Monday, April 17, 2006
The tailboard of the Bedford three-ton truck slammed down with a resounding crash, someone yelled, 'Everybody out!', and we all clambered out stiffly on to the baking pavements of wartime Rome.
There were some 15 of us, all from the same Regiment, the 49th Light Anti-Aircraft Rgt. The time was 10am and we had just arrived after a bone-shaking three-hour journey from 75 miles north of the city.
The date was Wednesday, 21 June 1944. Rome had fallen to Allied troops 18 days earlier when the American General Mark Clark of the 5th Army had been given the honour of formally accepting the city's surrender. Six days later, on 9 June, my unit had driven through Rome on its way North and we had been there ever since, figuratively catching our breath while the powers that were decided what our next move was to be. Someone up top must have said, 'Give the troops a chance to see what they've been fighting for,' and I was one of those who had drawn a short straw.
I was not quite twenty-one at the time, had been in the Army since October '42 and abroad since April '43. I had arrived in North Africa just in time for the end of the First Army campaign, had been through the whole of the Sicily campaign and (in company with most of my comrades there that day) had been on the long slog north since the invasion of the Italian main land in September '43.
In my wartime album I still have some snaps taken on the day so I don't have to think too hard to remember what I must have looked like on this scorching day some fifty odd years ago. I was slim in build, dark from successive summers in the Mediterranean and wore khaki drill, as it was officially referred to. My shirt was open necked, sleeves rolled up to the regulation length and I wore blankoed gaiters over my boots.
On my right sleeve I wore a forked lightning badge to show that I was a wireless operator, and on my shoulders I wore the distinctive yellow battle-axe on a black background, which signified that I was part of the 78th British Infantry Division. My chest showed only one medal ribbon, that of the Africa Star and my pipe, a hangover from my civilian life, was clenched at what I obviously imagined was a jaunty angle.
As I've said, the time was 10.00 hours, we had to be back at the pick-up point at 18.00 hours and the Sergeant in charge left us in no doubt as to the likely trouble we would be in if we missed the bus. Back at the camp we'd been given a leaflet that told us of some of the glories we were about to see and printed on the back of the leaflet was a reasonably accurate, if not detailed, map.
I had no particular friends with me on that day, just the way the draw had worked out. This suited me fine however because even a cursory glance at the map had shown that I would have to go like the proverbial clappers to see even a tenth of what the city had to offer and what I had in mind for the day.
We had been dropped off at a lorry park near the Colosseum and so this was an obvious starting point. I followed the early crowds into the amphitheatre and tagged on to a group that had managed to secure the services of an Italian guide. After a short while I slipped away to visit the cells underneath the arena where the slaves and early Christians were held prior to the games and their subsequent death. I have never considered myself to be significantly claustrophobic but the atmosphere in the dank, shaded quarters felt unbearably evil, and I was glad to get back out into the sun and the heat.
Next stop was the nearby Forum where I wandered for a while before heading northward to the Victor Emanuel monument, known to the locals as the 'Wedding Cake' because of its garish architecture. Still heading north, I stopped for a while at the Pantheon and then the Trevi Fountain finally finishing up at the monumental steps of the Piazza di Spagna, where I rested in the shade and ate my haversack rations augmented by fruit and drink I bought on the spot.
It was now time to head west, crossing the Tiber for the first time over the Ponte San Angelo to the castle itself, no time to hang around here because the nearby Vatican beckoned and I pushed on relentlessly.
The Vatican was fantastic, all that I had expected, and I spent a few hours there armed with a guide book. It was almost 17.00 hours before I could tear myself away.
The last item on my mental itinerary for the day was to find the Great Synagogue and, if I could, some fellow Jews. In anticipation of such a meeting I withdrew from my wallet a small brass Magen David, which I had acquired somewhere along the way and I let it hang from the buttonhole of my breast pocket.
The map I had been using made no mention of the Synagogue but I had heard from a Jewish friend back at the unit that it was near the Isola Tiberina, the island that sits in the centre of the Tiber near the Campidoglio.
