The Wehrmacht’s Jewish Soldier

How did Walter Dirr, born to a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, come to be drafted into Hitler’s army? Clues from a family archive

The curious case of Walter Dirr begins with his father, Robert Heinrich Dirr (1880–1944), born into a Catholic family in Mühlhausen, Germany. Drafted at age seventeen, Dirr climbed the ranks to become an officer in 1904. By then, he was also apprenticing in construction. Robert became an architect in Metz, a city in Elsass-Lothringen, formerly part of the German Reich and now part of France. In 1907, Dirr fell in love with Frieda Rothschild (1889–1978, no relation to the famous banking family).

Their courageous romance didn’t last. Frieda (née Rothschild) and Robert Dirr early in their marriage

She was one of twelve children born to Orthodox Jewish parents in Jünkerath, Germany. Frieda’s family disapproved of the relationship. So when the couple asked permission to become engaged, her mother challenged them to test their love by refraining from all contact for a year. Should they still wish to marry after that, the Rothschilds would consent.

Throughout 1908, their year of separation, Robert kept a diary. Addressing every entry to Frieda, he filled more than 250 pages with thoughts such as “I can overcome everything with joy owing to my love and confidence in you.” At year’s end, he presented the leather-bound journal to Frieda. “You have to feel,” read the flyleaf dedication, “how in my whole being, with every drop of blood, with every beat of my heart, I have been living only for you. […] Only once can a man really and truly love, dedicating himself so fully to just one person.”

Frieda and Robert wed in either 1909 or 1910. Settling in Metz, they had three children: Mirjam Caroline (1913–2000), Argonna (1915–2003), and Walter Julius Hermann Stephan (1923–2012). Walter collected the family’s letters, diaries, photographs, and documents, later passing them on to a relative. In January 2021, the collection was deposited in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel.

The family archive at the time of its deposit. Photo: Franziska Ehmer


Separate But Safe

The few clues regarding the circumstances leading to Walter’s short-lived military career are located in several journals and letters written by Frieda Dirr between 1915 and 1945. Frieda and Robert’s initially happy marriage foundered in the economic crisis that began in 1923. Robert had to sell their new home, and ongoing financial struggles further strained their relationship. Frieda’s diary describes this difficult period, but in comparison with what was to come, it was positively idyllic.

The couple divorced after Hitler’s nomination as German chancellor in 1933, but Robert was still able to utilize his connections with the Catholic Church to move his family to nearby, independent Luxembourg.

Initially neutral after Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Luxembourg fell victim to Nazi aggression in March 1940, when German troops crossed the border. Of the 35,000 Jews then in Luxembourg, most of them refugees from Germany, only a few hundred survived.

Here the intrigue begins. Robert registered his family as Catholics in Luxembourg, and though they never hid Frieda´s maiden name, the Dirrs joined the community of gentile German exiles. Letters indicate that acquaintances knew nothing of the family´s Jewish roots. In stark contrast to the fate suffered by Luxembourg’s Jews, the “cover” provided by Robert Dirr meant that his family could survive without going into hiding.

One piece of mail stands out among many sent to various family members during the war. Dated November 26, 1944, the letter is addressed to Walter, then twenty-one, by a German commandant in Luxembourg. Clearly oblivious to Walter’s background, the official hopes for a “good end” for their “mutual fatherland.” He sounds concerned for the Dirrs’ safety and surprised by their decision to stay in Luxembourg despite the Allies’ approach. The “anger of the people of Luxembourg” would, he feared, soon be directed toward the loyal Germans in their midst.


Home Front

So how was Walter Dirr drafted into the Wehrmacht, as the German army was known? There seems to have been an oversight. Dirr’s military papers list his religion as Catholic, although his mother’s typically Jewish maiden name appears here too.

