Today we set off for the Jewish Museum and Synagogue in Florence. The very rigorous safety check, which included leaving all bags, cameras and phones in a locker and walking through a very serious metal detector, made me aware of how fragile the security of the Jewish community has been through the years.
Always their freedom to exist in a society has depended it seems on the good will of the rulers of the time, they have rarely in history had full citizenship as an unalienable right.
The Synagogue was funded by a benefactor in the 18th century who wanted a building that would be worthy of Florence – and worthy it is with its magnificent dome. Many of the Florentine Jews were those who had been expelled from Spain and the building has a strong moorish feel to it.
We entered at just the right time, as the synagogue was opened and a guide was there to give us a fantastic introduction to the building and the history of the Jews in Florence.
One story to emerge was that compared to many other parts of Europe, relatively few Jews in this community ended up in the death camps. There were a number of reasons for this, among them the fact that the local cardinal set up mechanisms by which Jews were disguised as priests or nuns, and children were hidden in catholic orphanages. Nevertheless hundreds were killed and their names are recorded in the grounds of the Synagogue.
After our visit, although it was early for lunch, we went next door to Ruth’s Place, a kosher vegetarian restaurant, where we were welcomed by the owner Tomas Simcha Jelinek. Tomas it turns out is a Czech puppeteer, and has written a poem about the children in Terezin, and he had a book of photos of the pictures children painted in that camp, where so few survived. Over lunch we read them and talked some more with him about his life, and he shouted us a bottle of wine.
And so the circle completes itself – Two months ago I was in Prague where 90% of the Jewish Community perished, and I visited the Terezin Camp where much of this story was played out. The Prague Blog
And just as we are leaving the Women’s B&B in Florence , another circle completes as the owner Liana Borghi says that this building was once the Jewish school at the time they build the synagogue in Florence, and that she bought it because her family of her own Jewish family connections. The connections continue…
Here an English version of Tomas’s Poem, which he gave to us. It has been published in Italian
Kaddish – for the children who had no children
There lies a small town in the heart of Europe,
beneath a mountain swelling like mother’s breast.
Once into that town came many children,
some from near by, some from far away.
Each one brought a bag of things dear to them:
toys, paints, drawing pads, scraps of cloth,
twists of string, penknives, china marbles,
and glass ones, with a rainbow inside them.
There there were books with lots of lovely stories
with pictures and great big letters.
Some even brought their best suit, a change of socks,
a lucky charm for their buttonhole,
the first ever ring for their finger
and the watch that did not go tick.
In fact in that town time did not pass.
Nobody asked “what time is it? What day is today?”
It was no use. As useless as the bags of things
that were dear to them. For these were heaped together
like a pyramid of a very wicked pharoah.
There were pyramids of books with great big letters,
paints, scraps of cloth, twists of string, lucky charms,
and watches that did not go tick.
Only the marbles, the china ones, and the glass ones
with a rainbow inside them, these came rolling down.,
No one at all had thought of bringing a butterfly:
they never imagined there would not be any,.
So they looked up into the sky. Who knows, by chance….
But they could not see the sky.
A cloud of dust
covered the sun.
Dust, did I say? But those were the ashes,
floating in the air as butterflies do
but nothing like so pretty…
There were no flowers even.
They had been trodden down
by heavy leather boots.
Wherever a hundred soldiers march
no flower can grow, and there
the soldiers never stopped marching up and down…
So the children were joyful when the soldiers
herded them together to take them somewhere else.
Far, far away from this dreadful ugly town.
“But where are we off to?”
“Off to the camps in the fields.”
“Ah, then we will see the butterflies again!”
It was a long, long journey, and without their bags.
Out through a chink in the sealed wagon
they could spy the stars.
One of the eldest remembered a story
and told it to the littlest ones,
but without the books written in great big letters
the ending often got changed.
At journey’s end there were these so called fields
but not a flower in them.
Everything trodden underfoot
by a thousand shiny black boots.
Even words, even dreams,
even the stars…
the yellow stars stitched to the children’s clothes.
So it was that these children
had no chance to grow up, to love, to marry,
to have children of their own.
And so it was that these children
had no chance to tell fairy tales
written in great big letters
to their sons and daughters.
They have no children to recite the prayer
we say in our sorrow when we lose a parent.
That prayer is called ‘Kaddish’,
and with the Hebrew letters of that word
you could make any number of lovely butterflies…
This isn’t a beautiful fairy tale
in great big letters:
It isn’t lovely, it isn’t a fairy tale.
That little town is called Terezin,
It lies in the heart of Europe
beneath the mountain swelling like mother’s breast.
So many different names those children had,
written in great big letters
of the Sacred script.
Thanks be to heaven today there are many children
called by the same names, playing
with the butterflies in the green green fields
here and everywhere
all the world over
by Tomas Simcha Jelinek