On Lorenza Mazzetti and remembering Einstein

Exploring Rignano sull’Arno

Brett Lalonde
February 5, 2020 - 11:42

Some years ago, our family moved from the city center to a quiet farmhouse just 10 kilometers south of Florence, not far from San Donato in Collina. This small town, renowned for its gluten-free frittelle, offers much more than meets the mouth. The first year in our new home was dedicated to discovery: meeting neighbors, locals and learning about the history of the area.

 

One spring afternoon, while walking down our country road, we were called into the garden of a neighbor who had a gift for our six-year-old son (a young collector of ancient coins and historical artifacts): two-thirds of a missing shoe from the Second World War that she had found while digging in her garden. The mangled shoe looked like it had indeed seen battle. She pointed to the bottom of the valley and explained that, during the war, Nazi forces had been stationed at the foot of the hill and had bombed her group of houses, perhaps the missing shoe belonged to someone involved.

 

While the mysterious circumstances surrounding the shoe were never solved, we learned that the stretch of land from Bagno a Ripoli to Rignano sull’Arno, today rich with picturesque farmhouses and historical villas, was once a strategic front line during the war, a gateway into the city of Florence for forces moving north. The shoe was part of a bundle: our neighbor also gave us a book on the history of San Donato in Collina: Cronache di una guerra combattuta senza armi 1943-1946 (Pagnini Editore, 2014), published posthumously from the diary of Rodolfo Paoli, a professor of German literature and philology who was a point of reference for the local population during the war, providing life-saving linguistic mediation.

The children were instructed to call Einstein with the code name “Uncle Marino” so that Germans passing through wouldn’t discover his real identity.

 

 

 

Our children placed stones on Einstein’s grave, under the marble Star of David

 

 

 

The book describes encounters with important historical figures such as the German consul of Florence Gerhard Wolf, the Italian writer and poet Carlo Emilio Gadda, the villa of the Rosselli Brothers and lastly the Einstein family—not Albert, but his cousin Robert Einstein, an engineer who lived in Villa Focardo, just a couple of kilometers from San Donato.

 

The story of how the Einstein family was murdered was told by Lorenza Mazzetti in her prize-winning novel Il cielo cade (Sellerio editore, Palermo, 1961). Robert Einstein, his wife Nina Mazzetti Einstein, their two daughters Luce and Annamaria Einstein, and his adopted nieces Paola and Lorenza Mazzetti (the daughters of his late sister-in-law) had been living in Italy for decades. While his family was not considered to be in danger, Robert Einstein’s life was at risk, both as a Jew and as the cousin of a sworn enemy to the Nazi regime.

 

In the summer of 1944, just when the war seemed to be over and German troops began to move north, Robert Einstein got word that his life was in grave danger. He left Villa Focardo and went into hiding just outside San Donato, at the same farmhouse that was also hosting Professor Paoli and his family. Numerous families were lodging there; at one time there were as many as 56 people. The children were instructed to call Einstein with the code name “Uncle Marino” so that Germans passing through wouldn’t discover his real identity.

 

On the night of August 3, 1944, SS troops arrived at Villa Focardo only to find Nina Mazzetti Einstein with her daughters and nieces. They demanded to know where Robert was hiding. The soldiers, who had previously planted bombs, bullets and barbwire in the basement of the villa, accused Nina and her two daughters of being enemy spies. Angry that they could not find Robert, they set the villa on fire, and shot and killed the three women, sparing only Einstein’s two nieces, Paola and Lorenza Mazzetti because they were “not Jews”.

 

 

 

Commemorative stele remembering the Einstein-Mazzetti family in the cemetery of Badiuzza (Rignano sull’Arno)

 

 

 

In his memoirs, Professor Paoli recalls entering the villa the next day, finding everything destroyed. He describes a beautiful portrait that had once hung in the main hall next to the grand piano, depicting the famous physicist and mathematician Albert Einstein. Some months later, Robert Einstein committed suicide, the tragic conclusion to the atrocities committed.

 

In 2015, Lorenza and Paola Mazzetti received honorary citizenship from the town of Rignano sull'Arno. Lorenza Mazzetti died in Rome on January 4, 2020 at the age of 92. She was buried at the tiny cemetery of Badiuzza (Rignano sull’Arno), next to the Einstein family, under the commemorative stele, a flaming metal sculpture pointing toward the sky. Just beyond the cemetery you can still see Villa Focardo, nestled amidst vineyards strung across the hillside. Paola Mazzetti and the mayor of Rignano sull’Arno were present at the funeral to say their final farewell to Lorenza Mazzetti: “Traces of her testimony will live on thanks to her works”, said the mayor.

 

Living just a short walk from the cemetery, we decided to take a trip to visit the graves, not only of those involved in the story, but to pay homage to the storyteller herself. Our children placed stones on Einstein’s grave, under the marble Star of David. We also learned that in San Donato there is a piazza named after Professor Paoli, in recognition of the many lives he saved.

 

Twice yearly, Rignano sull’Arno organizes an institutional event to commemorate what is known as the Strage del Focardo: both on January 27th for Holocaust Remembrance Day, as well as in early August when the killings occurred. School groups, local government, and citizens, together with the ANPI (National Association of Italian Partisians) and the Jewish Community of Florence, reunite to commemorate the atrocities that took place. Starting this year, they will also honor one of Rignano sull’Arno’s late citizens, Lorenza Mazzetti, whose life’s work was dedicated to helping people remember the war and what happened to her family.

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