The Rumours of War

 

The Rumours of War

By Caroline Bock

 

 

Even with our forged identity cards, there were no rooms to be had in Rome for my father, mother, or me.
 
The streets were a cacophony of the rough Roman dialect of the Jews. Men hawked goods: used clothing, sewing notions, the stuff of rag pickers. Even though Mussolini had stripped the Jews of Rome of their peddler licenses, they managed, with one eye over their shoulder and the police looking the other way, to transverse the low-lying streets of the ghetto. At the synagogue, we were offered a corner, crowded among membranous scrolls, rare editions and palimpsests in Aramaic, Hebrew, Latin, and Italian piled high, organized in some order known only to the rabbinical students and their teachers in the synagogue. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. My father joked that this was where I’d become a bar mitzvah.
 
After only one night, the rabbi’s secretary bustled down into our hiding place to inform us, “Your visit must be terminated immediately.” The Chief Rabbi of Rome was concerned about the ancient manuscripts, but it was more. “Rabbi Zolli believes we are safe, but not with you here, not hiding foreign Jews.”
 
‘We’re from Milan,” said my mother. Her Polish-accented Italian revealed more. The secretary slipped some lire into my father’s pocket. “From the rabbi’s own hands,” she said, as if that made a difference. I was born in Milan, which did not make me Italian since my parents were born elsewhere, and so what could we do but leave?
 
That rabbi would hide throughout Rome during the war, and after the war, he would convert to Catholicism. This can be looked up in history on the Internet, even though I don’t need man-made webs to know my own history.
 
My mother grabbed my father’s black wool coat and shoved our meager stores back into our valise. “Why rush?” my father asked of her. He was a man who moved at his own pace.
 
“Mayer, I’ve heard that we could send Benjamin to the monks. Convent nuns will hide me.”
 
“You, my wild wife, Hannah, in a convent? And what of me?” He mimicked the gravelly accent of the Roman Jews and aimed for a kiss. My father was pug-faced with blue eyes and slicked-down black curls. He was a sheet music salesman. His secret weapon: he could whistle every Irving Berlin tune.
 
Mother pushed him away. “You can go back to your partisans. Drink. Shoot up the Nazis like in an American western. ”
 
“I’m not leaving you again.”
 
We linked arms and left the basement, strolling through the streets, my mother in a beret slanted to the side of her angular face, giving her the air of a life well-lived that she always seemed to carry with her.
 
 My father said, “Let’s pretend that we are here on holiday. Let’s pretend for an hour before we panic about food and shelter.” And so we did because my father still could pretend.
 
The girls were everywhere—girls with throaty laughs and red, red lipstick. Some leaned against sides of buildings. Some bound their hair in kerchiefs. Some wore hats. Some strutted, their shoes clacking on the cobblestones. My ankles and wrists jutted out from my pants and jacket. The girls teased me with a flick of a smile. The scent of poppies drifted from a flower stand or from these girls. Pigeons trooped around. The crowds surged up and down among the market carts, bargaining, beseeching, and begging. All I could think of was how red these girls lips were. I’m sure descendants of those red lips are in still in Rome.
 
My mother brandished her fake ration card. The official rations included one hundred and fifty grams of bread, eight hundred grams of pasta, and half a liter of olive oil—and we all needed olive oil; Jews wouldn’t cook with lard. Even though we weren’t religious, there were just some things we wouldn’t do. In the market, there was no olive oil to be had, no meat, no milk. But everyone worked at trading news: The Allied forces, the Americans and British, were landing in Naples. Or, the Allies were aiming for Sicily. No one had successfully invaded Italy from the south in fifteen hundred years… They are coming through the Balkans, through Greece… They are not coming at all.
 
My father bounced on his heels, listening to one group of men and then another, whistling scraps of songs from his old song sheets. I would have given everything I had to those Roman girls, for one of them to teach me—teach me anything at all—that fresh spring day.
 
“We will starve, and neither of you give a damn,” said my mother, throwing up her hands like a diva on stage.
 
