Film Screening and discussion with
Film Screening and discussion with the film makers: Oro Macht Frei (Ottimo Film)
Directed by Jeffrey Bonna. Produced by Jeffrey Bonna and Catherine Campbell. Executive Producer Joel Markel. Original music composed and performed by Yotam Haber. Post screening discussion: Catherine Campbell, producer. Introduction by Alessandra Di Castro, Director of the Jewish Musuem of Rome
After Italy’s Armistice with the Allies (Sept 8, 1943), the country was divided: Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic and its German ally, soon to become the occupying force, took over the peninsula the from the Alps to area south of Naples, while the Anglo-American troops occupied Sicily, Puglia, Calabria and part of Campania. The Italian Social Republic issued an order of arrest for all Jews in its territory, carried out by the Germans and partly by the Italian police. Oro Macht Frei tells the story of the nine-month Nazi occupation of Rome through the testimonies of nine Roman Jews, archival footage, family photos with the participation of renowned historians Alexander Stille, Susan Zuccotti, Liliana Picciotto, Frank Coppa and Robert Katz. In addition to individual stories of Jews in hiding and arrest, OMF examines the period of Mussolini’s Racial Laws (1938-1945) and the Catholic Church response to the roundup of the Roman Jews. This draws the viewer into personal reflection on the Holocaust in Italy through the experiences of the Roman Jewish community.
Oro Macht Frei, the making of a documentary
By Catherine Campbell
“Oro Macht Frei” began as an idea to tell the story of Herbert Kappler’s gold extortion of the Roman Jews. During a tour of the former Jewish ghetto of Rome in 2004, the film’s executive producer, Joel Markel, heard of the Roman Jewish community’s remarkable efforts to come up with 50 kilos of gold within 36 hours against the threat that, if they did not come up with the gold, 200 heads of family would be deported. The fact of the community coming together to save each other’s lives and give what little in the way of gold they had, their ability to come up with the gold in such short time and the subsequent betrayal on behalf of the Germans who rounded-up the Roman Jews 3 weeks later, regardless of their having met the extortion price, struck Mr. Markel as an emblematic account that could help teach people both about the calculated deceitfulness of the Nazis as well provide a human dimension to the tremendous darkness of the Holocaust against the abstract number “6 million.” The story of the gold extortion touched Joel intimately as his family had always been jewelers and so he felt strangely close to the story. Furthermore, as the son of a Hungarian Auschwitz survivor, Joel had always wanted to offer something to the field of Holocaust Memory to honor his mother the family she lost.
Mr. Markel brought this idea for a documentary back to his friend, Jeff Bonna, a film producer and director who had worked for Ken Burns. Together they formed the production company, Ottimo Films, with the sole purpose of creating a documentary about the Gold Extortion of the Roman Jews. Jeff and Joel began the process of outreach and research beginning with the Museum of the Roman Jewish Community. It was through the Museum that they met Laura Suppino who worked at the Museum and was herself an adult testimony to the horrors of the Nazi occupation of Rome. Laura provided a group of members of the Roman Jewish community willing to tell their stories to the NY film crew. The filming of these testimonies, including the interview with Piero Terracina – a Roman Jewish survivor of Auschwitz, took place in 2006.
Jeff and Joel brought their filmed testimonies back to New York City and hired Catherine Campbell, a PhD student at NYU’s Italian Studies program, to translate and provide subtitles of the interviews. Catherine, who had spent many years studying and living in Italy, brought to the project her research skills and interests in Italian history as well as her in-depth knowledge of the Italian language. From listening closely to the interviews and doing research of the books of Susan Zuccotti, Alexander Stille, and Robert Katz, Catherine felt that the material Jeff and Joel had gathered could shed light on the larger subject of the history of the Roman Jewish community and their experience of the Italian Racial Laws, of hiding during the Nazi occupation, as well as on the relationship of the Roman Jewish community with the Catholic Church. Jeff and Joel asked her to come on as producer and take on the day-to-day progress of the documentary.
After performing interviews with Alexander Stille and Susan Zuccotti in New York City, the Production Team realized that they needed to go back to Rome and gather more testimony interviews, with particular focus on gaining insight into the experience of Jews who had grown up in the ghetto and had managed to escape that early morning round-up of October 16th. The second set of testimony interviews was guided and facilitated by Grazia Di Veroli, a student and scholar of the Italian Holocaust who had lost a large number of her family during the October 16 round-up and the months that followed when arrests and deportations continued. Grazia had worked with Spielburg’s Shoah Foundation and so brought insights gained from interviewing Holocaust survivors into this second round of interviews. Included in that second trip were also interviews with the Chief Rabbi of Rome Riccardo Di Segni and with the historians Robert Katz and Liliana Picciotto. This second trip took place in January of 2008.
