Monuments to the Past
Updated: Jun 26, 2020
The other day, while writing, the idea of deserted neighborhoods, cities came to mind. What Constantinople in 1453, Thessaloniki in 1430 and other besieged cities must have been like in the aftermath of conquest. Imagine returning to what had been your home, only to find rubble. Only phantom memories flitting through the mind’s eye, or as far as the mind will want to journey. And then there are quarters within a city that remain monuments to misery not necessarily that of physical destruction but destruction of the spirit, the psyche.
And so, my mind wandered to almost twenty years past and what I saw in Venice. It was evening and my daughter and I were to meet friends in the Ghetto of that city, the first place to have that name, the word meaning foundry, for it was on the old foundry that the first Ghetto was built. For centuries, Jews were allowed out only during the day to earn a living, to return at sunset, to cross one of two bridges, obeying a curfew, forcing, separating them by man-made laws laid by those from the very life of the city in which they lived by day.
That evening, I fell witness to the eeriness of the locale, the sinister buildings, tall, lackluster, skyscrapers of sorts. This the original Ghetto! What a contrast to the beauty of the rest of the city, these “skyscrapers”, well, tall for the times when built, that housed families within cramped spaces. If I closed my eyes, and gave free rein to my imagination, I could hear the voices emanating from those windows, babies wailing, families calling out to one another, children yelling, and the hushed Friday evenings, mothers lighting the Shabbat candles.
What a contrast to the other quarters of the city, gaiety in the streets, people enjoying the night air, on their way to dinners, parties. What a contrast to those gracious façades one is accustomed to seeing in Venice. In the Ghetto the atmosphere was oppressive, reminiscent of a huge prison, with the exception of the windows resembling dark, blank, somber, sad, mournful eyes. The suffocating emptiness that continues to haunt over the centuries. But the sadness of having to live in such a confined space, of being locked in every night: this mournful ambiance is what struck me, remains with me even now after so many years. Was I carried away by thoughts of Shylock, of European ghettos, Warsaw, WWII? Probably. There are so many ghettos remaining all over the world, not just within our collective memory but within our view every day. Today they are ghettos for the poor, the oppressed of all ethnicities......
But for all its gaiety, beauty, magnificence, every street being a little museum come to life, Venice at night, in some way, struck me as a city of ghosts, especially that night as we sat on the vaporetto taking us back to Vittoria’s apartment. The meandering ride, stopping here and there, offered me the opportunity to peek into the palazzos that look so different at night, monuments to the past. Through the dark, the outline of large windows, empty, staring eyes, remnants of a eras long lost, crept into this beholder’s soul, a sadness, yet at the same time a joy of what must have been, of what may still be within the confines of those walls to which I wasn't not privy – my loss.
La Serenissima: font of old civilization; wealthy in the pageantry of life; home to contrasts and contradictions; monument to the joy and sadness life offers; not destroyed.