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.