THE HUMAN SPIRIT:The mysterious ghetto

A note on a tourist website in Italian suggests that because there is no documentation of Jews living there, “ghetto” may be a corruption of the Italian borghetto, “a settlement outside city walls.

VIEW IN the Abruzzo area, Italy, last year.  (photo credit: SIEGFRIED MODOLA/REUTERS)
VIEW IN the Abruzzo area, Italy, last year.
The Internet has my number.
We’re vacationing on Italy’s Adriatic coast, seeking an outdoor market – the equivalent of the ubiquitous Ramle-Lod markets at home. Outside the major cities in Italy, these traveling morning bazaars aimed at locals, not tourists, feature rustic tablecloths decorated with bright sunflowers, gadgets for slicing watermelons, and racks of printed dresses. Stalls offer strings of red garlic and fagioli, the local green bean. Homegrown tomatoes come in every shape and size, from marbles to softballs. But the Big Brother search engine knows who is asking for a market schedule. No secrets on the Web. If I’m already touring in the region of Abruzzo, wouldn’t I like to visit “The Jewish Ghetto of Città Sant’Angelo”? Twenty minutes away! Who could have imagined there was once a Jewish ghetto here? This Italian-only speaking part of Europe feels so, well, un-Jewish.
We’ve heard that Jewish summer hotels once proliferated here, but that was a long time ago. Even the owner of one called Ester Safer claims there’s no Jewish connection and never was.
The “Jewish Ghetto of Città Sant’Angelo” is set off in a box on the right side of the computer screen, but there’s no background information.
My husband and I drive up the winding hillsides from the coast to Città Sant’Angelo. This grapevine-lined trail is included in a book called The 50 Greatest Bike Rides of the World. Amicably situated between the teal sea and the rugged hills of the Apennines, this town offers breathtaking panoramas, monasteries and palazzi. But it’s Jewish history, not scenery, we’ve come for today.
“Ghetto strada” plugged into the rental car navigation system takes us to an area enclosed with very old stone buildings, a walled old city. There’s an ancient-looking brick wall and a heavy gate. Voila! But how old? We ask an older couple outside their apartment on the cobbled street. “No ghetto,” says the man, shaking his head.
“No ghetto.”
We review Italian history. The Venetian Ghetto (the first “ghetto” referred to by that name) was instituted in 1516, though political restrictions on Jewish rights and residences existed before then. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council decided that Jews had to live in separate quarters and wear special insignia: Men wore red or yellow hats and a cloth badge on their coats; women had yellow veils over their hats.
In 1239 Città Sant’Angelo was destroyed by Frederic II, an opponent of Pope Gregorio IX, who was popular here. Gregorio IX was relatively good to the Jews for a medieval pope, even though he enacted canonical laws that maintained the Jews’ separate status.
Ghetto Street is within the area reconstructed in 1240 in the fortified and semicircular part of town.
More clues. A modern source says ghettoization on the Adriatic took place in the 1630s, but doesn’t explain why. Città Sant’Angelo isn’t mentioned. Nor does the city’s tourist brochure mention Jews while outlining the vicissitudes of the town’s long history, from pre-Roman to the present. There’s a question whether the name Angelo precedes the Christian era, called after angulum, blocks of houses belonging to the Italic tribe Vestini.
Today, the picturesque old town has become a trendy art and foodie venue.
The stone homes are being renovated by fashionable millennials. A young leather- bag designer who rides a motorcycle shakes his head. He’s never heard of a ghetto here.
A World War II ghetto? Not far away is the Gran Sasso mountain, where Mussolini was imprisoned from August until September 1943, when Nazi commandos freed him. A Holocaust memoir, by Dr. Lucia Bedarida in the 2002 The Most Ancient of Minorities: The Jews of Italy, says hers was the only Jewish family in her city in Abruzzo, presumably Pescara, the town neighboring Città Sant’Angelo. A quick query to our friend Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff confirms there was no Holocaust ghetto.
A note on a tourist website in Italian suggests that because there is no documentation of Jews living there, “ghetto” may be a corruption of the Italian borghetto, “a settlement outside city walls,” which would make the advertisement for the Jewish Ghetto of Città Sant’Angelo fake news. But then again, the street is well within the city walls. The mystery remains.
My now obsessive searches keep turning up a “ghetto” in the nearby town of Montesilvano. But here, “ghetto” has the modern American meaning, and refers to the streets crowded with new immigrants from Africa, the boat people who arrive on illegal, rickety ships.
Speaking of which, we’ve met many of these young men on the family beach where we read under our rented umbrella.
No burkinis, but three white-robed nuns walk barefoot along the water’s edge. The peddlers with carts and plastic sacks hawk leather bags and bathing suits, sunglasses and (oddly) winter coats. They’re mostly from Senegal and Bangladesh – Italy has the second-largest Bangladeshi community in Europe, after Britain. A few are from Morocco. All Muslim, on Friday morning they are conspicuously absent.
I’m a conspicuously good customer, and am often asked where I’m from. I shrug or say “America.” I’ve peeled the Hebrew stickers off my books, and make sure no one can see I’m reading Amos Oz’s Judas and Mosab Hassan Yousef’s Son of Hamas. Why advertise that umbrella 258 is occupied by grandparents of the Zionist persuasion? Sometimes a little mystery goes a long way. 
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.