First of all Italians. The Roman Jews and the Great War

16 December 2014 – 16 March 2015

Tuesday, 16 December 2014, the Jewish Museum of Rome inaugurates the exhibition First of all Italians in the Sala del Novecento. The Roman Jews and the Great War. The exhibition, curated by Lia Toaff and which will remain open until 16 March 2015, tells the Jewish contribution to the First World War through photographs, letters from the front, prayer books, postcards, medals and honors. Stories of men on the border line, of military rabbinate and of Italian Jews who returned from the front to defend the homeland will then be downgraded by the racial laws and deported to the Nazi death camps. The Minister of Defense, Roberta Pinotti, the President of the Jewish Community of Rome, Riccardo Pacifici, and the Chief Rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, the Councilor for Culture of the Jewish Community of Rome, Gianni Ascarelli, the Director of the Museum participate in the inauguration. , Alessandra Di Castro, and the curator of the exhibition Lia Toaff.

The contribution to the Great War

At the dawn of the conflict the patriotic identity of the Jews was equal to that of any Italian. The First World War was an opportunity to legitimize participation in social life. For the first time Jews were placed on the same level as Italian citizens. The call to arms represented, in fact, a push towards emancipation and denied those who identified Judaism with cowardice and hostility towards the adopted homeland. When Italy entered the conflict in 1915, the Italian Jewish population amounted to about 35,000 people out of a total population of about 38 million. Many of these enthusiastically accepted entry into the war by virtue of patriotism and attachment to the Savoy dynasty. 5,000 Jews left for the front. In 50% of the cases they held the rank of officers: to be appointed an officer it was necessary to have attained at least a diploma of higher studies. But Roman Jews are an exception to the Italian Jewish population which had an education far above that of the national average. Throughout history, they were allowed only poor trades and during the years of imprisonment in the ghetto they had dealt mainly with commerce, so their socio-cultural position was not advanced. Thus, mainly the role of troop soldiers, the officers represented a minority. The Italian region that had the largest number of Jewish combatants (about 500) was Piedmont followed by Tuscany (around 400), Veneto and Emilia Romagna (about 350 each)

The Military Rabbinate

Religious assistance was guaranteed during the fighting. For the Jews the Military Rabbinate was established in June 1915. This institution was proposed by the President of the Committee of Italian Jewish Communities Angelo Sereni and by the Major Rabbi of Rome Angelo Sacerdoti. The rabbi was authorized to follow the troops to the front, in the same way as the Catholic chaplains. His authority was recognized by many as an antidote to the assimilating force of the life of war. The military rabbinate was composed of six rabbis: five of them were assimilated to the rank of lieutenant, while their coordinator, Angelo Sacerdoti, was assigned the rank of captain, in consideration of his position and the importance of the community to which he belonged. Following these rabbis, three deputy rabbis were joined as their coadjutors. On September 28, 1915, Priests wanted a very precise clothing that should have distinguished the rabbis at the front, from the winter uniform to the summer one, to the gray and green color, to the cap with a five-pointed star surmounted by the crown Italy. The rabbis had to be, first of all, recognizable in the eyes of their co-religionists and should not be confused with the chaplains. Many Jews at the front, on the other hand, wanted to avoid being distinguished by religion. Only with time did they become aware and proud of being Jewish and Italian at the same time.

From the fallen to the Racial Laws

The fallen Jews during the war were around 420 and it is assumed that in total about 700 were decorated. 1600 was the number of Jewish officers alive when the shadow of the Racial Laws fell in Italy. By virtue of their contribution to the Homeland, many fighters asked to be exempt from persecution, they asked to be “discriminated”. There were not many cases where these “discriminations” were granted and many of those who had fought for Italy fell into Nazi hands and were killed between 1943 and 1945 in the death camps.