The Pitigliano story

A legacy of six centuries of coexistence between Jews and Christians.

The Pitigliano synagogue (with the oval window) is seen in the center foreground. (photo credit: EYAL BARUCH)
The Pitigliano synagogue (with the oval window) is seen in the center foreground.
(photo credit: EYAL BARUCH)
“Pitigliano was a beautiful place to grow up and we had a wonderful community. But after that it was never the same.”
Indeed, the war years marked the beginning of the end of Pitigliano’s role as a centuries-old haven for Italian Jews and a remarkable example of peaceful coexistence between dominant Christians and a significant Jewish minority despite what was an often intolerant country.
A Jewish community that had thrived in the medieval Tuscan hilltop town for centuries had been reduced to a small handful by the time everyone came out of hiding. Today, Servi is one of only four Jewish residents left.
The history of Jews in Pitigliano dates back to at least the early 15th century when records show a small handful of Jewish merchants and bankers had set up shop inside the town’s walls. Over the decades, more Jews arrived from Rome, fleeing the centralized Catholic authority of the Papal States, which cut a swath across the central part of Italy that ran just south of Pitigliano.
In 1555, the Italian rabbi and doctor David de Pomis declared Pitigliano a “refugee town.” By 1598 the town had its first temple, and two centuries later the bond between local Christians and Jews was cemented when the majority rose up to protect Jewish neighbors from French mercenaries passing through the town with plans to sack the Jewish ghetto.
For many generations the community was vibrant, fed by new arrivals from nearby towns whose Jewish populations were too small to be sustainable. For a time, the town had a Jewish newspaper, a Jewish school and even a seat on the town commission. In the mid-19th century, the community had more than 400 members, or around one out of eight residents. Pitigliano became known across Italy and further afield as “Little Jerusalem.”
But when Italy was unified in 1861 it dealt a blow to the town’s Jewish community, with many residents – who by virtue of unification enjoyed the right to travel freely – opting to leave for Rome, Florence, Livorno or other cities. By the time Mussolini’s government passed the 1938 racial laws, only around 60 Jews remained.
“THE UNIFICATION of Italy reduced the size of the Jewish community in Pitigliano, but the community was still part of the town’s identity,” says Angelo Biondi, a professor and historian who is an expert on local history. “But the worst was yet to come.”
Servi recalls an idyllic youth in the picturepostcard town, going to school and playing together with local kids her age, and not thinking very much about the differences in their faiths.
“During Passover, we’d give them matza and, during Easter, they’d give us the white pizza they ate,” she recalls.
But the racial laws changed that. Though at first the laws were loosely enforced in Pitigliano, they legally forbid Christians and Jews from visiting each other’s homes or even greeting each other in the street.
The right to travel even within the town limits was severely limited for Jewish residents, and Jews and Christians could not employ each other or patronize each other’s businesses.
Despite all that, the tolerance the town prided itself on was still in evidence just beneath the surface. Servi recalls that a local priest volunteered to teach her and the other Jewish children privately for a time, and Biondi says the Carabinieri, the paramilitary police, would ignore orders received from Rome to monitor or shut down some Jewish activities in the town.
“I have heard stories that the police would head out to fulfill their orders, but once they were out of sight, they’d stop and wait, and then come back and say they couldn’t find anything,” the historian says. “Residents pretended not to know what was going on.”
But the biggest demonstration of solidarity came starting in 1943, the year Mussolini’s government fell. The American Army was working its way up Italy but Tuscany remained in the hands of the Axis powers, so Nazi officials took over the local bureaucracies and enforcement of the racial laws became much stricter. For the first time, Jewish residents were required to wear yellow stars on their clothes, for example, and reports that they’d be shipped off to concentration camps started to spread.
Some residents fled while others, including Servi’s family, went into hiding in and near the town, where Christian residents took them in.
“We would secretly stay with one family until we thought the Germans might find out and then we’d move to another house,” Servi recalls. Often, police questioned the residents hiding Servi and other Jewish families. Sometimes they were beaten.
But the hiding places, for the most part, remained secret.
“Occasionally residents would see us and they’d say, ‘What are you doing here? Run away!’ and eventually we realized it was too risky to stay with families, and so in late 1943, we moved into some caves,” she went on. Christian families still brought them food and blankets, but they were on their own.
