Trieste’s Old Jewish Cemetery: the Secret Garden of Eternity

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by Alessandra Ressa

Engulfed in untended vegetation, hidden by a tall gate and mossy brick walls, Trieste’s old Jewish cemetery in via della Pace is probably one of the most evocative places in town. The ancient gravestones emerge here and there through thick overgrown jungle-like greens resembling the ruins of an ancient city that welcome summer visitorswith clouds of hungry mosquitoes.

Moss grows abundant in Trieste’s Jewish cemetery

It is here, in this lush and hidden garden of eternity, that some of Trieste’s most influential families  have been resting since 1843. The imposing funerary monuments of the Morpurgo-Parentes and Vivantes  (Assicurazioni Generali)  Luzzattos, Coen-Aras, Segrès, Eppingers (first owner of pasticceria La Bomboniera), Stock and Casali (Stock liquor factory), Modiano and many more stand, and very often dangerously lean, at the mercy of moss and creepers, to remind us of a time gone, when Trieste’s Jewish community counted 6,000 people from all over the world.  From Greece, North Africa, Eastern Europe, Germany to Portugal, these families were part of Trieste’s Mitteleuropean soul.

Trieste
The imposing Morpurgo-Parenti mausoleum, designed by Milan architect Maciachini, is today in urgent need of structural renovation

The first Jewish cemetery of Trieste dates back to 1446, when a Jew of German origins bought a piece of land in via del Monte, at the foot of San Giusto hill. Until then, Jewish people could not be buried officially because it was denied in Christian cemeteries and no other area could be used. The graveyard grew so quickly it soon engulfed a wide part of the San Giusto hill.

The neo-gothic monument of the Coen-Ara family

Following the Napoleonic invasions, new sanitary regulations forbade burials within the city limits. A vast suburban land located in agricultural Sant’Anna was bought by Trieste’s municipality and transformed into the city’s main cemetery. It was divided into 9 specific lots, each dedicated to one of Trieste’s main cults. These 9 cemeteries are still in use today. 

As Jewish tradition forbids exhumation and the transferring of graves (the Hebrew name for Jewish cemeteries is beth olam – the door to eternal life – meaning that the dead must remain forever in the same place where they wereburied), the wide burial ground in San Giusto used by the Jewish community was confiscated by Trieste’s municipality and transformed into a park in 1909 (today’s Parco della Rimembranza).

Some ancient stone coffins and tombstones from San Giusto, dating back to the 1700s, were placed in a storage in Sant’Anna. In the years that followed, unbeknownst to most, the custodian who managed the storage started reusing the gravestones, scraping the original inscription and engraving new ones on the other side, to be sold. Some were reduced to rubble for construction purposes, and only some precious rabbis’ stone coffins, now in via della Pace, survived the illegal trade. In via della Pace, in the Jewish cemetery, a monument is dedicated to the remains of those originally buried in via del Monte.

The surviving rabbis’ stone coffins originally rested on San Giusto hill

Walking through the uneven alleys separating rows of silent graves, some recurrent styles become clear. Typical Triestine from the end of the 1800s are the grotto graves, mounds of Carso stones kept together by iron wires, many of which have partly collapsed today revealing the older gravestones from San Giusto hidden underneath.  

Entire families have been buried together, fallen victim to Trieste’s recurrent cholera epidemics, while shattered columns everywhere stand to remind us of the broken lives of young children. Further away, under the shadows of tall cypresses, rests the grave of young Margarete Arnstein, known in the Jewish community of 100 years ago as the grave of disgrace. The young girl, killed by tuberculosis at the age of 12, was buried in a very unusual tomb which consisted of a masterly carved marble sheet gently covering her body, sprinkled with daisies (Margarete means daisy) and roses. Through the sepulchral sheet one can almost see the body underneath, and particularly the face and feet. This was unacceptable in Jewish tradition, which forbade any bodily reference in death.

The ‘outrageous’ gravestone of young Margarete Arnstein

Most graves display a speaking insignia – an object somehow pertaining to the family, such as the Coen’s blessing of the hands.

The Coen Ara family blessing hands ‘speaking’ insignia

The vice-president of Trieste’s Jewish society Livio Vasieri, who periodically organizes guided tours of the site, also points to some celebrity graves, such as Elio Schmitz, younger brother of Italo Svevo, who died at the age of 23. Svevo’s parents are also buried nearby as well as Umberto Saba‘s mother, Rachele Coen. And if you are fond of James Joyce, you should probably know that Amalia Popper,  Joyce’s favorite English student, is also buried here with her father Leopold, who was Joyce’s inspiration for his character Leopold Bloom in the novel Ulysses

Vice-president of Trieste’s Jewish community Livio Vasieri next to the Grave of Italo Svevo’s brother

One of the most well-known and brilliant mayors of New York City, Fiorello La Guardia, owes his name to his grandmother,  Fiorina Luzzatto Cohen, a Jewish Triestina who is buried in via della Pace. Fiorello’s father, Achille La Guardia, also rests in Trieste, where he died at 55, in the Anglican cemetery of Sant’Anna. Fiorello La Guardia spent many years in Trieste as a child before immigrating to America. 

The Jewish community of Trieste works restlessly to preserve this very special site containing an important part of the historical and cultural roots of the city. Many of the tombstones and monumental graves have been renovated and many others need urgent tending.

This is definitely a place to visit in Trieste. The cemetery is in via della Pace 4 and is currently  open Monday through Thursday mornings 8.30 am -12 pm and afternoons, 3.30 pm – 6 pm. On Fridays and Sundays, 8.30 am -12 pm.  

A guided visit is recommended (visits are usually free of charge). Book it through the Jewish community of Trieste by calling 040 371466 or emailing info@triestebraica.it. Or check out their website www.triestebraica.it for updates in opening times.

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Alessandra Ressa
“Born to Italian-Scottish parents, an explosive combination, reason for my restlessness and love for good food, I’ve moved from San Francisco, California to Trieste 20 years ago. I have a degree in Mass Communication from the University of California, Berkeley, and a Master’s degree in International Cooperation from the Scuola Superiore di Studi Universitari in Pisa. In San Francisco I worked for several years as a journalist and press officer before moving to Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo and other war stricken countries with the United Nations. I am a professional journalist and English teacher, I love the outdoors, exploring caves and unusual places, travelling, meeting people, the opera, singing, the scent of the sea and the whistle of the wind. No other city in the world other than Trieste can offer all this.”

2 COMMENTS

  1. Both FIorello LaGuardia (NYC mayor and namesake of the airport) and Umberto Saba were related to Samuel David Luzzato through their mothers. Whether they knew each other or knew this fact I don’t know.

    LaGuardia was at Fiume as American consul while Joyce was in Trieste. Whether they ever met I don’t know.

    Small world, though

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