Brenda Lee Bohen

The Jewish Tour Guide in Rome Whose Grandparents Hid in the Vatican Museums during the Holocaust

Sara Procacia in the Spanish Synagogue located in the ground floor of the Jewish Museum of Rome, Photograph by Brenda Lee Bohen
Sara Procacia in the Spanish Synagogue located in the ground floor of the Jewish Museum of Rome, Photograph by Brenda Lee Bohen

Sara Procaccia was the Jewish guide in Rome who personally gave a tour to Frederic Brandfon, the archaeologist and historian who co-authored an article with the chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Shemuel Di Segni published in Tablet September 28, 2022, The Jews and the Pope. During their visit into the Vatican Museums Procaccia took him to the end of the gallery of marbles to point to a fireplace where her grandparents slept during World War II, while her mother remained hidden in a convent under the protection of the mother superior. It was Procaccia’s personal story about being Jewish in Rome that inspired Frederic Brandfon’s current book focusing on the relations between the Vatican and the Jewish community of Rome Intimate Strangers: A History of Jews and Catholics in the City of Rome (University of Nebraska Press, 2023)

Procaccia is a member of the Jewish community of Rome. She received a Degree in Art History from La Sapienza Univeristy with high honors, studying Jewish Art History in Venice during the Renaissance. She also participated in Judaic Archaeological Studies, focusing on the Jewish Catacombs in Rome and in the south of Italy. Since 2000, she has been photographing and cataloging marble remains from the Jewish Museum of Rome, Ostia Antica, the Colosseum, and the Arch of Titus, highlighting the Menorah and its significance. She is an official guide of the Jewish Museum of Rome and a licensed tour guide of the eternal city and the Vatican museums. Her passion highlights Judeo-Christianity from its origins to the Holy Roman Empire.

As a well-known art expert and Italian national guide in history of art, Procaccia also focuses on the history of the ancient religions of the Roman Empire in Rome, Pitigliano, Siena, Parma, in addition to her precise area of focus that specializes in the contribution of the Jewish culture in Italy.

Participants on her tours will discover “the secrets of Rome”up and underground, where she shares with you the main results of her research she has conducted in the Colosseum, Caracalla Bath, and the Jewish Museum of Rome.She is credited with the discovery and identification of numerous important marble fragments found under and near the Great Synagogue, which are now housed in the Museum lapidary gallery.

Outside the eternal city, such as in the city of Parma, she has discovered very important links with the inspiration of the Opera of Giuseppe Verdi and the small Jewish communities that lived close to Busseto, the town where the great Teacher was born.

The multicultural city of Rome is the oldest home of the Jews in Western Europe. There were Jews in Rome way before Christianity ever started. A particular unique characteristic about the Jews of Rome is that they are neither Ashkenazim (German and Eastern European Jewry) nor Sephardim (Spanish and Portuguese Jewry). Instead, they are referred to as Benè Romì, in Hebrew, the children of Rome, is the term with which the members of the Roman Jewish Community identify themselves. It indicates a liturgical tradition (minhag) particular to this community. Specifically, it is distinct from the better-known currents of Judaism – those of Sephardi and Ashkenazi.

Yiddish and Ladino were never spoken in the Jewish community of Rome, but rather Judaico-Romanesco during the ghetto period of enclosure, when Hebrew was mixed with the Roman dialect and peppered with Spanish.

It must be noted that, from the 2nd century BCE until today, Rome has been the only city in all Europe which has never expelled the Jews.

Procaccia begins her tours by explaining the beginning of the Jewish Settlement in Rome. She says that most historians and scholars link the beginning of the Jewish presence in Rome to the embassy sent by the Judah the Maccabee to Rome in 161 BCE.

She goes on to explain that the embassy was headed by Eupolemus Ben Jochanan and Jason Ben Eleazar, both of whom were probably Jewish aristocratic priests from Jerusalem who knew the ways of the world. This embassy was the earliest record of contact between Jews and the Roman Republic, and it resulted in an alliance between the two parties. She continues to explain how the Successive Hasmonean rulers renewed the treaty. Jonathan sent two envoys to Rome, Numenius son of Antiochus and Antipater son of Jason, to renew the treaty with Rome.

