Many (many) years ago, while driving near the beautiful baroque city of Lecce in the very heel of the Italian boot, I was startled to pass by a building with Hebrew lettering on its wall....I didn't stop to find out what that was all about, and I've never really remembered just where it was, but given the inauguration of a new museum near Lecce this week, the Hebrew must have had something to do with the seacoast village of Santa Maria al Bagno, near Nardo.
Here, on Jan. 14, museum commemorating tens of thousands of Jewish Holocaust refugees was opened -- the Museum of Memory and Welcome (Museo della Memoria e dell'Accoglienza).
Between 1943 and 1947 as many as 150,000 Jews fleeing Europe for Palestine, then still under British control, found shelter in and around Nardo. The museum, designed by the Rome architect Luca Zevi, was opened in Santa Maria al Bagno, which was one of the main refugee centers. Here, Jewish institutions including a synagogue, canteen, orphanage and hospital were set up.
Three newly restored murals painted by one of the refugees, Romanian-born Zivi Miller, form the centerpiece of the museum. The murals were painted on a building that was long abandoned -- maybe these are what I glimpsed from the car window. One shows a lighted menorah; one depicts the journey of Jews from southern Italy toward Palestine, and the third shows a Jewish mother a child asking a British soldier to allow them to enter.
For Italian-readers, here's a link to the local town web site, which has pictures of the ceremony.
It sounds like a fascinating place -- and I hope to be able to make the long trip down there later in the year.