Mussolini's former home to be turned into a Roman Holocaust museum

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The Independent Online

The estate that was Benito Mussolini's favourite home during his decades as Italy's dictator will house a museum devoted to commemorating the Holocaust experienced by Rome's Jews.

The estate that was Benito Mussolini's favourite home during his decades as Italy's dictator will house a museum devoted to commemorating the Holocaust experienced by Rome's Jews.

Walter Veltroni, the Mayor of the Italian capital, announced the decision at the weekend as Italy celebrated Liberation Day, which commemorates the defeat of the Nazis and Fascists in the Second World War.

The announcement, greeted warmly by leaders of Rome's Jewish community, is doubly symbolic. It was Mussolini who, under Nazi pressure, enacted the race laws that mandated discrimination against Jews in education, jobs and other areas, but no Italian Jews were deported to concentration camps until the Nazi takeover in 1943.

Deep beneath the Villa Torlonia, where Mussolini lived, is an enormous network of Jewish catacombs, some six miles in length, dating back to the third and fourth centuries, which contain some of the best-preserved paintings and inscriptions of the community. After the start of the war, Mussolini used some of them to construct an air-raid shelter for himself and his family.

Mr Veltroni, a centre-left politician of national stature, has made a speciality of grand humanitarian gestures since becoming Rome's Mayor.

He said on Sunday of the new project: "It will be a museum of the Roman Holocaust, not the national one. We have discussed it with the Jewish community and will work with them to realise it in a short period of time."

The architect would be decided through a competition, he said. "We will commission a great architect. It must be a low, extensive building, preserving the greenery in which the emotive experience of the Shoah will be able to live."

The Shoah Foundation, established 10 years ago by the film director Steven Spielberg, will "contribute materially" to the museum, he said, through its video resources. Spielberg visited Rome recently to receive a lifetime achievement award, and discussed the new project with the Mayor.

Of all countries touched by the Nazis' extermination programme, Italy's record is the least shameful. About 85 per cent of the country's 45,000 Jews survived, many thousands protected by Catholic priests and others in churches and monasteries around the country. But after seizing control of Rome in September 1943, the Nazis wasted little time in announcing their intention to deport the city's Jews, and on 16 October they struck without warning, rounding up 1,015 Jews and deporting them to death camps. Only 16 of them survived the war. A total of about 1,700 Jews were deported before the Nazis were driven out again by the Allies.

The catacombs were the subject of controversy four years ago when a plan was announced to restore Mussolini's old home. Rome's Jewish community denounced the fact that no mention was made of restoring the catacombs, which have been closed to the public for years because of toxic gases and vandalism. On Sunday, Leone Paserman, president of the Jewish Community of Rome, said: "Villa Torlonia has a very particular significance for us. In the construction of the museum, we hope also to be able to restore the Jewish catacombs."

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