Though the name Rothschild appears in Walter Dirr’s army papers, it seems to have been overlooked by clerks intent on drafting ever more Germans to fight in the east

Called up in 1943, Walter fought for Germany in the east. A leg wound after just two months in the field ensured that he spent the rest of the war recuperating in various field hospitals before returning to his mother and sisters. Although physically untouched by the conflict, Frieda Rothschild emerged from it a changed woman. Her nerves shattered by the strain of concealment and her fears for her son, she transformed from an open, confident socialite into a possessive, dependent matriarch. She told her children never to marry, and all complied; Argonna even lived with Frieda until the latter’s death. Robert Dirr’s undying love may not have withstood the Depression, but it did enable his ex-wife and children to survive the Holocaust more or less intact.

As far as we know – Walter, who discovered he was Jewish relatively late in life, continued living in Germany and apparently made contact over the years with some of his mother’s relatives who lived in Haifa, Israel.


The original version of this article was published in Segula – The Jewish History Magazine

Was the Giving Tree Simply Spineless?

Shel Silverstein’s "The Giving Tree" sold millions of copies around the world, but it was also a target of harsh reviews. What is it about this minimalist book that evokes such conflicting feelings and what did its creator have to say about it? And perhaps we can all learn from success instead of arguing with it

Shel Silverstein (photo: Jerry Yulsman 1964) and the cover of the Hebrew edition of "The Giving Tree" (Adam Publishers, 1979)

When 34-year-old Shel Silverstein submitted the illustrated manuscript of The Giving Tree to publishers, it was rejected.

Silverstein was already a well-known writer with several books for adults, a children’s book and even a first album that he wrote and recorded (many more would follow) under his belt, and yet, his latest creative effort was rejected. The reason the publishers gave was that it was not clear whether the book was intended for children or adults and that it would be confusing to readers.

We know how this story ends: Silverstein persevered, the book was published, and the skeptics’ misgivings turned out to be his trump card – the book, bought by adults and children alike, flew off the shelves.

Since then, generations of children have grown up reading The Giving Tree, which was published in 1964 to resounding international success. The Hebrew edition came out in 1979. The book depicts the relationship between a child and an apple tree. The tree gives and the child takes. At first the tree only gives the boy its shade and fruit, but later, when the boy grows up and returns to the tree, it gives him its branches, then its trunk, until there is nothing left but a bare stump. And yet, “the tree was happy”, according to the book’s unforgettable ending.

There is no single explanation for the book’s enormous popularity. Perhaps it is Silverstein’s sharp and clear writing and minimalist, uncluttered illustrations. Or the book’s message about the universal values of generosity, giving, dedication and unconditional love. In the United States, many religious institutions incorporated the book into their curricula, using the story as a model for leading a good, unselfish life. In Israel, the book complemented the values of Zionism and Israeli culture itself – a culture highly influenced by the requirement of military service, which demands immense giving and absolute devotion.

The book has been translated into more than 30 languages, and in 2022, the US Postal Service issued a stamp in the book’s honor.

The stamp issued in 2022 by the US Postal Service in honor of The Giving Tree

However, alongside its enormous success, The Giving Tree was also the target of significant criticism from different directions. One of the main criticisms originated with feminist organizations. In the original English version of the book, the tree was referred to in the feminine tense: “Once there was a tree, and she loved a little boy”. [emphasis YI]

Page from the 1964 edition of The Giving Tree, published by Harper & Row

Silverstein had chosen to imagine the tree in the feminine, which led to the book’s being interpreted as a mother’s absolute sacrifice or as women’s capitulation in the face of male selfishness.

In the Hebrew edition, the tree is referred to as male, but this change was in no way self-evident. Silverstein was very careful about controlling the copyrights and other publishing details of his books (which is why you won’t ever find any of his books in paperback). When the book was translated into Hebrew, a special request was made to refer to the tree in the masculine, due to the fact that nouns in Hebrew are either masculine or feminine, and a tree is masculine. The request was approved, which is perhaps why criticism of the Hebrew edition was more generalized.

