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Hebrew Presence in Istria
The Hebrew presence in Istria
A glimpse of a story that should not  be forgotten
Names, places, episodes re-emerge from the past.
by Graziella Semacchi Gliubich

rabi-s.jpg (31874 bytes)The history of the Hebrew people covers a very long period, perhaps the longest among the histories of all peoples.  It began with Abraham, when he left his country and family to go towards the Promised Land, but this search is not its unique characteristic throughout the centuries, rather it is the fact that the Hebrews successfully preserved their self-sufficiency while in contact with the great spiritual movements as Christianity, Mohammedanism, the Aristotelic and Scholastic philosophies, the science of the Middle Ages, Humanism, the Renaissance, the Reform, and the French Revolution.

The Hebrew history developed in parallel with the history of all the Mediterranean world while preserving its own autonomy.

Istria  - XII  and  XIII Century

Omitting the complex episodes of the painful peregrinations of this people endowed with an indomitable will to survive, as proven even in recent times, let's attempt to reconstruct the aspects connected with its presence in Istria, as evidenced  by documents as far back as the XIV century.

The financial situation of the Istrian peninsula, in the XII and XIII centuries, was not the best, and to provide for the needs of  commerce and the people, it was common to depend on the services of money-lenders originating from other countries, primarily Tuscan merchants who had arrived as expelled Ghibellins ("Ghibellini") after 1286. They, having become more and more expensive, caused a general discontent (they were compelled to  return the "stromenti di mutuo" (lending permits) and accordingly chased away. They were replaced by Jewish "feneratori" Tedeschi (from the Austria region).

"Fenerare" then meant to lend money for a profit ("usura") at a preestablished interest rate and not an extremely high interest rate, as it happened later. Today's "Istituti di Credito e Monti di Pieta`" (Institutes of Credit, and Pawn Shops) were then called "Banchi feneratizi".

Many Jewish people from the Diaspora, once they had arrived in Europe, practiced this lending activity which was one of the few they were allowed to perform. For instance, they were forbidden to practice "free professions," except as physicians, they could not become soldiers, they were rarely allowed to become real state owners, but they could lend money at "usura" (usury), a word which, in those times, simply meant "at a normal interest rate." The Church would then forbid its members to "fenerare," according to the evangelical exhortation not to extort interest, reinforced in various Church Councils with the "decretali" (decrees), and with numerous canonical instructions. The Church would not forbid the Jews to "fenerare" as they could not be saved.

To charge interest, in the Middle Ages was, more or less, equivalent to being awarded the title to a public office. This fact improved the social position of a Jew by guaranteeing some freedoms which otherwise would have been unavailable to him in other circumstances.

Istria - XVI Century

In the course of history there have been several charismatic figures who have aroused the false hope in the imminence of redemption. The earliest known reports of messianic expectations in the Czech lands date from the first half of the 13th century. Other sources confirm the influence of Asher Lemmlein (Lämmlein), who preached about the Messiah in northern Italy and Istria in 1502. He was a German who proclaimed himself a forerunner of the Messiah. He announced that if the Jews would be penitent and practice charity, that the Messiah would come within half a year, and a pillar of cloud and of smoke would precede the Jews on their return to Jerusalem.

Having gained many adherents in Italy, Lemmlein traveled through Austria and Germany, receiving there both sympathy and credence. Even Christians are said to have believed in his Messianic prophecy. The chronicler Ganz relates that his grandfather destroyed an oven destined for the baking of unleavened bread, firmly believing that at the next Passover he would be with the Messiah in Palestine. There were much fasting, much praying, and much distribution of alms wherever Lemmlein passed, so that the year of his propaganda was called the year of penitence. But he suddenly disappeared; and the agitation came to an end.

Capodistria - XIII to XVII Century

It is almost certain that Capodistria was the first Istrian city that made use of the services provided by the "banchi feneratizi" run by the Jews.

Bound to Venice since 1279 and sharing both economic and cultural interests as much as its costumes, the ancient "Giustinopoli" (Justinopolis) has transmitted to our present times a manuscript written in 1391 which is believed to have been part of a book commissioned by the Jews.

