Rome's Jewish Underground
The Ursuline Generalate Rome during World Two
The Generalate an imposing edifice on Via Nomentana Rome is the international centre for the Ursulines of the Roman Union. During World War 11 when Italy was the ally of Nazi Germany, life in Rome was particularly hard. When mains water supplies were cut off, they had to rely on St Agnes fountain, a bus stop away, for all their needs drinking cooking washing. Water was carried in vessels piled onto a homemade cart and quite a few daily journeys were needed in all weathers for such a a large household. Any waste water was stored for use in the garden. They also walked the Vatican regularly to obtain bread and other items of food for the household, which was surreptitiously increased when occasion demanded. Those sisters who had this responsibility needed great stamina during those years.
It is not clear why the property was never taken over by the German forces, but possibly an exception was gained on the grounds of being an international, papal institution. Certainly there was much activity at the Generalate.
An Italian general was helped to store his car in our grounds for the duration and so prevent the Germans from confiscating it. Such was the gratitude when it was returned to the family intact, that even in the 1980’s his daughter was still sending a tray of delicious cakes to the community each Christmas and Easter as a memorial of this act of friendship. During the war, the garden reached down to the railway line, and so there was sufficient space to keep the milkman’s herd of cows out of enemy hands. To prevent them from being confiscated, they were housed at the end of the garden, and kept there until it was safe for the owner to reclaim them. This kindness too continued to be remembered, and the milkman’s son was still supplying the Ursulines in the early 1980’s to mark his family’s gratitude. He regretted ceasing the delivery when he could no longer find workers to keep his dairy farm going. The older sisters would tell how the cows were housed on the flat roof when threatened by thieves – how they arrived there remains a mystery Chickens and rabbits did not pose the same problem - they were easier to carry up to the roof. This was necessary as when they were left outside the kitchen, they disappeared’ overnight. Much however remains unknown for the sisters were reluctant to recall the pain of those times. Everyone was hungry in those days the sisters would even pick daisies from the lawn to help flavour their soup.
In the film “The Scarlet and the Black.” Mgr O’Flaherty (Gregory Peck) ponders how to house the British airmen who have arrived in Rome seeking shelter. He murmurs that the Ursulines are crowded, and that most of his other secure sites were likewise unable to take in more people. Families of Jews were given a room per family on our top floor. The community undertook to hide them and feed them. There were strict rules. No communications between the refugees in one room was to take place with those of another. In this way, should one person be captured, they no idea of who else was living on the third floor and thus betrayals were avoided. There is the story of the man who felt so claustrophobic that he begged insistently to be allowed to walk round the outer wall of the convent just once. He was warned that if he left the gates, he would be captured immediately by the waiting soldiers, but he could not be convinced . Eventually he went off – and never came back!
Many years later some of the families of Jewish guests of the war days came back to the convent to see for themselves where their elderly relations had been given refuge from the enemy. They saw the third floor, where they lived and the flat roof where the cows were hidden and which also provided an exercise space for the residents The sisters were presented with gifts in gratitude for the risks and sacrifices made by the community ensuring the safety of their families
100 Jews were given shelter at different times and in recognition of this, Signora Fornari, who had stayed with us, arranged with the Yad Vashem Association for the posthumous presentation of the Medal of the Righteous among the Nations, to Mother Marie Xavier Marteau in the name of the Ursulines.