With the trade of my father’s pocket watch, we kept on pretending. We dined out, a supper at a famous restaurant in the Roman ghetto, Piperno’s, with a glass of red wine for each of my parents, and a waiter, our table a window on the world. I had for the first time carciofi alla Guidia, or artichokes Jewish style, fried in olive oil with a bit of lemon. The leaves toward the center were particularly tender.
 
*
 
Soon we were into the summer of 1943 in Rome. Mother and I were sleeping in another basement, this one belonging to a store owned by a rambling, big-mouthed, big-hearted family of Roman Jews, who claimed they could trace their history to when Jews still walked under the Arch of Tutus. By then father had left us for his partisans.
 
The basement was a maze of second-hand shirts and pants, drawers of odd buttons, and stacks of cracked or broken crockery, piled from floor to ceiling, smelling of dust and feet and the stink of the nearby Tiber river. We had offered the Renzo family mother’s pearl earrings in exchange for food and shelter, and they had said they would take only one, as if she would ever wear the other again. But they knew we would need the other. The war wasn’t ending so soon.
 
This early morning, the sun striking us through the basement’s only window, a spider worked above the doorway, weaving its prey into the fine strings of its web. “I don’t know, Benjamin,” mother said – “I don’t know anything anymore. I want to sleep and never wake up.”
 
“Should I ask Mr. Renzo or his wife if I may have a cup of coffee for you?” Maybe his wife would offer me a bit more bread, or some cheese like they had the day before. Maybe she would bend from the waist and I could peer down into the well between her breasts.
 
The morning rays hit the web, and the spider spun around as if knowing the day would soon be too hot for such activity.
 
“No one has coffee,” she said to herself as much as me. “No one has any coffee in all of Rome. Maybe in all of Europe.”
 
I should have said that I would ask for the coffee substitute, chicory. But yesterday, she had said it burned her insides, destroyed her palate, and made life less, not more.
 
“We have to get going,” I said.
 
“Go?” she demanded. “Where do we have to go?”
 
“How much longer can we stay?”
 
She pressed her hand, skin like parchment, to my cheek, and it burned. Both of us would go up in flames if we didn’t go, didn’t move, though I didn’t know to where. “Watch the spider,” she said. “She spins such a pretty web.”
 
*
 
On the ninth of July in the evening, my father returned, tripping over his feet.      
 
My mother opened her eyes to see my father easing an oversized tin can into her lap like an infant.
 
“That wouldn’t be coffee?”
 
“‘Oh my honey! Oh my honey! Come on and hear!’ I have stewed tomatoes.”
 
Pulpy, tasteless, stewed tomatoes. I couldn’t eat such lifeless tomatoes, not then, and certainly not now.
 
“But let me tell you, Hannah, Benny, the news, before we get to eat. ‘Let me take you by the hand! Who’s the leader of the band?’” He whistled the rest of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
 
“My love,” said my father, falling to his knees. She stroked his head and then the can of tomatoes.
 
“The Americans, British, Canadians, Kiwis, and more—Ghurkas from India and Africans and Arabs from Tunisia and Morocco—well, the whole damn world, has landed in Sicily. The invasion has begun.”  
 
“Maybe there will be coffee in the world again.”
 
“I have more news.”
 
”More?”
 
I pulled my knees to my chest, wishing that the spider would wrap me in its web.
 
My father used the can opener on his pocketknife to spear the can of tomatoes. He may have sold sheet music but he came from a family that traded in horses and lumber in the forests outside Kharkov. He may have been the odd brother out, the youngest, the one who dreamed musical notes and escaped conscription in the First World War, fleeing to Italy, but he could work any knife or hammer or saw.
 
My father offered the can to my mother first. She sipped. “Delicious, Mayer.” Then he drank, as if they were sharing wine. “Now Benjamin, eat.”
 
My father sized me up. I believe this was the first time he ever saw me as more than a boy.
 
