After touring emotional sites in Eastern Europe — memorial-hopping, if you will, for murdered family members — and then celebrating my birthday surrounded by family and friends in Israel, I thought Tuscany would be a good final stop before returning home to New York. In Tuscany I don’t know anyone. Here, alone, I can collect my thoughts, hike, write, and, well, if I must indulge in the local pasta and wine, I must.
And it’s all been going according to plan, although what trip would be really worthwhile without a hiccup that leads to an epiphany?
Except it’s not really a hiccup, it’s a sting.
Hiking from the idyllic farm I’m staying at to Bagno Vignoni I get accosted by a bee (or two? At this point it might as well be a dozen). They get caught in my hair, I run down the trail and scream like a madwoman. It’s off-season in Tuscany and no hikers are around to witness me bouncing and flipping my hair as though it were on fire. Finally, the bee(s?) get away with just a couple of bites off my scalp, leaving two knobs on my head. I make it to Bagno Vignoni where tagliatelli with white truffles (now in-season!) and white wine make it all better. I have to wonder what my 16-year old vegetarian hippie-wannabe self would’ve thought of this 30-something year old woman who is terrified of bees in freaking Tuscany.
But before I can beat myself up too much, I return to the farm and learn that a rogue truck full of beehives had an accident and hundreds of bees are on the loose. The farmers working the field were attacked, forced to jump on their stomachs into the tall grass to hide and then run, leaving their tractors behind. “Queste api sono aggressivi!” says one of the farmers, who got several stings on his face. Aggressive indeed!
So it’s this knowledge of bees in the air that encourages me to explore spots further removed from here at least for the next day or two. And that’s how I discover La Piccola Gerusalemme — Little Jerusalem in Tuscany — in a beautiful little town called Pitigliano, a town carved into tuffs of valleys.
Driving toward Pitigliano I’m thrown by the surreal scenery. A town carved into a mountain! I’d read about it, but to see it! Arriving at the quaint and quiet center I see a map where La Picolla Gerusalemme is shown. It consists of a cultural museum and an old synagogue.
I slip ahead of a German tour group to see the synagogue. It’s beautiful but sad, especially after reading the museum pamphlet that tells the story of the Jews of Pitigliano:
“In 1598 the Synagogue of Pitigliano was built. […] [T]he Medici family instituted the Ghetto here in 1622. In the 19th Century, about 1/4 of Pitigliano’s population was of the Jewish faith and this community became known as “The Little Jerusalem,” a nickname given to it by the Jews of the city of Livorno. In the 1861 Unification of Italy, all Jews were emancipated and many from Pitigliano’s Ghetto left for the larger cities. In 1938 the Jews in Pitigliano numbered approximately 70 people but due to the racial laws, this number gradually decreased. During World War II, the approximate 30 Jews remaining in Pitigliano were helped and eventually saved by Pitigliano’s Catholic families who hid and protected their fellow citizens in the surrounding countryside. In the 1960s the Synagogue gradually collapsed, taking with it hopes for a ‘rebirth’ of the city’s Jewish community.”
The synagogue was restored in 1995 but it’s no longer in use, today it’s part of the museum. The museum is beautiful and quite thorough, it shows the remains of the old mikvah (ritual bath), a textile dyeing room, a kosher cellar, bakery and butcher. A side room described as the “Jewish community’s original place of worship and study” contains objects “used in Jewish tradition” with explanations of what they are. The objects include kippas (skullcaps), mezuzas, torahs, ketubahs. Each one has a description of what the object is and how it was once part of the Jewish culture in Pitigliano.
It feels like visiting the museum of a lost civilization. And really, it is, since almost none of this civilization is left here — not enough Jews to make a minyan to use the synagogue, anyway. Although a New York Times piece published last year about this town contains an interview with an impressive Jewish woman who was born here, was saved by Catholic farmers during the war while hiding in a cave for three months and then returned to Pitigliano where she told the New York Times she “has dedicated her life to preserving and restoring her hometown’s Jewish history.”
After having visited my grandparents’ birthplaces, I can’t help thinking that with the exception of Riga, their birth towns might as well have a museum dedicated to that lost civilization, too (and Riga’s apparently still working on it with its annual court-approved neo-Nazi march).
Then I realize, it’s these little towns I’ve visited, the ones that purged themselves of Jews that live in tragedy: local citizens wake up among memorials and torn up, lifeless, synagogues. Each day as they walk past ruins they breathe the loss of a culture that once thrived.
And I remember that in Israel, just last week, I celebrated a birthday with great aunts and second cousins, I saw Tel Aviv growing, Jerusalem abuzz; in Brazil, just about three months ago, I saw my grandparents, my aunts, my uncles and cousins, heard old stories, made new memories; in Houston, I celebrated Rosh Hashanah with my parents and sister, missing my brother who was in college. In the past three months I’ve gotten to enjoy the family thriving in both its ancient home and our “new” homes.
It strikes me, as it has many times in the past few weeks, that my grandparents’ stories are far from being just about survival. Survival, especially Holocaust survival, is just a chapter. Their stories are about recreation and their gifts to future generations, me included: inspiration and the guts to thrive.