Plans by the northern Italian city of Mantua to redevelop a site that contains the town’s Jewish cemetery have been thrown into disarray after a group of American and Israeli Orthodox rabbis found proof that some of the most influential figures in Jewish culture are buried there.
One of the group, Israeli publisher Rabbi Shmaya Lev, claims to have unearthed in Budapest the register of the old cemetery’s burials – and it reads like a who’s who of 16th and 17th century Italian Jewry. Included are eminent Kabbalists such as Azariah da Fano, Moshe Zacuto and Aviad Basilea and scholar Yehudà Briel.
Noting that the area had been allowed to fall into disrepair, the rabbis re-claimed ownership of the cemetery and asked to be allowed to “map the burials, clean up and restore the cemetery and build a museum of remembrance”.
The problem is that the site, known as San Nicolò, is currently state property, having been sold by the community in 1852. During the war it was taken over by the Nazis, who built on it and turned it into a concentration camp. There is also a Napoleonic armoury, which is a listed building.
To complicate matters even more, the area has been earmarked by the municipality as one of the sites to be redeveloped in the 18 million euro “Mantova Hub” regeneration project for the town’s eastern suburbs.
The project, as envisaged by star architect Stefano Boeri, is still sketchy but involves refurbishing the five Nazi-built structures to create public centres dedicated to the environment, sustainability, social innovation and local goods. The armoury will be converted into a “house of remembrance” to remind visitors of the area’s history and its former use as a cemetery and concentration camp.
That was unacceptable to Rabbi Levi and the Central Rabbinical Congress (CRC) of the USA and Canada, so in early December last year they decided to take matters into their own hands.
They descended on Mantua to discuss the matter with the town’s mayor, Mattia Palazzi. The two parties met, talks were held, but in the end the municipality vowed to continue with the original regeneration project.
A month ago, after Mayor Palazzi held talks with the president of UCEI (Unione delle Comunita’ Ebraiche Italiane) Noemi Di Segni about the proposed development, the CRC dropped another bombshell.
In a letter to Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, the CRC’s executive director, Issac Gluck, asked for the cancellation of the plan and talked of the shock such “profanation” would cause the worldwide Jewish community.
However, the president of Mantua’s Jewish community, Emanuele Colorni, has distanced himself and the local community from the Orthodox attempts to reclaim the ancient cemetery.
Rabbi Levi said it was “essential for the whole Jewish world that the site be returned to its rightful owners” but Mr Colorni has pointed out that the rightful owner is now the municipality. And, anyway, the presence of any graves is still under dispute.
Mr Colorni, though, agreed that it would be better if the old cemetery were to be turned into a place of remembrance. Speaking, he stressed, in his personal capacity, he outlined his vision: “I’d like the site to remain a meadow but I’d also build a large garden with cedars, pomegranates and other plants mentioned in the Bible,” he said. “It would be based on the ‘Sefirot’, which according to the Kabbalah, are God’s ten instruments. It would be a constant reminder of the site’s original use. The Nazi-built structures should go, of course, they have no right to be there. Here and there, I would have totems and maybe also holograms to explain the history of the Jews and of the Mantua community.”
Mr Colorni’s idea may be too radical but the municipality, while unwilling to scrap its plans to please the CRC, is still taking a collaborative approach. Contacted by the JC, Andrea Murari, the councillor in charge of town planning, was keen to point out that they were working with UCEI to conduct an in-depth survey to establish with certainty what lies below the ground.
“We will be working with them and their experts on the final planning phase which will start very soon. We are not building anything new, we are just redeveloping an area that had fallen into heavy decay,” stressed Mr Murari. “Our project will involve the restoration of the pre-existing structures (the five buildings and the listed Napoleonic armoury) and will be as unobtrusive as possible. The idea is to leave the area of the old cemetery as undisturbed as possible while continuing with our project. We are willing to collaborate with anybody.”
At the time of writing, the contract for the Mantova Hub project had just been awarded. The CRC’s letter to the Italian Prime Minister remained unanswered.