Jews have been in Italy since the beginning of the Roman period. They were sometimes free, sometimes enslaved, sometimes walled in at night, but invariably contributing significantly to the society they were living in. Here they enjoyed centuries of peace, prosperity and inclusiveness in a diverse society, often overcoming persecution at the mercy of the government they were living under. A major turning point in their history in Italy was the Spanish *Inquisition in 1492 when the Jews were obliged to leave the country or convert to Christianity. Many converted; many left; many have since returned.
Each of the *medieval ghettos I visited in Rome, Venice and nearby Padova, have a unique story which has spanned centuries. They all followed a pattern of growth, decline, restoration and revitalization. I found each to be charming, well maintained, educational, and bustling with activity.
Ghetto di Roma (established 1555)
To find the old Jewish Ghetto in Rome I followed the narrow streets that led off the plaza of the bustling market, Mercado de Campo di Fiori. I passed a shop bulging with leather handbags and overheard the shopkeeper telling a customer, in English, a story about her family who lived in the building above.
They were Jews and her grandfather was born in this building.
Her leather business has been there for three generations. All in her family survived the Holocaust except an uncle. She greeted me and we talked. She said her family story is one of survival. She then directed me on to the ghetto just ahead.
The roads got narrower as I approached the main square of the ghetto. The revitalized main square was teaming with energy. A kosher bakery, founded in 1984, had a line out the door. No signs identifying this shop seemed to be necessary. People lounged on benches and in outdoor kosher cafes. A festive attitude was in the air. A large number of children were greeting their Mothers as they exited a grandiose medieval building which housed a Jewish primary school. Undercover guards made it very clear to me that I was not to take any photos of this activity.
Just beyond the Great Synagogue stood engulfed in a wire fence. Guests to the extensive underground museum and the synagogue were checked in at the guardhouse. The synagogue overlooked an antique bridge that spanned the rushing Tiber River. Jews who worked at the mills that were there passed over this bridge for centuries. A string of apartment buildings lined the street alongside the synagogue. Embedded in concrete in front of each entrance was a brass plaque in memory of those who had once lived there and had perished during WWII. Over 40,000 Jews now live in Rome and Naples
*Inquisition – A group of institutions within the judicial system of the Roman Catholic Church whose aim was to combat heresy
*Medieval – The medieval period lasted from 5th to 15th century. It began with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and merged into the Renaissance
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