“Eat,” she said. “Pretend it’s something else, but eat. Can’t we still pretend?”
           
I took the silver can and imagined as hard as I could that the tinny, pulpy, tasteless tomatoes were the juice of a fresh orange, that I was tasting sweet citrus, half-remembered from a distant time and place: my hometown of Milan, pre-war. Oranges, I thought. Oranges. If war had a taste, cold, stewed tomatoes would be one of them.
 
My parents looked at me and at one another, satisfied. “Now. What news? Be quick about it, Mayer.”
 
 He relaxed back. He wasn’t going to be rushed. “Big news. We have a place to go next. We have work.”
 
“Work?” asked my mother with fear. We had ventured out once from the basement and seen the posters with the smiling Italian with a flower in his buttonhole, smoking a cigarette. The headline advertised: Work now. Good clothes. Good food. Good pay, and good fellowship for work with the German government in Italy or in Germany.
 
My father yanked a scrap of paper from his shoe and showed it to my mother.
 
“No, Mayer. No. The Vatican? What are we going to do there? Knock on the pope’s door?”
 
“This is a miracle, Hannah.”
 
“Hof oif nissim noz farloz zich nit oif a nes.” An exhausted Yiddish dropped from her: Hope for miracles, but don’t rely on one. She’d lived in Italy for twenty years, but she still reverted in times of need to her mother tongue.
 
“Forget miracles,” said my father. “I believe in me, and you, and Benny.”
 
“There must be more than this slip of paper.” My mother reached for the silver can and drank deeply as if fortifying herself for the days to come.
 
“On the other side is the name of a priest.”
 
“And what else? I don’t hear of anyone in the Vatican hiding Jews.”
 
“They are not hiding us. We’re going there to work, as I said. We are all going to be in a film.”
 
My mother gasped, choking, spraying the juice onto my father and me. In retrospect, I’d say she did a fine spit take.
 
“Yes, work. A film is being made in the Vatican under the auspices of the Church, with a director and screenwriter, and a cast. A very large cast, I’ve been told, of people like us.”
 
“What is it about?”
 
“Are you going to review it? The purpose is to give us work and a reason for being within the walls of the Vatican.”
 
My mother sniffed. “What is the title of this grand production, Mayer?”
 
“We’ll find out soon.”
 
She rubbed her hands down her pale cheeks, pulled the strands of her thick black hair into a proper bun, and decided not to die that day.
 
The spider caught a fly and tore its wings off, then wrapped the rest of it in its web.
 
*
 
The Fascist Grand Council forced Mussolini out of power, and he fled north and was rescued by the Nazis.
 
In Rome, at first, there were euphoric celebrations about Mussolini’s fall. With the Allies having landed in Sicily, Rome was to be an international Open City, safe from the war, or so one rumour snaked down the streets and alleyways. Other rumours: the Nazis were going to retreat. The Nazis were planning to bomb Rome. Bomb the train tracks. Bomb the bridges. Or Hitler had given orders not to bomb. Or Pope Pius XII had made a deal with Hitler and the Allies: No one would bomb Rome. Or the pope had fled the Vatican, and Rome would be bombed to the ground any day now. War loves rumours.
 
On this muggy, airless July evening, amid the crowds of jubilant Romans—drunk on wine and freedom—we crossed the Tiber. Vatican City was an easy walk from the Jewish quarter. In St. Peter’s Square, we shouted for peace, for Pope Pius XII, who did not appear, but even more loudly for peace. The crowds burned the Fascist flag and shouted, “Out with foreigners,” meaning the Germans now, not the foreign Jews, not us, or so we wanted to believe. Girls strutted and danced near the flames. Everyone: my father, and me, who wanted to stay and watch the girls and see if one tore off her shirt in the madness—everyone but my mother believed that the Allies would take Rome immediately.
 
My mother was right. The war raged on.
 
*
 
In September, King Emmanuel, known in Italian history as a remarkably short man, a king at five feet, signed an armistice with the Allies. Italy had realigned herself.
 