A selection of Silverstein’s books in Hebrew translation, available in at the National Library of Israel. All of them, without exception are in hardcover editions only

Criticism also came from environmentalists who claimed that the book encourages destruction and wanton disregard for the environment. Others voiced concern that it will promote a child’s selfishness if they identify with the child, or self-destructive behavior if they identify with the tree. Author Rivka Galchen wrote in the New York Times: “The boy and the tree are both ‘flawed’, and in the most old-fashioned way, their flaws, which are also their characters, determine their fates”.

Over the last decade, perhaps with the rise of political correctness or the development of more conscious parenting styles, criticism of the book has intensified and given rise to several parodies and alternate versions. Daniel Goldstein created a Hebrew parody called The Polish Tree and American writer Topher Payne came up with another alternate take: The Tree Who Set Healthy Boundaries. Both seem to respond to the anger the book provokes when re-reading it as adults or as young parents, and seeing things in it that we did not see when we read it as children.

Cover of The Tree Who Set Healthy Boundaries. An alternate ending to Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, by Topher Payne, part of the “Topher Fixed It” series which provides “parody alternate endings to beloved but problematic children’s literature”

Along with suggestions for discussing the book after reading it to children and asking what they feel and think about it, perhaps it is also worth asking whether we can simply ignore the matter of its political correctness or the messages it conveys. Can it simply be enjoyed as a story? Each of us has to decide for ourselves.

Born in 1930 to a Jewish family in Chicago, Silverstein was a prolific writer, but gave very few interviews throughout his life. He never tried to justify himself or respond to the criticism about his best-known book, The Giving Tree. He let his success speak for itself. In a rare interview from 1975, he summarizes his thoughts about reviews in general: “I think if you’re a creative person, you should just go about your business, do your work and not care about how it’s received. I never read reviews, because if you believe the good ones you have to believe the bad ones too. Not that I don’t care about success. I do, but only because it lets me do what I want. I was always prepared for success but that means that I have to be prepared for failure too”. Speaking to the New York Times in 1978, when asked about the meaning of The Giving Tree, Silverstein answered: “It’s just a relationship between two people; one gives and the other takes”.

Where the Wild Jews Are: Maurice Sendak’s Real Life Monsters

For the monsters in the book "Where the Wild Things Are", Maurice Sendak had in mind people he actually knew. The dark themes of his children’s books, which have been the subject of repeated criticism, reflected the world he inhabited

Writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak against a background featuring characters from his book "Where the Wild Things Are", photo: Clarence Patch

“And when he came to the place where the wild things are

they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth

and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws

till Max said ‘BE STILL!’

and tamed them with the magic trick

of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once and they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all and made him king of all wild things.”

From Where the Wild Things Are

“Scary.” “Gloomy.” “Not suitable for children.” “High potential for nightmares.” These were some of the criticisms used to describe Maurice Sendak’s books.

In Where the Wild Things Are, young Max encounters terrifying creatures with pointed teeth and sharp horns after being sent to his room without supper. In In the Night Kitchen (1970), a boy barely escapes drowning in a pot of cake batter, and in Outside Over There (1981), yet another boy is kidnapped by goblins. But despite the dark themes (or maybe because of them?) Maurice Sendak’s books have been a huge international success.

Maurice was born in 1928, the youngest of three children, to Polish-Jewish immigrant parents. His mother Sarah didn’t speak a word of English when she arrived in the United States on her own at the age of sixteen in the early 1920s, following a terrible quarrel with her mother. His father Philip also arrived alone from Poland. Philip’s father, a communal rabbi, cut ties with his son when he decided to leave home and move to the States. From careful reading between the lines of Sendak’s books, as well as from various interviews with the author, it appears that the melancholic atmosphere of his parents’ home, each of whom had left their family behind after a falling out, greatly influenced Maurice and his work. Of course the looming shadow of the catastrophe of the Jewish people in those years also played a part.