Back in NYC, the documentary began to take shape around a careful weaving together of the scholar and the testimony interviews. The guiding idea behind this presentation was for the scholars to provide a safe and secure historical backbone for the unique, subjective and feeling-rich memories of the testimonies. The film-makers had to make choices so that the documentary yield an intimate and accurate picture of what happened in Rome during the period of anti-Jewish persecution. Regrettably, some important moments of this history were left out of the film due to the need to restrict the length of the film and stay centered on the specifically anti-Jewish actions. Primary among these is the terrible massacre at the Fosse Ardeatine.
During the period of the film’s research, Catherine attended numerous presentations by the Primo Levi Center in NYC to gain deeper awareness on the Holocaust in Italy and in particular the ways in which on-going historical research is being received by American and New York audiences in particular. It became clear from these valuable sessions that their documentary-in-the-making would help further the Primo Levi Center’s mission to shed light on the experience of Italian Jews throughout the whole period of anti-Jewish persecution in Italy. The production crew received extremely valuable guidance from Natalia Indrimi, Alessandro Cassin and Andrea Fiano during this time of research.
Further research into the visual testimony of this time period – and so for the visual components of the film via archival photos, film, and artifacts – revealed the sad scarcity of visual documentation from the period of the Nazi occupation while it produced a tremendous wealth of images of pre-occupation Roman Jewish life offered by family archives. However, one image in particular came forward that was completely unexpected: a photo of the door to Letizia Terracina’s apartment which had been axed-down during the Nazis’ search for her family. That photo – which is in the film – was taken on October 16th, 1943, by Letizia’s father, and is the only photographic evidence that has yet come to light of the round-up from that day. CDEC Milan – through the assistance of Liliana Picciotto and Michele Sarfatti, graciously provided many images for the production including documentation from the period of the Racial Laws as well as photos of Italian Jews being rounded up in northern Italy. The private Italian archive, Archivio Luce, also loaned material for the creation of a 14-minute trailer which was presented in Rome at the Centro della Memoria on October 16th, 2010.
At that presentation, the beautiful book of Arminio Wachsberger’s testimony, “L’Interprete”, complied by Arminio’s daughter’s Clara and Siliva Wachsberger, was also presented. This presentation provided the Producers valuable feedback by the Roman Jewish community as well as by scholars in attendance, causing the Producers to feel affirmed in the direction they were taking but also caution in how they were dealing with certain issues regarding the Church. Joel Markel’s presentation of the trailer to private gatherings in his own community provided further positive and constructive feedback from American audiences personally effected by the Holocaust though unfamiliar with the Italian story. The New York based archive, Lou Reda Archive, provided much valuable material for the early years of Mussolini’s reign. Arminio Wachsberger’s daughters also agreed to allow their father’s interview by the Shoah Foudnation become part of this film and they offered photos from their own family archive to contribute to the story.
Further image research was provided through the diligent help of sisters Sara and Rivka Spizzichino, grand-nieces of Settimia Spizzichino, the only female survivor of the Oct 16th roundup. The film gradually became a production that was involving both the NYC crew as well as Roman Jews who willingly and with heart-felt enthusiasm participated in the sharing of their story. NYC image researcher, Gayleem Aguilar, tracked down stunning footage of the Pope which was provided through the US Holocaust History Memorial and Museum. Composer Yotam Haber, who had been approached by Catherine early on, provided beautiful and moving, original, music for the film. Haber had spent many years researching the history of Roman Jewish liturgical music and so he was able to re-evoke certain unique refrains from this community into stunning and original tracks.
Last, but not least, the staff of Director Jeff Bonna’s production company, Jacklight Productions, provided expert assistance in the editing and graphics design of the film. They also gave continual instruction to the film’s producer, Catherine Campbell, as she learned her way through the film’s editing.
Needless to say, guidance on this documentary came from many minds and hearts who have spent years – in some cases decades – devoted to the study of the Holocaust in Italy. Susan Zuccotti, whose contributions to the film cannot be overstated, gave regular and willing attention to the producers’ questions about minute details. Historian Michele Sarfatti helped hone the language around the fascist agenda during its early formation. Grazia Di Veroli helped maintain updated numbers and facts about the deportations out of Rome. As well, the papal scholar Frank Coppa answered many questions pertaining to the Pope’s policies during WWII. Support for the documentary also came from the gracious contribution of interview space by the Casa Italiana Zerrilli-Marimò, through the Casa’s director, Dr. Stefano Albertini.
All of this, according to Joel’s vision, was done to help bring American audiences into a deeper and more personal reflection on the Holocaust so that we may not forget this terrible tragedy and learn to stay vigilant to protecting our collective humanity.