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July 12, 2012

The ups and downs of being Jewish in Italy

Minority status has made Jews convenient scapegoats.

by Kelly Dickerson

FLORENCE, Italy – Banned, restricted to ghettoes, expelled, sent to death camps in Germany – the Jewish experience in Italy has often been one of struggle. But like Italy’s own history, that of Jews is complex, conflicted and in many ways still undecided.

Prior to Christian, Jews were left alone, albeit as a marginalized or “outsider” group. The rise of Christianity forced a new calculation, however. Christianity became widely accepted during the Roman Empire.

The Roman church, therefore, kept Jews living in a state of inferiority to “show the Christian truth,” said Sandro Servi, a historian specializing in the Jewish experience in Italy.

Jews were banned from Rome altogether under the emperor Claudius (10 BC to 54 AD). Though allowed back into the city under his stepson, Nero, this allowance was due more to indifference than anything else.

During the Renaissance period, Jews were as much included or involved in Italian life as the rest of the Italian population, according to Servi. They studied history, literature and language along with non-Jewish Italian scholars. This was different than, for example, Eastern Europe, where Jews were isolated.

Implementation of the Ghetto 

All of this changed in 1571, when the Jews of Florence and surrounding areas were organized into a Ghetto just inside Florence’s city gates. The gate to the Ghetto was locked every night.

While the Ghetto insured poor living conditions, it also had some positive impact on the Florentine Jews: it kept the Jews safe from the violence of the surrounding city, allowed their culture to thrive and gave them a kind of autonomy, Servi said.

Jewish tour guide and historian Giovanna Bossi Rosenfeld said that in 1799, after the French Revolution, the French army opened the gates to the Ghetto and gave citizenship rights to all the Jews.

Unification of Italy in 1861 also represented a high point in Jewish-Italian affairs. Those in favor of unification wanted full rights for Jews, so the Jewish population supported unification, as well, Servi said. Furthermore, Pope Pius IX was strongly against unification, because it meant a sharp diminishing of the Vatican’s power; obviously, Jews did not support the Pope, allying them with the mainstream of Italian society.

During this “golden age” for Jews in Italy, Florence’s synagogue was built far from the former ghetto, as a new start for the city’s Jewish community. A vibrant Jewish quarter developed around it, Rosenfeld said.

The fascist period

This golden age came to a violent end with the rise of fascism in Italy, a political movement that did not begin anti-Jewish, Servi said. In fact, many Jews were fascists, seeing themselves as patriots, according to Steve Farina, also a historian of Jewishness in Italy.

“Some Jews were fascist in the beginning because they were Italian, and like many Italians they thought fascism could be a good thing,” Servi said.

The first dozen years or so of fascism were no problem for the Jews, according to Rosenfeld, or until politics in Italy became racialized.

Italy’s fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, with the cooperation of Italy’s king at the time, Victor Emanuel III, a series of anti-Jewish, or “racial”, laws came into effect in 1938. As a result, Jews were barred from owning property inside the city, many lost their jobs and careers, and most were no onger allowed to go to school, Rosenfeld said. Ultimately, most Jews either were deported to German death camps or fled their native Italy.

“The Jews were shocked” that the Italian government had turned against them, Servi said. Jews did not understand why the racial laws were signed, because Jews had been so “integrated, so loyal, so much a part of Italian life,” he said.

One native son who couldn’t return

Marco Treves, son of one of three architects that designed Florence’s  synagogue, was one of these integrated and loyal Jewish-Italians. However, In 1933, because he was Jewish, he was forced to leave his homeland and emigrate to America.

Treves stopped doing architecture because it was too painful a reminder of his forced expulsion from his native country, according to his wife, Fortunata Treves, 86. Treves spent more than 20 years in America before returning to Italy, and then only on a part-time basis. He felt “betrayed,” she said.

Rosenfeld said close to 2,000 Jews left after the racial laws were signed, and that 330 were sent to a concentration camp. Of those, 248 either died or were killed.

Because they had long been Italian patriots, Jews in Italy felt they had to re-evaluate their place in the country after World War II, said Joseph Levi, chief rabbi of Florence’s synagogue.

“Some of them left to the States, to Israel, to other countries, but a big majority stayed,” he said. “They had a new consciousness of themselves as Jews.”

Segretario Emanuele Viterbo, general secretary of the Florentine Jewish community and synagogue, said the legacy of the fascist era is not a problem today.

“I haven’t the problem to meet people who were fascist during the second World War,” he said. “A lot of people that survived have to give thanks to the Italian population. Of course for every large number of people who helped Jews, there’s one person maybe who for money helped the Nazis. But this happened 60 years ago.”

Perhaps this complicated legacy explains why the Italian state paid approximately 70 percent of the $16 million restoration of the synagogue, Rosenfeld said. After the damage inflicted by the Germans during World War II, perhaps the Italian government felt guilty for its complicity during World War II. 

But the Italians have an expression: “Il tempo è galantuomo,” or “time is a gentleman.” In other words, when enough time has passed, when the conflicts are long gone, people can move on.


Back to The Jews of Florence home page.

Back to Florence's storytellers.

The Jews of Florence articles:

An Italian history: How one Jewish family survived Italy’s fascist persecution

86-year-old Fortunata Franchetti Treves looks back.

Fully Italian, fully Jewish

Florence’s Jews ‘fight’ to maintain distinct identity in a culture dominated by Catholicism.

Florence’s storytellers

How Jewish Italians remember their history, pass on tradition and preserve their identity.

The Empty Cradles of Florence

City’s Jewish population continues to decline.

Florence’s Jewish food business feeds off tourists, not local Jewish community

City’s small Jewish population not enough to sustain local merchants.

Historic sites cater to Jewish tourism in Florence, Italy

Visitors share experiences.

The ups and downs of being Jewish in Italy

Minority status has made Jews convenient scapegoats.

The Jews of Florence video coverage:

Jewish AND Italian: Identity in Florence a complex negotiation

A look into the struggles Italian Jews face in attempting to combine and reconcile their cultural and religious identities.

Re-living Italy's fascist past

The Treves family story represents in microcosm Italy's conflicted political and religious history. Hear the story first-hand from Fortunata Franchetti of Florence.

Keeping kosher in Florence: The city’s Jewish businesses look beyond

Because there are so few Jewish Florentines, the city’s kosher businesses have to reach out to the many Jewish tourists who come to the city.

Florentine piazza hides a dark past

Few tourists realize that the popular Piazza delle Repubblica in Florence is the former location of a 16th-century Jewish ghetto, one of Europe’s largest. Florentine Jews say they wish there was more recognition in the piazza for the hardships once endured.

Jewish tourism in Florence a bigger business than many might think

Several sites of Jewish historical significance are preserved in Florence, sites that attract many Jewish visitors each year.

The Jews of Florence photo slideshows:

Florence Synagogue attracts tourists interested in Jewish experience

Jewish tourists from near and far visit more than just Renaissance art. Jewish historical sites like the synagogue and Jewish businesses cater to Jewish tourism in Florence, Italy.

The Treves family: An uncommon story

A photo narrative highlighting the unique aspects of one Jewish-Italian family.

Children serve as legacy to Florentine Jewish

Jews discuss how difficult it can be to maintain their heritage in Florence.
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