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Venetian Ghettos

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The sun is going down. The young man looks up at the darkening sky and hurries home from his job in the city of Venice, Italy. He is Jewish, and in his time, 500 years ago, he and all Jews had to be within the confines of their island ghetto by dark. The doors to the bridges over the canals that surround the ghetto were locked. Venetians patrolled the canals throughout the night.

Jews came to Venice beginning in about 1250 to escape persecution. They were allowed to stay, but only if they wore clothing that identified them as Jews: a yellow hat at first, then red, then yellow again. They could only work as money lenders or pawn brokers, or in textiles or as doctors. In 1516, the ruling council of Venice met to decide whether to send the Jews away. They let them stay, but nighttime confinement in the ghetto was the condition they imposed.

The lodgings the Venetian Jews were forced to accept were in an area of foundries, the word for which was "ghetto." This is where the term ghetto, as we use it today "a place of poor living conditions in which people are crowded together," originated.

The immigration crisis here and in Europe has provoked a new wave of anxiety about "The Other." They are not like us. They must be kept away, or at least segregated. If we give in to that fear, we will harm not only those we isolate, but ourselves as well.

The Jews hung in there in Venice for a long time, but gradually most moved away. When the Holocaust came, only 1,200 remained. Of those, over 200 were shipped off to extermination camps. The city had marked them, segregated them and humiliated them for hundreds of years by then, so I imagine it was an easy enough thing, a kind of natural and inevitable progression, to send them off to death camps.


With a Perspective, I'm Mac Clayton.

Mac Clayton is a writer living in Palo Alto.

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