By Irene S. Levine, Special to Tribune Newspapers
9:49 PM EDT, March 19, 2013
FERRARA, Italy — Venice's Jewish ghetto is better known, perhaps, but by no means was it the only one in Italy. In the mid-1500s, Ferrara had become a haven for Jews fleeing hostility elsewhere in Europe. The Este dynasty invited Jews here and allowed them to prosper as farmers, merchants, doctors and rabbinic scholars. There once were 10 synagogues and as many as 2,000 Jewish people in this walled, north Italian city.
By 1626, conditions worsened when the Este family moved to Modena. The papal government seized property from Jews, closed all but three synagogues and confined Jews to the ghetto under lock and key. Between 1627 and 1859, Via Mazzini was the main street of Ferrara's large Jewish ghetto. When Italy later was unified, they were granted freedom again, but the Holocaust saw some 200 Jewish citizens sent to extermination camps.
Today, the entrance to the ancient palazzo at 95 Via Mazzini houses the Synagogue and Jewish Museum of Ferrara (Sinagoghe e Museo Ebraico, comune.fe.it/museoebraico). It's a few blocks from the Basilica Cattedrale di San Giorgio and red brick Castle Estense that dominate the medieval center of this city.
There actually are three synagogues at the museum site (German, Spanish and Italian), two of which remain open to visitors. An upstairs museum is filled with artifacts that document Jewish life in Ferrara. The collection includes the keys used to open the five gates of the Jewish ghetto at sunrise each morning and close them at sunset.
Fewer than 80 Jewish residents remain in Ferrara, but the synagogue building remains a center of Jewish life. Supported by city, provincial and regional authorities and the Bank of Ferrara, it remains a symbol of tolerance.
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