Maurice Sendak as a baby with his family, 1928. From the book: The Art of Maurice Sendak

Sendak himself said that he did not grow up in a happy home. His descriptions of his childhood and the atmosphere at home are characteristic of the stories of second-generation Holocaust survivors. Although his parents did not experience the horrors of the Holocaust first-hand, it was nevertheless a pervasive presence in his communal and family space in Jewish-Yiddish Brooklyn. Gloom was an integral part of his home life as a child, and he conveys this in his work.

In his books, he acknowledged the less agreeable parts of childhood and the cruelty and loneliness that can accompany it. “I refuse to lie to children,” he said. That is why, rather than beautifying reality, he chose to write also about the less pleasant experiences of childhood that would be familiar to every child. And perhaps this is precisely the secret of his success.

From Where the Wild Things Are

The clearest example of this is Sendak’s description of his inspiration for the famous wild creatures of Where the Wild Things Are:

“The wild things are my aunts, uncles and cousins who came from the old country, those few who got in before the gate closed, all on my mother’s side. These people didn’t speak English, only Yiddish. And they were unkempt. Their teeth were horrifying. They had hair unravelling out of their noses. And they’d pick you up and hug you and kiss you. ‘Aggghh. Oh, we could eat you up’, they’d say. And we knew they would eat anything. Anything.”

Sketch for Where the Wild Things Are, 1963. From: The Art of Maurice Sendak

The diasporic Jewish context permeated Sendak’s childhood. One tragic personal memory stands out: on the day of his Bar Mitzvah, his father received the terrible news that his entire family had perished [in the Holocaust]. Not a single relative remained alive. He collapsed on his bed and refused to get up. Thirteen-year-old Maurice walked into his father’s bedroom and screamed at him: “You gotta get up, you gotta get up!” And he did. The event took place as planned, but Sendak was left with terrible feelings of guilt for the way he behaved to his father.

In interviews later in his life, Sendak’s descriptions of his parents were unbearably harsh. “They should have been crazy,” he said. These were traumatized, angry people who lived miserable lives.

Sendak didn’t like school, and started drawing at a young age. His first works were very “Jewish.” The first book he illustrated was called Good Shabbos, Everybody, published in 1951 by the United Synagogue Commission on Jewish Education.

Another Jewish-themed work written and illustrated by Sendak was Chicken Soup with Rice—a lovely book that teaches toddlers about the months of the year, and describes how chicken soup—the traditional Jewish dish known as a cure for almost everything—is suitable for every month.

His parents did not particularly appreciate his work and were even disappointed when he took a job as an illustrator instead of going to university. However, a momentous reconciliation occurred when Sendak was asked to illustrate the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel Prize-winning writer. This was something his parents could be proud of.

Before starting work on the illustrations for Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories Maurice pulled out his parents’ family photo albums from Poland. Inside he found pictures of his father standing next to his tall handsome brothers and women with long hair adorned with flowers. He went through all the albums, selecting some of his father’s relatives and some of his mother’s, and drew them with great precision. His parents burst into tears when they saw the drawings and recognized their relatives. Maurice cried with them. He recalls this as a special moment in their relationship when they realized that thanks to him the memory of their beloved relatives had been made indelible in the book.

Maurice Sendak’s maternal grandparents. From the book The Art of Maurice Sendak

In a way, Sendak saw himself as a Holocaust survivor. He always remembered that he was alive by chance; that if his parents had not boarded the ship from Poland when they did, he would not be here. He and his older brother chose not to have children. “People always ask me,” he once said, “if I am so interested in children, why don’t I have children of my own. The answer is simple: I think I would be a failure as a parent. And I hate to fail. I had a very troubled childhood. As an adult I didn’t feel I had the right qualities to be a parent.”

Maurice Sendak passed away in 2012, at the age of 83. As a person who came from a Jewish-Yiddish background, his life was characterized not only by melancholy and a deep uncompromising desire to tell his truth, but also by a sharp sense of humor. An interview with Emma Brockes of The Guardian just a few months before his death captured his sarcastic wit: The reporter, arriving at his house in rural Connecticut, was greeted first by Sendak’s big German Shepherd named Herman (after Herman Melville).

