As you wander through the narrow alleyways and lanes of the old Roman Jewish Ghetto, through Trastevere, and elsewhere in Rome, you might find yourself stumbling over slightly raised brass cobblestones interspersed among the city’s black basalt pavement.
Engraved with names and dates, these stones are memorials to the residents of the neighborhood murdered by the Nazis in World War II after being rounded up and deported to Auschwitz. Of the 1,023 captured during the infamous Nazi raid on 16 October 1943, only 15 men and one woman returned. Lello di Segni, the last survivor, died on 28 October 2018 at age 92.
A German-born artist, Gunter Demnig, is the creator of the brass cobblestones, known as Stolperstein or stumbling stones, in German. The origin of the name allegedly comes from a Nazi anti-Semitic saying that “when you accidentally stumble over a stone, a Jew must be buried here.” Demnig started the project in 1992 with the aim of giving a name and a story
back to the victims stripped of their identities and reduced to a number by the Nazis. The stones are individually made by hand, with about 440 produced every month. In October 2018, Demnig installed the 70,000th stumbling stone in Frankfurt, Germany. He is thus the creator of the largest Holocaust memorial in the world.
THE ROMAN SAMPIETRINI
In Italian, cobblestones are known as Sampietrini (sing. Sampietrino). The term is believed to have been coined in the 1700s by the Monsignor who supervised the replacement of the uneven pavement around St. Peter’s Basilica with cubes of black basalt blocks similar to those used to pave the roads of ancient Rome. Some sources say that they are so-called because each represents one of the souls saved by St. Peter, while others will tell you that they are so-named because they were first placed in St. Peter’s Square.
Demnig’s golden squares, which glisten in the sunlight, stand out visually
from the black basalt. Sometimes they are grouped outside a house, with an individual stone for every family member. Each is engraved with the name of the victim, date of birth, date, and place of deportation, and the date of his/her murder in the concentration camp. They all start with “Qui Abitava…” or “Here lived…”
The letters are so small that you often have to bend down to read the inscriptions. Deming believes that by doing so, you are bowing in respect to the victim, whose story is memorialized in the stone.
The Stumbling Stones of Rome’s Jewish Ghetto
Two groups of brass cobblestones catch our eye as we walk through the area around the Portico of Octavia, near the Theater of Marcellus.
Outside #23 Via Sant’Ambrogio, three stones are embedded in the cobblestones. They memorialize two brothers, Marco and Settimio Sciunnach, as well as Settimio’s wife, Rosa Spagnoletto Sciunnach. Research in the Holocaust Archives reveals that Rosa and Settimio had eight children (born between 1920 and 1938) living with them. The children escaped the Nazi dragnet and were taken in and hidden by the priest at the nearby Church of Sant’Ambrogio. Rosa was four months pregnant when she was captured on 21 February 1944. The Nazis executed her as she left the train at Auschwitz. Settimio and Marco died in the camp.
Outside #2 Via della Reginella, four golden stumbling stones are embedded in the pavement. When the Nazis raided this house, they captured four women and a child. One of them, Settimia Spizzichino, is the only woman arrested in the Ghetto to have survived Auschwitz. She died in 2000. The four stones memorialize her mother, Grazia di Segni (born 1889), her two sisters, Ada and Giuditta Spizzichino (born respectively in 1915 and 1922) and Ada’s daughter, Rossana Calo, aged two, who lost their lives in the camp.
The stumbling stones are poignant memories in the vast historical tapestry
that is Rome. As you wander the streets of the Ghetto with its Portico of Octavia, its Fontana delle Tartarughe (Fountain of Turtles), and its many popular restaurants, look down at the brass cobblestones. Each has a history to tell. Pause a minute to reflect on why they are there, and pay your respects to those who were never allowed to live full and happy lives in the company of their loved ones. Lest we forget…