Italy on slow track to get its first Holocaust museum

If all goes according to plan, a starkly modern, $30 million Holocaust museum will rise on the site of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini’s Rome residence.

The site, also the location of ancient Jewish catacombs and now a city park, will be home to a museum first proposed in 2005 but held up repeatedly by financial and bureaucratic problems.

“I hope construction begins this summer,” said Leone Paserman, the president of the Museum of the Shoah Foundation. “Of course in Italy, it is always hard to say.”

The Holocaust museum in Rome will feature a huge black cube bearing the names of Italian victims. illustration/jta-courtesy of rome city government

The facility will be the first Holocaust museum in Italy, which despite its wartime alliance with Nazi Germany has a somewhat mixed Holocaust record. The country adopted fiercely anti-Semitic legislation in 1938, barring Jews from schools, dismissing them from public positions and outlawing intermarriage, among other restrictions.

At the same time, the Italian military generally declined to take part in the murder or deportation of the country’s Jews, and territories occupied by Italian forces were considered relatively safe. The first deportations to death camps came only after Nazi Germany occupied parts of Italy in 1943 following the surrender of the Fascist government to allied forces.

“There are delicate situations in Rome, including the role of Pope Pius XII and also prewar anti-Semitism,” Paserman said. “But we have to remember that thousands of Jews in Italy were saved in convents” and other Catholic institutions.

Rome’s city council approved final plans for the museum a year ago, but city funding was later blocked by government-imposed financial restrictions on municipal spending. The funds were freed up in December and the city is expected to move ahead with final approval and award a construction contract in the spring.

The new museum will be built on the grounds of Villa Torlonia, an elegant 19th-century mansion that Mussolini used as his residence from 1925 to 1943. Jewish catacombs dating back to ancient times were discovered by chance beneath the surface in 1919.

The 25,000-square-foot museum was designed by architects Luca Zevi and Giorgio Tamburini. Zevi, whose mother served for years as head of the Italian Jewish community, has described the design as a “black box” — a huge flattened cube that will bear the names of Italian Holocaust victims. Inside will be a permanent exhibit, archive, library, conference hall and research and education facility.

Plans for the museum’s exhibition and research facilities are being overseen by a committee headed by Marcello Pezzetti, one of Italy’s leading Holocaust scholars and educators, who will also serve as the museum director. Pezzetti has said he wants the museum to “insert the Holocaust in the Italian context into the Holocaust in the European context: By the time that the first Italian Jews were deported from Rome in October 1943, three-quarters of East European Jews had already been killed.”

Among the main focus areas, Paserman said, will be a confrontation with Italy’s “uneasy” history as a Fascist ally of Nazi Germany at the onset of World War II, as well as the ambiguous role of the Catholic Church before and during the Shoah.

“Almost 70 years have passed since the Shoah, and the survivors — the witnesses — are passing away,” Paserman said. “After 70 years, we are passing from memory to history, and this museum will be a place to learn history, to train teachers, to educate new generations.”

Barring futher delays, he expects the museum to open in 2016 or 2017.

Ruth Ellen Gruber

Ruth Ellen Gruber is a writer for JTA.