Commentary Magazine

More on the Catacombs

To the Editor:

. . . Michael Ledeen’s article, “The Unknown Catacombs” [September 1977], must have been written some time ago, since he says that “the Appia catacombs are in bad shape.” They were, but are no longer. The Pontifical Commission on Sacred Archaeology . . . started to clean the catacombs, which had indeed been a horrendous shambles, around 1973. . . . By now, as I verified a few months ago, the Vatican’s work is almost finished. As I indicated in an illustrated pamphlet which I prepared recently for the Union of Italian Jewish Communities (the pamphlet is to be distributed in the United States to arouse interest in further restoration and study of this two-thousand-year-old Jewish legacy), the work has been done. Perhaps too well in fact, since very few of the ancient Jewish tombstones remain in the corridor walls, and even the few surviving two-thousand-year-old bones have been removed. The catacombs are, so to speak, quite clean. (Incidentally, Mr. Ledeen’s assertion that “a few years ago representatives of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities managed to obtain funds for the restoration [of the Appia catacombs] and attempted to get in touch with the Vatican Commission on Sacred Archaeology for this purpose” is not true, according to Dr. Blayer, president of the Union.)

I can also bring Mr. Ledeen up to date on the disposition of the objects of Jewish culture (consisting mainly of 131 tombstones) which were formerly on display at the Jewish Hall of the Lateran Museum in Rome. These were brought to the “new” room in the Vatican Museum, which opened about three or four years ago. But though the huge exhibition hall is open to the public, the Jewish tombstones . . . are closed off by a wooden fence. I was originally told that this was done because the electricity was not working. But when I asked again two months ago, I was told by the director, Dr. Daltrop, that “the general public has no interest in these Jewish tombstones, and consequently we only open that section to scholars and students when they make a special request.” . . .

I myself have been quite vitally interested in returning the catacombs to the Jews of Italy and in fact devoted a chapter of my book, The Pope’s Jews, to the catacombs. Several years ago I discussed this subject with Monsignor (now Cardinal) Willebrantz . . . who was then director of the Vatican’s Secretariat for Christian Unity, of which the Office for Christians and Jews is a subdivision. Monsignor Willebrantz was quite receptive to the idea in principle, but pointed out . . . that nothing could be done by the Vatican without first changing the Concordat of 1929 which gave the Church full control over the Jewish catacombs—a point of which I was, of course, very well aware. . . .

Now the revised Concordat is as good as voted in the Italian parliament; it provides that control over the Jewish catacombs will revert back to the Italian government, which will almost certainly place them under the jurisdiction of the Italian Jewish community. . . . Still, convincing the Vatican of the necessity for returning the Jewish tombstones and other Jewish objects in its possession will probably be as easy a task as moving the pyramids.

As to the Venosa catacombs, which Mr. Ledeen also discusses, I can attest to the fact that they are an absolute shambles, and, in my estimation, it would cost millions of dollars even to begin to restore them. The original entrance has been lost, and one has to enter by crawling through an opening in the rocks of about three feet high by ten feet wide. . . . As I myself found out on my recent visit—stumbling in the dark and carrying cameras, flash, and flashlight, which attracted the bats in droves—the stone often crumbles at the touch. Huge boulders have fallen down in all the corridors, blocking further passage.

Except for the many horizontal tomb-niches—sometimes up to thirteen in a row—there is very little left inside the Venosa catacombs which would justify the work and expense necessary to restore them, at least in the parts I was able to reconnoiter. Only two inscriptions in Latin, one with two small painted menorahs above the text, and the other with a large menorah carved into the rocks below . . . show clearly that these are not Christian catacombs (which are nearby) but Jewish ones dating back to the time when Venosa, around the 2nd or 3rd century C.E., was perhaps a totally Jewish city, its inhabitants dealing in grain for the Romans up north.

I was told by Father Cesare Colafemmina, . . . who has made quite an intensive study of the Christian and Jewish catacombs at Venosa, that somewhere way back in one of the almost inaccessible corridors is a beautiful colored fresco with Jewish emblems. But under present conditions, one would have to be a daring and agile acrobat to get close to the fresco.

A final word on the former Italian Minister of Cultural Affairs, Giovanni Spadolini, whom Mr. Ledeen mentions as being interested in the revision of the Concordat and the future of the Jewish catacombs. . . . Signor Spadolini has now accepted the post of president of the international committee being formed under the auspices of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. This committee will be making a preliminary study of all the problems—historical, cultural, religious, and financial—involved in the restoration of the catacombs. . . .

Sam Waagenaar
Rome, Italy



To the Editor:

I read Michael Ledeen’s article with interest. When I established the museum of the Jewish community of Rome, I contacted the Vatican authorities to obtain one or more of the original Jewish tombstones they kept in the Lateran Palace (today the tombstones have been transferred to the Vatican Museum). But in spite of the good relationship I had with these authorities and the favorable disposition toward the Jews shown by the late Pope John XXIII, I did not succeed in securing a single piece I needed. Instead, we were supplied with reproductions of a few small tombstones and with a series of photographs of some catacombs (for which we paid). . . .

