"They came at 5 in the morning with trucks and they closed all the entrances to the ghetto," recalled Attilio Pavoncello, an elderly Jewish shopkeeper who witnessed the scene. "They had everyone's address."
After the war, the old ghetto became increasingly gentrified. Today it looks like a three-dimensional postcard of Old Rome with its narrow, cobblestone alleys, sidewalk cafes and bustling squares set amid Roman ruins, and most of the city's estimated 16,000 Jews have moved to other areas. But political violence still erupts -- in 1982, armed Palestinians killed a 2-year-old girl and wounded 34 worshipers outside the synagogue. Police now stand guard outside its doors 24 hours a day.
Pope John Paul II makes the sign of the cross after slipping a note expressing contrition for Christian persecution of Jews into Jerusalem's Western Wall in 2000. The gesture was part of a high-profile campaign to soothe relations.
(Jim Hollander -- Reuters)
"This is the area of our greatest happiness and our most tragic moments," said Riccardo Pacifici, vice president of the Jewish Community of Rome.
The major break in the Vatican's approach to the Jews came 40 years ago during the reign of Pope John XXIII, when the church cleared Jews of responsibility for the death of Jesus, renounced its traditional claim that Jews had been rejected by God and opened a dialogue.
But it was John Paul II who transformed those ideas into personal action.
Part of it stemmed from his Polish upbringing -- he had Jewish friends as a young man and witnessed the Holocaust. In a now-famous incident, he rescued a starving 13-year-old Jewish girl at a train station a few months before the war ended by carrying her to the rail car in which he was traveling, feeding her and covering her with his coat.
Gad Lerner, a Jewish Italian broadcaster, points out that as pope, John Paul often balanced his gestures to Jews with countervailing actions that appeared designed to placate traditionalists. When he beatified Pope John XXIII as a prospective saint, he also beatified Pius IX, who was known for countenancing the abduction and conversion to Catholicism of a Jewish child in 1858. Lerner also notes that John Paul failed to expedite the opening of the Vatican archives for a more thorough examination of the role of Pius XII, also a candidate for sainthood, during the Holocaust.
Still, Lerner said, John Paul proved a true friend to the Jews. "We're talking about 19 centuries of doctrine, and this was not a small thing for the pope to confront," he said. "In this, he was very courageous."
Some Jewish Italian leaders expressed concern that John Paul's personal gestures were not a guarantee that the church had irrevocably changed its attitudes. They are hoping for concrete actions from his successor. They also expressed the hope that the new pope will go further in healing the rift with Islam.
In a 1985 speech, John Paul took some credit for helping bury ignorance, prejudice and stereotypes about Jews. But he also made clear that religious differences between Catholics and Jews would never disappear. "Love involves understanding," he said. "It also involves frankness and the freedom to disagree in a brotherly way where there are reasons for it."
Special correspondent Billy Magnuson contributed to this report.