Italy: Yesterday’s Jewish Ghetto and Today’s Rome

Guest Blogger

A native of the Netherlands, Cindy De Michele Hock lived in Rome, Italy, for a few years before moving to Scotland. She has also lived in Namibia and Sri Lanka. Today she explores the historic Jewish Ghetto of Rome.

The Portico d’Ottavia, or the Porticus Octaviae as it was known in the days of Augustus, is at the heart of the Roman Ghetto on the banks of the River Tiber, the third longest river in Italy, which flows through Rome on its way from Mount Fumaiolo to the sea.

One of the oldest ghettos in the world, it was established on 12 July 1555, when Pope Paul IV promulgated the papal bull “cum nimis absurdum”, proclaiming that the Jews were condemned by God to eternal slavery, depriving them of their civil rights and ordering them to live in the “Seraglio degli Ebrei”, the Enclosure of the Jews, a walled quarter with gates opening at sunrise and closing shortly after sunset.

The Ghetto, with its dark and narrow alleyways, was overcrowded, without fresh water supply, and often flooded by the Tiber. The Roman Ghetto was the only remaining ghetto in Western Europe when the Nazis started establishing ghettos again in the 1930s.

Today the Roman Ghetto is a prosperous and charming district where one can pleasantly wander off and enjoy possibly the best food in Rome. Built in memory of the Roman Ghetto, the Great Synagogue with its floral designs and eclectic structure has stood proudly at the Lungotevere de’ Cenci since 1904.

Sukkoth – Feast of Tabernacles

By early afternoon, well over 1,000 Jews, including 207 children, had been transferred to the Collegio Militare in the Via della Lungara, a stone’s throw from the Roman Ghetto.

Two days later, the 1,024 men, women, and children were put in 18 cattle carriages at Rome’s Tiburtina railway station, to arrive in Auschwitz only four days later. Only 15 men and one woman were to return from Poland.

Portico d’Ottavia

All that remains of the Portico d’Ottavia, once built by the soon to be emperor Augustus for his beloved sister Ottavia, are the external portico and the central entrance in the direction of the race-tracks of the Circus Flaminius.

The lonely columns that can be seen from the Via del Portico d’Ottavia stand stately and solemnly as to forever pinpoint the location of the round-up where on that Black Saturday by order of Herbert Kappler so many lives were cut short.

Yet despite the hardship, the suffering, and the cruelty, the Jews stayed in Rome and continued living in what is still known as the Roman Ghetto today, home of what is believed to be the most ancient Jewish community in the world.  

Da Giggetto

At the Via del Portico d’Ottavia one can join a table at the sunny terrace of Da Giggetto, a charming restaurant with friendly staff offering traditional Roman Jewish cuisine.

And while waiting for the “carciofi alla giudia”, the fried artichoke appetizer, perhaps let one’s mind wander off while overlooking the tranquil square, Largo 16 Ottobre 1943, just like the tormented Davide Veroli, the “pasticciere” from Ferzan Ozpetek’s 2003 film, La Finestra di Fronte, or Facing Windows. The food is excellent and the atmosphere warm and cozy.

Jewish Rome Today

After lunch or dinner one can stroll through the Jewish quarter, once a site of relentless persecution, today a site of ancient Roman architecture like the Pons Judaeocum, or Jews’ Bridge, and the Teatro Marcello, kosher restaurants, and shops, the only surviving old Ghetto building fronts, but also the church of Sant’Angelo in Pescheria, once packed with Jews forced to listen to Christian sermons, and the Jewish Museum.

Walking tours can be booked at the Jewish Museum (minimum three participants), but remember that tours are unavailable and most buildings are closed on Shabbat (Saturday).

Travel Essentials

Da Giggetto al Portico d’Ottavia – Via del Portico d’Ottavia 21/a, 00186 Rome – Telephone: +39 06 686 11 05.

Jewish Ghetto Walk – Jewish Museum – Lungotevere de’ Cenci – 00186 Rome – Telephone: +39 06 684 00 661..

Cindy De Michele Hock

Born in Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Cindy De Michele Hock studied law and history in the Netherlands before moving to Rome, Italy, to permanently live with her then boyfriend. She is a freelance lawyer and legal translator.

A few years later, Cindy and her boyfriend moved to Scotland, where they got married. They did volunteer work for one year in Namibia. They are now concluding a six month stay in Sri Lanka. Then it’s back to Scotland.

“We’ll continue traveling, especially in Namibia and Africa!!!” says Cindy, who describes herself as “an enthusiastic wildlife photographer and writer”.

“I love wildlife, the great outdoors, new cultures, and languages.”


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