He signed this and fled Rome. He was a very particular kind of coward.
 
*
 
Sporadic gunfire popped wildly outside the Vatican gates.
 
The official radio broadcast—in German and German-accented Italian—announced that any Italian with a gun would be sent to jail. The penalty for attacking a German soldier was death. The telephone wires were cut. It was forbidden to ride a bicycle, to walk along certain sidewalks, to cross certain streets, to telegraph outside Rome. Curfew was six o’clock p.m. To be precise: Rome was under Nazi rule.
 
*
 
That autumn, with the air crisp, the Roman skies a ferocious blue, my father, mother and I were in a monk’s cell within the Vatican gates, in a single room with two narrow beds, clean bedding, a stone floor, and a large wooden cross affixed next to the doorway.
 
My father pressed his hands along all the walls as if to check that the thick foundations were solid. He stopped at the cross and touched his fingers to his lips then to the wood, slanting it slightly. “We’ll pretend that this holds our prayers too, that it’s our mezuzah.”  
 
“Let’s see if we are going to stay here,” said my mother, moving the cross back.
 
*
 
Before the war, there had been four or five hundred residents of Vatican City at any time. But now among all the religious residents, were over a hundred men, women and children, who were part of the cast of the upcoming, unnamed Vincent Ricci production.
 
In the weeks since we’d had arrived, we had yet to see the director or the man who was called heaven’s representative on earth. It was rumoured that the pope was not inside the Vatican walls but somewhere safer. We had met many priests, including Father Montini, a youthful cleric, a stout man built low to the ground, who could have been a farmer or bricklayer if he hadn’t been a priest. He’d introduced himself with a wry smile as, “priest-in-charge-of-production. Film Supervisor. My new title.”
 
Inside, the men like father and me—I had passed my thirteenth birthday and considered myself a man—were building movie sets.
 
All the men and boys labored under the direction of Raul, the set designer. He informed us that he had worked with Roberto Rossellini, and the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. He was a man who hurried from one project to another, who always wore a silk shirt open at the collar. He called himself, and everyone he liked, including my father, a son of a whore, even those who were French, Polish, or English, and didn’t understand that they were being mocked in Italian. Raul ignored everyone he didn’t like, most notably the nuns. He sucked on his cigarette until its end burned his fingers and made sure everything was to the director’s specifications, which somehow were all in Raul’s own head. He joked to us that there was no overtime for any of us. “And certainly no golden overtime rule. This isn’t Hollywood. There, after sixteen hours of work, you’d all be rich men, making a day’s wages for one hour of work. Maybe after the war, we’ll all go to Hollywood and I will hire you, and then I’ll have to pay you, you sons of whores.”
 
Under construction: a village street, the exterior and interior of a rich man’s house and, most critically, a train station waiting room, a platform, and tracks. In the weeks here, we had learned that filmmakers do not speak of inside and outside. When building a movie set, one constructs only the façade, the framework of reality.
 
One builds the front of the rich man’s house with an impressive door and an entryway that leads to nothing. One lays stone to look like a corner on a typical Italian street but there are no streets. One builds the front of a bakery with an elegant sign that evokes the smell of fresh-baked bread. One would think that the ovens would be only props. Only the front of the steel casings, only a sham fire. But in this case, the ovens were real and were used to feed the hundreds.
 
The women, all slated to be extras too, made the dough from whole meal or spelt and, as the weeks passed, chickpeas, maize flour, elm pith and mulberry leaves. We heard of bread riots in Rome that spring, bakeries ransacked, and SS troops dragging women accused of stealing bread for their children to a bridge over the Tiber, shooting them and dropping their bodies into the river for the seabirds, also hungry, to pick apart. To the bread at the basilica the women added a bit of honey and a fingertip of yeast. They soon learned that kneading for this kind of dough wasn’t necessary; it was flat and hard and somewhere in between true bread and matzo, the unleavened sheets, cracker-like, that Jews eat at Passover to mark the Exodus and the end of slavery under the pharaohs.  All the women worked our loaves in and out of the ovens from before dawn to early evening.
 
