Your Selected Item:
Would you like to help us improving the content? Send us your suggestions

DP Camp Policeman, Palese, Italy 1947


DP Camp Policeman, Palese, Italy 1947.
The Oster Visual Documentation Center, ANU - Museum of the Jewish People, courtesy of Stephan Cohen.

Photo period:
ID Number:
Image Purchase: For more details about image purchasing Click here, make sure you have the photo ID number (as appear above)
Nearby places:
Related items:


Repubblica Italiana

21st Century

Estimated Jewish population in 2018: 27,500 out of 61,000,000. Most Jews of Italy live in Rome and Milano greater areas. The main umbrella organization of the Jewish communities of Italy: 

Unione delle Comunità Ebraiche Italiane (Union of the Italian Jewish Community)
Phone: 39 6 580 3667/580 3670
Fax: 39 6 589 9569
Email: or



The Jews of Italy

59 BCE | The Rebbetzin Poppea

Legend has it that in 59 BCE the great Roman statesman, orator and writer Cicero said that he was afraid to speak out loud, for fear of Rome's Jewish residents.
Cicero was famous for his hyperbole, but even if he was overstating his case, there is no doubt that Jews in the Roman Empire were a dominant force to be reckoned with.
Most Jews who arrived in Italy flocked to Rome. Many of them were manumitted slaves from Judea, captives from the wars of Pompey and later of Titus, as well as merchants and artisans drawn to the vibrant life of the imperial capital. According to various historical sources, the great advocate of the Jews at the time was none other than Julius Caesar, who gave the Jews special rights, among them the freedom to observe their religious commandments, to settle their internal affairs in Jewish courts and to send first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem.
One of the most fascinating trends of this period, which is well-attested in historical sources, is the adoption of Jewish ways and customs by the gentile population of Rome. One of the more prominent members of this group, who were known as “God-fearing,” was Poppea, wife of the Emperor Nero, who observed the Sabbath and refrained from eating non-kosher animals.

70 CE | Non-Modern Slavery

According to various historical sources, the number of Hebrew slaves that arrived in Rome from Judea in the year 70 CE, after the suppression of the Great Revolt and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, stood at some 100,000 people. The Romans directed the new manpower at their disposal to the construction of lavish public facilities. According to accounts from the time, some 20,000 Jewish slaves built the Colosseum, the famed gladiator arena in Rome, which formed the second part of Roman author Juvenal's satirical, yet astute, formula of governance: "bread and circuses".
In an act of solidarity, the Jewish community of Rome ransomed most of the captives brought from Judea, an act that greatly enlarged and strengthened the community, which built 12 synagogues and a whole array of yeshivas that maintained continual rabbinical contact with the sages in the Land of Israel. Historians of the time describe the Jewish community of Rome as very Hellenized, with the prayer and reading of the Torah being conducted in Greek, and intermarriage with gentile women being prevalent. At the same time, the members of the community were strict in their observance of the commandments and traditions. Researchers agree that the Jewish communities of the Roman Empire in late Antiquity were the seeds that gave birth to the Jews of Europe.

313 | The Black Swan and the Birth of Christianity

In his book “The black Swan” Nassim Taleb describes history as impacted by a series of “black swans,” by which he means events that could not have been foreseen and which nonetheless had a crucial influence on the course of human events. Among this type of events Taleb counts the rise of Christianity – a small, esoteric religion born in the Near East.
Black swan or not, the ascension of Christianity to control of the Roman Empire, which began with Constantine the Great's Edict of Milan in 313 CE, brought a significant deterioration in the condition of Roman Jews. Under pressure from the Church the authorities issued new laws that discriminated against Jews in the civil, economic and religious spheres. Among other things, Jews were banned from public office and forbidden from constructing new synagogues.
Some 200 years before this, another important event took place. In 132 CE the Roman Emperor Hadrian, an avid Hellenist and sculpture enthusiast, decided to turn Jerusalem into a pagan city, and renamed it Aelia Capitolina. This move, along with bans on observing the Sabbath and circumcision, were the trigger for the eruption of the Bar Kochba Revolt in the Land of Israel. After the revolt was brutally suppressed by the Romans, tens of thousands of Jews were exiled to Rome and sold into slavery.

