Jewish Ghetto

Be mindful of history

The Jewish ghetto, beside the banks of the river Tiber is one of the most fascinating areas of the city. It's history is mainly that of suffering, poverty and persecution. The ghetto has been in existence since 1555 when Pope Paul IV, on a mission to convert everyone to Catholicism, condemned the Jewish people of Rome to live there, locked within the ghetto walls. The area itself was constantly being flooded by the often overflowing Tiber, and as such was dirty, polluted and disease-ridden. It was a small area, roughly three hectares, and housed over 2,000 Jews in shockingly cramped and crowded conditions. They were allowed to leave during the day, but only after being forced to wear yellow cloths and veils. They were constantly mocked, bullied and humiliated. Nobody was allowed to leave at night.

The Jews continued to live in the ghetto for over 300 years, until the unification of Italy in 1870, when conditions began to improve and the Jews were once again granted citizenship. In 1882, the ghetto and it's walls were demolished and the area reconstructed. The Synagogue, which is included in our Jewish Ghetto tour, was completed in 1904 and boasts the only square dome in the city. It's a magnificently ornate building that stands for freedom and liberation of the Jewish community.

Of course, the troubles didn't end there. During the Second World War, the Jewish community again suffered horrendous abuse and persecution during the Nazi occupation. On October 16th 1943, more than 1,000 Jews were rounded up at gunpoint and taken to Auschwitz. At the end of the war, less than 20 of them returned. You can still see reminders of this troubled past whilst walking through the ghetto today. A plaque on the wall of the Archaeology and History of Art Library at the far end of Via del Portico d'Ottavia reads "La spietata caccia agli ebrei" (here began the merciless hunting down of the Jews). On another the story is told of how one man, Settimio Calò, returned to his house after going out to buy cigarettes only to find it empty, his wife and nine children gone forever, taken on that fateful morning, never to be seen again. Look down on the floor outside some of the buildings and you will see small cobble-like brass plaques with the names of those who perished during the holocaust inscribed on them.

Despite the grim history of this small quarter of the city, these days the ghetto is a great place to spend an afternoon. It has many restaurants that offer authentic Kosher fare, small bakeries that sell traditional Jewish cakes and lots of bars where you can sit and watch the world go by. Off the main street you can explore the many narrow, cramped streets that give you a real sense of what the place would have been like all those years ago, except now you can find small art galleries, trendy clothes and book shops. It has now become a popular place for Roman's to hang out, to meet and to socialise, although the history of the place will never be forgotten.

Published on July 19th, 2013
© When In Rome Tours, article provided by James Elliott.

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