The Faces in the Windows


“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
William Faulkner

Something that makes European travel complicated for me is are the places haunted by spirits who peek out from windows and follow us down streets looking for anyone passing by who will look up, or turn around, and see them.

A few places hum and crackle with this energy, perhaps because so many of the dead still cry out to be heard. Last night I was in one of those places, the former Jewish Ghetto of Rome.

The experience left me troubled and conflicted. My first sensation was a subtle lifting of some barely felt pressure, a glimmer of the feeling when one comes home from a long trip and steps inside one’s own front door. It was nice to be there, Dan and I agreed. Look—there’s a sign in Hebrew! Look—there’s a Jewish elementary school! Look, there’s a kosher restaurant—wow, there’s another, and another.

We had come down for an evening stroll along the Tiber, an exterior circuit of the majestic synagogue, and dinner at a restaurant serving traditional Roman Jewish food.

The main street of the Jewish quarter makes a favorable impression. It’s a wide, cobbled promenade, with interesting traces of Ancient Rome in some lower walls with carved inscriptions, repurposed as part of more modern buildings. Attractive young people hawk flyers for restaurants, including one with a menu that said, “the only one with a true Roman Jew inside,” and quoted Anthony Bourdain’s brief, vaguely favorable comment about THEIR Jewish-style artichoke.

As we relaxed at an outside table, however, my eyes gravitated toward the upper floors of the buildings and the conflict began. In the sixteenth century a pope declared that the Jews had to live separately (of course in an area prone to flooding and waterborne diseases that kept others from settling there) and made the Jews pay for the cost of the walls that would keep them prisoner at night. Their homes are gone, and there isn’t much sign of a wall, but is any place, once haunted, ever free of it?

And this place was the scene of a genocide in World War II, when Jews were ghettoized again and then systematically deported to the camps from which few returned. Elsewhere in Rome are the stories of survivors from all over Europe (including Leizer and Zenia Bart, whom I wrote about in my St. Martin’s book, Until Our Last Breath), who came to the displaced person’s camp set up at the film studio Cinecitta and then found new homes in Rome, Israel, and elsewhere.

As we sat eating heartily and enjoying a lovely wine on a warm evening, something in my spirit said, “this is not right.” Tourists in tank tops eating gelato ambled by, oblivious to the spirits looking on from the upper floors. How crowded were theJews behind those windows? Did they have any more than the bread I spurned at the restaurant for their daily nourishment? Surely, when they thought of what lay ahead next in their life, it wasn’t a quick flight to Corfu to continue a life adventure of their own choosing, as I will do in a day or two.

I don’t know what to think of this. It’s good to have an acknowledgment of Jewish history in Rome. It’s good to see Jewish bakers and restauranteurs thriving ( at least they are Jewish in the kosher establishments). It’s good to feel a sense of affirmation with the spirits in the windows. Still, a little less of the feel of Disneyland and a lot more concrete acknowledgment of those who lived and died here would feel a lot better.