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In Italy, a good Samaritan restores a Jewish cemetery abandoned for centuries

MANTUA, Italy — Just beyond the wooden door in a wall of brick and stone is a small, tranquil garden. In the midst of its greenery, sprinkled here and there with flowers, lay the tombstones dedicated in memory of the Jews who once lived in the little town of Ostiano.

In this village of just under 3,000 people, in a hardly-known corner of Northern Italy’s Po Valley, the ancient Jewish cemetery sat abandoned until the 1980s.

In 1987, 59-year-old Giuseppe Minera, a retired Catholic artisan and carpenter who lives in the commune of Pralboino just a few kilometers away, decided to tidy it up and asked for permission from the nearby Jewish community of Mantua, which owns the property.

“I remember that the grass was very high — it looked like a jungle,” the custodian tells The Times of Israel. “I cleaned and fixed the cemetery at my expense. I sacrificed part of my time without ever asking for anything in return. I cut the grass, I uprooted the brambles, I put the fallen and broken tombstones back on their feet, and I repainted the engraved letters that had become illegible.”

The best time to work was during the summer, Minera says, when he “carved out some time in the evening after work or on Sunday.”

In the small 19th-century cemetery there are about 40 tombstones, the oldest dating back to 1812, the most recent to 1943. The site has been looted or desecrated several times since the conclusion of World War II. Some gravestones have been stolen; others moved.

Minera has renovated an area that was once used to temporarily hold bodies prior to burial, and where now, in a basket, stones are collected to be placed, according to Jewish tradition, on the tombs of loved ones.

“Now the cemetery is well-finished and tidy,” Minera says. “When I have time off and when necessary, I cut the grass and the branches of the plants and I clean the tombstones from the dust that accumulates.”

On Sundays, the custodian accompanies tourists and visitors who want to admire the cemetery, most of whom are non-Jews. “In fact, I have to say that few Jews are interested in this graveyard. [But] I have received many requests from scholars and lovers of local and Jewish history, as well as from people who have heard about it,” he says.

Not many Ostiano locals visit the place. “Local historians have always neglected it, perhaps because it was unusable until the 1980s,” Minera says. “Students, especially those who research and study Judaism, are more curious.”

Due to his interest in botany and greenery, Minera made the cemetery more pleasant by planting lilacs, hibiscus, jujubes and forsythia bushes — basically turning it into a garden.

“I wanted to rebuild a simple and welcoming place,” Minera says. His efforts seem to have paid off — many visitors describe the cemetery of Ostiano as a place exuding spirituality.

Minera studied Hebrew in order to translate the epitaphs, and reconstructed the stories of those buried in the cemetery through archive research and oral histories told to him by their relatives. Among those interred, for example, is Angelo Finzi, who was elected mayor of Ostiano in 1864 and was the first Jewish mayor following Italy’s 1861 unification.

Gravestones commemorating Ostiano residents Giacobbe Vita Finzi and his wife Chela Norsa make no reference to Judaism, “probably due to the fact that the couple had eight children who converted to Christianity and left their property to the Cremona art gallery,” Minera says.

Other deceased — such as Salomone Namias, known as Momolo, a native of Carpi in the province of Modena — received the honor of being remembered with both a tomb as well as a stele monument, where the names of spouse and children are also etched for posterity.

The first written record documenting the existence of Ostiano is from medieval times, dating back to 1014, when the town was an important port on the Oglio river, and owned by the Abbey of Leno.

After being bitterly contested by various families, in 1414 the village became part of the dominion of the aristocratic House of Gonzaga, which ruled Mantua. The Gonzagas favored the establishment of a Jewish community in Ostiano, which eventually numbered a few dozen people. The cemetery bears witness to the ancient Jewish presence there, along with the remains of a synagogue preserved inside the fortress surrounding the Gonzaga castle.

From 1746 until 1859, interrupted only by the Napoleonic period, the area fell under Austrian control. A number of administrative reshufflings saw the village repeatedly added to and separated from the provinces of Brescia and Mantua. In 1868, following Italy’s unification, it was finally passed to the province of Cremona, to which it was physically connected in 1891 by the first fixed bridge on the Oglio river.

In 1788 Joseph II of Austria signed a decree obliging the then-Jewish universities to designate a place outside of town to bury their dead. The mandate also set a minimum distance cemeteries had to keep from the main residential area, and provided instructions as to their size.

“Why do I take care of the Ostiano cemetery?” says Minera. “I have a great passion for Judaism and Jewish culture. I believe that people buried here should be remembered not as dead, but for what they did when they were alive.

“The graveyard of Ostiano is unknown to the local population — unfortunately there is a climate of indifference and disinterest. I would like to restate that this is not a Napoleonic cemetery, as many people mistakenly believe,” he says.

In the 1980s the custodian spent a few months on Kibbutz Ruhama in Israel’s Negev Desert, where he worked in the fields and in the kitchen.

“That’s where I learned the Hebrew language, and I still have many friends of Italian origin whom I would like to thank and greet,” Minera says.

Emanuele Colorni, president of the Jewish community of Mantua, says Minera’s work is “essential.”

“He is a unique character, considering he is Catholic and does what many Jews should do, but don’t,” Colorni tells The Times of Israel. “He is an exquisite and commendable person. On days celebrating Jewish culture and the memory of the Holocaust, he welcomes visitors and tells about Jewish history inspired by the names on the tombstones.”

“We need funds to keep these important places for Judaism open and accessible,” Colorni says, appealing to the public.

Minera has received the appreciation of Emanuele Pacifici, a Jewish historian, Holocaust survivor, and recorder of the Italian Shoah, who went to Ostiano to catalog the cemetery. Relatives of the deceased also thanked the caretaker for his work.

“This initiative deserves not only acclaim but gratitude, because it testifies to the sensitivity and conscious desire not to let the memory of those Jewish families who lived in the small village of Ostiano, and have contributed to the advancement of these lands, fall into oblivion,” wrote Milan resident Umberto Finzi to Minera in a letter.

The custodian’s mission isn’t over yet. Three years ago he asked the government body that oversees artistic and cultural historical preservation for permission to restore the stone wall. He is still waiting for an answer.

“The caretaker who worked here before me lived in the house next door, but he was sick,” Minera says. “The cemetery was abandoned and was used as a dump. People driving by threw their rubbish inside.”

In addition to Ostiano, Minera is currently restoring other cemeteries around Mantua in the towns of Bozzolo, Sabbioneta, Pomponesco and Viadana.

“They are areas owned by the Jewish community of Mantua,” Minera says. “They need more attention and restructuring, but economic resources are scarce and the people who should take care of them are aging.”

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