Bologna holds sway as Europe’s premier university town, an honor gained with Jewish involvement. As far back as 1466, Bologna University established a chair of Hebrew.
Like most of Italy’s Jews, however, the Bolognese were herded into a ghetto after the egregious papal bull of 1555, only to be expelled altogether from the city 38 years later. They fanned out to three ghettos in the region: Cento, Lugo and Ferrara, where the reigning noble family, the Estes, offered some breathing room to their Jewish citizens until a papal takeover in 1627 made the vise tighten once again. In the ghettos, church authorities locked the gates each night and curbed Jewish contact with the Christian world to a few trades: medicine, money lending, and selling rags. Not until Napoleon marched, albeit briefly, into Bologna in 1796, could area Jews breathe freely again. Full emancipation had to wait until the city’s uprising against papal rule in 1859.
The dark curtain of oppression descended once more with imposition of the 1938 Racial Laws.
A Bolognese attorney, who like so many others, was expelled from his profession, took up the cause of Jewish refugees. Mario Finzi helped organize the care and education of 100 Jewish orphans in nearby Nonantola. All but one of the children made it through the war, with the aid of local citizens, but Finzi died in Auschwitz.
Municipal leaders in Bologna joined forces with the Jewish community and local scholars to create their own Jewish historical museum. Launched in 1999, the institution stands inside the city’s former ghetto.