When Sendak came out to meet her, he whispered to her: “He doesn’t know I’m Jewish”.

Life Inside the World’s First Ever Ghetto

In 1516, the Venetian Republic changed the course of Jewish world history by opening the first ever Jewish ghetto. Amidst deep persecution, segregation and humiliation, the oppressed Venetian Jews were somehow able to create a thriving society in their enclave, and soon Jews were even attempting to get inside!

Images of the Jewish Ghetto, Venice, 2011, Photographer: Vladimir Levin, Center for Jewish Art Collection, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

If you ever visit Venice, take the train to St. Lucia Railway Station, and cross the scenic bridge in front of you. Turn right onto the Fondamenta de la Misericordia and continue for a couple of minutes. Before long, you’ll start to smell the rich fusions of Jewish and Italian food wafting out of one of the Kosher restaurants. The smell of fried artichokes stuffed with meat and fragrant sardines mix with freshly baked challot and homemade humous, and if you continue to follow your nose into the Jewish quarter, you’ll notice that you’re in a part of Venice quite different from its surroundings. The second sign that you’re in the right place is that you will notice that you’re looking up a lot more – the buildings here are taller than almost any other area in Venice. You will also see how closely packed together they are, and on a rainy day you may even find yourself stranded as the small alleyways fill up with water.

Soon enough you’ll start to recognize various Jewish establishments: a glassblowing workshop carefully molding fragile shofars and chanukiahs, a sweet shop selling traditional Jewish Italian delicacies, a Jewish hotel, a Jewish cultural museum tracing the history of the Venetian Jewish people, and of course, sooner or later you will find at least one of the five remaining synagogues which still stand in the Jewish quarter.

Images of the Jewish Ghetto (1, 2, 3,) Venice, 2011, Photographer: Vladimir Levin, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

Looking at this busting, vibrant area, you may believe that Jewish life in Venice has always been successful, happy and thriving, and to an extent you would be right – but this prosperous history took place against a backdrop of deep antisemitism and segregation. The Venetian Republic at times did almost everything in its power to break down and wipe out the Jewish community of Venice, but it was in the face of this persecution that the Jews expressed the limits of human strength, as they found ways around the oppressive regime and built a society which was so fruitful that it actually grew, rather than diminished – not only were the Jews able to raise families in Venice, but new immigrants often applied to move in, seeking a better life! How this was possible from within the confines of a ghetto and deep antisemitic oppression is testimony to the resilience of these admirable Jews.

Jews have a long history in Italy, and in Venice in the early 16th century the community was thriving. Despite making up only 923 of the city’s 160,208-strong population (according to the 1555 census,) the Jews were overwhelmingly wealthy and controlled many businesses in the region. Most of them were merchants who made healthy profits, rousing their neighbors’ jealousy, and they of course practiced customs and rituals which many non-Jews could not understand, making them alien and strange in the eyes of their peers.

Hence, antisemitism continued to grow and the Jews were “othered” time and time again. Unsure of what to do with this strange segment of the population, the laws regarding Jews fluctuated regularly, alternatively banning their commerce, then realizing that the economy would struggle without said commerce and thus reinstating it; taking away their rights, then realizing that this made the Jews even more reclusive as a community until eventually the government just reinstated them; banning their religious practices, but then realizing that this simply drove their practices underground, making them harder to keep an eye on, so reverting this law too – it seems that no one knew what to do with the Jews!

Stone depictions of the struggles of Jews in the Venetian ghetto, 2011, Venice, Photographer: Vladimir Levin, Center for Jewish Art, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

No one, it seemed, aside from Doge Leonardo Loredan. Leonardo Loredan was born to a noble family in 1436 and became a talented statesman. In 1501 he was elected the 75th Doge of Venice, a position he held for 20 years. He was known for being fearsome and shrewd in matters of war, understanding the law in depth, partaking in an auspicious marriage, and fathering 9 children who also held important leadership roles. He was also the man who created the world’s first ever Jewish ghetto (it should be noted that there had been previous cases of Jews being confined to particular urban enclaves,  but the term “ghetto” was first associated with the Venice Jewish community).

