Travel about 90 minutes north of Rome to the Tuscany region, and you’ll find nestled into the mountains the small village of Pitigliano, which is sometimes called "Little Jerusalem."
The town of 4,000 is revered by Jews because it protected its Jewish community during World War II, amid the Nazi occupation of Italy. According to a guide at the village’s Jewish museum, no Jews who actually lived in the village during the war were ever captured by the Nazis.
"They were protected by the local people in the countryside and in the caves, and they survived," the guide reported.
In a terrible twist of fate, she added, Jews who fled the town were eventually killed by the Nazis in other locations throughout Italy. She added that the village’s non-Jewish inhabitants were sometimes beaten by the Nazis for resisting the roundups of Jews.
Members of a Jewish-Catholic mission from Rochester traveled to Pitigliano Nov. 11 and visited the Jewish museum there. According to The Guide to Jewish Italy, as well as the tour book The Roaming Hebrew, Pitigliano was friendly to Jews centuries before the Holocaust. The town became a refuge for 16th-century Jews fleeing confinement in ghettos in both northern and southern Italy, as well as the expulsion of Jews from Spain and the territories it ruled within Italy.
Although a ghetto eventually was established in 17th-century Pitigliano, Jews remained an integral part of village life and enjoyed relatively good treatment compared to the fate of Jews elsewhere in Italy. Long before the rest of Italy’s Jews enjoyed equal rights, Tuscany’s rulers accorded them equality in 1765. The Roaming Hebrew notes that Pitigliano’s Jewish population peaked in the middle of the 19th century at about 400 people out of a total village population of 2,200.
"The religious fervor, the great development of business and the resumption of the cultural and political activities, connected to the gratitude of the (Jewish) population, contribute to confer to the Jewish community of Pitigliano the designation of ‘little Jerusalem,’" the tour book explains.
By the late 1800s, Italy’s Jews had obtained legal status equal to that of other Italian citizens, and Pitigliano’s Jews began to migrate away from the town. Today, there aren’t enough Jews in Pitigliano to sustain a synagogue, but tours of what was once the Jewish ghetto include a visit to the town’s former synagogue. The back wall of the synagogue bears a medallion commemorating the 1773 visit of Tuscany’s grand duke, offering witness to the positive relations between Jews and Gentiles.
Seth Borg, a Rochester-area Jew who participated in the Jewish-Catholic mission, said he was moved by the centuries of peaceful coexistence between Jews and Christians the village embodies. He said he was touched by the fact that the village’s non-Jewish community had restored the synagogue, which was reconstructed in the mid-1990s after collapsing in the 1960s.
Borg’s wife, Roberta, had a similar reaction to Pitigliano, adding that she was impressed that the town’s Jews had survived for centuries, eking out their livings through winemaking, tanning and baking.
Isobel Goldman, community-relations director for the Jewish Community Federation of Greater Rochester, said she was amazed by how much Pitigliano resembled pictures she had seen of Israel’s old Jerusalem. Visiting Pitigliano seemed to have an emotional impact on members of the Jewish-Catholic mission, she observed.
"I sensed a silence among the group where the awe we felt was louder than any words we could speak," Goldman said. "The story about the Catholic community that hid and saved Jews during the Holocaust in Pitigliano seemed to add another dimension to the conversation that we came together to Italy to explore."
Deacon John Brasley, mission participant and coordinator of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs within diocesan Parish Support Ministries, said he also was impressed by the protection village residents had afforded their Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust.
"(T)hey knew in their hearts it was the only thing to do," he said. "It shows great character, and yet also simple human decency and resolve."