October 16, 1943 is a dark day in the history of Rome. At 5:15 in the morning, SS officers of Germany’s Nazi army stormed the streets of Rome’s Jewish ghetto to round up the innocent civilians and cart them away. First to the Collegio Militare on Via della Lungara across the river and then on to Tiburtina train station. Here they boarded retrofitted cattle cars and taken to Auschwitz concentration camp, among others. The atrocity of what happened in those places is widely known and the fates of the innocent Roman Jews sealed. Just 16 of the 1,024 people taken away that day returned. Sixteen. It’s a part of the history of Rome that so unfathomably recent, so unfathomably horrid, but never forgotten.
While Rome had it’s fair share of Fascists supporting the efforts of the Nazis, the reality is that there was a substantial amount of resistance and even less silent support. Stories of families hiding innocent Jewish families are quite common. After all, the Roman Jews are just as much Roman as they are Jewish. They were entirely integrated into the fabric of the city, even though their neighborhood near the south bend of the Tiber River is the same they were confined to under the severity of several popes for centuries.
One such family well known for protecting the lives of their innocent Roman neighbors is the Costaguti family, or more exactly Achille Afan de Rivera Costaguti and his wife, Giulia Afan de Rivera Costaguti. In an effort that could have cost them their own lives and those of their family, Achille and his wife hid 16 Roman Jewish families, amounting to circa 50 individuals, from near certain death at the hands of the Nazis. They were able to do this not only for the shear size of their palazzo but also it’s strategic location. While the official entrance opens onto Piazza Mattei (at least since the 17th century) which is technically no longer in the Jewish Ghetto, the rest of the building is fully situated within the ghetto’s bounds. This made the ability to bring the families into safety under cover much easier and out of site from those who would have called the family out.
Roman Jews seeking asylum from their non-Jewish neighbors would offer them any and all their family possessions – jewelry, silver, carpets, porcelain – in exchange for safety. These items were similarly offered to the Costagutis, but who ultimately made the effort to return all of these belongings, to relatives or to whomever it was possible, after the war. In a poignant story about a young man who had heard of the kindness shown to his family by the Costagutis decided to visit them personally to thank them. He described a small bag of jewelry that had belonged to his grandmother that they were given but was likely lost in time. He wasn’t interested in retrieving the jewelry but instead just to meet the woman who had saved his family. Giulia Afan de Rivera Costaguti looked at him for a moment, stood up and walked to a chest of drawers where she pulled out the small bag of jewelry to give back to this young man. Saved for all these years and never forgotten, the precious heirlooms made it back into the family.
In recognition for the kindness, compassion, protection, selflessness, and stewardship shown to their Roman Jewish community, Achille Afan de Rivera Costaguti and his wife Giulia were acknowledged with the “Righteous Among the Nations” (Giusti tra le Nazioni) plaque, awarded by the State of Israel to non-Jewish civilians who saved Jews from certain death during the Holocaust. The plaque is located in the Garden of the Righteous at Yad Vesham, Israel’s official Holocaust Memorial, in Jerusalem
The full story of the plight of the Roman Jews is eloquently described in a 2 hour documentary produced for the Italian Docu-Series Ulisse: Il Piacere della Scoperta (The Pleasure of Discovery). You can watch the full documentary online here (Italian only). The Costaguti involvement starts at 32’43” and includes an interview with Costanza Costaguti, daughter of Achille and Giulia.
Visitors to Rome have the opportunity to visit, stay and experience the beautiful history of Palazzo Costaguti at the Costaguti Experience.
Translation from the cover image of the plaque located in Piazza 16 Ottobre, dedicated on the 41st anniversary:
October 16, 1943 Entire Jewish Roman families taken from their homes by Nazis were brought into this building and deporting to extermination camps. Of 1,000 people just 16 survived