Then Simon sent another embassy, perhaps headed by the same Numenius, the envoy of Jonathan; John Hyrcanus as well renewed the alliance with Rome in 132 BCE; Thus, in the period from 161 to 132 BCE Maccabean Judea sent at least three embassies to Rome.

Now let’s forward to contemporary modern times, says Procaccia. Our Great Synagogue of Rome received historic visits from Pope John Paul II in 1986, Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, and Pope Francis in 2016. As they say three times is a charm! In Hebrew it’s called chazaká!

This coming October 2023 will be one of the major anniversaries of events in the Jewish history of Rome. Procaccia’s tours will address 1943-2023 Pius XII’s response to the deportation of the Jews of Rome on the 16th of October 1943. She will share with tour participants the information that Pius XII knew about the first deportation of 1.022 that occurred on that Shabbat morning. Why didn’t the Pope (Pius XII) not stop the early morning deportation of women, children, and elderly? These Roman Jews were imprisoned for two full days from October 16 to 18. Why didn’t the Pope intervene to have them released? Why didn’t the Pope stop the Nazis from taking the Jews from the military prison that was just down the block from his papal residence to train station Tiburtina on the 18th of October? Why did he remain silent as the Jews from the city of Rome were being deported and killed in Auschwitz? Her tours will focus on the on-going controversy regarding Pius XII’S response. She will narrate a short summary of arguments accusing Pius XII of not doing enough and present a short synapsis of arguments defending Pius XIIs actions. She will than conclude with her personal assessment based on evidence that’s so far been argued by international Holocaust scholars. In addition, Procaccia will share personal knowledge and history of her family including the bitter period when her family hid in the Vatican during the Nazi occupation of Rome.

If you just read Rich Tenorio’s recent interview article published in Times of Israel An Epic take: New book details over two millennia of Roman Jewish Life about Frederic Brandfon’s new book Intimate Strangers: A History of Jews and Catholics in the City of Rome. I would highly consider doing a Jewish Tour of Rome and the Vatican with Sara Procaccia to get an authentic story of the community.

Authors note:
As a trained historic preservationist, collaborator with the Jewish Museum of Rome, a licensed and accredited tour guide in Italy and in the Vatican Museums, in addition to being a scholar who advocates for ongoing productive scholarship concerning the history of the Jews of Rome. I highly recommend hiring Jewish tour guides from the community who will be able to guide you inside the Jewish Museum and the Great Synagogue of Rome to assure authenticity in the Jewish history and culture of the eternal city. In addition, museum educators, archival scholars and licensed tour guides from the Jewish community of Rome offer specific insights into Roman Jewish culture, religion and traditions.

About the Author
Brenda Lee Bohen is a collaborator with the Jewish Museum of Rome. She has earned a Bachelor’s degree in the History of Art and Architecture from DePaul University, and a Master of Science in Historic Preservation from the Art Institute of Chicago. She earned her certification in Jewish Leadership at the Spertus Institute in partnership with Northwestern University and continues higher education at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago. She is also a licensed and accredited tour in the Vatican Museums. As such, she passionately advocates for ongoing productive scholarship concerning the history of the Jews of Rome. In her volunteer efforts and contributions to articles and blogs, she strives to enlighten others about Roman Jewish history by interviewing prominent Jewish scholars from around the world, as well as her fellow tour guides from the community who are familiar with references to her areas of interest in the texts of the Torah, Talmud and Zohar. These texts, along with insights from other sources – including new discoveries gained from modern scholarship – contribute to an appreciation of the scope of Jewish contributions to the city of Rome, a treasured fact often ignored and omitted from history books and even guided tours of the Eternal City. She is a Hispanic woman of converso heritage, holds dual American and Italian citizenship, and is a proud veteran of the United States Army Reserves.
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