When asked what would happen if there was a fire, Ornella Naccari opened her eyes wide and communicated with a sad shrug that seemed to shout “No words…”
We were looking at one of the two small checkpoint houses on the canal that borders the historic Venetian Ghetto. Every night the gate here would be locked to make sure that none of the Jews inside could get out.
Walk past the gate and you immediately see how the Venetian Ghetto differs from all other parts of Venice—both then and now. The buildings are taller –four stories-- because the space for the ghetto was finite and when the population grew there was no way to build but up. It wasn’t only population growth from natural causes. The ghetto swelled when Jews fleeing violence in Southern Italy made their way to relatively gentler Venice, for example.
While the gentile Venetians saw just Jews, those within the ghetto walls divided into German-speaking or Eastern Europeans where the language spoken was Russian. They had separate synagogues—modest apartment spaces allocated to be a temple, and then a Spanish (Sephardic) synagogue was also built in 1664, making five en toto.
It was Napolean who ended this forced segregation and nightly internment. On December 5, 1943 however, the Nazi-forced deportation of Venice Jews began, with most meeting their deaths in Auschwitz and other concentration camps.
Today you see a memorial to the many Venice Jews who died in the holocaust. Yet what is most striking, for this writer, was how only steps away you now see a station of police on terrorism watch protecting the ghetto.
Though these military police are deployed in the center of the ghetto’s large open square, on a bright sunny day in March the gay celebrants of Purim—a holiday commemorating the triumph of historic Queen Esther in saving her people from annihilation at the hands of an evil character called Haman-- were the much bigger show. Groups of orthodox men came in and out of the square. Boisterous children attending local religious schools added to the clamor.
The pawn shop is now a museum, and said to be worthwhile. Judaica shops mingle with those selling ecumenical luxury items like jewelry and fashions.
Our tip is to use better timing so that you can dine with Ornella at one of the Venetian Ghetto’s restaurants that she recommends as particularly outstanding.
For advice on how to best tour the Venetian Ghetto and other historic areas of Venice, as well other Venetian adventures you can contact Ornella Naccari of ON-View Travel Agency, a member of the Divertimento Group.