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Where was the First Jewish Ghetto? Hint: Not Germany

Venice’s Jewish Ghetto History

If you were asked, “Who started Jewish discrimination?” would you say Hitler, or maybe the Nazis? Both the answers are, in fact, wrong. When I learned Jews have been persecuted for centuries past, I was very surprised. I thought anti-Semitism was a concept Hitler came up with to solve Germany’s problems in WWII, just another of his crazy, infamous schemes.

Jewish ghetto sign

Another surprise was that Venice, not Germany, is the home of the world’s oldest ghetto. Jews in Venice were discriminated against for centuries. Back in 1516, four thousand Jews were forced to live in a ghetto the size of two and a half city blocks.  Gates around the ghetto were locked at night, and the Jews lost what few freedoms they had.  Besides that, they also faced job restrictions. Jewish people could only lend money, practice medicine, trade in textiles or own pawn shops.

Banco Rosso

However, even in the midst of their discrimination, the Jews were allowed to lend money. The Jewish people were wise with their money, and therefore, had money to lend. I find it ironic that even though the Jews had more money, they were still persecuted and treated lower than the rest of the city.

Venice’s Jewish Ghetto Today

Modern day peopleToday Jews still reside in these residences in the ghetto, by choice of course, and live together in a community. Men still walk around in their kippahs and families gather in Jewish restaurants for meals. When you look at the buildings you can still see what it was like years ago–cramped windows in worn buildings housing more people than they should. It is awful to think one group of people was treated so poorly for centuries, and some still are today.

Jewish ghetto square

Around the edge of the ghetto is art depicting Jews being shoved into cattle cars by Nazi soldiers. The artwork is in remembrance of those who lost their lives during the Holocaust. Wooden boards have the names and ages of all the murdered Jews inscribed on them. Two hundred eighty-nine Jews were taken from the Venice ghetto to concentration camps during WWII.  Only seven returned.

Coincidently, my 8th grade English class plans to read the play, The Merchant of Venice, in the spring. William Shakespeare wrote the play sometime between 1596 and 1598 and is about a wealthy Jewish moneylender, Shylock, in Venice. Shylock was later used as a face for propaganda by the Nazis.

Even though Venice is known for its canals and gondola rides through the city, there is much more to it than that. People often look past the discrimination of Jews in Italy, sympathizing with only the German Jews. Racism goes back centuries and the ghettos help us remember past mistakes, so hopefully we do not repeat them in the future.


For tips on planning your family’s visit to Venice, be sure to read: Venice: 15 Must Do’s with Kids.

To learn more about a tragedy from the Vietnam War, read Kim Phuc: Vietnam War’s Napalm Girl.

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