On 29 March 1516, the Venetian Republic created the first ghetto on a small island in the north-western sestiere of Cannaregio. Five hundred years later to the very day, I went there for the visit you can see in this film. As a historian of the Holocaust, it seemed appropriate to visit on this day as I was so close to Venice in my motorhome.
The decision taken in 1516 to separate the Jews from the other residents of the city was possibly due to the deline of Venice as a power. The Venetians were suspicious of all and foreign embassies such as those of France, England and Spain had also been forced to leave for the area of Cannaregio. This was a former industrial area - such as had existed in the fifteen century and earlier.
Whereas Jews had to live in the ghetto, it was not so bad there as to stop others from joining them. The Schola Canton synagogue was founded in 1531, only fifteen years after the ghetto! People escaping persecution in other parts of Europe ended up in Venice. Two synagogues were built which can be seen today. Jews had to be in the ghetto at night when the doors were locked - and pay for its 'security', however they were free to leave during the day although they had to wear a special badge which marked them as Jews. They were also permitted to be involved in some businesses. Christians could visit Jewish friends in the ghetto.
The population was quickly increased as Jews who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal at the end of the fifteen century joined them.
Looking at it today, you will consider that living conditions were cramped and insanitary - however many people in Europe lived liked this - and especially in Venice where there was little room for horizontal growth. Another problem was lack of privacy as rooms could often only be reached through other families’ living space.
The Venice ghetto came to an end with the Republic of Venice. The decline of Venice had taken centuries but by 1797 the former mighty imperial city was no more. War, disease and emigration had taken its toll and Napoleon finished it off dividing the possessions of the city state between himself and the Habsburgs who got the city itself!
Jews remained in Venice and suffered under the race laws of Fascist Italy which were introduced in 1938. Venice was occupied by Nazi Germany in September 1943 and two major deportations carried people off to the death camps. We can see bronze reliefs dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust in the main ghetto square today.
There are now around 600 Jewish people resident in the former ghetto where Venetian Jewish food can be bought and there are functioning synagogues, cultural centre and museum.