The Triumph of the Italian Jews

Prisoners of Hope: The Silver Age of the Italian Jews, 1924-1974

by H. Stuart Hughes
Harvard University Press, 188 pp., $15.00

GETO—the word stood out in large black capitals against the small print of a poster on the wall of the Gesuati Church when I was in Venice recently; it turned out to be the name of a film which was to be shown, once only, in the Camera di Commercio on May 11. More familiar in its nondialect form “ghetto,” the word prompts images of fifteenth-century Frankfurt or twentieth-century Warsaw, but it was Venice that provided a name for the urban prisons in which the Jews were confined for many centuries. Since Venice is a city of small islands connected by bridges, nothing was easier than to post sentries on the bridges and isolate one of the islands in the northern sector of the city, an industrial site where there had been a foundry—it was done in 1516.

On the screen, watched by an overflow audience, a series of haunting images traced the 300-year history of the ghetto, as the camera focused on the original decree, still in the archives, which established its regulations; ranged through the rich interior of the “Spanish” synagogue, designed by Longhena, the architect of the great church of La Salute; moved along the bricked-up windows facing the canal and the outside world and then climbed the stories which had been piled on stories as height was made to serve for space; release came only with the arrival of Napoleon’s troops, who brought in the modern age. But the film ended, as it had begun, somberly: newsreel footage that showed the solemn commemoration, in the ghetto itself, of the Italian Jews murdered by the Nazis. And in the ghetto now (it is still called by that name though no guards stand on the bridges) Venetian children kick their soccer ball against a high brick wall on which, below the crowning fringe of triple barbed wire, are fixed seven bronze bas-reliefs, images of the Holocaust.

Italian Jewry had never occupied a conspicuous place in the consciousness of the rest of the world. There was no mass emigration, like that from Russia and Poland, no organized anti-Semitic movements, as in Germany and the Austrian Empire, no sensational affaire like the Dreyfus scandal in France. Indeed the Jewish presence did not loom large in the Italian consciousness either; Jews had been in Italy as long as anyone else (there are Jewish catacombs in Rome as well as Christian), and, above all, unlike their northern coreligionists, they had no separate everyday language. When in the early nineteenth century the gates of the ghetto were flung open (everywhere except in papal Rome, where they stayed closed until 1870 in that crass world of ignorance and corruption immortalized in the Romanesco sonnets of Belli), the Italian Jews rejoined the mainstream of Italian life and culture from which they had been separated since the Renaissance. By the beginning of the twentieth century, to quote Stuart Hughes, they “appeared fully integrated into the national life. Still more, their leading personalities …

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Letters

Judeo-Italian February 2, 1984