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WWII doc describes plight of Rome’s Jews
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WWII doc describes plight of Rome’s Jews

Questions for Joel Markel and Dr. Susan Zuccotti

Jewish residents of Rome, 1943, from Oro Macht Frei
Jewish residents of Rome, 1943, from Oro Macht Frei

On Wednesday, Nov. 5, Monmouth University will host a free screening of Oro Macht Frei (Gold Will Set You Free), a 70-minute documentary about the plight of Rome’s Jews during World War II and a little-known gold extortion plot waged by the Nazis that would have devastating implications for the city’s Jewish community in October 1943. 

NJJN sat down with Marlboro resident Joel Markel — founder and president of Preferred Home Health Care & Nursing Services in Eatontown, producer and founder of Ottimo Films, and the documentary’s executive producer — and historian Dr. Susan Zuccotti, author of five books on the Holocaust and a historic reference on the film, to discuss the making of the film and the larger messages it seeks to impart.

NJJN: Tell us about the Jewish community in Rome during World War II.

Zuccotti: Though Italy’s 58,000 Jews made up only one-tenth of 1 percent of the entire Italian population in 1938, the 10,000-12,000 members of the Jewish community in Rome represented the largest of any city in Italy. It was a very socially and economically diverse community that ranged from the well-educated and prosperous to the poorer residents who lived in the city’s former ghetto. Overall, however, they were a very integrated group who did not feel themselves to be persecuted and were extremely loyal to the monarch. In 1938, anti-Jewish laws began to be decreed, and they were harshly enforced. However, there were no deportations of Jews until the Germans officially occupied Italy in September 1943. They remained in Rome for a nine-month period, until June 1944, and in much of northern Italy until the spring of 1945. During that time, Jews understood that they were in enormous danger and many went into hiding.

NJJN: Describe the gold extortion plot waged upon Roman Jews during this time.

Markel: The plot was perpetrated by Herbert Kappler, the head of the SS, who demanded 50 kilos [110 pounds] of gold within 24 hours or 200 Jewish family heads would be deported to Auschwitz. To protect their families and community, Jews began collecting what they could — including wedding rings and even gold teeth — and ultimately presented the requested amount to the Nazis, who weighed it 10 times in front of witnesses and declared it to have come up short.

NJJN: What ultimately happened?

Zuccotti: Though some escaped, a total of 1,259 Jews, including 896 women and children, were arrested in Rome on Oct. 16, 1943, and most were sent to Auschwitz; only 17 would survive the camps. Another 800-900 Jews in hiding were caught and deported before the city was liberated. The vast majority of the community survived by hiding all over the city, many with church members because there were so many hundreds of church institutions in Rome, and Roman Jews were so integrated.

NJJN: Why were you compelled to share this story in this, your first film?

Markel: The film was 10 years in the making and started over a decade ago when my wife and I visited Rome and took a walking tour of historic Jewish sites. Upon visiting the beautiful synagogue called Tempio Maggiore, we were told of the gold extortion plot, which we’d never heard about. Though I’m of Hungarian descent, my mother is a survivor of Auschwitz and my family was in the jewelry business, with gold playing a major part of my upbringing in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, a very Italian neighborhood. I felt that every aspect of my existence was reflected in this story and that I had to share it with others. 

NJJN: What messages do you hope the documentary will send?

Markel: Little was known about the impact of the Holocaust in Italy, so I hope that this film can add to our collective fact base. The film demonstrates how our Jewish suffering continues to repeat itself throughout history, but it also reveals the goodness in humanity that comes out in the face of terror. The film talks about the support the Jews received from nuns, priests, neighbors, and storeowners who were hiding people and the fact that some of the community came to their aid. My mother, who’s now 87, always taught us that despite the Holocaust, there’s more goodness in the world than evil, and I hope this film conveys that.

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