The most elaborate of sets was the train station. If we could have built a real train station with actual iron horses that could take us away from the bombs now dropping on the outskirts of Rome, we would have. But we built the illusion: a vast waiting room. One group of men scavenged for building supplies throughout the city: beams, panes of glass, plywood, and planks. They hauled back to us doors and posts and window frames. My father, having transformed himself from song sheet seller to carpenter, organized teams to hew, chop, cleave, and split the found wood into usable boards and posts.
 
Not all the men and women who worked on the Ricci production were encamped inside the Vatican. Some showed up for short stints and were never seen again. No burdensome questions were asked except that you had to be cleared by Raul. You had to be at least a friend of a friend to work on the film, which is how things worked in Italy, and later I learned in most of the movie world.
 
 We all worked for room and bread. We had yet to meet the director but his name was on everyone’s lips. A famous movie actor, the gossip went. We didn’t know when the filming would begin, or if that was an illusion too. And we didn’t care.  
 
In those first few weeks, I had a special project with a Jew from Turin, a clockmaker who wore a moth-eaten plaid jacket molded to his spare frame along with an extravagantly long scarf wound loosely around his neck. We built a huge clock, which stood about eight feet high. The clock was for the center of the train station waiting room. He had scrounged the metal for the clock’s hands from one of the many altars around the Vatican. He’d carefully drawn Roman numerals on to nun’s linen that he had cut for the face of the clock. My father said he was a meshuggener, but a nice crazy, and I agreed. I loved polishing the wood with a bit of shoe polish, donated by a former cobbler.
 
Father Montini donated the ink from the Vatican’s scriptorium for the Roman numbers on the clock’s face. This priest prowled the set at least once or twice a day, and particularly liked the clock.
 
“No insides, no guts, no anything but air, Benjamin,” said the clockmaker of his work.
 
“Simply the illusion of time, that’s all.” The Jew from Turin ran his nimble fingers through the shell of the fine facsimile.
 
Privately, with bright eyes fixed on me, he claimed that if he had the gears and the tools, he could make the clock work. He could make time run, speed time up, make time leap forward, leave the war far behind. Meshuggener. But a good crazy.           
 
*
 
Right before the High Holidays in 1943, Herbert Kappler, head of the SS in Rome, demanded that the Jews of Rome deliver fifty kilos of gold, or face the deportation of two hundred of their men to labor camps in Poland.
 
Thirty-six hours’ notice was given to come up with the gold. Any Jew who had any resources, any money, was already in hiding, so it was up to the poor to gather gold. Two hundred Jewish men for fifty kilos of gold in thirty-six hours.
 
In the Vatican, Father Montini shared this news with a grim face and red eyes. I don’t think he expected what came next. We started finding gold.
 
My mother gave her wedding band, and all the other women gave theirs, too. Women gave bands, earrings, and lockets. The clockmaker offered to have his gold teeth pulled, and a call went through the courtyard for a dentist, but there were none. He shouted at my father to pull it out with a wrench, saying that he didn’t need the back teeth, he had his front teeth. My father refused. “They will come for us next,” said the clockmaker, being guided off the line by gentle hands.
 
A gold coin, and then another and another, was found inside the lining of a jacket, or wedged from a grandfather’s tobacco pouch, or tucked inside a baby’s stuffed bear. We collected all we could, and then debated: Who would go outside the Vatican and deliver our gold to the Jewish organizers at the synagogue?
 
Nazis were snatching all Italian men, eighteen to forty-five, off the streets for “voluntary” labor, shoring up fortifications against the Allied forces to the south. Nazis were shooting on the spot anyone without proper papers. Jews were being put on trains and sent east. Many Jewish men in the ghetto had already left for the mountains because, being Italians as well as Jews, no one believed in assurances from any authority. If everyone is saying there is danger, there must be some truth to it, goes the old saying.
 
