As with so many parts of the trauma of World War II, the British and the Americans never experienced a sudden round-up in their cities: a day when armed troops dragged undesirables out of their homes without warning. Commuters in minor railway stations in London, or Boston, do not see plaques to those deported to Auschwitz from those same platforms. We do not tend to have roads called, say, Street of the 10th of July 1943. English writing about the war is overwhelmingly about what happened in other countries.

Continental Europe was not so lucky. Consider Marseille, where Action Tiger on 22 January 1943 rounded up thousands of victims living in the Old City, which was then demolished. (The historical museum now on the site is well worth a visit.) Or consider Rome, on 16 October 1943. Italy had capitulated to the Allies on 8 September, but within days Germany had occupied the city. The Allies resumed bombing it, though fairly lightly, for fear of destroying the Vatican. On 26 September, an SS colonel named Herman Kappler ordered the Jewish population to deliver 50kg of gold in return for its safety from deportation. On 28 September they did exactly that, which cannot have been easy.

What they did not know was that Himmler had already sent a telegram to Kappler, giving him a direct order:

All Jews, without distinction of nationality, age, sex and condition, must be transferred to Germany and liquidated there. The success of the company must be insured through surprise action.

Kappler prevaricated a little, but by the time he promised the Jews their safety, he had already written to the commandant of Auschwitz to let him know that a shipment was on the way. So it is very hard to see Kappler as anything other than an extortionist and murderer. But there was just enough sign of reluctance in the paper records to save him from hanging in 1948, when he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Kappler's objection to the round-up was that it seemed impractical, but in fact it was eminently possible. Mussolini's racial census of 1938 had made what was still a fairly accurate catalogue of exactly who the Jews of Rome were, and where they lived. They were concentrated around the relatively small district of Sant'Angelo, which various Popes had established as a ghetto centuries earlier, and which could efficiently be searched by only a company of soldiers. In the event 1259 people, some still in their pyjamas and one of them a newborn baby, were rounded up without a shot being fired on Saturday 16 October. Some 252 who were only doubtfully Jewish were released (Kappler being anxious not to deport any Vatican citizens) but on Monday morning the remaining roughly 1000 were packed into railway carriages at Roma Tiburtina station. Two died on the journey and one escaped. Close to midnight on Wednesday the rest arrived, and 820 of them were murdered on the Thursday morning. The others were sent to work camps, from which only 16 returned.

Book cover by Elsa Morante   Book cover by Giacomo Debenedetti

After the war, this event was, in a sense, a story well suited to being told, both by historians and novelists. It was epic, in a moral sense; contained enough to tell in one book; important enough to compel the reader; and although a single event, it was an event which spoke to a greater truth. A community of 1000 people offers a wide variety of characters, seen as individuals without being lost in a crowd. There is the sinisterly ambiguous figure of Kappler himself, lit by the evil light of bureaucratic conversations about genocide. There are the neighbours of the ghetto, in one case a rich and well-connected Fascist, who risked their lives to shelter some of the victims. A brutal crime does not exist in order to provide material for writers, but some brutal crimes make more compelling case studies than others, and what happened that Saturday is now the stuff of major novels and non-fiction accounts. Mara Josi's book Rome, 16 October 1943: History, Memory, Literature, appearing later this year, will tell that story, too.

cover of Rome, 16 October 1943

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