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Ghetto - The ghettos of Europe were areas of European cities to which Jews were confined by law. The creation of the ghettos was motivated by Anti-Semitism. They represented a compromise solution that avoided outright expulsion of the Jews, which often resulted in adverse economic consequences, and which facilitated systematic oppression and regulation of the entire Jewish community, imposition of special taxes and dress regulations, laws regulating the number of marriages allowed and the permitted total number of Jews in the ghetto, and treatment of the community solely through designated representatives. The first ghettos that were named as such were founded in 16th century Italy, but the practice of segregating Jews can be found as far back as the 11th century at least.

In German towns, the special Jewish quarters were called the Judengasse. Even where ghettos did not exist, Jewish habitation was often restricted by law to particular areas of the country or town, as for example, the Pale of Settlement in Russia, and the restrictions on Jewish habitation in Austria. In popular parlance the ghetto is considered a feature of "medieval" life," but in fact the first recorded ghetto was established after the end of the middle ages, in 1516, and the ghettos persisted into relatively recent times.

The ghetto represented and enforced a way of life as second class citizens and a sub-society within the larger society. It is generally thought that most Jews would have in any case have voluntarily concentrated in areas where they could live in close proximity in order to obtain community services such as Kosher food, houses of worship and cemeteries. Some of the ghettos may have been formed to provide protection against the outside world. There were at least some occasions when rabbis aided authorities in organizing ghettos. It is not clear if these were alternatives to living as free people or to expulsion. Rabbi Lippmann Heller, the rabbi of the community of Vienna, claimed credit for having organizing the ghetto of that city, that existed from 1625 to 1670. The Jews  often found it impossible to live together with the Christians. They were in constant fear of being derided and insulted, injured, having their honor besmirched and their property destroyed, and even of being murdered, and they were often falsely accused of crimes.

Indeed, Jewish immigrants to the United States, for example, concentrated in specific parts of cities like the Lower East Side of New York and Williamsburg in Brooklyn. However, these new immigrants had brought with them a tradition of ghetto life from Eastern Europe. Jews who did not come from Eastern Europe did not necessarily concentrate in ghettos and quickly made their way to southern cities and the west as well as settling on the Eastern seaboard. The ghetto, which seems to have evolved after the end of the middle ages, with the rise of urban life, helped to form and deform Jewish culture and character in the Diaspora. As it cut Jews off from the mainstream of life around them in European towns, it encouraged the development of local dialects like Yiddish, of archaicism in dress and conservatism and reaction in outlook. As a group, Jews generally had a higher literacy rate than the European population around them and therefore had the potential to lead progress in intellectual fields and the modern organization of society. But as they were cut off from society, the winds of change did not often reach the Jewish community, and if they did, the rabbis who were appointed by law to be stewards of the community and to determine matters of education, faith and personal life, and often of commerce as well, did their best to stifle any progress that might threaten their authority and any dissent that might excite the wrath of the temporal or Christian ecclesiastical authorities. 

Origin of the word Ghetto

The origins of the word "Ghetto" are obscure. The streets in Venice and Salerno assigned to the Jews are called "Judaca" or "Judacaria" as far back as 1090.  At Capua there was a place called "San Nicolo ad Judaicam," in 1374. As late as the eighteenth century another place was called "San Martino ad Judaicam." "Judaicam" could have become the Italian "Giudeica," and was then corrupted into "ghetto." Other scholars derive the word from "gietto," the cannon-foundry at Venice that became the site of the Venice ghetto. But the gi sound in "gietto," like "Giudeica" is pronounced as a letter "j" and not a hard "g" as in "ghetto."

