Enough Pizza, Music and Dominique. Meeting Francesca.
November 27. On our fifth day in Florence, the sun shone bright and hot. Jim wanted to find a bench and read. I wanted to prowl and photograph.
Across the street, half a block away, I saw a walkway that led to a door, slightly open. I’ve never been able to resist an open door and peek inside. This time I went in. A young woman with dark hair pulled into a ponytail wearing what looked like a nun’s habit stood behind a desk and asked if she could help. I saw a large board with individual keys. Hotel? Private home?
I told her I was on vacation, saw the open door, and decided to find out what was inside. She said this was a pension. If I wanted a room, there were several available. I thanked her and told her no. There’s something about her and this place that doesn’t fit. It’s just a feeling. But…
I suggested her attire reminded me of a nun’s habit. She told me I was right. Her order was Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, “But I’m not a full-fledged nun yet,” she said. We introduced ourselves. Her name was Francesca. I was beginning to feel a connection between us. It’s one of those things that’s hard to explain when it happens, but it did. She offered to take me on a tour.
We walked into a large courtyard, beautifully landscaped. She told me the old nuns who lived there did community service. “The sisters leave the convent every morning and administer to the sick, hungry, and needy. It’s our mission.” She led me into a large room with paintings. A Nazi Swastika stopped me cold. She looked at me and said, “The story behind this sign happened here in this room in 1943, during World War II.” My feet felt frozen to the floor while I tried to imagine what Nazi soldiers were doing on the spot where I stood—a different kind of connection.
Francesca handed me a leaflet that told the story. I stood under the horrible symbol and read:
“Sunday, 27 of November 1943, at three in the morning, a loud ring woke the whole house. Whilst the Sisters rang the bell to announce danger, about thirty soldiers, both German and Italian SS, forced their way through the great iron door to the garden. Then they broke the door from the garden to the house, shattering the glass. Once in the house, the soldiers went into every room, lodgings, theatre room, and chapel. Unfortunately, they found what they were looking for. Not satisfied, they entered the cloister into the Sisters’ rooms. In the meantime, the sisters were trying to hide two Jewish mothers with their small children, but they did not make it in time…a German Official asked to be taken to a telephone booth, and, sneering, he cut the wires with a pair of scissors. Altogether, 80 women with their children were gathered in the theatre room. One official called them by name, another interrogated them, and two more stripped them of money and jewels. After they went through the interrogation. Lea, a young persecuted Jew, volunteered to act as an interpreter from German to French and, in a way, managed to save many. Around thirty remained, both young and old, awaiting the “long voyage” announced by the SS.
Wednesday, 30 November 1943, no strategy, no request for liberty could contain the fury and derision of the soldiers, not even the desperate cry of the mothers. They were all pushed into a truck. The Sisters managed to give them a last smile, a last goodbye, and the great doors closed. They were deported to Auschwitz, and not one would return.”
Francesca and I stood side by side and said nothing. The walls told the story. A convent transformed into a Nazi way station. I imagined their desperate cries for help.
I felt aching grief for those innocent victims and gratitude for the old nuns living nearby.