After leaving the Vatican I re-crossed the river at Ponte Vittorio Emanuel, and then turned right to follow the embankment south until, almost wilting in the heat, I saw the synagogue on my left. It was huge, Moorish in design, with a large domed roof. I walked completely round the outside until I found a small side door that looked as if it was in use. After knocking a few times an elderly man, obviously a caretaker, let me in, and when I explained I was Jewish he let me wander around un-escorted to study the interior. There were no worshippers present and the stained-glass windows and marble pillars were all too much reminiscent of the Vatican that I had just visited. It was certainly a far cry from the Bethnal Green Synagogue where I had been bar-mitzva'd less than eight years earlier!
After about twenty minutes I quit the cool interior to face the baking streets again after first asking the caretaker where I was likely to find other Jews. He told me to cross over the other side of the Tiber and ask any passers-by for the Jewish Quarter.
In the event it proved unnecessary because immediately I had crossed the Ponte Cestio I saw a small whitewashed garage facing the Synagogue. What drew my attention to it was a large Magen David (Shield of David) that someone had painted on its walls in black paint.
More than 50 years later I can still feel the mental blow to the pit of my stomach on seeing this crudely painted sign with all its obvious connotations and its reminder of the photographs I had seen of Jewish shops in Berlin in the late thirties.
I made my way into its dark interior and once my eyes had adjusted to the dark I saw a young man working on a car engine. 'Sono ebrei qui?' ('Are there any Jews here?'), I called into the darkness.
There was a pause and then back in Italian came, 'Why do you want to know?' This, in the most unfriendly of tones.
'Because I’m a Jew,' I replied, and gestured, as if for confirmation, to the Magen David that was now dangling from my breast pocket.
He came close, studied my face carefully, then the Magen David and then, all restraint aside, bear-hugged me as though we were brothers. He, I never knew his name, called out to someone deeper in the darkness who was old enough to be his father or his uncle and introduced me as 'Un soldato Inglese, ma Ebreo!' - an English soldier, but a Jew!
Soon others joined us and each newcomer was solemnly introduced.
'Are there any more Jews around here?" I asked.
My new friend laughed and said, 'Come, I'll show you!'
He wheeled out an ancient motor bike. I was invited to take the pillion seat, and we roared off along the banks of the Tiber.
We didn't have far to go because I soon realised I was back at the Vatican. He parked his bike and pushed me forward towards the stalls that were selling religious objects. He called out to one of the stallholders and within seconds I found myself in the centre of a swarming, back-slapping crowd of men women and children, who proceeded to treat me as if I had just personally liberated Rome.
The kids in particular were particularly interested in my presence and kept touching me as if to convince themselves that I was real. Their parents were content to fire non-stop questions at me, always ending with, 'Do you think the war will be over soon?'
I spoke to my guide and tapped my watch face. I had already told him on the way that I had to be back at the pick-up point for 18.00 hours and the time was flashing by.
He explained to the stallholders and then said to me, 'They want to give you a present (un ricordo),' and I could see that they wanted me to choose something from one of the stalls. The joke was that all of their merchandise was aimed to please good Catholics, and the numerous icons and crucifixes were hardly suitable gifts for this British Jew who was just about to leave them. The matter was soon resolved - one of the men pointed to my own Magen David still hanging from my shirt pocket. I took it off and handed it to him whereupon he promptly took a gold chain off one of the crucifixes and re-fixed it to my own charm.
A roar went up from the crowd - honour had been saved all round and as I hung my ‘ricordo’ around my neck and waved my good-byes I was choked with emotion.
My final call that evening was to another relative of my new found friend and as I drunk the obligatory glass of wine I listened to harrowing tales of what it was like to be a Jewish civilian in wartime Italy. I remember in particular their comments that life under Mussolini had been good even during the early days of the war, but that the horrors had started once the Germans had taken control in September '43.
It was 17.30. I apologised to my hosts that I really must be on my way and we solemnly shook hands. My guide and I roared away into the gloom and with about ten minutes to spare I was back at the lorry park and looking for my transport.
Later, as our ‘passion-wagon’ drove off into the darkening night, in the back of the truck it was noisy as everyone compared notes of how they had spent the day.
There were of course the inevitable tales of booze-ups and female conquests although to be fair to my comrades of fifty years ago there were many there that evening who had obviously also enjoyed sights and experiences that they too would cherish for a lifetime.
For whatever reason, I didn't tell the others about my own day, at least I said nothing about my meeting with fellow Jews and as the truck roared noisily northward, taking me back into the cocoon of life within a British army unit, I consoled myself with the thought that one day I would write it all down