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'Life that was': Experts restore historic synagogues in Europe's first Jewish ghetto

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By Daniel Bellamy  with AP
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Interiors of the Spanish Schola Synagogue in Venice, 1 June 2022
Interiors of the Spanish Schola Synagogue in Venice, 1 June 2022   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Chris Warde-Jones

Venice’s Jewish ghetto, considered the first in Europe and one of the first in the world, is seeing a new effort underway to preserve its 16th-century synagogues for the faithful who have remained as well as the tourists who visit.

For nearly two years, restorers have been peeling away paint and discovering the original foundations of three of the ghetto’s synagogues -- believed to be the only Renaissance synagogues still in use -- art historian David Landau said.

Landau is spearheading the fundraising effort to restore the synagogues and nearby buildings both for Venice’s small Jewish community which numbers around 450 people and for tourists who can visit them on a guided tour through the Jewish Museum of Venice.

“I was really deeply offended by the state of the synagogues,” said Landau, a Renaissance specialist who bought a home in Venice 12 years ago. “I felt that the synagogues were in very bad condition."

"They had been altered beyond recognition over the centuries, and needed to be kind of cared for and loved.”

Landau has secured about €5 million euros to date and expects workers can complete the restoration process by the end of 2023 if the rest of the funding comes through, although the original costs have gone up a further million due to soaring building costs.

'A testimony to life that was'

Venice’s ghetto dates back to 1516 when the republic enacted stringent laws forcing the growing numbers of Jewish faithful into isolation in the district where the old foundries, or “geti” as they were known, had been located. 

The area, which was locked down at night, became what is considered Europe’s first ghetto and remains the hub of Venice’s Jewish community in the Cannaregio area.

The first synagogue dates from 1528 and was built by German Ashkenazi Jewish residents. Others followed and served different groups, including a temple for Spanish Sephardic believers and one for the Italians.

None are visible from the street, as strict rules imposed by Venice’s rulers didn’t allow those belonging to the Jewish community to practice their faith openly. 

The synagogues are hidden away on the top floors of seemingly common buildings that on the lower levels held cramped living spaces for Jewish families.

The synagogues have been open since, except for World War II, when fascist racial laws turned into an outright hunt for the members of the community seeing most being held at the Fossoli concentration camp before being deported to Nazi death camps, most commonly to Auschwitz.

Only eight Jewish residents of Venice survived the death camps by the end of the war.

The head of Venice’s Jewish community, Dario Calimani, said the restoration project was necessary both to maintain the religious and cultural life of Venice’s Jews today and to preserve the community’s history.

“They are a testimony to the life that it was, to the history of our community, small community,” he said.