It contains extremely accurate details as the warranties, the rights  and the duties of the parties involved: the Jews, the community and the government. It can be learned that the first "feneratori" officially recognized by this code (Codice) were Davide Weimer and Salomone de Crucilac, who lived in Capodistria at least since 1386, as it is known that in that year they functioned under a formal notarized contract.

The  "banco" (bank) of David Weimer continued through the management of his sons Marco and Mandolino until 1434, when it was closed by the authority of the "podesta`" Zanzotto Calbo,  as prescribed by the "Serenissima" (Most Serene = Venice) that was not well disposed towards the small Hebraic community in Capodistria. The disagreements reemerged again due to Christian intolerance, provoked by religious fanaticism, very common in the High Middle Ages, and by the fact that the wealth accumulated by the bankers enhanced the dislike of the populace. It should be noted that the Jewish bankers acted also as Tax Collectors and "gabellieri" (custom-house officers or toll collectors).

A different atsmophere started to arise In Capodistria not only around the "feneratori" but also against people of the same faith (Jewish) who had been granted a  permit to work in the small city: Samuele de Magoncia, Abramo Liberman, Moisč di Samuele e Samuele di Salomone, to whom, together with their respective families, the "Doge" Francesco Foscari had also granted the right to work according the  prevaling customs in 1427.

Nothwithstanding the shutting down of the bank and his brother's death, Mandolino stubbornly remained in Capodistria till 1443, when he was able to regain his rights, unjustly abolished. This could probably be also attributed to the fact that his father had been held  in  good esteem after loaning  to the "Commune" (Municipality) of Triest the ransom for the Triestin ambassadors Antonio and Leonardo Blagovicchio held by Federico conte di Cilli (Frederick Count of Cilli).

In the following years other Jews appeared, still regulated by the old "Capitoli" (Chapters)  to which new rules had been added  recognizing the right of the (Jewish) community to observe without obstacles the Law of the Sabbath, the right to establish a Synagogue (located in Calegaria), not too far from the street known as " Calle degli Ebrei (The Way of the Hebrews) and the right to  their own cemetery.

However the intolerance towards them kept on increasing until in 1463 the Doge  Cristoforo Mauro found himself forced to officially recommend to the Christian preachers not to incite the populace against the Jews. Two years later the suspicious burning of the synagogue, following abuses large and small, caused the life of the community, which had become essential to the life of the city, to become ever more difficult. In 1479, there was only one   "feneratore" living in Capodistria. He was soon forced to stop operating and was replaced anew by Tuscan merchants.

The Jews then reappeared in Capodistria, but were often hindered by the animosity of the inhabitants of Capodistria opposed to the establishment of another "Sacro Monte" (Holy Pawn-shop) which was opened in 160.

Regardless, the Jews preserved the right stipulated by the of Contract of 1608, renewed every ten years till 1613, when the Hebrew community finally departed by leaving the city officially after almost two centuries of almost continuous presence.

Pirano -  XV to XVII Century

Capodistria was not the only small city to maintain a relationship more or less contractual with the Jewish communities that followed  in time in various locations of the Istrian peninsula. Marin Sanud il Giovane (Marin Sanud the Young), Venetian diplomat, historian and  "cronista" (chronicler) in his "Itinerario per la terraferma veneziana dell'anno 1483" (Itinerary of the Venetian  mainland  in 1483) - almost a unique source of Istrian news of the period - writes about Pirano:"it is good and perfect to live here..."  but also confirms the existence of  " Comunitą ą Zudei" (the Jewish  Community).

In that year the city had invoked the services of Mose` Sacerdote  (Moses Priest), but without allowing him to find a partner, even though he was not able to satisfy all the needs of the Piranesi (the inhabitants of Pirano). The following year the revised Capitoli (Chapters) allowed the Sacerdote brothers, Moses and Giacob, and also Abramo and Aronne Stella, to open a bank under the direction of the Jew Giuseppe.

