On July 14th 1555, Pope Paul IV issued his infamous Papal Bull, “Cum Nimis Absurdum/As it is utterly Absurd… that the Jews through their own fault are punished by G-d.” In it, a series of restrictions and prohibitions were applied to the Jews in all lands, regarding employment, the printing of Jewish books, etc. Yet the most infamous and callous of them all was the fact that, henceforth, all Jews were to be confined to restricted living quarters separate from the rest of the population.
These quarters eventually became known as “ghettos.” The idea started in Italy, but eventually spread all over Europe, even in non-Catholic countries, such as Germany. One of the most notorious of ghettos, in Frankfurt, Germany, was known as the Judengasse. Some three thousand Jews were forced to live on a street containing about 200 apartments. Needless to say, the ghettos became spheres of squalor and disease (especially in the age before modern plumbing), and yet the Jews bore their burdens admirably, with grace and resolve. At least they could practice their religion relatively unmolested.
Eventually, most of these confines of calamity and misfortune were eventually liberated with the coming of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. By the mid-1800s, most of the ghetto walls were torn down. The last official European ghetto was the infamous Rome Ghetto which finally was abolished on the eve of the twentieth century, in 1888.
However, there was one short beautiful moment in history, in which the liberation of the ghettos became an overnight reality, if only ever so briefly. In 1789, Napoleon Bonaparte introduced into law his famous Declaration of the Rights of Man, liberating all minorities from persecution, and maltreatment. In his famous march of liberation through Europe, Napoleon made sure that everywhere he found a ghetto, its walls would come tumbling down!
In a preserved legend of the time, Napoleon entered the ghetto in the famous city of Casale, Monferrato, in Northern Italy. Unlike in other similar occasions, he was met by a silent, almost indifferent Jewish community. In disbelief, he entered the local synagogue and saw that the entire congregation was seated on the floor, wearing garments of mourning. He announced to the crowd that they should rejoice, that he had liberated them. Still silence. Finally, the Rabbi approached the great General and explained that today was Tisha B’Av, and we were mourning the destruction of our Temple. Napoleon was shocked, “Who would dare do such a thing! Tell me who is responsible and they will be severely punished!”
The Rabbi explained that no, the Temple in question was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 C.E., yet we still cry. Napoleon finally understood and told the Rabbi that a people who still mourns a loss of almost 2000 years is a people which never loses hope. “If G-d grants me the strength, I will restore your temple for you.” The Rabbi thanked Napoleon, and blessed him with “G-d’s Good Part,” a reference to the Temple as it is referred to in the Torah, as well as a reference to his last name “Bona Parte!”