On the 29th of March, 1516, Doge Leonardo Loredan sat down with his senators to discuss what to do about the Jews. This problem had been plaguing Venice for long enough and Leonardo Loredan was determined to be the one to solve it. After hours of intense conversation, they came up with a decree which was enacted immediately: the Jews would be totally and legally isolated from the rest of Venetian society.

With the backdrop of the Holocaust, we may be used to the idea of a ghetto, but in 1516 this was a completely new phenomenon which had never been attempted before. To start, one small area was designated for the Jews to live in. The idea was simple – the Republic of Venice would completely control the lives of the Jews in exchange for their right to practice their religion within the borders of this ghetto.

Images of the Jewish Ghetto (1, 2, 3,) Venice, 2011, Photographer: Vladimir Levin, Center for Jewish Art Collection, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

The first task was to pick a site. Today we know it as the Ghetto Vecchio (the Old Ghetto,) but back in the 1500s this area was just a small and unassuming part of town, best known for its cannon-making foundry. Molten metal was poured into a mold and formed into cannonballs for use in war. This was a dangerous and monotonous task, so the Doge figured that it was the exact sort of job that should be done by the Jews. Hence, the small Jewish enclave was to be built near the factory. Eventually, when the Ghetto Vecchio was deemed too small to hold all of the city’s Jews, the Ghetto Nuovo (New Ghetto) was also added to the site.

Located in the Cannaregio Sestiere of Venice (one of Venice’s six districts,) this area wasn’t only chosen for its foundry, but also for its bridges. The ghetto only had two bridges with which people could use to enter or leave, meaning that if they were closed, the entire ghetto could be essentially trapped inside. From 6pm each evening until St. Mark’s Campanile Belfry rang its largest bell (the Marangona) at 12pm the next day, the ghetto was closed-off entirely. No one could come in or out. Christian guards circled the ghetto on boats after dark, making sure that no Jew attempted to brave the canals and escape during the night. Any Jew who was found by the surrounding neighborhood’s surveillance teams outside of curfew would face harsh penalties including imprisonment and financial losses.

The ghetto was also closed off with high walls, and the surrounding quays were bricked-in to make coming or going virtually impossible without permission. The Christians who had previously lived in the area were moved out into the far superior homes and villages which once belonged to the Jews, and the ghetto became known as a dark and imposing place which locals would avoid at all cost.

Plaque commemorating prominent Jews of the Venice ghetto, 2011, Venice, Photographer: Vladimir Levin, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

The word “ghetto” has a number of possible origins. The word geto means foundry, which was the main factory in the area, but it’s also linked to the words gatwo (street,) borghetto (little town,) and gettare (to throw away unwanted items). Oxford University claims that these etymological theories are speculative at best, but Marcella Ansaldi, the Director of the Jewish Museum in Venice, agrees with the theory that the word ghetto comes from gettare, symbolic of the “throwing out” of the Jews from the rest of the city.

By the end of the year 1516, 700 Jews already inhabited the ghetto. The Jews were promised military protection and the freedom to practice their religion within the ghetto confines, but aside from that, the laws were harsh. Jews had to wear identification markers to alert others of their religion, their tax and rent was much higher than that of non-Jews, the living conditions were poor and cramped, and only a few jobs were available to them. Most Jews worked as moneylenders, doctors, traders and salesmen, but some were also forced to work in the pawnshops of Venice at low rates set by the government. Because Jews struggled to enter and exit the ghetto, many simply couldn’t find meaningful employment.

