History of the Ghetto

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk





The word ghetto means slag, from the Latin word gettare, to pour or to cast. This Italian word was first used by the Venetians, who forced Jews to live behind walls in the most miserable part of the city near an iron foundry. The Ghetto in Venice was of course not the first nor the last European Jewish ghetto. As early as 1179, the third “Lateran Council” of the Catholic church decided that Christians should not live together with Jews (Lateran refers to SEXTUS LATERANUS, a Roman Consul who, long before Christianity, owned the Lateran palace where the council or meeting was held).

This led to the segregation of Jews in most European communities. The areas in which Jews were allowed to live were not at first called Ghettos because that Italian name did not enter the European languages until the Venetians introduced it in the 16th century. In Germany, Jews were confined to a few streets called Judengasse or Jew alley. If you visit the town of Rothenburg in southern Germany today you can still see the street sign “Judengasse” there. Rothenburg maintains its medieval appearance for the sake of attracting tourists.

Although many European communities already provided for Jewish enclaves, this was not enough for the citizens of Venice, who forced Jews to live on one of the islands which constitute Venice to this day. In 1516 the Jewish area was walled in. Only two gates allowed Jews to leave after sunrise and return before dark. From sunset to morning the doors were locked.

Jews were also forced to wear only black clothes such as may still be seen among some of our Torah true brethren. In the Middle Ages, all Europeans were subject to the so-called sumptuary laws (sumptus is Latin for expense), requiring different social classes and occupations to wear clothes which identified them. Hence the nobility wore colorful and attractive clothes and peasants wore uniformly ugly clothes. Jews were the bottom of the hierarchy (holy rule) and therefore had to wear only black.

In 1555 Pope Paul IV confined the Jews of Rome to a ghetto with only one entrance and one exit. This example was followed all over Europe as Jews were compelled to stay in segregated and enclosed areas. These areas were never expanded, so that the natural increase in the Jewish population created a filthy slum. Jewish housing had to built upward into buildings several stories high as they could not grow normally. These ghettos remained in effect until the French Revolution of 1789 led to the abolition of the Venice ghetto in 1797, the Frankfurt ghetto in 1811 and finally the Roman ghetto in 1848. Nevertheless, Jews were usually confined to the areas in which the ghettos had once existed. Thereafter, any areas largely inhabited by minority groups has been called a ghetto.

In 1939, the Germans once more instituted the ghetto, first in Germany and then in all of occupied Europe. Once Poland had been invaded by the German armies the Polish Jews were forced into ghettos in Warsaw, Lublin, Lodz and other cities. The German Jews were deported to those ghettos before being gassed together with the Eastern European Jews.

The Nazi ghettos were far worse than the medieval ghettos had been. In Warsaw there were over nine people per room and in other towns 12-30 people were packed into a room. Jews were starved in these ghettos, eating only 250 calories a day. Poles were allowed to eat 669 calories a day, Germans ate 2,613 calories a day. Since the ghettos had no sanitation and little water, disease killed thousands of Jews in these ghettos.

In the end, the Jews who were still alive in 1942 were transported from these ghettos to the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Sobibor and Treblinka. The Jews of Warsaw did revolt but in the end all such uprisings failed.

In sum, the Nazis established 18 ghettos. After the Second World War the Poles continued the practice of isolating the few Jews who survived the Nazi horrors and then murdered these few Jews who wanted to return to their erstwhile homes. Today, Poland is “Judenrein” - “cleansed of Jews” - even as Polish radio stations continue to broadcast anti-Jewish hate at an audience which has never seen a Jew.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The Restoration of Israel (2006).

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