ITALICS 50 Years Ago, ‘Mud Angels’ Came to Flooded Florence to Save Centuries of Jewish History

italicsBy Rossella Tercatin

On the morning of Friday, November 4, 1966, 18-year-old Andrea Belgrado was fast asleep in his family’s home across the street from the Great Synagogue of Florence. It was the Italian national holiday marking the World War I armistice, and like most teenagers, Belgrado was taking advantage of the occasion to sleep in.

But his dreams came to an abrupt end when his father — Fernando Belgrado, the chief rabbi of Florence — woke him up and rushed him to the synagogue. Rumors were flying that the Arno River had flooded its banks and its waters had started to cover the city.

“In the beginning, nothing seemed out of the ordinary, but suddenly the manhole in front of the synagogue burst open and started to spew liters and liters of water. At that point we understood that the situation was serious,” Andrea Belgrado recalls in a phone conversation with The Times of Israel.

Together with a couple of other people, Belgrado and his father began to remove some of the Torah scrolls from the ark and carry them to the women’s section upstairs.

“However the water level continued rising, coming from the main entrance as well as from the back of the synagogue. When it reached our thighs, my father stopped us, reminding us that the Jewish tradition values nothing greater than human life. Therefore, we left to get out of harm’s way,” Belgrado says.

‘Suddenly, the manhole in front of the synagogue burst open and started to spew liters and liters of water’
It was the beginning of the flood that marked Florence’s worst natural catastrophe in modern times, turning the city into what the Italian national press agency described as “a boundless lake immersed in darkness.”

In some neighborhoods, the water reached up to five meters (16 feet) high — and almost two meters (six feet) in the synagogue — covering houses and stores. The flood water savaged monuments and artistic sites renowned the world over, such as the Uffizi Gallery, Ponte Vecchio and the Basilica di Santa Croce, dragging along with it cars, bicycles and all kind of debris.

Over 30 people lost their lives, thousands their homes, tens of thousands were left without electricity, gas, running water. And a million books were devastated, including 15,000 Jewish books and manuscripts located in the Jewish community library and archives, along with 90 Torah scrolls that were kept in the several holy arks in the synagogue building.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Arno Flood, some of these books, together with Judaica objects, are featured in the exhibit “And the Waters Subsided” (named for the verse in Genesis 8:1 describing the aftermath of the biblical Noah’s flood). The exhibit was launched at the end of October at the National Library of Florence, and will run until January 27, 2017.

“I remember walking from my house to the synagogue on Shabbat morning. I can still feel the silence of that day, the deep silence, and the dark, with everything covered in black mud,” recalls Umberto Di Gioacchino, who was 25 years old and worked as the secretary of the local Jewish school at the time of the flood.

During the night between Friday and Saturday, the waters had in fact receded, leaving behind a thick layer of mud mixed with sewage and diesel oil leaked from damaged boilers and heating systems.

By this time, the citizens of Florence had started to react, helped by thousands of young people who flocked to Tuscany from all over Italy and the world to assist the population in need and save the unique artistic heritage of the area. They were the so called “mud angels,” as journalist Giovanni Grazzini described them in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera.

Among them were also many Jews who wanted to help the Jewish community of Florence recover and preserve the treasure trove of books, scrolls and artifacts accumulated over the centuries through donations and bequests.

“I went to Florence with a group of friends from the Jewish Youth Center in Milan. We had graduated high school a few months before, and we felt it was important to give our contribution. The moment we got there, they gave us blotting paper to insert between the pages of the books. There were thousands of them, all taken out on the tables in the attempt to have them dry. It was a deeply saddening view,” recalls Cecilia Nizza from Milan.

The sight of the devastation wrought in the synagogue would soon bring about even more tragic consequences.

A contingent of young men from the Jewish community of Rome had also come to Florence. Among them was Luciano Camerino, a Holocaust survivor — one of just 16 who made it back alive after the infamous October 16, 1943 Nazi raid on the Rome ghetto. When he saw the shocking situation in the synagogue, Camerino suffered a heart attack and died that night in the hospital at the age of 40.

As the volunteers worked hard to clean the synagogue of the pervading mud, the dozens of parchment Torah scrolls were unrolled and spread out to dry. They were later transported to the Great Synagogue in Rome to be hung out in a cleaner, less-humid environment. Almost all of the scrolls were eventually deemed too severely damaged to be saved, and in September 1987 they were buried in the Jewish cemetery of Rifredi in Florence, according to the Jewish tradition for damaged holy texts. Only three of the Torahs were kept and restored — albeit not for ritual use — and are now part of the exhibition.

The synagogue’s books were spread with talcum to absorb water, and tissue paper was inserted between every page. Several thousand of them were also brought to Rome and kept in the Bibliographic Center of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities for decades.

In 2012, a charity for the preservation of the Synagogue of Florence “Opera del Tempio Ebraico di Firenze” promoted a project to restore them, a project that was eventually accomplished by the Fondazione per i Beni Culturali Ebraici in Italia (Foundation for Jewish Italian Cultural Heritage).

The most precious of the restored books are now part of the exhibit promoted by the Foundation for Jewish Italian Cultural Heritage and the National Library of Florence, with the cooperation of the Opera del Tempio, the Jewish Community of Florence and the Union of Italian Jewish Communities.

The exhibition contains five thematic sections — Bible and commentaries, rabbinical literature, rituals, liturgy, philosophy and mysticism.

Besides the books ravaged by the flood, it also features some of the most unique volumes of the National Library of Florence. Among them is the oldest dated Talmud in the world, the “Codex Firenze” from 1177, and a “Scroll of Holy Places” estimated to have been written between the mid-13th and mid-14th centuries. The scroll portrays color illustrations of holy sites in Israel and the Middle East.

Pulled from the depths 50 years ago, today these artifacts represent a community brought together to overcome adversity. Di Gioacchino remembers the immediate aftermath of the flood not as a time of mourning, but of rebuilding.

“Young man that I was, I liked to wear fashionable dark colors, and the Saturday morning following the flood was no exception,” he says. “When I arrived at the synagogue, Rabbi Belgrado addressed me curtly: ‘Where do you think you are going, dressed like a principino (little prince)? We are here to work hard.’ I felt that his ironic statement was a way to react to this immense tragedy.”

“Back then, we thought there was no way out,” says Di Giaocchino. “But we did find a way out — the Jewish community as well as the city. And within a few weeks, Florence was open and functioning again, thanks to the hard work of its citizens and the show of solidarity from the world.”