They, together with their descendants ran the bank for almost a century and a half, until  the bank "col progresso del tempo restņ per l'impotenza de' medesimi dismesso" (with the passage of time was dismissed due to the lack of performance of the persons in question). The descendants of these and other families continued to live in Pirano running other business, living in relative peace.

The rules of the "Capitoli" (Chapters) which bound the Jew to the "Comune" (Municipality), with the consent of Venice, would  anticipate all the instances which would perturb the inclusion of the Jews, listing also their duties towards the community. Among these: Giuseppe and friends - and their descendants - were entitled to enjoy the same rights of the Piranesi citizens, they could not be directed to work on the Sabbath and on their Holy days, the butchers had to provide them with meat slaughtered according the Hebraic customs, (Kosher), the Comune was obliged to assign them a parcel of land for a cemetery and to provide surveillance so that they would not be molested in the Synagogues. Moreover the  males older than 13 had to wear the "O" (from GiudeO = Jew)  on  their clothes, except when travelling throughout Istria or the Venetian territories. Women were exempted from this rule. Another norm would compel them to remain at home on Holy Friday so that they would not be molested by the more fanatic and intolerant Christians. It is curiously noted that the money lenders ("feneratori") could not be held responsible for damages caused by moths or mice to pawned merchandise.

The closing of the bank, which took place around 1630, put the "Piranesi" businessman in a rather difficult situation, compelling them to petition the Captain of Raspo, in February 1633, with a request for the reopening to be assigned to the descendants of the first Jews who settled in Pirano. But after many vacillations in 1634 the government chose to establish a "Monte di Pieta`" (pawn-shop). The Christian priests and the Stellas delivered in turn a petition to be allowed at least to practice the "Mercatura" (Commerce) and maintain the rights acquired with the "Capitolo" of 1483.

The Council decided in their favor and renewed the permit in the following years, while waiting for the definitive authorization of the Venetian Senate, which, we do not know why, did  not arrive until 1681.

These notes are the essential facts of the Jewish presence in Pirano, even though little is known about the actual size of the community which continued to exist almost until today, totally integrated in the local reality. The last Hebrew family  we have heard about, is the Curzolo family that left the city in 1944  to find refuge from persecutions.

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Isola - Rovigno

The vicissitudes of the Jews, who were an important component of the various Istrian  locations, were affected by  the historic events that involved Venice at  first and the Hapsburgs.They were also  influenced by numerous migrations and massacres, but it can be reasonably assumed about the communities established in Istria that the quality of life, notwithstanding the inevitable daily problems, was good.

Isola - Trieste - Rovigno:  XV - Century

It has been verified that David Mayer, lived in Isola in 1478. He had  business relations also with other small cities. Comparino di  Ganhousen lived and worked in Pola in 1427, being the owner of a "banco feneratizio" [lending bank] in partnership with some individuals named Samuele and Iona, they had strong commercial ties with Salomone, "feneratore"[lender} of the city of Trieste. Nothing is known about Parenzo.

Monsignor Tommasini, bishop of Cittanova, narrates in his "Commentari storico geografici della provincia dell'Istria" [Historic and geographic Commentaries of the Istrian Province] as in 1467 a Jewish family still existed in Rovigno, composed by the  brothers Abram and  Lucio Stella, "il primo molto virtuoso e versato nella poesia, l'altro dedito ai negozi" [the fist very vituous and well versed in poetry, the other dedicated to commercial transactions], the last descendants of an important family tree which had established itself in Rovigno since remote times.

Their home was located in the ghetto which existed  between the "contrada" [street] Parenzo and the "contrada" [street] Grisia where was also located the home of the famous linguist Antonio Ive (1851-1937). During restoration work of the edifice some human bones were discovered. It was deduced, therefore, that a Hebrew cemetery existed there as an additional proof of their existence in that city. Moreover Ive mentions the presence in the "sottoportico" of the "barbuti" [the bearded ones] The "sottoportico" was the entrance  to the ghetto in those days and it was so described as only the Jews would wear beards in those days. The word ghetto  appears often and it defines quickly the portion of the city  inhabitated by the Jews.

