The World’s First Ghetto

In the early 16th century, Venetian Jews, numbering under 1000, were forced to move into a northeastern

The central plaza in Il Ghetto

section of San Marcos, into an area formerly occupied by an older foundry, which in the local dialect was il ghetto, a word that spread through Europe and then to the world, to describe any area where marginalized or minority groups live. In Venice, the group was barricaded at night, by gates that separated the ghetto area from the other tiny islets that form Venice. It wasn’t the first ghetto in history, but it was the first time that word was used.

Canal on side of Il Ghetto, Venice

The population, composed of Jews from many backgrounds (Sephardi and Ashkenazim, speaking German, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian) grew to a population of 5,000 within 100 years. Since their growing families could not leave the ghetto, the buildings in this part of Venice tend to be much taller than elsewhere in the city, up to seven stories.  Although barred from living in other parts of the city, Jews from Eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire immigrated here because of the relatively peaceful existence, compared to what they escaped.  When Napoleon conquered the Venetian oligarchy in 1797, he abolished the living restrictions on the Jews of the Ghetto.

Il Ghetto, Venice

Today, about 300 Jews still live in this quiet neighborhood, away from the busy avenues, the bustling crowds on the Rialto Bridge, where they have synagogues, a yeshiva, a kosher restaurant, and shops,  On one wall in the plaza, you can find a large plaque dedicated to the 200-plus individuals sent to the Nazi camps, never to return.

Old bank front

Monument to Venetian Jews sent to the Nazi death camps

A hidden little space, a calm in the midst of activity, a place for the reflection of history.



Categories: History, Travel

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. I was there a few years ago, and found the ghetto in Venice fascinating and moving. Thanks for sharing this.

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