During World War II and the nine-month long German occupation of Rome, this unassuming building served as the S.S. and Gestapo headquarters for the city. Also used as a prison to hold partisans, it was here where many members of the Roman resistance had been interrogated and tortured prior to being executed. Solemnly, we stepped inside.
Entering into a simple room lined with small wooden tables holding various brochures, an older gentleman greeted us. He provided us with English-printed literature and directed us to the floors above for a self-guided tour of the museum. Although we did not explore it, on the ground floor there was a library containing books, newspapers, rare leaflets, and other related materials covering World War II, the Italian Resistance, and the German occupation.
Reverently, we ascended the stairs to the second floor. This was the location of the jail, left as it was when the Germans departed on June 4, 1944: the same wallpaper, wiring, walled-up windows and gratings on the doors. Most chilling was the faint handwriting still visible on the walls of the cells, scratched by desolate prisoners awaiting certain death.
Our eyes filled with tears as we read final messages to loved ones, words of warning or encouragement to fellow prisoners, words of courage and defiance, prayers, verses from Dante’s Divine Comedy, and sad but valiant goodbyes to Mamma. All were heart-wrenching to read, but none as much as a condemned priest’s lullaby written for a fellow-prisoner’s wife who was pregnant.
A glass-covered display table encased mementos from prisoners and partisans: a pocket watch, its face shattered from a striking bullet, pictures of young men full of a future that would never come, and various gold and silver medals awarded to soldiers of particular valor. Inside a glass frame, a tattered, blood-stained shirt hung on the wall.
And something else. Barely able to grasp the horror of this reality, we stood silent before a tiny loaf of bread on which someone had carved a last message: “Corraggio, Mamma” — Have courage, Mama. My eyes tear to think of it.
Another floor up were examples of manifestos which had been posted around the city by the Nazis, railing against Jews; a nearby display of political cartoons, posters, and handbills gave testimony to the unflagging resistance against these vicious invaders.
Sobered, we returned to the street, emerging from the palpable evil of that terrible time that still lingers among those dismal walls, grateful to return to the warmth and sunshine of September, 2009. After delving into such darkness, we renewed our spirits with a sit-down gelato treat before grabbing a taxi home.