Learning about Racial Segregation: the Jewish Ghetto of Venice

The evening before we headed to Venice’s Jewish Ghetto, we dabbled in Venetian food.

Not one child wanted a pesce dinner (fish), but we were in Venice, and the Adriatic sea offerings didn’t offer hamburgers. So when in Rome (or Venice)…

The cuttle fish ink pasta wasn’t any of our preferences, but the antipasto plate was perfetto: sardines, escargot, octopus, oysters, something resembling an oversized shrimp that covered the length of my plate, calamari (not breaded), and octopus. There was also a mound of tripe? In the center of the plate, if you like fishy-flavoured connective tissue, this is the fish for you. My favourite was the white fish mush, a mashed cod slurry. Molto bueno.


We had to wait till seven, as is the Italian custom (the ristorantes aren’t open till then anyway). Combine the fish plate with the verdura (vegetables) — which turned out to be the funghi plate (mushrooms) and the kids were a little underwhelmed at dinner.

Papparedelle was the easy winner. With an afternoon gelato around our typical dinnertime, we could accomplish a late dinner. With all the walking we do around this remarkable island city, we don’t think our waists have absorbed the consequences: the vacanza di camminare (the holiday to walk, and to learn a new language).


Then we walked to the museum in the Jewish Ghetto.

The holocaust has always been of interest to me, but listening to the tour guide reminded me I didn’t understand the discussion of dates like 1500s or 1700s. The idea of Jewish segregation, Jewish people being forced to live in small quarters, was confined, in my mind, to World War 2.

When the tour guide talked of Napoleon leading the Jews into segregational freedom in 1797, my mind was whirring.

My oldest daughter, a lover of history, saddled alongside me when she saw I was confused: Mom, Napoleon wasn’t in World War II. Exactly.

Venice was the site of the first Jewish Ghetto in Europe, in 1516. This was a consequence of the Spanish Inquisition. Gates and bolts were formed around this tightly housed neighbourhood of low-ceilinged apartments on the easternmost side of the island. Ghetto residents could only leave for short periods with an armband of a yellow circle or heart.

For a very few short months, in 1797, Napoleon Bonaparte declared equality for all mankind and some Jewish people left that ghetto.


Twelve years later, they were allowed to build their synagogues. We stood in three of them. They were as ornate as any Catholic Duomo, but the Roman Catholic church didn’t give them permission to use the gold that their churches used. There were tiny frescoes crowning the windows, sharing the stories in the Book of Exodus. To this day, weddings still take place in the tiny synagogue.

This beautiful synagogue is a reminder to them that God will maintain his people, no matter how many persecutions the Jewish people face.


There was no ghetto in World War 2, of course: my reminder that the Jews have been persecuted throughout history, not just in the holocaust.

At the time of the holocaust, 1,200 Jews were living in Venice. Twenty five percent of them, 246 of the mentally ill, sick, or uncared for, were deported to Auschwitz. They first travelled to Bologna by train, then on to Auschwitz. Only eight returned home.


At the time of the writing, 504 Jews live in Venice.


The best place to purchase books for the kiddos on history or science is in these museum bookstores. Of course, this one is primarily Italian, but there is a small section of Inglese (English), where I found the Jewish approved Diary of Anne Frank. We visited the Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam a year before too.


“There are some things concerning which we must always be maladjusted if we are to be people of good will. We must never adjust ourselves to racial segregation. We must never adjust ourselves to religious bigotry. We must never adjust ourselves to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few.”

Martin Luther King, Jr

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