Posted by: Naomi Baltuck | February 26, 2012

Survival Stories

 

While exploring Etruscan tombs in Tuscany, my sister Constance and I stumbled upon the ancient hilltop town of Pitigliano.

 

We saw many other lovely towns…

…and picturesque villages.

But I loved this place like nowhere else in Italy.  Its story was the key to my heart.  Pitigliano had provided a rare refuge for Jews driven from Spain during the Inquisition. After the Pope and the Medicis forced Pitigliano’s Jews into the ghetto in 1600, they still accounted for twenty percent of the population.  After the war and the Holocaust, a small handful returned to care for the synagogue and to tell the story.

How small?” I asked a local. She shrugged. “Maybe five.”

The Jewish bakery was closed for the Sabbath, and the synagogue was closed because there weren’t enough Jews for a minyan.

But a shop sold matzoh and a confection called Sfratto, the Italian word for eviction.  Sfratto has a filling of honey, walnuts, and oranges, baked into a smooth-crusted loaf shaped like a police baton.   It was invented by the Jews of Pitigliano to commemorate their eviction from their homes and into the ghetto by officers using sticks to beat on their doors.  Four hundred years later, they’re still telling the story, and we’re still eating it up.

In a narrow alley across from the synagogue, I shivered to hear the haunting strains of a lone Klezmer violin drifting down from a second story window.  At first I thought it was a recording, until the music trailed off.  It had to have been played by human, or perhaps ghostly hands.

 

 

Nearby was a doorstep decked with flowers as colorful as the town’s history.  Two cats curled up in a big flowerpot, one cat a black and white mix, the other all black, but I was an English major, and I saw them as symbols of the concrete world of black and white, living in harmony with the fluid world of shadow and story.  The scene was framed by dark medieval walls backlit by the sunny valley, while the valley was alive with vineyards and olive trees…

…yet riddled with ancient tombs.


The paradox seemed to capture the essence of Pitigliano, and of all Italy.  But before I could capture it on film, the cats bolted, and I lost the moment.  Or so I thought.  That night in our apartment in Orvieto, Constance painted…

…while I wrote about Pitigliano.  I loved it for its unique history, for providing refuge when so few others would, for its tiny but stalwart population of Jews determined to protect a precious legacy, for the stories and ghosts that linger in every back alley.

Then Constance showed me her painting.  Alive with color, it conjured the fragrance of honey and walnut, the haunting strains of a lone violin. And there were my cats, just as I remembered them, a perfect balance of black and white, and shadow.

It was reassuring.  In arts or in letters, by word of mouth, or in the guise of a Jewish confection, so long as there is someone left to tell it and someone willing to listen, the story will survive.

All words and images copyright Naomi Baltuck

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Responses

  1. Que bello!

    • Grazie, mia bambina!

      • Prego!

  2. Wonderful story, took me right back to Tuscany!

    • What a lovely place to be! Thank you so much for stopping by!

  3. Hey, World Traveler, lead the way; feed me and tell me stories and I’ll follow you anywhere!

    • Where to next? I’ve got England in my head and a story brewing inside. Want to go do a little research?

  4. You told this so well. It made me feel like I was walking beside you. I didn’t make it to Tuscany when I visited Italy, but your story really makes me wish I had.

    • Thank you so much. I so look forward to going back. Where did you go when you were in Italy?

      • Rome, Naples, Pompeii, Tivoli, and a tiny town called Bagnoli in southern Italy

      • Just hearing those names makes me want to go back. I have never been to Bagnoli or Tivoli. I wonder what took you there, and what you found when you got there. Thank you for taking the time to comment. I always look forward to hearing from you.

        Naomi

      • A friend of mine’s family is from Bagnoli and the same friend really wanted to go to Tivoli. There’s a huge mansion with gardens and fountains in Tivoli (about 30 mins outside of Rome(). It’s very very beautiful and would highly recommend you visit there.

  5. I love this word-picture! Thanks! You reminded me of the story I heard (can’t remember where right now) of sausages made with just oatmeal to help the disguise the Jewish households . . . The neighbors who knew and loved them wanted to help keep them safe.

  6. You write beautifully and offer little gems of awareness.

    • Thank you so much. I appreciate your stopping by.

  7. Hi Naomi,
    Thank you. I really enjoyed this entry! Much love,
    Betsy

    • Hi Betsy, thanks for stopping by. Love to you too! Naomi

  8. Nice, Naomi! Thank you. Interested in the Global Conference on Storytelling in Prague 5/13 – 15?
    Mary

    • Hi Mary, thanks for stopping by. I love Prague! Are you going?

  9. This is a beautiful story beautifully written. Enjoyed it very much!

  10. Enviable talent runs in your family, Naomi. You and your sister both tell stories beautifully. 🙂

  11. What an amazing painting. She captured perfectly what you had written!

    • It’s a little like magic to watch the progress of one of her paintings. Thanks for stopping by, mj.

  12. Wow, how lovely. What a beautiful post. I really liked this.

    • Thank you, Holly. I was actually just visiting your blog when this message arrived!

      • connections 🙂 gotta love em

  13. Beautifully expressed. I’m hooked – I’m a follower.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Lynne. I really enjoyed exploring your blog this morning, and look forward to following yours too.

  14. […] Pride-worthy Piece: Survival Stories–Proud of my sister the artist, proud of the people of Ptigliano, and proud of some pretty […]

  15. “…so long as there is someone left to tell it
    and someone willing to listen,
    the story will survive…”

  16. And I liked it again – important stories.

  17. […] Naomibaltuck.wordpress.com/2012/02/26/survival-stories/ […]

  18. […] London for thatched roof country, or head straight out of Rome to explore the ancient villages of Umbria , Tuscany or Ligurnia.  All over the world, they are so […]

  19. […] What I loved about Pitigliano had nothing to do with funerals and death, and everything to do with survival. […]

  20. Thank you so much for alerting me to this post. I discovered Pitigliano by chance too, in an online Tuscan attractions list, and have been bringing all my first-time guests there to immense awe. We tried to walk between Pitigliano and Sovana (another jewel, have you seen it?) but missed the correct Via Cava, the deep-dug Etruscan pathway. I’m so glad you got to see these parts, I’ll make sure to explore your blog for further ideas.


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