Author: I.E. Lester
Location: Central England
Despite the best efforts of his teachers to make history as boring as possible, a ghost story heard during a school visit to a stately home has left I.E. Lester intensely fascinated with the darker side of history. As a result, he has visited hundreds of castles and ancient sites, and is intent on visiting every stone circle in Britain and Ireland. Married to a fellow history addict, he lives in Central England—although he can often be found wandering the medieval streets of France and Italy.
The Original Ghetto
Each year millions of people visit Venice. They ride in boats up and down the Grand Canal, walk through Piazza San Marco, and climb over innumerable bridges. But there is one area that the vast majority of the tourists never see, one just as historic as many of the city's monuments. In the section of Venice called Cannaregio, you will find the world's first-ever ghetto—the one from which all others in the world take their name.
In medieval Europe, many cities expelled Jews. Venice, however, welcomed them and allowed them to practice certain trades, including money lending, merchant trading, and medicine—but with restrictions, some of which were quite severe.
Initially (in the mid-thirteenth century), Jews were not allowed to live in the main part of Venice, so they made their home on the nearby island of Spinalonga, now known as Giudecca. They were required to pay a 5 percent tax on every transaction they conducted, and they had to wear identifying clothing—at first a yellow badge, then a yellow hat, and finally a red hat. Other laws prohibited Jews from land ownership, the printing of Hebrew books, or the building of synagogues. Attendance at Christian services was forced.
On the 29th of March, 1516, the Venetian rulers imposed the one single law on Jews that would have the widest and longest-lasting effect. They decreed that Jews could live in the heart of Venice, but only in one small district that was subjected to a forced nightly lockdown. To further the humiliation, they were required to meet the cost of the Christian soldiers who guarded the gates to their nighttime prison. The area of Venice they were allotted was formerly home to iron foundries and was thus named "Ghetto Nuovo"—ghetto
being the Venetian word for a foundry.
But despite the many restrictions imposed upon them, the Jews of medieval Venice flourished and their numbers grew as a greater number of Europe's Jewish population headed for the city and its relative freedoms.
By the end of the 16th Century, the Jewish community of Venice had grown to more than 5,000. And despite two enlargements to the Jewish area—adding Ghetto Vecchio (the old ghetto) in 1541 and Ghetto Nuovissimo (newest ghetto) in 1633—the ghetto's population became increasingly dense. Its buildings were built higher and higher to accommodate the larger numbers of inhabitants, making them some of the tallest in the city.
The golden age of the ghetto came to an end in the latter years of the 17th century. Anti-Jewish sentiment grew, and greater restrictions were imposed upon their trade. In the course of a century, the Venetian Jewish population dropped by nearly two-thirds, until only 1,700 remained in 1766.
When Napoléon captured Venice in 1797, it seemed he would end the persecution of Jews in the city. He ordered the gates to the ghetto torn down, and the ghetto's population was granted free movement within the city. Full freedoms were not so quickly forthcoming. Another three decades would elapse before they were given rights to citizenship, and it was not until after the unification of Italy in 1866 that Jews would achieve equality with other citizens.
The 20th century began optimistically for Venice's Jewish community. One Venetian Jew, Luigi Luzzati, served five decades in the country's parliament and even became Prime Minister in 1910. He was the first Jewish Prime Minister of Italy.
But it did not herald a new golden age. Anti-Semitic feelings and restrictions returned to Venice in the years following the first World War, intensifying after Italy's alliance with Hitler's Germany in the 1930s. Many families chose to leave, reducing the population to about 1,200 by the time German forces occupied the city in 1943.
During the Nazi occupation, more than two hundred of the remaining Venetian Jews were deported to extermination camps, including the city's chief rabbi, Adolfo Ottolenghi. Only a handful of those captured would survive.
Today, the Jewish population in Venice has declined still further, numbering only a tenth of its 16th century height. But the ghetto remains, complete with its synagogues, Jewish museum, school, and kosher stores. It's centered on the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, a large open square surrounded by tall buildings.
On the sides of one of these buildings—the Casa di Riposo Israelitica, or Jewish Home for the Elderly—a wonderfully poignant memorial to the Holocaust victims can be found. A series of bronze panels (designed by Arbit Blatas) shows the Last Train and other acts of Nazi brutality against the Jews. Accompanying these relief panels is a simple list of those Venetian Jews murdered in the concentration camps. Together they make a very effective memorial.