Anne's Blog

A Tuscany Jewish Ghetto: Pitigliano’s Little Jerusalem

Date: September 13, 2021 - categories: - Leave your thoughts

“How far my people have traveled!  And not for pleasure….” exclaimed in an interview Elena Servi, over ninety,  last Jewish woman (she has two sons) of Pitigliano and protagonist of the 2007 film of Luigi Faccini, “Il Pane della Memoria” (“The Bread of Memory”).

Founder of the Jewish cultural center, La Piccola Gerusalemme, in Pitigliano in 1996, the indomitable Signora Servi’s creative energy and warmth is described in this critique of the film:

“Even in the depths of one of the darkest periods in the history of civilization, there are shining rays of light and hope singling out the best of humanity. Elena Servi, delicately and elegantly, provides for us a glimpse into the life of an Italian Jew who grew up during the 1930’s in a Tuscan city, Pitigliano, and describes with poignant detail the manner in which Jews and Christians co-existed amicably for thousands of years in Italy.  With enormous creative sensibility and warmth, Faccini provides for us the words and the scenes to bring this period of history to life with the voice of a wise and courageous woman.  Today, at a time in world history when one questions man’s inhumanity to man, this moving and provocative film stirs our emotions in a way that is simultaneously gentle and powerful.”
Victor Fornari, Professor of Psychiatry New York University School of Medicine & Director, Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, North Shore University Hospital

On the Day of Remembrance January 27th in 2020, this last Jewish woman living in Pitigliano was honored by thePresident Sergio Mattarella bestowing on her the title, Cavaliere al Merito della Repubblica. The Order of Merit of the Italian Republic,  highest ranking honour of the Republic, is awarded for “‘merit acquired by the nation’ in the fields of literature, the arts, economy, public service, and social, philanthropic and humanitarian activities….”

As of the end of the 15th-century, Elena Servi’s Pitigliano had become an important place of refuge for Jews following the Papal bull emanated in July, 1555 by Pope Paul IV  only three months after his election. The bull, Cum nimis absurdum (“For it is absurd and improper that Jews …”),  revoked all civic rights of the Jewish community, imposed religious and economic restrictions on Jews in the Papal States, reinforced anti-Jewish legislation and subjected the Jewish population to various restrictions on their personal freedom and degradations  – including the wearing of yellow headscarves  by all women and yellow cone-shaped hats by all Jewish men.  (Tragically, that yellow assignation will be picked up centuries later in persecution of the Jews).

The Jews were not subject to  restrictions in the small independent feudal enclaves on the boundaries of Tuscany and Latium, such as the Orsini contea of Pitigliano and the reign of the Ottieri, Castell’Ottieri (near Sorano, very close to Pitigliano).  Other fiefdoms where Jews took refuge were Santa Fiora in southwestern Tuscany, reign of the powerful Sforza family and the Farnese Duchy of Castro on the Latium coast, north of Rome.

Numerous Jewish families took refuge in these small feudal enclaves where they could live more freely and engage in business activities,  at first as money-lenders.  Many were bankers as well as doctors. One of the most famous doctors, David De Pomis – born in Spoleto in the mid-15th-century – was also a rabbi, linguist and philosopher.  Serving as a doctor near Rome and unable to continue his profession following the Papal bull of 1555, De Pomis settled in  Pitigliano, serving as medico to the Orsini family as well as offering his services in the nearby towns of Sovana and Sorano.

Soon the Jews were so well-established in Pitigliano that they erected a synagogue in 1598.  In the early 17th-century when the Medici annexed the area to their Grand Duchy of Tuscany, Jews were confined to ghettos.  Shortly, though, their leading roles in commercial and economic enterprises and the Jewish status was significantly improved with restoration of their fundamental rights, allowing them to possess stable assets, exceptional at that time.

 A steady immigration towards Pitigliano was taking place at this time from Castro, destroyed in the early 17th century at order of Pope Urban VIII in conflict with Castro’s ruling Farnese family.

Other Jews came from small Latium towns (Papal States) and later in the 17th-century, from nearby towns, Santa Fiora and Sorano, where the Jewish community was diminishing; thus, Pitigliano became the only Jewish community in the Maremma area.

Do note the Maremma area on this map below and Pitigliano and Sovana to southeast, i.e., very close to the border with the Papal States (Latium):

In the late 18th-century with the enlightened reform of the French Lorena (Lorraine), the new Grand Dukes of Tuscany, the Jews were allowed to take part to some degree in the activities of the muncipio, with their own representatives on the town consiglio.

As Pitigliano was the last of the “refuge cities” in the area with favorable living conditions, an exceptional relationship of tolerance while living together  formed between Christians and Jews.  Their solidarity was definitely cemented in 1799, when the people and the majority of Christians defended the Jews from the bullying anti-French military that wanted to sack the ghetto.

The Jewish community’s institutions were reinforced with the foundation of a library and an association for charitable projects. Rabbis trained in Pitigliano served various Italian communities and the Servi brother founded the first Italian Jewish newspaper. 

Author, rabbi, publisher and politician, Dante Lattes from Pitigliano was one of the strongest and most versatile figures of  the Italian Jewish community in the 20th century.

Over the years for commercial reasons and career choices, dispersion of the Jews to numerous Tuscan and Latium Maremma areas took place, although all remain attached to Pitigliano where the  synagogue was the focal point for  key religious festivals. Immigration continued to the larger cities.

