Ferrara is rich with a Jewish history that dates back to the middle ages. Visitors can appreciate the countless landmarks that pay tribute to this heritage firsthand. The Ghetto area has remained intact both in look and layout throughout various restorations and is now a pedestrian area complete with historical markers and boutiques. The area where the Jewish population once lived has never lost the commercial character it had since its inception and remains a pleasant place to meet up, look around, learn, and shop.
The Historic Community Building in Ferrara was built as early as 1481 (and possibly earlier) and is another important stop on this Jewish itinerary. It was the site of the city's first synagogue, at 95 Via Mazzini. The building currently houses synagogues, community offices, a prayer room, and a museum which narrates the cycle of life, houses historically significant objects like the keys to the ghetto, as well as sacred objects. Most importantly, the museum tells the story of the community from the establishment of the ghetto, through the French occupation, to the unification of Italy, and celebrates the Jewish contribution to literature. The city's Addizione Erculea Jewish cemetery goes back to the 15th century and is the final resting place for writer Giorgio Bassani.
Jewish history in Ferrara starts in the Middle Ages when Jews generally lived in the area behind the cathedral where the ghetto was eventually established, and was characterized by a peaceful existence under the Duchy of Este who welcomed waves of Jewish immigration from Spain in 1492 due to the Inquisition and the expulsion of Jews from Eastern Europe after 1532. The community numbered more than 2,000 at one time. The Dukes gave Jews the right to practice different professions and commercial activities besides the traditional money-lending role normally permitted them. For this reason the Jewish community contributed greatly to the overall cultural development of the city. There is a deeply rooted history here for Sephardic Jews who helped dozens of Sephardim escape from the Iberian peninsula to find refuge in Ferrara.
In 1597 when Duke Alfonso died leaving no heirs, Ferrara became a Papal state. In 1627 the ghetto was established, although it took three years to decide where it would be located and met with much resistance from the Jewish community. Five gates closed in the ghetto, and are marked on a historic map of the city dating from 1782.
Over the 18th and 19th centuries and the rise and fall of several governments, Jewish rights were constantly being taken away and/or given back. The gates of the ghetto were even removed only to be put back up again by a later regime.
After the unification of Italy, Jews were once again intensely involved in city life. In 1938, racial laws shocked the community by declaring Jews as second-class citizens. In 1944 the German synagogue was destroyed and between 1943 and 1945, 96 Jews from Ferrara were deported to concentration camps. The community was devastated by these developments. Today, the community numbers around 80 people.