The Jewish Catacombs
To the Editor:
Having read the letters published on the Jewish catacombs of Rome [November 1977, January, March 1978] as well as Michael Ledeen’s article [“The Unknown Catacombs” September 1977], I feel that some additional comments are in order. In March 1978, I visited the three remaining Jewish catacombs of Rome. . . . Two of them have already been turned over to the Italian government by the Vatican. (As a matter of fact, my permit to visit them was granted by the alderman in charge of antiquities for the municipality of Rome.) The third catacomb will also be turned over to the Italian government soon. . . . It should be added that only part of the catacombs is visible; there are undoubtedly miles of underground cuniculi which have yet to be explored and excavated. There are, moreover, other catacombs and relics of Jewish life during the first centuries of the Roman empire throughout Italy which remain undiscovered. Unfortunately, neither the Italian government nor the Italian Jewish community is in a position to extend the digging or to initiate new projects of discovery. They cannot in fact even protect whatever has been, or will soon be, turned over to them. Therefore, it is imperative for the world Jewish community to assist in these tasks.
The objects of historical and artistic value of the existing catacombs have either been stolen by the grave robbers (a flourishing industry in Italy) or brought to the Vatican by the Catholic experts who formerly conducted the work of exploration and restoration. Since the majority of these objects were legally deeded to the Vatican by the owners of the land upon which the objects were found, it is unlikely that they will be turned over to the Italian or Jewish authorities. Under the circumstances, I think that the most logical solution would be to obtain permission from the Vatican to keep the Jewish Room of the Vatican Museum permanently open to scholars, students, and the public, and that a commission of experts (both Catholic and Jewish) be established to undertake a systematic study of the materials in the Vatican’s possession.