the courage to go to the window risking a view. Bullets hissed through the air or hit the walls of the houses. Are these drunken German soldiers? Or are these Italian Black Shirts having fun to frighten Jews? Nobody knew. The shooting did not stop. Now and then it increased or abated again. It was only after about three hours that nighttime peace was restored again.
Soon life stirred again in the ghetto. A lot of people were up early to organize food or get the weekly ration of tobacco, which was only handed out on Saturdays. They would be the first to run into Dannecker's men. Quietly and unnoticed, police-soldiers had invaded the Ghetto and took strategically position.
The Vatican is located two kilometers upstream on the other side of the Tiber. Pope Pius XII was present. Because of the tense situation in Italy in the summer of 1943 he had not left the Apostolic Palace in the last months.
As usual Pius went to bed very late that night. Not until two o'clock he turned off the light. While he was sitting at the desk to work on the last documents after midnight, he could hear the gunfire from the other side of the Tiber. The window of his study on the top floor of the Apostolic Palace was exactly located in the direction of the Jewish ghetto. Pius had no reason to be particularly worried. Small nocturnal skirmishes had been carried out more frequently in the last weeks. However, this time the shooting did not stop. Up to now, the German soldiers had quickly repelled partisan actions. Why did the shooting continue for so long tonight?
At six o'clock Pope Pius got up again. Before he read the early mass in the private chapel, he blessed his city as always from the open window. The dawn was breaking over Rome. In the ghetto and all over the city the large roundup of the Jews had already begun. Pius could hear the noise of trucks driving to different locations.
On this morning of the 16th of October, Pope Pius did not know yet how demanding the next three days would be for him. Henchmen of death have invaded the Eternal City and were capturing the Jewish Community. Did he have to stand up for the Jews of his city now? Should he intervene in the raid, stop it and save the prisoners? For a few weeks Hitler had the power in Rome.
But how strong was it? Could he stop the dictator?