Jewish books printed in the Venetian ghetto:                                                          Fugger’s First Venetian Miscellany on Kabbalah, 1548, Scribe: Yaakov ben Yosef & David ben Moshe,
Venetian Biblical Commentaries, 1552, Scribe: Meir Yishai ben Yehiel,
Machzor, 1642,
Slichot, 1735,
Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

As time progressed, it also became difficult for their trade industry to continue, as foreign Jews were restricted from staying in the ghetto for work and trade from the year 1541. Only if government officials explicitly allowed a Jewish trader into Venice would they be permitted to attempt to find accommodation in the already overcrowded ghetto, but the terms of their stay were still limited to a few days and they could not bring any family members with them. That, therefore, was essentially the end of Jewish prosperity in Venice, at least for a little while. Most Jews went to work in the cannon factory or took up selling secondhand items and clothes to make a modest living.

However, as time went on, the community of Jews in the ghetto grew steadily. 100 years later they had reached a population of over 5000! This was not a mistake – Jews really did start trying to move into the ghetto! For all the struggles that the Jews had to endure, they started to find ways to excel at life, despite their confines. Working with what they had, they began opening butchers, bakeries, and shops which were popular with all locals, and money started entering the little quarter. Soon it became a market hub for Venice locals and visitors, and as Jews would only spend their own money inside the ghetto, there was a strong inflow and little outflow.

The tall buildings which housed far too many people grew even higher, making room for all the new immigrants. Today these buildings are in desperate need of restoration lest they collapse, and a few different local groups have set out to preserve the most important of them already.

This newfound Jewish money was used to build new and better infrastructure. Some of the most important constructions were the synagogues: The German Jews built their Scuola Grane Tedesca, the native Italians had their Scuola Italiana, the Spanish and Portuguese Jews formed the Scuola Spagnola, the Levantine Sephardim built the Scuola Levantina and the Ashkenazim erected the Scuola Canton.

Scuola Levantina in Venice (1, 2, 3,) 2011, Photographer: Vladimir Levin, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

Scuola Italiana in Venice (1, 2,) 2011, Photographer: Vladimir Levin, Center for Jewish Art Collection,  the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel
Scuola Canton in Venice, 2011, Photographer: Vladimir Levin, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel
Scuola Grande Tedesca in Venice, 2011, Photographer: Vladimir Levin, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel
Scuola Grande Spagnola in Venice, 2011, Photographer: Vladimir Levin, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

The Scuola Grane Tedesca, or the Great German Synagogue, was the first synagogue to be built in the ghetto, in 1528. It still exists today and appears to be a fairly traditional Ashkenazi synagogue, but now it is used as a museum, not a house of prayer. The second synagogue constructed was the Scuola Canton, just four years later. The Ashkenazim were increasingly noticing a rift between the Germanic and French Venetian cultures, so the French decided to break away and form their own community and build a new synagogue, the Scoula Canton, for the Provençal Jews, which would include French architecture and additions to the prayer service. Today this synagogue is also part of the Jewish Museum of Venice.

Next, the Scuola Italiana, or the Italian Synagogue, was built in 1575, to service the local-born Jews. The native Jews were not in the area because of trade or business but because of ancestry, and were therefore the poorest of the groups. Thus, it is the smallest of the synagogues, housing only 25 worshippers. Despite a lovingly-decorated interior, no money was left to enhance the synagogue’s façade, so it remains unremarkable as a building, and blends into its surroundings.

Constructed only 5 years later, the Scuola Spagnola, the Spanish synagogue, was home to the Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in the 1490s. Constructed so shortly after the Scuola Italiana, the Spanish Jews wanted to behave according to local customs, so followed the lead of the Italians and only decorated the inside of the Synagogue, leaving its exterior bare and unremarkable. This synagogue still functions as a house of worship between the start of Passover and the end of Sukkot each year.

In 1541, the Venetian government came to an arrangement with some Levantine merchants who had also originally fled Spain. The Venetian government allowed them to live and trade in the ghetto, and so it was that in 1689 they opened the Scuola Levantina – the first synagogue to be built from scratch and not in a pre-existing building. They wanted it to be larger than the Spanish synagogue and couldn’t find a building that would fit the bill, so they constructed their own!

