A Jew in Florence

Standing very tall and clear in the city scape of Florence is the large green dome. Yes, you heard me. I’m not talking about Il Duomo you traditionally think of when it comes to Florence, but rather the Great Synagogue, built in 1874-1882, by the Jewish Community of Florence. 

The Jews of Florence are one of the oldest continuous communities in Europe. Jews first settled in Florence, the capital of Tuscany, in the early 1400s, when the Medici family asked Jewish families to move from Rome to serve as money lenders in Florence. Jews also moved from Spain to Italy during the Expulsion.

However, when Cosimo de Medici took power in Florence in the 1570s, the protections Jews had enjoyed for over 100 years vanished and they were forced to move into a ghetto in the city center, I learned on my tour of the Great Synagogue that over 400 families lived in this small ghetto until the mid-1800s. Jews had to pay the gatekeepers each day to open and close the gate to go to work outside the ghetto walls. The community was allowed to have synagogues, schools, kosher markets, and more. In 1799, the Jews were emancipated by Napoleonic forces. The people of Florence saw their Jewish ghetto as a disgrace to their beautiful, new Republic and destroyed it in 1848. This is why Florence is one of few European cities without an old Jewish quarter. When you travel to Florence today, a large open plaza, La Republica, stands where the ghetto once stood filled day and night with locals and tourists enjoying gelato, a carousel, and even a farmers market on the weekend.

OyMG - La RepublicaThe Jewish community of Florence decided when they built their synagogue that they wanted to be far from their unhappy memories in the Jewish ghetto. And they wanted to build a dome, like the famous Il Duomo, but a dome that was very different from this famous dome. David Levi, a wealthy member of the community, left his entire estate to build the synagogue. While Jews had had places to worship in their ghetto, they had never had a great large temple, as the tour guide described in, in which to pray before. The Great Synagogue of Florence is built in the Moorish style and grounded in the Sephardic traditions of this community. I don’t have pictures, as they aren’t allowed on the tour. The dome was once copper, but has faded to the beautiful green color it is today. During recent renovations, the community chose to leave it the iconic green color it has become.

The Torah scrolls of the synagogue were saved during World War II, hidden in the hills of Tuscany. The Nazis were surprised to find the Aron Hakodesh empty upon their arrival to Florence in 1943. But, the scrolls had already been hidden. The Nazis used the Great Synagogue for motorcycle and artillery storage during the war. They simply removed the benches used for praying and did not destroy the synagogue. However, the art of destroyed. When the Nazis left Florence, they booby trapped the Synagogue with bombs. Resistance fighters, with the help of arriving British and American forces, were able to save the synagogue from all but two of the bombs.

In 1966, the Arno River flooded, destroying all of the scrolls which had been saved throughout the war. A lone scroll is on display in the museum on the upper floor of the Synagogue to serve as a reminder of this great flood.

Outside the Great Synagogue is a memorial to the Florentine Jews who perished in the Holocaust. 243 Jews were deported by the Nazis almost immediately upon their arrival in 1943. Reports vary that between 13-50 people survived the deportation. Many Jews had fled other parts of Europe to Florence before 1943 for safety and there are no records of these individuals. Our guide reported that many Jews were successfully hidden by Italians during the war. However, no facts were given to us on the numbers of such people.

It was an interesting journey

As you may recall, last summer I shared with you my travels to Singapore. Travel, for me, is a precious hobby, and when I travel I like to check out the local Jewish sites.  I don’t claim to be a historian, but did my best to fact check as much of the history of the Jews of Florence as I could.

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