I volunteered. There was less chance of suspicion with a boy, everyone agreed. A boy like me, with blue eyes, fair skin, and a snub nose, who didn’t look like the Nazis’ idea of a Jew, and who had impeccable fake identity papers, would be the safest choice.
 
“The boy speaks Italian like a Milanese,” said the Jew from Turin. “And he is smart and fast. A lucky boy.”
 
“Hannah,” said my father. “Our boy can run, can’t he?”
 
I promised to come right back, as if it were any other errand. I would be on an adventure, or so my thirteen-year-old self imagined. I wanted desperately not to be too young to shoot a gun, or lob a grenade, or drop from a parachute from the sky. I wanted to be the hero of this movie, not an extra.
 
Father Montini slipped a pure white envelope into my hand.
 
“What is this?” my mother asked the priest.
 
“The Holy Father has authorized a loan in coins or ingots of any quantity of gold the Jews may need,” explained Father Montini. “It can be repaid in installments, with neither time limits nor interest to be accrued.”
 
“Where is this pope of yours?” asked my mother, grabbing the envelope from me. “Why doesn’t he speak out against this war? You must have heard the rumours about these labor camps in the east? Death camps?” She met the priest’s eye. “If I know, how can he not know? How can the world not know?”
 
 My mother pressed the envelope inside my shirt. Her hand found my heart and kept her hand there until I squirmed away, embarrassed by her.
 
The priest made the sign of the cross over my head. He pressed a second object into my hand—his Bible. I almost dropped it. I thought that my father would punch someone, maybe me. With his sleeves rolled up, his arms looked sinewy and sunburned from all the work building the movie sets. He was like an old boxer eager for a fight, and in our family, one didn’t drop books. Instead he said to the priest, “To echo my wife, who tends to speak her mind all the time, we appreciate all you have done for us. All you have done for my boy, Benny. A good boy. Hold that book tight, Benny. Make sure the soldiers see.”
 
“You can play this part,” said the clockmaker. “Aren’t we all actors here?” His eyes glistened.
 
I ran out of the main gate, passed the armed German paratroopers in full battle dress and passed their Fascist Italian counterparts at the perimeter of the gates. I ran through the streets. I wanted to keep running. I reached the main synagogue soon enough.
 
The elders at the synagogue, however, refused the pope’s offer. They refused our gold, too. They had gathered enough, they said. More than enough. “We’ve weighed the gold a half dozen times,” said the oldest one, wearily. “What we have will secure us with the Germans, God willing, but we will make it known to them that the pope has shown an interest in Rome’s Jews as well.”
 
I ran from the synagogue. I ran with the gold and the priest’s Bible. I raced through the streets, not seeing a man my age or my father’s anywhere in sight, and not wanting to go back inside the Vatican walls, but not wanting to stay in the Jewish Quarter either, feeling my heart would burst at the effort to run faster.
 
*
 
We heard that there had been slightly over fifty kilos of gold delivered to the Kappler at the SS.
 
The Jews of Rome had made sure there was more than required. There would be no question if the German scale for whatever reason differed from the Jewish scale. They had paid the ransom. There would be no roundups, we assured one another inside the Vatican.
 
Yet who wanted to think things could get worse? Who wanted to imagine that we’d learn how much we could bear? Two days before, we had all heard the rumours: scrolls and scriptures, the Nazis seized all those writings in the basement of the main synagogue. The Germans found lists of names of community members. Father Montini said again that there would be no roundups of Jews. The gold had been paid. More than they had asked for had been given. He was repeating what we were saying among ourselves, yet his voice trembled.
 
The director, Ricci, we were told, would begin filming the next day. He had received another letter from the Nazis, this one from Berlin, requesting him to join others in a new Italian film center planned for Milan. Raul, the set designer, relayed this to my father during a break in construction, and said that the director was planning to politely and firmly decline this generous offer. “Our director is under contract with the Vatican to shoot this film. So we’d better get these sets finished or none of us, sons of whores, are ever going to see Hollywood.”
 