476 | Empires Fall

The great Roman Empire stood at the forefront of human culture for nearly 800 years. Its mark is still evident to this day, in almost every field of human endeavor: Art, architecture, law and political science, military strategy and much more. The intrigue and vicious infighting in the Imperial court were also famous, or rather infamous, and over the past 2,000 years they have inspired countless works of literature and plastic art, and in the past century or so films and television series as well.
By the end of the fifth century, with the downfall of the Western Roman Empire, Jews had settled in all lands under its control. Remnants of Jewish life from that time have been found throughout Italy, in Sicily, Sardinia, Brescia, Bologna, Florence and more.
Ironically, it was under Papal rule that Jews fared relatively better, especially in the Papal State, a region under direct Church sovereignty after the fall of the empire, which included Rome and other parts of central and northern Italy. The reasons for the Church's easier treatment of the Jews in these areas were political, economic and theological as well: According to the Christian interpretation of the verse in Psalms 59:11, “Slay them not, lest my people forget,” the Jews were not to be killed, lest the Christians forget the origins of their faith, to which the Jews, descendants of the contemporaries of Jesus, stand as living testimony. And yet, in the fifth century the number of Jews in Italy declined, from hundreds of thousands to only tens of thousands.

1035 | Nathan The Wise

“Of The Humble,” “Of The Apples,” “Of The Elders,” and “Of The Reds,” - these may sound like varieties of fruit, but are in fact the names of four noble Jewish families who arrived in Rome, according to tradition, after the destruction of the Second Temple, and their descendants were considered for many generations to be the leaders and wise men of the Jewish community in Italy. Let us focus on one of the most important and influential of them: Nathan the Roman, from the “Of The Humble” clan, born in Rome in 1035 CE.
Nathan's main work was the masterpiece of lexicography “The Arukh” - a compilation of difficult Hebrew words from the apocryphal literature written around the time the Bible was sealed, up to the author's own time, along with translations thereof into Latin, Arabic, Persian, Greek and even vernacular Italian and the Slavonic dialect. This book was most instrumental in the spread of Judaism in polyglot Europe and served as a vital link in the chain of Jewish wisdom throughout the ages.
However, the information regarding the Jews of Italy in the Middle Ages is very scant. From what little we know it is known that Talmudic centers were built in the south of Italy from which the members of the Kalonymus family passed knowledge of the Torah to Magentia (Mainz) in Germany, and that during this period Jewish communities were established in Venice, Florence, Ferrara and Mantua.

1224 | Moses Received Torah At Sinai and Handed It to Avicenna Who Handed It to Jacob Ben Abba

One of the main characteristics of the Italian Renaissance was the re-discovery of Greek classics in literature, philosophy, medicine and science. But many of the original works had vanished, and classics enthusiasts were forced to content themselves with translations of these works into Arabic, by philosophers Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd), who were considered the greatest translators and commentators of Aristotle and other ancient philosophers.
This is where the Jews, who held the key to the translation, enter the picture: “Upon the decline of Arab culture in Spain, the Jews picked up the torch of wisdom from hands that faltered, and passed it on with great success to the Christian world, which thirsted for this new knowledge.” - thus wrote historian Cecil Roth in his book “The Jews in the Renaissance .”
Historians of the Middle Ages have emphasized the role of the Jews as carriers of Greek culture. The translation of the great classics from Arabic to Latin – two languages many Jews spoke fluently, both because of the frequent migrations they were forced to undertake and because of the diverse trade ties between Jewish communities throughout the world – were of crucial importance to Renaissance culture.
Rome became home to a large group of Jewish scholars, physician-philosophers, who engages in translating and expounding on the ancient Greek texts and the works of Muslim scholars. Three of the most notable of these were Hillel Ben Samuel of Verona, Issac Ben Mordechai, who served as physician to the popes of his day, and the sage Jacob Ben Abba, who was invited in 1224 to Naples to serve as an interpreter in the court of Emperor Fredrick II.

1450 | With the Power of Print

At university departments of life sciences, life is often treated as a process of data flow. We might say that the meaning of life, according to this view, is manifested in the information we collect and pass on – and not just the genetic data we carry, but also the experiences we have documented, the diaries we wrote, the technologies we've developed and the works we have created. The printing revolution in the mid-15th century was a sort of “Mt. Sinai” moment to those who hold this world-view. From the moment print was invented, any writer or scientist, upon completion of their life's work, could disseminate their writings in a scope unknown prior to that time.
Beginning in the last quarter of the 15th century, the Hebrew printing presses in Italy began to build the library of Jewish texts that serves us to this day. To understand the magnitude of Italian Jews' contributions in this field we shall mention two central printing presses: The first is Daniel Bomberg's press in Venice, which operated in the 1520's and set the format of the Bible and Talmud as we now know them, and the other is the famous Soncino Family Press, which preserved the halachic and commentary literature written in France and Spain in the Middle Ages.