History of the Ghetto

The first officially designated ghetto on record was the ghetto of Venice. However, there were Jewish streets in Italian cities at least as far back as 1090, such as the Judaca or Judacaria streets mentioned above, and it is probable that ghettos existed from at least the 11th century, though they did not have that name.  It is not known whether these were all forced settlements from the start or if they began in some cases as spontaneous aggregations of Jews. As ghettos were of limited size, they were usually of limited size, often became overcrowded as population increased. The ghettos were frequently visited by fire, and perhaps owing to the close construction, seemed to be especially prone to destruction by fire. For example, on April 10, 1719, fire destroyed the entire ghetto of Nikolsburg,  except for a single house. The destructiveness of the fire was due to the poor construction and crowding, and to the narrow streets and the lack of any open spaces where movable property might have been saved from the flames. An additional complication was that fires invited pogroms and looting. Fires destroyed the ghetto of Bari in 1030 the two fires raged in Prague in 1689 and 1750, and in Frankfurt in 1711 and 1721.

The last ghetto was abolished in 1870, but the Russian Pale of settlement continued until the Russian revolution. 

Venice Ghetto 

The first ghetto was apparently established in Venice, in 1516, the word "geti" or "gietto" signifying the iron foundries located on the island designated for Jewish habitation. The Jews paid for the policing of the ghetto, which was locked shut at night. While Jewish quarters may have been a feature of the middle ages, the establishment of the first ghetto by name took place in the renaissance era.   It is unclear of the proliferation of European ghettos and Jewish quarters, beginning with Venice, was due to a population explosion among Jews, the growth of urban life, or a rise in anti-Semitism. There were numerous ghettos and Jewish quarters in Europe f. Below we shall outline the history of just a few.

Rome Ghetto

A second ghetto was established in Rome about Bull Cum Nimis Absurdum. It consisted of a few narrow, dirty, and unhealthful streets, which soon became painfully overcrowded. It was originally called the "Vicus Iudacorum." It was flooded each year by the Tiber. As population grew, the only way to accommodate it was to build taller and taller buildings, which shut out the light in the narrow streets. On the Jewish Sabbath, the Jews of the Rome ghetto were forced to hear Catholic sermons. Each year the Jews were subjected to the humiliating ceremony of formally imploring permission to continue living in Rome, for which they paid a yearly tax. The isolation of Rome's Jews in the ghetto gave rise to a dialect of Italian sprinkled with Hebrew words.

Subsequent Papal decrees further restricted the Jews to Rome and Ancona, and banned them from most other Papal states and cities. These include:

Hebraeorum gens sola, Bull of Pope Paul V, issued on Feb. 26, 1569, restricted Jews in the Papal States to Rome and Ancona, temporarily reversed subsequently).

Caeca et Obdurata Hebraeorum perfidia - (Blind and obdurate is the perfidy of the Hebrews) of February 25, 1593, expelling the Jews from all Papal states and territories other than Rome, Ancona and Avignon, and in particular from Bologna and several other cities. 

Restrictions and regulations were issued from time to time in regard to life in the ghetto, and rescinded and reimposed,  as in the legislation of Pius VI. in 1775. In 1814 Pius VII permitted a few Jews to live outside the ghetto; in 1847 Pius IX  decided to remove the ghetto gates and walls and to give the Jews the right of residence in any part of Rome; but the reactionary movement of 1848 reestablished the restrictions. In 1870 the Jews of Rome presented to Pope Pius IX. a petition for the abolition of the ghetto, but he did not grant it. King Victor Immanuel, who entered Rome in that year, abolished the ghetto, though remnants of its walls remained until 1885.

Ghetto of Frankfurt

The Emperor Frederick III had repeatedly ordered that the Jews of Frankfurt be subject to dress regulations and other restrictions. In 1458, the city council began building houses outside the city wall and moat. In 1462 the Jews were forced to move into these houses. By 1464 the city had established eleven houses, one dance hall, two pubs, and a community center. Thereafter, construction of the ghetto and the road to it was to be conducted by the Jews at their own expense, including paving of the road to the ghetto. Though the Jews paid for the construction, the houses were property of the city and the Jews paid rent to the city.  The ghetto gradually expanded its territory into the former moat of the city between 1552 and 1579. To accommodate the expansion, the original houses were progressively subdivided, and then additional stories were built were built on the old ones. 

