The term “ghetto” has a sad connotation in Jewish history and a very negative association when referring to certain poor urban areas. The term’s etymology, however, originates from a distinct area within the Italian city of Venice where the Jewish population was relegated. Linguists have not come to a consensus on the word ghetto’s etymology. The most popular theory suggests that it comes from the Venetian word for “foundry,” as the original ghetto in Venice was built where a factory had been situated that manufactured weapons for the Venetian government. Others claim it’s related to the Hebrew word “Get,” or Jewish bill of divorce, or separation. Others claim it comes from the Yiddish word “gehektes,” meaning enclosed. Still other suggested derivations include the Latin “giudaicetum,” the Italian word “borghetto,” which means little town, or the Old French word “guect,” meaning to guard.

While some ghettos in Europe served to force a separation of the Jews, who were considered alien from the general populace, others were created to serve as Jewish population centers, and may have even been affluent neighborhoods with high concentrations of Jews.

The first “ghetto” was established in Venice on the 8th of Iyar, 1516, corresponding to April 10. This was followed by Pope Paul IV’s papal edict of February 27, 1562, Cum nimis absurdum, which implemented harsh restrictions on Jewish life in Renaissance Italy. As a result of the papal edict, Jews had to wear a yellow badge as a means of religious/ethnic identification, and limits were placed on Jewish ownership of property, commerce and banking. Jews were also restricted from selling items vital to life (i.e. food). As a result, Jews moved away from money-lending and banking, and began working as retailers of secondhand goods, such as pawn shop owners.

In addition to the term “ghetto,” Jews also concentrated in areas known as “Jewish quarters.” Often these were extensions of the ghettos, and were located in the least desirable part of the city. Ghettos and Jewish Quarters existed in most large European cities (there were dozens), in addition to sectioned off areas in Africa (Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia), Asia and the Middle East (China, India, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Syria) and the Americas (Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, the United States and Canada).

Prior to, and during, World War II, the “Third Reich” established ghettos for the most notorious of reasons. In the ghettos, Jews were separated into able workers and those unable to work, who would be murdered. In 1942 the Nazis initiated Operation Reinhard, which forced Jews into ghettos (not always set up in the traditional area where Jews lived), and functioned as staging areas for the eventual deportation to death camps.

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