A couple of days ago, John and I set out on Melville’s Day 3 in Rome. It looked to be a long one: Herman began at the Baths of Caracalla, then on to the English cemetery, the Palazzo Farnese, Castel Sant’Angelo. At the end of the day, we planned to meet our friends Jonathan and Susan in Trastevere for drinks and a performance by a friend of Susan’s.
On the way to the Metro station, just a half-block out the door, as we walked along via Torlonia next to the huge public park Villa Torlonia, John said, Hold on a minute, I want to look at this. He had stopped next to a gated driveway in front of a garden and an apartment house very like the one we live in. He pointed to the pavement, where several small plaques were embedded in the cobblestone sidewalk. He had noticed them before, thought they were gas caps or something, and wanted to take a closer look.
We both leaned over. There were five small plaques grouped together.
The first read: “Qui abitava Forunata Coen in Finzi. Nata 1888. Arrestato 16.10.1943. Deportato Auschwitz. Morta. In Luogo Ignoto. In Data Ignota.” The other four plaques had similar messages: Arrested on October 16, 1943, deported to Auschwitz, place and date of death unknown.” Only the second one differed a bit. For that one, Carlo Finzi, born 1878, the date of death was known; the plaque reads “Assasinato 22.10.1943.”
John and I looked at each other. This was a family of five–father and mother, two daughters (Adriana and Luciana, ages 23 and 19) and a son, Enrico (age 21)–all deported to Auschwitz. All dead.
We both thought immediately of the 1970 Vittorio DeSica film, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, based on a novel by Giorgio Bassani, about an aristocratic Jewish Italian family in the early 1940s, oblivious to their impending tragedy. Had we happened upon the original models for that family? No matter: What we had happened upon was an unexpected discovery that moved us mightily. We spent a moment there, looking at the plaques, looking at one another, feeling very old and very full of history.
A quick search when we got home after our long day told us that the story of the Finzi-Continis was actually set in Ferrara, not Rome, and that Finzi was a fairly common Jewish name. Aldo Finzi, in fact, had been a prominent politician in the first half of the 20th century, head of the Italian Olympic Committee in the 1920s, and an early Fascist. Eventually he turned against the party with the imposition of the racial laws of 1938, became an active opponent of Mussolini’s Fascism, and was murdered by the German S.S., along with 334 other Italians, at the Ardeatine Massacre of March 1944.
In searching around for references to the Finzis in Rome, I happened on an article in a journal called Sephardic Horizons by Judith Roumani that suggested Bassani, the author of The Garden, might have been inspired in describing the Finzi property in Ferrara by a visit to the Villa Torlonia in Rome. I wrote to Judith. She didn’t know about the plaques, but she did mention the Jewish catacombs in Villa Torlonia. We went exploring the park yesterday and found what we think are the entrances to these. (Mussolini lived in the mansion in Villa Torlonia for 20 years; his first antiaircraft bunker sits next to the catacombs. Irony abounds.)
The plaques haunt us. Who put them there, embedded in the sidewalk? When? We are gathering information, sending out queries. (How did we exist without the internet?) This is not a path we anticipated taking, but we will follow it as far as we can.
CODA: We quickly learned that the plaques are part of a global art project begun by the German artist Gunter Demnig to commemorate individual victims of Nazi persecution–not only Jews, but also Roma and others–at the places they had last called home. Known as “stolpersteine,” or stumbling blocks, the first of these plaques appeared in Cologne in 1992; now there are over 40,000 plaques in more than 10 European countries. Plaques are only embedded with the permission of the local governments, and in some places, they have been controversial, with objections sometimes raised by the local Jewish communities, which have not felt that such stumbling blocks are appropriate memorials. In at least one German town, the Jewish Council objected because they were reminded of how Nazis had once used Jewish gravestones as paving blocks to repair streets.