I agree with Mr. Ledeen that the Vatican has little, if any, interest in exposing such evidence of Jewish history to the light of day. But I am also afraid that neither the Union of Italian Jewish Communities nor the Jewish community of Rome has exerted enough pressure on the Vatican, on the Italian government, and on public opinion here and abroad to gain control of the catacombs and other historical artifacts of Jewish history which exist throughout Italy.

Two examples prove my point.

In 1964 . . . I visited Pitigliano, an ancient city in southern Tuscany, and I saw the miserable condition of the half-demolished Jewish synagogue there, not to mention the adjoining yeshivah. I offered, as president of the Jewish community of Rome, to have the building restored if it was not possible for the communty of Leghorn, which had jurisdiction over Pitigliano, . . . to do so.

Thirteen years have elapsed since my visit and almost twelve since I relinquished the presidency of the Rome community. I learned today that the old building is inaccessible and almost totally destroyed. . . . Pitigliano is only one case among dozens of ancient communities, libraries, and cemeteries abandoned and all but destroyed throughout Italy.

The Jewish Museum of Rome, which attracted so many visitors from all over the world, has been closed to the public for almost two years now. The alterations have not been strictly supervised by the rabbinate of Rome or by the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, and, in fact, it appears that new and unorthodox criteria are being employed in the process of renovation. Nor has any assurance been given that the changes have any historical validity.

No doubt, anti-Semitism and the antagonism existing in Italy today among some Catholic and left-wing politicians distract the attention of local Jewish leaders from the problems of culture, archaeology, and the preservation of our past. But our survival is linked to the daily struggle to preserve our ancient stones, as well as our dignity and our souls, in Italy, in Israel, in the world.

The de-Vaticanization of the Jewish catacombs, which is one provision of the revised Concordat, can be the beginning of the restoration of Jewish cultural riches in Italy. But the effort to preserve our history must come from Italian Jewish organizations, with the help of institutions and individuals who have experience in such cultural undertakings.

Fausto Pitigliani
Rome, Italy



To the Editor:

“The Unknown Catacombs” by Michael Ledeen has awakened long-dormant memories. It was during the summer vacation of 1928 that I spent an afternoon in the Jewish catacombs in Via Appia Antica. The catacombs were listed in a very old Baedecker I then carried, and were situated below the garden of an osteria. . . . A small, handwritten notice at the entrance to the osteria invited the visitor to view the Jewish catacombs, and a carafe of wine was all that was needed to induce the innkeeper to get a candle and a rickety ladder, and open a trap-door in the corner of the garden. After that the visitor was on his own.

It was a moving experience for a seventeen-year-old youth, his head crammed with classical knowledge, suddenly to find himself amid the bones of his ancestors of two millennia ago.

I quickly established that the inscriptions were indeed in Greek, but if memory does not fail me—and half a century is a long time to remember—what had first puzzled me when trying to read those inscriptions was that they were written in Hebrew letters.

I served in Rome during World War II and after the war was stationed in Italy for eight years; and I have frequently visited Rome since. But I have never succeeded in verifying that old impression. The catacombs, I was repeatedly informed, were closed as “unsafe.” . . .

F. S. Manor
Winnipeg Free Press
Winnipeg, Canada



Michael Ledeen writes:

I am delighted that my brief article on the Jewish catacombs of Italy has generated so much interest [see also Letters from Readers, November 1977]. Sam Waagenaar is undoubtedly right when he says that the Appia catacombs have been “cleaned,” although perhaps “picked bare” would be a better descriptive phrase. Everything he says, together with the testimony of Fausto Pitigliani, demonstrates that we are still a long way from being able to examine the patrimony of Italian Jewry.

It is, therefore, somewhat disappointing to find a scholar of the caliber of Mr. Waagenaar associating himself with the Union of Italian Jewish Communities in yet another apologia for the Vatican. The pamphlet he refers to says that the catacombs in Via Torlonia—recently transferred to the Rome city government—were closed in order to protect their contents from possible vandalism. The pamphlet then cites Vatican sources to the effect that the catacombs will be reopened in a few years once a new entrance-tunnel is built. Alas, this is simply another in a long list of excuses for an institution which is really trying to keep a firm grip on Jewish historical documents. When a highly qualified Jewish group asked for permission to photograph the Torlonia catacombs, it was denied. Here there was no risk of vandalism, but the Pontifical Commission did not want to take the chance of a record being made of the contents of the catacombs.

The point, of course, is made by Mr. Pitigliani: Italian Jews are going to have to steel themselves and face the facts. Continuation of the centuries-old policy of collaboration is not going to dislodge the Jewish treasures from the Vatican Museum or from the hundreds of other Catholic institutions throughout the peninsula. And as Mr. Waagenaar rightly says, Jews cannot expect the simple revision of the Concordat to suffice, even though it is a necessary step. They must fight for their cultural heritage; Dr. Blayer’s denial of what is on the public record shows that they are not yet ready to do so.

Finally, F.S. Manor’s youthful memory serves him well.

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