Rome — If all goes according to plan, a starkly modern, $30 million Holocaust museum will soon rise on the site of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini’s Rome residence.
The site, also the location of ancient Jewish catacombs and now a city park, will be home to a museum first proposed in 2005 but held up repeatedly by financial and bureaucratic problems.
“I hope construction begins this summer,” Leone Paserman, the president of the Museum of the Shoah Foundation, told JTA. “Of course in Italy, it is always hard to say.”
The facility will be the first Holocaust museum in Italy, which despite its wartime alliance with Nazi Germany has a somewhat mixed Holocaust record. The country adopted fiercely anti-Semitic legislation in 1938, barring Jews from schools, dismissing them from public positions and outlawing intermarriage, among other restrictions.
At the same time, the Italian military generally declined to take part in the murder or deportation of the country’s Jews, and territories occupied by Italian forces were considered relatively safe. The first deportations to death camps came only after Nazi Germany occupied parts of Italy in 1943 following the surrender of the fascist government to allied forces.
“There are delicate situations in Rome, including the role of Pope Pius XII and also prewar anti-Semitism,” Paserman said. “But we have to remember that thousands of Jews in Italy were saved in convents” and other Catholic institutions.
Rome’s City Council approved final plans for the museum a year ago, but city funding was later blocked by government-imposed financial restrictions on municipal spending. The funds were freed up in December.
Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno said that the final bureaucratic approval from local authorities was expected by the end of January. The city is expected to issue an international tender to construction firms and award a contract in the spring.
“It will be very important to inaugurate this museum while there are still some survivors alive,” Alemanno said.
The new museum will be built on the grounds of Villa Torlonia, an elegant 19th century mansion that Mussolini used as his residence from 1925 to 1943. Jewish catacombs dating back to ancient times were discovered by chance beneath the surface of its extensive gardens in 1919.