In 1603 a large rabbinical conference was held in Frankfurt to settle numerous outstanding cases of fraud and trade and coinage disputes. The conference was attended by representatives of numerous Jewish communities, including Coblenz, Cologne, Fulda, and Mainz. However the Emperor Rudolf II decreed that the resolutions of the congress exceeded the privileges granted to the Jews and the conference was declared treasonous. The Emperor's protection was withdrawn resulting in pogroms and rebellions in several large cities. In 1631 the dispute was settled by the Archbishop of Cologne.

Beginning in 1612 there was a general rebellion in Frankfurt led by one Vinz Fettlich, over the rights of guilds and guildmasters.  As was frequently the case in such disturbances, the Jewish quarter was attacked, looted and destroyed.

Frankfurt ghetto pogrom

Pogrom in the Frankfurt Judengasse - 1614

The Jews were forced to flee, but were eventually escorted back to the ghetto by the imperial guard. The Jews were never recompensed for the damage done in the pogrom.  From 1616, in consequence of the pogrom, new regulations were instituted, some more favorable than previous, others less so. It was decreed that no more than 500 families could live in the ghetto, and no more than 12 weddings a year could take place there. This regulation applied without exception to all families including the Rothschilds. Jews were not allowed to leave the ghetto at night and during Christmas and on other Christian holidays, and were not allowed to visit specific parts of Frankfurt such as the ring road at any time. The Jews had no rights as citizens. The Jews were granted about the same rights in commerce that Christian non-citizen residents had. These non-citizen rights, which had evolved during the Middle Ages, excluded them from most types of business. All non-citizens were forbidden to open shops, operate retail business in the city, enter into business ventures with citizens, or own business property. Jews had to pay an additional tax, but they were also allowed to engage in the wholesale trades.

In 1711 and 1721, the Frankfurt ghetto was destroyed by fire. In the fire of 1711, Jews were trapped in the ghetto for a time, because the gates were locked to prevent looting. After the fire of 1721 the Jews of Frankfurt were destitute. They were granted some relief in the form of remittance of taxes.

For a time during the conquests of Bonaparte, Grand Duke of Frankfurt Karl von Dalberg, a Bonaparte appointee, abolished the ghetto and many of the restriction on Jews, so that by 1811 the Jews of Frankfurt were no longer forced to live in the ghetto and the special taxes were abolished following payment of a large lump sum. Many of the regulations were reinstated in 1816, but Jews were no longer forced to live in the ghetto.

Prague Ghetto

Jews had lived in Prague at least since 970. During the crusades, there was a great pogrom about 1096. Many survivors of the Crusades were forced to convert to Christianity. During the siege of Prague in 1142, large sections of the Jewish quarter on the left bank of the Vltava (Moldau) were burned, including the synagogue. About 40 years later, the Jews were forced to move to the right bank of the Vltava and their rights were abridged. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council decreed that Jews must wear distinctive clothes. They were prohibited from holding public office and were limited in the amount they could charge for interest on loans. Jews were also considered servants (servi camerae) of the Royal chambers. In the 14th century, Emperor Charles IV and his successor Wenceslas allowed estates to renege on loans owned to Jewish lenders.

At Easter 1389, members of the Prague clergy announced that Jews had desecrated the host, the wafer of communion, and the clergy incited mobs to pillage, ransack and burn the Jewish quarter. Desecration of the Host was a common Christian superstition. A reddish-brown fungus attacked the wafers, convincing the clergy that Jews had poured blood on them. Almost the entire Jewish population of Prague, consisting of about 3,000 people, were murdered. Many of the remaining women and children were baptized.

By the latter part of the 15th century however, the Jewish community of Prague had recovered, and the first Hebrew press was established there. The 16th century saw a great flowering of the Prague ghetto, as its numbers were swelled by Jews expelled from Spain and other parts of Europe, though in 1541 the Jews were almost expelled and in 1557 they were temporarily expelled. The latter part of the 16th century was a period of prosperity. This was the age of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (1525-1609), the Maharal, who had supposedly created the magical Golem.