1500 | The Migration North

Until the 15th century most of the Jews of Italy lived in the southern part of the country, including the island of Sicily. Only with the conquest of Southern Italy in the late 15th century by the Catholic Spaniards, who were particularly hostile to Jews, did the Jewish community move to the northern part of the peninsula. It should be noted that until the 1860's Italy was composed of dozens of independent or semi-independent states and cities, each of which conducted itself as a sovereign entity with its own laws and public administration. The treatment of Jews varied from place to place and state to state. In Venice, for example, Jews were accepted as residents with some restriction, whereas Genoa, Venice's great rival for Mediterranean trade dominance, did not accept Jews at all. The expulsion of Jews was an everyday occurrence in those days, so the Jews were driven in shame from some cities, only to be welcomed with open arms in others.

1516 | The Merchants Of Venice

The term “Ghetto” originated in the Jewish quarter of Venice, which is probably the oldest Jewish residential quarter still standing in the world. The most commonly accepted explanation is that the word “ghetto” originated from the foundry (getto in the local dialect) which stood next to the Jewish quarter. Another possible source is “Borghetto” - a diminutive of “Borgo” which is similar to “Borough” in English.) Later on Pope Pius IV used the word “ghetto” to describe the area in which the Jews lived, and since then the word has taken root and acquired various cultural and social subtext.
Jews lived in Venice as early as the fourth or fifth century, but their presence in the city was immensely strengthened in the 14th century, when a large stream of Jewish merchants and moneylenders came to town at the behest of its rulers, who wished to stimulate its economy. In March 1516 Jewish residence was restricted to a special borough, their freedom of movement was curtailed, and they were forced to wear a yellow star and later on a yellow cap as well.
Despite the restrictions, Jewish life flourished in Venice. The Jews of the city built batei midrash and synagogues in which important rabbis served and worked, among them Rabbi Leon Judah Ariyeh of Modena (known by his Hebrew acronym The Riam) and Rabbi Samuel Judah Katznellenbogen. The ghetto also featured many cultural institutions, among them a theater, bookshops and of course, the first Hebrew printing press.
The ghetto in Venice was first built for economic reasons, but forty-nine years later, on July 14th 1555, the first ghetto was created in Rome – and this time for faith-based reasons. Pope Paul IV issued a bull forbidding Jews from living as neighbors of Christians.
The establishment of this ghetto was the sign for others throughout Italy, in Florence and Padua among others. These ghettos developed unique customs and folklore as time went by. The ghettos were organized by the community members, who established mutual aid institutions and internal tribunals.

1707 | Shadal and Ramchal

Despite their forced seclusion in ghettos, the Jews of Italy produced many, many scholars and rabbinical luminaries. Two of the greatest of these are known by their acronyms: Ramchal (Rabbi Moses Chaim Luzzatto) and Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto).
The Ramchal was born in Padua in 1707, and it is said that at the age of fourteen, he knew the Talmud and Mishna by heart. The young genius tried his hand at general literature as well, wrote plays and composed poetry. In addition he was drawn to Kabbalah and mysticism, and gathered a group of scholars around him who studied the writings of Rabbi Issac Lurie and the occult.
Alongside his studies at the beit midrash the Ramchal also claimed to have experienced a weekly meeting with an angel named “The Magid”, or “Teller”, who would visit him regularly and share secrets of Kabbalah and the art of “Tzeruf” - the combination and permutation of Hebrew letters to paranormal effect. In a moment of weakness, he disclosed his secret to a friend, who proved unworthy of the trust and spread the story further. The disclosure aroused a great uproar. The young genius was accused of practicing magic and witchcraft. His personal notes and writings were taken from him and some were burned. Following this episode the Ramchal migrated from Italy to Amsterdam, where he wrote his magnum opus “Mesilat Yesharim” (“Path of the Righteous”) which is to be found in any Jewish religious library to this day.
100 years after the birth of the Ramchal the Luzzatto tribe was blessed with another prodigy upon the birth in Trieste of Shadal, a true renaissance man who wrote works on philosophy, poetry, and biblical commentary, and is considered one of the fathers of the Jewish Enlightenment movement, or “Haskala”. Shadal's world-view combined rationalism and a search for objective truth with romanticism and religious-national beliefs. Unlike the Ramchal, he abhorred the study of Kabbalah and mysticism. His books gained an enormous audience, and some view him as one of the forerunners of the “revival age” writers who preceded the advent of Zionism.

