I traveled to Italy this summer with my incredible best friend, intent on hitting all the highlights—Venice, Florence and Milan. But I have to admit visiting Rome took some convincing. All I knew of Rome was that Romans destroyed the Temple and paraded our most sacred objects through their streets. To then walk those same streets, albeit two millennia later, seemed odious. (Silly, I know, but I don’t forgive easily.)
But we did the dutiful tourist thing and gawked our way through the Vatican. The priceless artwork painted onto every minute corner of every room in this palatial feat of architecture, the Sistine Chapel, the grand hallways… it was so dizzying and overwhelming that the only thing my friend could say of it was, “It looks like Vegas. Where is the poker room?”
What we didn’t yet know was that Rome is also home to one of the oldest Jewish communities of the Diaspora. Roman streets include Jewish Ghetto streets—and walking those streets was a truly humbling honor.
Immediately following our visit to the Vatican, we connected with Jewish Roma Tours, a tour group consisting of Roman-born Jewish guides who illuminate the strengths and vigilance of this incredible community. Our guide, Micol, is an energetic, passionate young mom who punctuated her insight about the Jewish Ghetto and the Great Synagogue with personal anecdotes about her family.
We saw the Fontane delle Tartarughe, read the plaques memorializing the Romans who were carted off to perish in the Nazi camps. She showed us the splendor of the Great Synagogue and guided us on an incredible tour of the Jewish Museum.
But the most memorable thing Micol showed us was a garage.
During WWII, more than 1,000 Jewish men, women and children from Rome were carted off to the camps. Only eight returned. The scant other Jews who survived did so by hiding, usually with the aid of sympathetic neighbors. Micol’s father was a young boy at the time, and plain wooden double-doors of an ordinary garage were all that separated his family from the Nazis for more than six months during the occupation.
The family who owned the garage not only kept them safe, they made Micol’s very existence possible. The metaphor of a door separating the possibility of life from the probability of death was not lost on any of us, and our whole group lingered around the garage, seemingly unwilling to leave.
A few hours earlier, I had been snapping pictures of Michelangelo’s most famous painting, amazed at my proximity to this incredible work of art. But in the hot and stifling air of a former fish market and Jewish imprisonment, where thousands of Jews were crammed into a few tiny blocks and persevered against unbelievable odds, I found myself taking picture after picture of a garage door.
But I guess that’s perfect. The story of the Jewish people is not frescoed onto grand walls. It’s told in the candlesticks that were smuggled out of Europe, Torah scrolls that survived pogroms and garage doors that kept young boys hidden.
A few feet away from the garage is the school Micol’s kids attend. It’s a Jewish school. And it’s thriving. Α
Mayrav Saar is a writer based in Los Angeles.