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Trieste (Italy): its ghetto and Jewish heritage

Birgit Stegbauer

 

The ghetto is something like the Notting Hill of Trieste: The small, densely built area between piazza Borsa, piazza Unità and the Roman-antique theatre with its numerous antiques stores, antiquarian bookshops, second hand shops and hip bars is no longer an insider’s tip and one of my favorite spots in the Adriatic city.

It was a mere chance that one of my strolls through Trieste first led me to the former ghetto. There was this seemingly inconspicuous gate, which lured me away from the busy piazza Borsa in downtown Trieste; I had hardly stepped out of the dark passage, when felt like Alice in Wonderland. What I encountered was a different world, dim and narrow and every building housed other relics from past times. There were antiquarian bookshops, antique shops, workshops for the restoration of furniture and secondhand shops. In short, a paradise for those who love searching for hidden treasures. Mercifully, at that time I had no plastic money, or else I would have spent up to my credit card limit during my university exchange program period. That was in 1989/1990. Since then Trieste has undergone huge transformations and the transformations didn’t stop at the gates of the ghetto. Little by little hip cafés and bars replaced the shops, adding color, light and music to the ghetto. Historical-dusty now meets the ultramodern, which I, at the moment, see as an enrichment. A must for every visit to Trieste!


The location of the Jewish ghetto amidst the commercial, financial heart of Trieste is due to the economic significance of the Jewish community for the city. This notwithstanding, between 1698 and 1784 Trieste’s Jewish population was huddled into a small area of the Riborgo, surrounded by high walls, and whose three gates, guarded by Christians, were closed at dawn. By then, about 100 Jews may have lived in the ghetto and a first Talmud school was opened. Even after the abolition of the ghetto in 1784, many of Trieste’s Jewish families remained in the ghetto and two more Talmud schools were founded within its walls. Around 1900 the Jewish community of Trieste had grown to an estimated 5,000. 1912 saw the festive inauguration of the synagogue in via San Francesco - one of the biggest in Europe.


Religious tolerance had had its day when in 1938 the fascist Mussolini regime brought in the Race Laws, announced by the Duce himself on piazza Unità only a few steps from the former ghetto. The death sentence for Trieste’s Jewish community, however, came during the period of Trieste’s German occupation, from fall 1943 onward. Italy’s only concentration camp was established here in Trieste: the Risiera di San Sabba. For the Jewish population of Trieste it became a transit camp on the way to the Final Solution; only 400-500 of Trieste’s Jewish citizens survived the Shoa. Today, the reopened synagogue has about 600 registered members.

 

For information on the ghetto, the museum, synagogue and the Risiera di San Sabba concentration camp please click here (in Italian).

 

 

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