LIFE

Photo by Dana Ram

Garden of sadness

The Old Jewish Cemetery of Florence
by Marcie  Shlesinger Beyatte   (issue no. 110/2009 / October 22, 2009)

Vera Bolaffio, 18 years old, might have been known for her wit, her waist-length ebony hair, or her talent as a poet. But her story ended in August 1944 in Florence, Italy. A German grenade struck her while she was searching for drinking water just eight months before Liberation Day. She is known today only because she was the last person to be buried in the old Jewish cemetery in Florence. The old cemetery had been closed for 60 years but was re-opened for Vera's interment because the new cemetery was outside the city center and deemed unsafe during the last days of the war.

 

Going to cemeteries is how I learn about the local history of the places I'm visiting. I am comfortable among the dead. A portrait gallery of my ancestors graces my dining room walls. I can imagine their lives and dreams without any messy interactions, unlike some of my relationships with living relatives. When the dead refuse to talk to me, at least they have a good excuse.

 

The old Jewish cemetery where I discovered Vera's weed-shrouded tombstone is just outside the San Frediano gate on Viale Ludovico Ariosto, near one of my favorite restaurants, Trattoria Sabatino. I've walked by the cemetery's graffiti-covered concrete walls dozens of times, unaware of what lay behind the gates.

Recently a small historic marker identifying the cemetery caught my eye. I learned that it is open only on the first Sunday morning of the month, from 10 am to noon, and it costs three euros to enter. The sign also informed me that the cemetery was founded in 1777 and closed in 1880, when a bigger site opened in Rifredi on via Delle Caciolle. Another sign announced that the cemetery was going to be restored by the City of Florence in cooperation with the Jewish Community of Florence.

 

While I was mentally translating all this Italian into English, a man drove up on a scooter and unlocked the rusty green metal gate. I asked if I could enter.

 

In a thick Italian accent, he said, ‘Sorry Signora, I have absolutely nothing to do with the cemetery. I'm just an architect who rents some office space here.'

 

I craned my neck to catch a glimpse inside, curious to see what one could rent in a cemetery. It was a cozy red brick cottage with weather-beaten white wicker furniture on the porch. Maybe I could get on the waiting list and live there one day.

 

I locked eyes with the architect; I was ready to beg for admittance.

 

He paused. He shrugged his shoulders, a gesture so uniquely Italian, ushered me through the creaking gate and invited me to take a quick look around.

 

I entered a verdant garden splashed with yellow buttercups and punctuated with red poppies surrounding the headstones.

 

The headstones resembled overturned dominoes. I grazed the surface of one of the graves and touched a tombstone with my fingers. It was pocked and rough, and the concrete crumbled in my hand. A grey and white cat hiding behind the grave pounced at and missed a yellow butterfly. Fragments of white marble crunched under my feet. Bullet holes fractured the marble on some of the headstones, a reminder of when the Nazis paid a visit. I hurried through the cemetery snapping pictures, trying not to take advantage of my kind host.

 

I returned to the cemetery a few weeks later on April 4, the first Sunday of the month. I waited alone at the gate for the tour leader. Yael arrived and told me she was a graduate art history student from Israel who hoped to help with the restoration by translating the Hebrew inscriptions on the gravestones into Italian.

‘There isn't money to keep the cemetery open more than once a month,' she explained. ‘Not many people come to visit.'

 

After the war, local Christians tried to clean up the destruction created by the Nazis. Yael pointed out some headstones that were re-planted upside down because these good Samaritans couldn't read Hebrew.

Yael introduced me to Vera. Her grave stands out because it is newer white marble and the words are clear:

 

Here rests in peace Vera Bolaffio,

Snatched away by a German grenade

(And away) from the affection

of those who loved her

On August 28, 1944

At the age of eighteen

 

‘We know very little of Vera's life,' Yael told me. ‘She was born in Trieste but escaped with her family to hide in Florence during the war. Her father tended her monument until he returned to Trieste. He paid someone to take care of her grave until he passed away.'

 

Now dandelions and buttercups grow around Vera's resting place, much like her neighbors,' except the words on her monument are legible. Time has yet to erode her short story and leaves us a few clues as to who she was. But it is who she might have been, had she lived, that fascinates me.

 

Cypress trees line the central pathway where I've found a rock to sit on and watch the songbirds flit among the early spring green leaves. The dappled light is dreamy. I imagine the black-clad mourners arriving in horse-driven carriages and can hear the crunch of their boots on the white gravel as they walk in a line to the gravesite, sobbing into their linen handkerchiefs.

 

A wooden coffin is unloaded and the mourners gather in a tight group to sway to the mourner's kaddish.

My reverie is broken by the sharp caw of a crow who is perched on a swaying cypress branch.

 

Today red poppies grow over the broken stones and stories go untold and forgotten, maybe forever. There are no visitors to place pebbles on the graves of their loved ones, letting them know they are remembered.

As I slowly walk back out the rusty gates and onto the bustling streets of Florence, I promise myself that I will find out more about Vera.

 

Over the summer, some restoration work was started but funds are needed to help continue the project. The city of Florence was committed to the project and had promised €324,000, but the national government intervened and stopped the funding because the cemetery is not a public place. Private donors gave €80,000 in 2005 and €50,000 in 2006. These funds will be used to restore the most damaged graves and monuments.

You can help restore the Old Jewish Cemetery by donating to the synagogue and by visiting the cemetery if you are in Florence. At the very least, your admission fee will help the project and you will catch a glimpse of the past that will haunt you long after you leave. You may even imagine what Vera's children might have accomplished, had she been lucky enough to survive.

 

To help fund the restoration of the Old Jewish Cemetery, please email sandra@firenzebraica.it. The cemetery is open on the first Sunday of every month from 10am to 12pm. Admission is 3 euros for adults and 2 euros for children under the age of 14. It is located outside the San Frediano gate on Viale Ludovico Ariosto 16.

 

For information and private tours, contact Sigma CSC at 055 2346654, fax 055 244145, itinerariebraici@cscsigma.it

 

 

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