The city of Modena offers visitors the chance to discover the secrets of its Jewish past. Although the Jewish ghetto was almost completely transformed in 1903, hints of it remain for visitors with a keen eye including the original hinges of one of the four gates which closed off the neighborhood and a street of low houses that have kept their original medieval structure.
Also worth a visit, the recently restored emancipation synagogue was built in 1869 and opened in 1873. The large Italian rite synagogue is currently used for major festivities while everyday prayers are conducted in the German rite oratory which is located in the same building.
For further exploration of Modena's Jewish roots, the Este library houses important Hebrew manuscripts, 11 of which were acquired by the Duke of Este in 1573. There is also a collection of Ketubot, scrolls from the Book of Esther, as well as antique books. Finally, the Jewish cemetery has its own curiosity as the final resting place of Pio Donati. His anti-fascist friend, Francesco Ferrari, is buried in the Catholic section of the cemetery. The bodies of the two men, who were exiled together during the war, were returned to Italy on the 20th anniversary of the liberation. Glass bricks replace the original brick wall separating the two sections allowing both tombs to be seen from either side. Tombstones from earlier Jewish cemeteries were moved and can be found in the community's current cemetery as well.
Jewish presence in Modena starts in the 15th century under the Dukes of Este, who provided a long period of peace where Jews were allowed to participate in different professions and activities. In the 17th century, the community grew when the Modenese community was joined by Jews from Ferrara who left after the Este Court was forced to leave the city and it became a Papal state. In 1638, under pressure from the church, the ghetto in Modena was established. It was made up of 35 buildings and displaced the 395 Christians who lived in the area. As per church requirements for the ghetto, all doors and windows looking out onto the street were bricked up. The move to the ghetto was followed by a period of poverty for the Jewish community. In spite of this, three synagogues (Italian, German, and Spanish rites) continued to function and the ghetto of Modena eventually became a hub for Hebrew and Kabalistic studies, which attracted scholars from all over the Diaspora. Co-existence with local non-Jews contributed to the formation of a now-extinct dialect called Modenese-Jewish.
In 1797 the gates of the ghetto were pulled down by the French, and then put up again when the monarchy was restored. The ghetto was finally abolished in 1859. Following the establishment of racial laws in 1938, Publisher Angelo Fortunato Formiggine threw himself off of the Tower of Ghirlandia in protest of Fascist discrimination against Jews. In total, 16 Modenese were deported to concentration camps during the World War II years.