1870 | Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

Seventy-two years passed between Napoleon's conquest of northern Italy and his declaration that Jews are citizens like any other, until the process of emancipation was fully completed, and Jews began to leave the ghettos and take their place as full-fledged Italian citizens.
But the adherents of the religion of emancipation, who bowed down to a “god” of their own – the idea of national unity – were concerned that the reclusive Jews would form “a nation within the nation”. Therefore, they treated the Jews in accordance with the principle adopted back in the days of the French Revolution in the late 18th century, which stated that “The Jews must be denied any rights as a people, and must be accorded all rights as individuals.”
Italian emancipation succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams. The Jews of Italy integrated into the newly-established unified state to an unprecedented degree. In Italy the routes to careers in the diplomatic corps, the civil service and the military were open to them, while they remained closed to Jews almost anywhere else on the continent. Italy was the first country in Europe to appoint a Jewish Minister of War, Giuseppe Ottolenghi, and two Jewish Prime Ministers, Alessandro Fortis (1905-1906) and Luigi Luzzatti (1910-1911).
In those years mixed marriages and assimilation were so prevalent that there was fear that the Jewish minority in Italy – numbering only one tenth of a percent of the population – would simply disappear.

1922 | The Rise of Fascism

More than once throughout history, just as Jews had almost managed to integrate into general society, someone came along to put them back down. In the case of the Jews of Italy, it was the dictator Benito Mussolini, who headed the Fascist party which came to power in Italy in 1922.
In terms of his treatment of Jews the Mussolini era is divided into three periods. The first period can be called “The Honeymoon” and lasted for ten years, until 1932. During this time the civil and religious rights of the Jewish minority were respected, and Mussolini even publicly denounced racism and anti-Semitism. During this period Mussolini maintained good relations with Zionist leaders and encouraged the activities of the Zionist Federation, although he opposed Jewish separatism.
The second period, which may be called “The Chameleon Phase,” began in 1933, with Hitler's ascent to power in Germany, and ended in 1938. During this time Mussolini began to dither: On the one hand he gave out statements and issued laws favoring the Jews, and on the other took unofficial anti-Semitic steps and voiced support for anti-Semitism in Germany, which he would later join as an ally.
The third phase, “The True Face Period,” began in 1938, when the race laws against Jews were issued. Mussolini burned his bridges with the West, committed to the Berlin-Rome axis and launched an unprecedented anti-Semitic attack in the press, aimed explicitly at all Italian Jews.

1943 | Blood Race and Tears

“I really believe that to have a dry rag would be positive happiness.” (Jewish writer Primo Levi describing a routine day of work in the freezing cold of Auschwitz).

Had you asked a European Jew in 1938, right after the passage of race laws in Italy, where he or she would rather live, Italy would likely have ranked near the bottom of the list. But like Karl Marx's famous saying, that history repeats itself, with the second time as farce – it was the Fascist regime which, somewhat ironically, safeguarded the Jews of Italy.
The reason for this was political. Mussolini wished to portray himself to his subjects as an independent leader, and therefore prevented the Nazis from implementing their “final solution” on those living under his rule – even if he viewed them as second-class citizens.
In 1943 Mussolini was deposed as head of state and Marshall Pietro Badoglio, who was appointed in his stead, immediately signed an armistice agreement with the Allies. This was supposedly deliverance for the Jews, but fate is often a matter of geography: At the time, most Italian Jews lived in the north of the country, which was under Nazi control, and so the hand of fate decreed that out of 44,500 Jews living in Italy before the war, at least 7,682 would perish in the Holocaust.
The Jewish community of Italy was dealt a heavy blow: Thousands were uprooted from their communities, the Jewish order of life was disrupted and many of those who remained in the country were broken in body and spirit. One of them, Jewish-Italian author Primo Levi, wrote the extraordinary book “Is This A Man,” which is considered one of the most chilling and realistic literary depictions of the Holocaust. Levi fell from the balcony of his home in 1987, and it is widely assumed that he took his own life.

2014 | Italian Memory

Italy remembers its Jews. In 2008, for example, no fewer than five academic symposiums were held to discuss the race laws in Italy, marking the 70th anniversary of their passage. The country has also erected monuments to commemorate the Holocaust, and holds memorial services in honor of the Holocaust of Italian Jews. Furthermore, the Jewish issue is part of the curriculum in public schools.
As of 2014 there are 21 Jewish communities in Italy, totaling 35,000 people. The ancient synagogues are in various stages of restoration.
The Jews are collectively represented in contact with the authorities by the “Federation of Jewish Communities of Italy”. Most Jews in Italy are immigrants and children of immigrants, and most of them live in two communities – in Rome and in Milan. Many Jewish heritage sites can be found throughout Italy, including museums, synagogues, ancient Jewish neighborhoods, archeological sites and more.
Israel is home to approximately 10,000 Jews of Italian origin, of whom some 3,000 are organized in the “Italian Immigrant Organization ” which publishes a journal in Italian. Members of the organization meet on important occasions at the gorgeous Italian Synagogue in Jerusalem, where prayer services are held in the unique style of this community.