Monday, January 26, 2015

What happened at Villa il Focardo

 The Einstein Family Tragedy at
Villa il Focardo, Rignano sull'Arno

Some might be surprised to learn that in the 1920s and '30s the family of Albert Einstein had Tuscan connections. Sadly, these connections were to end in tragedy during World War II. 
This is the story of the events which unfolded at Villa il Focardo near Rignano sull'Arno, to the south-east of Florence, in the summer of 1944.

At the end of Italy's Second World War, while the Germans were retreating from the peninsula, the Allies advancing north, these softly undulating hills of the Arno valley were just one of many locations caught in that ghastly endgame.

the entrance to Villa il Focardo
It is well known that all over Italy at the time  innocent civilians were being murdered indiscriminately: because they were partisans or suspected of harbouring partisans; because of spite,  hatred and revenge; because they were there.
This, just one of the stories of this tragic period, must stand for all, at a time when we face the memories and present horrors of conflict and prejudice in our world.

Albert Einstein's sister Maja had been living at Sesto Fiorentino since the 1920s, where she remained until the promulgation of Italy's racial laws in 1938-9. At this point her brother Albert, who had already gone into voluntary exile in the United States, pressed her to join him. Not so the family of (Wilhelm) Robert Einstein, Maja and Albert's first cousin, who had taken refuge in Florence in 1937 and at the same time acquired the property called the Badiuzza where the family spent the summer at Villa il Focardo.
They were content to stay in Italy.
In Florence both Einstein families frequented artists, intellectuals and free spirits, including some anti-fascist thinkers and activists. In 1937 Robert's older daughter, Luce, began a degree in medicine at Florence university, where she met contemporaries involved in the fight against the regime. The area around Rignano itself was known for its vein of anti-fascist rebellion; many partisans and sympathizers had been arrested, punished and exiled.

The family evidently believed they were evading Nazism by fleeing to Italy (where Robert's and Albert's fathers had worked together on various engineering projects at the turn of the century). Yet it was to be Robert's misjudgement and arguably his cousin Albert's international stature that brought the family's lives to their tragic end.

Strangely, even when German soldiers were billeted at the Villa in 1944, the Einstein family was still not concerned; indeed, as Lorenza Mazzetti (a young cousin who had been living with the family since her parents died) recounts in her autobiographical novel*, the soldiers were friendly, played chess with Robert, flirted amicably with his daughters and played with the younger children. But eventually these troops moved on and others came and went.

In August 1944 as the Allies marched up the Valdarno and the Nazis prepared for the final battles before their retreat, many locals of good sense went to hide in the wooded hills around Rignano. Apparently even some German soldiers had advised Einstein to be careful. Warned by the partisans, on August 3rd Robert Einstein was finally convinced that he should join them, but since his wife, Cesarina Mazzetti (56) and two daughters, Luce (27) and Annamaria (18) were not Jewish, they stayed behind at the villa, hiding in a cellar with their young maternal cousins, Lorenza and her sister, and some farmers' families.
While sheltering in the hills with the partisans, Robert heard the sound of machine guns from the villa; shortly after, the building was set on fire. Robert raced to the scene where the drama had already played itself out: the German soldiers who had arrived in a truck had fled, but on the threshing floor of the villa he found the bodies of his wife and two daughters, brutally murdered and subsequently burnt in the fire.
this is the probable location of the murders: the villa's threshing floor

On the morning of August 4th, Milton Wexler, a Fifth Army major and a physics student of Albert Einstein, whose personal mission had been to reach Albert's cousin and his family, arrived at Villa il Focardo, eight hours too late.

Although Hitler's hatred of Albert Einstein is well-known, and although it seems likely he ordered the murder of Albert's cousin, and although in the past it has been asserted that it was the SS who carried out this assassination, recent research has pointed instead to a regiment of the regular army, namely the 104th Panzergrenadier of the Wehrmacht, as perpetrating this as well as murders, rapes, looting and beatings in other parts of Tuscany and southern Italy. It may well have been that the regiment, known for its savagery, was ordered to kill Einstein and his family. The fact of the matter is that there were other civilians at il Focardo that night, but only Robert's immediate family was murdered. The next day a note was found nailed to a tree. It read: "We have executed the members of the Einstein family, guilty of treason and Jews." 

Naturally the burden of his family's fate was to cast its full weight on Robert Einstein. Immediately upon discovering his murdered wife and daughters he attempted to procure a gun from his fattore or farm manager, who somehow managed to prevent this suicide.

However, one year later, on the anniversary of his marriage to Cesarina, Robert Einstein took his own life upon his family's tomb in the little cemetery of Badiuzza.
the Badiuzza cemetery with the villa's tower visible to the left in the background
The incongruous steel monument which stands today like a sentinel beside the marble slabs of the Einstein family's tombs in the Badiuzza cemetery is a reminder that during that terrible year before he took his life, Robert Einstein must have been constantly  haunted by the graveyard, even by its physical presence, for it is visible from Villa il Focardo across the olive groves. 

*Il Cielo Cade (The Sky is Falling) first edition in 1961, republished by Sellerio in 1992, of which a film of the same name was made in 2000. (Italian version)


  1. What strength and resilience have been required to deal with the continuing bureaucratic hurdles related to the fence application for Le Ripe! All the best for a good outcome to control the marauding deer.The details of the Einstein family tragedy at Villa il Focardo during world war ii are a terrible example of man's inhumanity to man.

  2. Another superb narration - but this time, most unusually, of an horrific event.


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