Pictured is an archway leading to the Jewish quarter in Pézénas, a town in southern France. Above the arch is a sign saying “The Ghetto, XIV century.” Though the Jews in Pézénas generally lived a quiet life, the gate to their neighbourhood was locked at night. This is just one example of many European towns and cities that created ghettos and Jewish quarters to separate the Jews from the rest of the population. Despite the wording on the sign, the word “ghetto” was not used to describe segregated Jewish areas until much later.
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Pézénas – Pézénas is a small town in the south of France, 60 kilometres from Montpellier. As with many southern French towns, Pézénas had a large Jewish population in the thirteenth century with many immigrants from Spain, Portugal, and Italy. The Jews lived in a Jewish quarter that was kept closed at nights. It spread over two streets: Rue de la Juiverie and Rue des Litanies. Jewish emblems can still be seen on some of the houses there today, while stones from the ancient synagogue can be seen in the cloister of the St. Nazaire Cathedral in Béziers. The expulsion of Jews from France began in 1394, but Pézénas was one of the last towns to enact the King’s proclamation.
The Jewish Community of France – Jews have lived in France since the early Middle Ages and possibly even earlier. In the Middle Ages Jews lived principally in the south of France, in the capital, Paris, and in the eastern town of Alsace and were often merchants and moneylenders. France was a centre of Jewish learning in the Middle Ages and famous Jewish sages, such as Rashi, lived in France. As in other European countries, the Jews in France suffered from persecution, expulsions, and pogroms such as the crusades. They lived in separate quarters, often close to the castle or church that sometimes gave them protection in return for loans. France was the first European country to give equal rights to the Jews; nonetheless, anti-Semitism continued even to the end of the nineteenth century as demonstrated by the Dreyfus Affair. At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, many Eastern European Jews immigrated to France. These Jews were the first to be persecuted in France during the Second World War in both the Occupied Zone and the areas under the Vichy regime. Many of these foreign Jews were deported to concentration camps, to be accompanied later by their French bretheren. One quarter of the Jewish population of France was murdered during the Holocaust. Today, the Jewish community of France is the largest in Europe and the third largest in the world, after Israel and the United States. The majority of the Jewish community today is of North African origin, as many of the original Ashkenazi Jews were killed in the Holocaust, emigrated to Israel and other countries, or assimilated into the general population.
Ghetto – The first ghetto was established in Venice in 1516. The name is thought to originate from the “getto” (foundry) that was found near to the site of the Jewish quarter in Venice. Since this time, the word ghetto has been used to describe the segregated part of a town in which the Jews were forced to live and often prevented from leaving. Most Jewish ghettos were very crowded with difficult living conditions. Around many ghettos stood walls that were closed from the inside to protect the community during pogroms, but they also were used to prevent Jews from reaching Christian areas at certain times. Some famous (or infamous) ghettos and Jewish quarters include Josefov in Prague, Le Marais in Paris, Jodenbreestraat in Amsterdam, Kazimierz in Krakow, and Judengasse in Frankfurt. In the nineteenth century, Jewish ghettos were gradually abolished and their walls taken down. In the twentieth century the word ghetto was used to describe the areas in which the Nazis confined Jews during the Second World War. These twentieth-century ghettos were in effect prisons, and due to the horrendous living conditions, many died of starvation and disease. The ghettos were one stage in the Nazi’s Final Solution; from there, the Jews were rounded up and sent to the death camps.