Emilia Romagna, with cities like Bologna, Parma and Modena, offers more than just the products that share the names of these famous destinations! Here we find a wide variety of cultural landmarks, historic centers, and fascinating sites with a Jewish historical focus.
The Jewish museum in Bologna highlights the Jewish cultural revival in the area. Parma's Biblioteca Palatina is home to the largest collection of Hebrew manuscripts in Italy, and the second largest in the world after the Bodleian library in Oxford! Modena's Jewish cemetery is the final resting place for Pio Donati, whose tomb faces his longtime anti-fascist friend, Francesco Ferrari, whose tomb in the Catholic section of the cemetery is visible through glass bricks placed in the wall dividing the two burial sites. Other cities of interest in Emilia Romagna include Soragna for its synagogue and museum which date back to 1584; the ghetto area of Ferrara which has remained intact and is a bustling pedestrian center complete with shops and historical markers. Reggio Emilia is famous for its 17th century synagogue and its school for Jewish studies. In Carpi and Fossoli we find the site of the one-time Fossoli deportation camp where Primo Levi spent time, and which is now a public park dedicated to victims of the Holocaust.
As the cities of Emilia Romagna had different political situations before the unification of Italy, each has its own unique historical flavor. While Jewish people have been present here since the 1200’s, their history varies greatly according to the particular political and social climate of the areas in which they lived. The states of Parma (provinces of Parma and Piacenza) had a much different history, for example, than the Estense states which included the provinces of Modena, Reggio Emilia, Ferrara, and different still was the territory controlled by the Church and included Bologna, Romagna, and Ferrara starting in 1598.
Jews in the Duchy of Milan-ruled Parma were from Southern Italy and Germany who arrived in the early 1400's and worked as moneylenders in the rural centers of Parma and Piacenza. The Jews of Modena, Reggio Emilia, and Ferrara had a common history for centuries under the Este family, sovereigns known for their tolerance and artistic patronage, which drew Jews from Romagna and Veneto as well as others fleeing the Iberian Peninsula after 1492. In 1598 Ferrara was annexed to the Papal states and the Este family relocated to Modena, followed by many Jews. The regions of Bologna and Romagna were Papal states where Jews lived until 1593 when the church expelled them from Bologna and forced other cities to establish ghettos which imposed a greater or lesser degree of restrictions on the Jews who were forced to live there, depending on the region. Today Jewish presence and history can be discovered in all of these cities, where Jewish tours offer an interesting insight into the stories of the Jews who once lived in these areas as well as the current activities in the community.