Garden of sadness

Garden of sadness

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

Thu 22 Oct 2009 12:00 AM

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,
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


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

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 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,



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