By the early 18th century, the Jews were a quarter of the population of Prague, and Prague had probably become the largest Jewish ghetto in Europe, if not the largest center of Jews in the world. But in 1744, the Empress Maria Theresa expelled the Jews of Prague and then the Jews of Moravia for a brief time. They were soon restored to Prague, but were forced to pay a special tax. Conditions improved on the accession of Emperor Joseph II in 1780, who issued the limited "Patent of Toleration" (Toleranzpatent) for Jews in 1782.  Jews began to experience, paradoxically, the life of emancipation and the spirit of the Haskalah even thought the ghetto was not abolished. Jews were taught a bit of secular subjects and were allowed to attend institutions of higher learning. The Toleranzpatent also forced Jews to keep accounts in German, because the authorities believed that Jews had used Yiddish in order to swindle gentiles.

The Prague ghetto was finally abolished in 1852.

Nazi Ghettos

During World War II, the Nazis forced Jews to gather into tiny quarters of the larger cities of Europe, where they were to await transport to death camps. These areas were also called "ghettos" but should not be confused with the former ghettos of Europe. The cities with such ghettos included   Bedzin, Białystok, Budapest, Cluj, Częstochowa, Krakow, Lachwa, Łodz, Lwow, Marcinkance, Mińsk Mazowiecki, Piotrkow Trybunalski, Pinsk, Riga, Sosnowiec, Theresienstadt, Vilnius and Warsaw. The inhabitants of these ghettos were generally not allowed to leave for any reason and were subject to periodic "transports" that ended in murder at one or another death camp. As the intent of the Nazis became obvious, the remnants of the inhabitants of these ghettos smuggled in light arms such as pistols and grenades and even some machine guns, and staged rebellions. Armed revolts are known to have taken place in Bedzin, Białystok, Czestochowa, Krakow, Lachwa, Lodz, Lwow, Marcinkance, Mińsk Mazowiecki, Pinsk Riga, Sosnowiec, Vilnius and Warsaw. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the most famous of the uprisings. In a few cases, the uprisings made it possible for small numbers of Jews to escape, as happened at Lachwa (Lakhva) the first uprising, and at Vilnius. Survivors of the Vilnius uprising and some others were able to escape and some, like Abba Kovner, made their way to Palestine in 1944 and told the story of the uprisings.

Muslim Ghettos

Muslim countries had their own ghettos for Jews. The Arab word is "Mellah." The rationale or excuse was often "protection." Of course, had there been no incitement, there would have been no need of "protection."


Synonyms and alternate spellings:

Further Information:  Anti-Semitism Pogrom


Hebrew/Arabic pronunciation and transliteration conventions:

'H - ('het) a guttural sound made deep in the throat. To Western ears it may sound like the "ch" in loch. In Arabic there are several letters that have similar sounds. Examples: 'hanukah, 'hamas, 'haredi. Formerly, this sound was often represented by ch, especially in German transliterations of Hebrew. Thus, 'hanukah is often rendered as Chanuka for example.

ch - (chaf) a sound like "ch" in loch or the Russian Kh as in Khruschev or German Ach, made by putting the tongue against the roof of the mouth. In Hebrew, a chaf can never occur at the beginning of a word. At the beginning of a word, it has a dot in it and is pronounced "Kaf."

u - usually between oo as in spoon and u as in put.

a- sounded like a in arm

ah- used to represent an a sound made by the letter hey at the end of a word. It is the same sound as a. Haganah and Hagana are alternative acceptable transliterations.

'a-notation used for Hebrew and Arabic ayin, a guttural ah sound.

o - close to the French o as in homme.

th - (taf without a dot) - Th was formerly used to transliterate the Hebrew taf sound for taf without a dot. However in modern Hebrew there is no detectable difference in standard pronunciation of taf with or without a dot, and therefore Histadruth and Histadrut, Rehovoth and Rehovot are all acceptable.

q- (quf) - In transliteration of Hebrew and Arabic, it is best to consistently use the letter q for the quf, to avoid confusion with similar sounding words that might be spelled with a kaf, which should be transliterated as K. Thus, Hatiqva is preferable to Hatikva for example.


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