We discovered the Jewish cemetery yesterday. It's located only a few blocks from our house. I went to look at it, and Jacob wanted to come along. The cemetery is easily found once you know where it is. It is completely surrounded by a 7 ft wall and has one gate on Strada Milano which we found open.
Almost immediately, a sense of loss and sadness overcame us. The graves are very close together, almost in a tumble, and many are fenced in or placed in little locked pavillions. Some of those pavillions have benches inside, for the mourners to come and sit in contemplation. What struck us most was the state of neglect and disrepair - the footpaths are overgrown with weeds and wild flowers, the fences are rusted and falling down, the stone plates on many graves smashed and fallen in. Sometimes, it looked like purposeful distruction, sometimes just like time has taken its toll. Most of the graves, however, were relatively recent - we found the majority to be from the 1960s and 70s (we didn't stray too far from the main walkway, though, so the older graves may be hidden in the labyrinthian depths). There were a few recent ones, even one from 2011. On the whole, though, it seemed like at some point, this place has simply fallen out of the minds of people. Fallen trees on graves, benches broken down and headstones tumbled over. Lizards were rushing away when we approached. We saw only two graves that had the little stones on them that mark someone's passage.
The graveyard reminded me of others I have seen in Eastern Europe - the inscriptions often in Cyrillic, the headstones decorated with porcellain medaillons bearing painted or etched portraits. Row upon row, women, men and kids look at you solemnly, keeping their stories to themselves.
It was a bright summer's day but the mood in the cemetery was haunting, spooky and melancholy. Jacob was very touched and asked a great many questions that only mystics dare to answer: Why do people die, why do children die, where do people go when they are dead, and why are there so very many dead people? The cemetery is large, the graves very close together, and only little footpaths lead to most. As you follow those, they will sometimes twist and turn and lead you to larger walkways, and sometimes they will dead-end at someone's grave and you will have to retrace your steps. Along the inside of the wall, debris has accumulated, broken tablets with inscriptions, foam insulation that someone tossed there, rubble, trash. It would take dedication and years of work to clean this place up.
Jacob was especially sad about the grave of a little boy who died at 2 years of age in 1951. His little grave is located right near the gates and we passed it on our way in. He kept talking about the little boy, and asked many questions. I told him about the tradition of placing stones on the graves, and while we walked, he collected some little rocks. As we walked towards the gates again, we saw an old woman who watched us with great suspicion. She made to approach us, obviously both curious and somewhat angry that we trespassed. Jacob got a bit scared but then he determinedly tip-toed to the little boy's grave and carefully arranged his rock collection on the grave. When we turned to leave, the old woman's face was friendly, and she nodded at us gravely. We were forgiven.
(A few more photos are available on my Flickr site - see link on the right)