Wednesday, August 23, 2017 /
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The birth of the Ghetto - The Germans

The birth of the Ghetto - The Germans

The Jews must all live together in the Douses that stand in the ghetto near San Girolamo. And so that they do not go about at night, let two gates be made, one on the side of the Old Ghetto where there is a small bridge, and one on the other side of the bridge - that is, one gate for each place. And let these gates be opened in the morning at the ringing of the Marangona [the main bell of St Mark's] and locked at midnight by four Christian gatekeepers, appointed and paid by the Jews themselves at a rate that our Council decides fair ...

It was 29 March 1516. The Serenissima had just ordered that seven hundred or so Jews (of both Italian and German origin) be enclosed in a small isolated area of the city that had once been the site of a foundry. An unhealthy area, it was near the prisons and the monastery of San Girolamo (whose monks were responsible for the burial of executed criminals). Thus the first ghetto in history came into being. The etymology of the name that was to become sadly synonymous with segregation continues to be a matter of debate among scholars.

Some say it derives from the German word gitter (iron grill), from the Hebrew word get (divorce) or again from the German gasse (alleyway). However, the most widely accepted theory is that the word comes from the Venetian verb getar, to smelt.

When the island of the Ghetto Novo was allocated for the Jews of German and Italian origin who had made up the first wave of immigrants, it was already partially inhabited. But the tenants were forced to move out and rents were put up by a third. Gateways were erected on the bridges over Rio San Girolamo and Rio del Ghetto, and the gatekeepers responsible for shutting them at night had to be paid for by the community itself, while other watchmen patrolled the surrounding canals in boats.

During the first few years of the ghetto's existence the status of the so called nazione todesca (German nation) was clearly defined. Under the direct and exacting control of the Cattaver (Venetian magistrates responsible for the recovery of hidden wealth that was held to be public property), they were required to run the ghetto loan banks and pay a heavy annual tax. Strazzaria (dealing in second-hand cloth and clothing) and general trade in second-hand objects were the only other business activities allowed them, except for the medical profession and the lucky few jobs in printing Hebrew texts.

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