Guided Ferrara Highlights Walking Tour
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Ferrara is the only city in the Emilia Romagna region that has had a Jewish presence from 1088 to today. The acceptance of the Este family, who ran the city for centuries, was critical. They encouraged Jews, like those forced out of Spain due to the Inquisition, to settle there. A progressive attitude for this time, albeit one influenced by self-interest.
If Ferrara was to grow and flourish, they needed moneylenders, a job Catholics were banned from doing. And the town also needed talented professionals in commerce and medicine, something their Jewish citizens provided. Ferrara prospered with them, and the Jewish population grew to about 2,000 people in the town, with 10 synagogues.
Unfortunately, after Alfonso, the fifth (and last) Duke of Ferrara, died in 1597 without a male heir, the Catholic Church took over the town. They treated the Jews in Ferrara badly. When what remained of the Este dynasty decamped to Modena in 1626, about half of Ferrara's Jews left with them. The remaining Jews were condemned to a ghetto in town that they had to pay for constructing, and guarded with gates around the streets. The five gates had locks that were opened at sunrise, so the Jews could work around the city, and closed at sunset, when they were forced back into the ghetto after the workday.
While the papacy and its laws were cruel to the Jews, the local population had much fonder feelings for them, making life a little easier. Finally, in 1859, when Italy was unified, Jews were treated as full citizens and the ghetto was closed. However, that freedom was short-lived. Over 200 Ferrara Jews perished in the Holocaust. Today, there are only about 70 Jews left here. But the Jewish ghetto is an important part of this GoBe tour, showing the lives they led, with historical markers on buildings telling the story.
Ferrara's favorite son
One of the Ferrara Jews who survived the Holocaust was author Giorgio Bassini. He was part of the anti-Fascist Resistance in Italy, and in 1943 he was arrested, then freed. He fled to Florence, and then Rome, and was in hiding for the rest of World War II. Bassini survived and became a beloved author. His most famous book was The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, a novel about Ferrara Jews during that era that became a classic Vittorio De Sica movie that won Best Foreign Film at the 1971 Academy Awards. To bring things full circle, Bassini is buried in the Jewish cemetery that is part of Ferrara's Jewish ghetto.
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