Between all these communities, the ghetto Jews spoke Venetian, Italian (yes, it’s different to Venetian,) Judeo-Spanish, French, German, and Hebrew, which was the language used in traditional Jewish documents such as Kettubot.

As commerce grew, books, and especially religious books, began to emerge from the ghetto. Soon enough, printing presses were set up to print books in Hebrew, Ladino, and Yiddish, and many famous works were produced from within the ghetto, such as the 1609 Venice Haggadah which is one of the most famous Haggadot in the world. The first press-printed edition of the Talmud, the Bomberg Talmud, was also produced in Venice at this time, instantly becoming a best seller and taking the Jewish world by storm. The riveting story of this Talmud can be found here.

Venice Haggadah of 1609 (1, 2, 3, 4,) Folios, Printer: Israel ha-Zifroni of Guastalla, CJA,  Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

Venice Haggadah of 1599, Fol. 2, Printers: Shlomo Hayyim and his son Avraham, CJA, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

So it was that the Jewish ghetto in Venice grew to become well-known around the world, and increasing pressure was put on the Venetian government to dissolve the harsh rules that governed the ghetto, but these pleas fell on deaf ears. Finally, in 1797 after more than 250 years, Napoleon and the French Army of Italy captured Venice and commanded the Venetian Republic to disband. Two months later, on the 11th of July, 1797, the ghetto finally opened its borders and shed its laws of discrimination.

Napoleon declared that Jews would be treated as equals, and Venice would no longer be allowed to operate under a system of segregation. The ghetto was renamed Contrada dell’unione (The Union District) to represent their reunion with the rest of Venice, but many Jews remained in the district, although under happier circumstances.

Today, the former ghetto still represents the Jewish Quarter of Venice, and it is a hub for religious life in the city. Around 450 Jews live in Venice today but only about 30 of these Jews (around 12 Jewish households), still live in the ghetto area, due to the fact that it’s a very expensive zone.

All 5 synagogues still remain standing, and the 3 central ones are bordered by a Jewish Museum which explains the history of Jewish Venice. Today’s religious Jews tend to worship at the Levantine Synagogue in the winter as it’s the only synagogue with central heating, but they use the Spanish Synagogue in summer as it has a nice breeze. All 5 synagogues host religious lessons, Talmud classes, children’s Jewish studies, courses in Hebrew, and other events. There is also a Jewish kindergarten, yeshiva, Judaica stores, and old age home in the area of the Old Ghetto.

Jewish items from the Venice ghetto:                                Torah Amulet, 1700s,
Torah Coronet, 1600s,
Torah Crown, 1755,
Book binding, 1550, Yishai ben Yehiel, Yaakov ben Yosef, Itzhak ben Elijahu Manosh,
Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

Each year thousands of visitors, both Jewish and not, come to see the ghetto, attend the International Conference on Hebrew Studies held there, or join one of the other Jewish conferences, exhibitions and seminars which also take place in Venice at different points during the year. The floating canal-boat sukkah and floating chanukiah also attract crowds of tourists at the appropriate Jewish festivals.

Unfortunately, rising water levels and lack of proper construction means that many of the buildings in the ghetto are falling to ruin, but renovations are beginning to occur, and as Jewish infrastructure once again offers good job opportunities, Jewish families are slowly beginning to move back into the area.

After 500 years, it is hard to know exactly what life must have been like for the Jews living in the world’s first ghetto, but of some things we can be certain: the Venetian government did all it could to take away the rights and freedoms of the Jews in Venice, subjecting them to harsh discrimination, unfair rules, financial hardships, and restricting their freedom of movement. Yet, even in the face of this, the Jews decided that they would not be trampled on and they continued to stand strong, making the best of a very bad situation. They not only got through the period with dignity and grace, but they also managed to do so with financial success, a growing community, new and exciting places of worship and infrastructure, and success on all terms. If there’s a lesson to learn here, it’s that even in the face of antisemitism and adversity, Jews can, and will, rise up time and time again.