There were six in her family’s cave: Servi, plus her parents, her two older sisters, and the boyfriend of one of her sisters.
“It was cold that winter, and the only time I can remember feeling real hatred – hatred for Mussolini, hate for Adolf Hitler and the Nazis – was when we were moving from one cave to the other in the bitter cold and I could see the veins in my sister’s leg turn blue from the cold,” she remembers. “I was brought up not to feel hate, but I thought, why are we being forced to do this? Make it stop!” Despite their hardships, Servi’s family was better off staying in town than taking their chances elsewhere. By the time the war concluded, 22 members of Pitigliano’s small Jewish community had perished, most of them after being captured and sent to concentration camps. But every member of the community who stayed behind and hid survived.
It was not a large number. Servi recalls that fewer than two dozen Jews returned to live in Pitigliano after the war, with the rest of the survivors settling elsewhere. In the 1960s, the synagogue was damaged in a mudslide and, in any case, the population had dwindled to the point where it was no longer possible to form a minyan.
Two of the four remaining Jews in Pitigliano, Enrico Spizzichino and Massimo Caló, Servi’s son and nephew, respectively, were born after the temple closed. The fourth, Arial Paggi, is of Servi’s generation and splits his time between Pitigliano and Milan.
Spizzichino, the youngest of them, is 51.
The town’s Jewish heritage is clearly in its final phase.
But the Jewish influence on the town of 4,000 remains. Servi runs a small shop that sells Jewish memorabilia and kosher products. The local wine cooperative makes a kosher red and white wine. A small Jewish cemetery is well maintained. And though the town receives only around 25,000 tourists a year, town officials say almost all of them visit the Jewish cultural center and the refurbished synagogue, and that a “significant” number are Jews who visit to understand the history of the town that still calls itself “Little Jerusalem.”
But the biggest legacy of six centuries of coexistence between Jews and Christians in Pitigliano, according to Biondi, the historian, is the town’s pride in its history as a tolerant place and a refuge for those who needed it.
“For centuries, the communities lived happily, side by side, with no real friction between the two groups,” Biondi says.
“That kind of tolerance and fellowship is still part of the town’s DNA. It’s something that some other parts of the world could do well to emulate.”
The Jews of Pitigliano
1432: First official record of Jewish merchants and bankers in Pitigliano, though they may have arrived much earlier 1555: Italian rabbi and doctor David de Pomis declared Pitigliano a “refugee town” for Jews fleeing the powerful Papal States to the south.
1598: Pitigliano’s first synagogue was constructed.
1619: The nearby town of Castro, another tolerant haven for Jews, was destroyed by a series of territorial wars. Most of the Jewish residents resettled in Pitigliano, starting a dozen decades of arrivals from nearby towns as those Jewish populations declined.
1622: The first record of a Jewish ghetto in Pitigliano. Jewish men were forced to wear red hats and women red markers on their sleeves.
1773: Pietro Leopoldo, the Catholic Grand Duke of Tuscany, officially recognized the town’s Jews, making it easier for them to travel and own property.
1785: Jews were first allowed to serve on the Pitigliano Town Council.
1799: Local Christians rose up to defend Jews against bullying French soldiers passing through; the ghetto was desegregated.
1823: The ruling Grand Duke of Tuscany made the first of several formal visits to Pitigliano’s synagogue.
1850: The census that year showed more than 400 Jews living in Pitigliano, around 12 percent of the town’s population – the biggest Jewish population in Italy in percentage terms.
1854: Work on the town’s first Jewish library was started and Vessillo Israelita, Italy’s first Jewish newspaper, was founded.
1860: Mixed marriages between Jews and Christians were first allowed in Pitigliano.
1861: Italy was unified, making it legal for Jews to move across the whole of Italy. Many Jews left Pitigliano for more economically vibrant cities.
1938: The first racial laws were passed.
Only around 60 Jews were left in Pitigliano at the time.
1943: Benito Mussolini’s Fascist government fell, resulting in stricter enforcement of anti-Semitic rules under the Nazi-controlled central and northern Italy.
1961: The Pitigliano synagogue closed as the Jewish population dwindled to the point where it was no longer possible to form a minyan.
1995: The synagogue was repaired and refurbished after being damaged by mudslides in the 1960s.