We had our own lists inside the Vatican: the call sheets. They noted the roles each of us were given and when we were required to be on set. Mother and I were playing pilgrims. Mother had no lines, only sorrow and pain to convey, which she said wouldn’t be hard. Father was given the job officially as assistant to the set designer. He wouldn’t be in the movie like mother and me.
 
The screenwriter, who was also functioning as a second assistant to the director, instructed us: “The director wants to capture life. Not the pretense of mankind, but mankind. We are looking for the real—for reality, raw and unvarnished, yes? You all understand?” It had taken me five minutes to memorize my two lines and no one had asked me to recite them. My father said I was a natural born actor. I was instructed to walk through the fake village and fake train station with a hundred other fake pilgrims. That was easy, too. The screenwriter, with his thick spectacles and thinning hair, continued to talk in his calm, professorial manner, “The director wants to see real pilgrims—homeless, sick, destitute, real people looking for hope and salvation, yes? We all understand the idea of pilgrims? You are on a personal journey to a sacred place for religious reasons. However, in this film, you will never arrive at the gates of heaven.”
 
*
 
Ten days after delivering the gold, Father Montini asked us to gather around him in the piazza, by our train platform set, in a drizzling October rain. Production had begun. Principal photography was scheduled for the following week. “Dear friends, at dawn, all over Rome, Jews have been rounded up by the Gestapo and taken to the Military College. There were more women, children and elderly taken than men.”
 
“How many?” someone shouted.
 
The priest hung his head. “Over a thousand.”
 
A gasp rose up among the would-be actors, actresses, and crew.
 
“What can we do?” asked my father.
 
The priest stared up toward the pope’s apartment. “Work. I must get to work, and so must you.” The Military College is within a stone’s throw from St. Peter’s Basilica, from where we were filming that day, and it is within sight from the pope’s upper level apartment. If the pope was there, he could see and hear Rome’s Jews, for all of us certainly did.
 
We could do nothing, or so we were told. We were safe, we were told.
 
The gold would save them, we assured ourselves. But that was a lie. This is how rumours become lies. After the war, the box of gold from the Jews of Rome would be found unopened in Kappler’s office. The Nazis never had any intention of sparing lives. Gold, I learned, will not save you.
 
The Jews of Rome would stay two days outside in the cold and rain without food or water—and we would hear their cries. You know I can hear them now, and I am thousands of miles from Rome.
 
*
 
Approximately one thousand two hundred Jews, including one born during those fateful days at the Military College, would be shipped to concentration camps, including Auschwitz.
 
All but fifteen men and one woman would perish.
 
My parents would not survive the war either. These days they are real only to me, but perhaps all parents are like that, more sharply focused with time, especially those killed by German snipers in front of their son, on the streets of Rome in the last hours of the Nazi occupation when it was rumoured that the streets were clear and celebrations were beginning for the Allied troops.
 

Another memory plays upon me: of a film that was shot within the Vatican walls. After the war, the film would only be screened for the public once, in Paris, and then, be declared a heresy by the Vatican, which had financed its production. An old man now, in Los Angeles, I remember my role as a pilgrim, who left from the facade of a train platform, the station clock marking six, the evening light long. I was on a journey for salvation, a journey, which I am still on.

         

Copyright © Caroline Bock 2018

This short story was inspired in part by Vittorio De Sica’s La Porta del Cielo, The Gates of Heaven, reportedly filmed in the Vatican and Rome near the end of the Nazi occupation with the support of the Vatican. Copies of the film are not available to the public.

Caroline Bock’s debut short story collection, Carry Her Home, is the winner of the 2018 Washington Writers’ Publishing House Fiction Prize and will be published this October. She is the author of the young adult novels Lie and Before My Eyes from St. Martin’s Press. Currently a lecturer in the English Department at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia, she is at work on a new novel set in 2099 about a fractured Jewish family. She lives in Maryland. More at www.carolinebock.com.



 

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