The racial laws and persecution of the last World War accelerated the end of the community with closure of the synagogue in 1960.  In the post-World War II years, few Jewish residents remained and the last Yom Kippur was celebrated in 1959 in the synagogue shaken up by bombings in 1944 and devastated in the 1960’s by landslides.

The city of Pitigliano restored the synagogue in 1993

The World War II stories of the salvation of the Jews of Pitigliano thanks to the townspeople as well as rural people are countless. During this dark period of history, the Jews in Pitigliano were offered hospitality, refuge and assistance even at great risk.   In 2002, the recognition as “Righteous Among Nations” was conferred on about 14 courageous pitiglianesi  by Yad Vashem in Israel.

As once written, “This closed the long story of tolerance, esteem and very often, friendship and affection between Christians and Jews, which constituted a fundamental value and exemplary Pitiglianese experience.”

Today I talked  with young Francesca, born in Pitigliano and working today for the Associazione Piccola Associazione, about this rapport between Christians and Jews in her town.  She explained it this way: “We’re a small town far from the political and social influences of the grandi centri.  This has been responsible for the harmony between Jews and Christians.  Here in Pitigliano, for example,  we  have always indicated some one as ‘Roberto’ or ‘Francesco’ but never as ‘Jew’ or “Christian.'”

Although the Jewish population is missing today, that old relationship of friendship and solidarity continues in other forms, including the restoration and conservation of Jewish monuments: the synagogue, the ritual bath, kosher cellar, kosher butcher,  and the unleavened-bread bakery

The solidarity extends outside the walls: the  Jewish cemetery, too, has been restored:

Other initiatives include the production of Kosher wine in the Pitigliano Cooperative Cellars….

…and above all, the Associazione Piccola Gerusalemme (“Little JerusalemAssociation”)  – founded by Elena Servi in 1996  – which has promoted numerous initiatives for the diffusion and appreciation of the Pitigliano story.

 (By the mid-19th century, the appellative “Piccola Gerusalemme” had been given to Pitigliano where over 400 Jews lived, i.e., about a quarter of the town’s  total population).

Thanks to the Associazione Piccola Gerusalemme, in 2003, a didactic tour of the  Museo della Cultura Ebraica (Museum of Jewish Culture), synagogue and ghetto (with various ambiences) is now offered and is included in the Maremma network of museums, Musei di Maremma. 

Francesca told me that the Pitigliano Jewish ghetto comprised the area of four medieval alleyways branching off Via Zuccarelli – a main Pitigliano street – but no map exists defining the area precisely.

On recent Pitigliano visits,  I was  in the ghetto area as I neared the synagogue, wandering  charming winding passageways – many of them vaulted over –  flanked by houses of volcanic tufo rock

On steps in a vaulted alleyway, little Giulia sat just after a visit to the nearby Piccola Gerusalemme with her parents.

After chatting with them, I headed down the steps across the way to the Piccola Gerusalemme  entrance:

Near the entrance to the synagogue, a plaque on the wall caught my attention: inscribed were names of Pitigliano citizens who had died in the Holocaust:

I was puzzled as I knew that no Jews were taken from Pitigliano during World War II, thanks to the courage of the pitaglianesi who had sheltered them. The woman at the ticket office told me, “They were Jews from our Pitigliano who had moved away and they were all taken in other Italian cities, unfortunately….”

As I visited the synagogue..

…..I thought about the Bar Mitzvah celebrated in that synagogue in 1936, immortalized in a treasured photo:

Little Elena Servi is in that photo…in the lower right…..

After visiting the synagogue – empty when I was there – I headed to the lower level “to those places in the ghetto of social interaction,” as Francesca put it:

  • the ritual bath
  • the Kosher wine cellar
  • the Kosher slaugherhouse
  • the oven for unleavened bread, used for the last time at Easter, 1939 following the promulgation of th Fascist racial laws:Photos nearby bring alive for us the working days of the oven:

There was also a photo of the unleavened bread baked in that oven, the matza’:

No photos, though, of the special Pitigliano cake, sfratti, a sweet made of walnuts, orange peel, honey and nutmeg linked  to a painful moment in Jewish history. This sweet has the shape of an elongated thick tube, similar to a stick and is meant to mimic the batons used by the soldiers of the Grand Duke of Tusccany, Cosimo II de’ Medici in the 1600’s as they knocked at the doors of Jewish homes to warn of eviction.

A century later, the Jews of Pitigliano created this cake to remember the event, though with ironic symbolism, the sfratti were enjoyed for the celebrations of Rosh Hashanah with wishes for a prosperous new year.  Their preparation had  yet another significance:  to ward off the possibility of future persecutions.

The Christian pitiglianesi adopted the sfratti with enthusiastic appreciation.  They were baked prior to a wedding hoping to prevent conflict between the married couple.

Nowadays, you can enjoy them at any time.

May a taste of the sfratti be a happy conclusion to memorable Pitigliano explorations  – and a reminder of the Christian and Jewish harmonious rapport in this Tuscan hilltown.

(And sincerest mille grazie  to the Associazione Piccola Gerusalemme for some of the photos).

Click here for more on Pitigliano

Read about Pitigliano’s stunning Palazzo Orsini

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