The "Giudecche and the "Ghettos" in Venice and Istria

Initially the quarters where they settled were called "giudecche" probably a derivative from the word Jew "giudeo." As a matter of fact, It is believed a section of Venice called the "Giudecca" obtained its name from the "Zudei" [Jews in Venetian] who first settled on that island.

The fear to live isolated, away from their co-religionists caused  by the recurring hostility of the people that were their hosts, pushed the Jews to gather in the "giudecche" which in certain cities simply amounted to one or more streets and a square. But this was not the only reason why the Jews could not live next to other families of different confessions to maintain and observe their precepts. As the authorities of that period were interested in developing commerce, agreements were made to erect or assign some buildings for them where they could continue to observe their religious traditions, while taking part in activities beneficial to all the citizenry.

The  giudecca was replaced by the ghetto beginning in the XVI century and was a poisoned fruit of the Counter-Reform. The essential difference was that the grouping of the Jews in a single location of the city was not any longer voluntary but it had become compulsory. (It appears that the word "ghetto" derives from the Venetian "getto" [casting], a foundry  in Venice were metals were cast [gettati]. These, in a nutshell, are the origins of the nomenclatures "giudecca" and "ghetto" which characterized, even in Istria, localities wher the Jews settled from one century to the next, but still not reaching the extreme meaning of the term "ghetto" quite likely because of the small number of the Jews and  only as compliance with the directives of the "Serenissima" [Venice].

The origins of the Hebrews

But what were the origins of the Hebrews that settled in the Istrian territory? The subject is complex. Since the Diaspora there were several migrations, often caused by the anti-semitic rage, an ancient curse that resulted in real massacres. (It should be noted that the most cruel exterminations did not occur in Italy, that should be recognized as one of the mildest countries toward the Jewish people). Therefore, there were several migrations which saw groups of Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews moving back and forth between Europe and the Orient to return to their own countries, depending on the changing political and economical conditions, while preserving their own faith and the liaisons with their co-religionists. The typical names that are still heard in our ears, as Sacerdote, Stella, Comparino da [from] Ganhousen or Weimar compel us to assume origins  from Italian regions as well from Central European countries. But the footprints left behind by those people while reaching for Istria in the past were more or less erased by the patina of time.

Yiddish Lullaby

Almost forgotten as the words of the melancholic and resigned lullaby which is part of the popular Yiddish tradition and which must have reverberated, who knows how often, under the Istrian sky, sung by Hebrew mothers who have lived in Capodistria, Isola, Pirano or Rovigno:

In a corner of the Temple, all alone
sits a widow. daughter of Zion
She rocks her small Videle
and she sings to him a lullaby to put him to sleep
Ay-lu lu, lu lu

Under the rocker of my Videle
there is a a young goat white as snow
The young goat has gone to market.
This shall also be your destiny:
you will sell raisins and almonds
Sleep, my little Videle, sleep.


This article was originally published by the bi-monthly "Trieste ArteCultura" (June 1999 online edition).


CITIES AND ASSOCIATED NAMES - We aim to associate Hebrew names mentioned in the text in various periods with the towns involved. Some relevant data is also provided to point out the scarce sources and clarify or supplement other items in the future.


  • Davide Weimer and Salomone de Crucilac
  • Marco and Mandolino, sons of Davide Weimeer
  • Samuele de Magoncia, Abramo Liberman, Moisč di Samuele and Samuele di Salomone


  • Zanzotto Calbo,“podesta`”
  • David Mayer, lived in Isola in 1478.


  • Monsignor Tommasini, bishop of Cittanova, author of Commentari storico geografici della provincia dell'Istria [Historic and geographic Commentaries of the Istrian Province]


  • Mose Sacerdote [Moses Priest]
  • Marin Sanud il Giovane (author)
  • Sacerdote brothers, Moses and Giacob, and Abramo e Aronne S Sacerdote
    brothers, Moses and Giacob, and Abramo e Aronne Stella
  • Curzolo Family


  • Comparino di Ganhousen (with Samuel and Iona)


  • Abram and Lucio Stella, per Antonio Ive (1851-1937)
  • Contrada GRISIA
  • Contrada PARENZO
  • VIDELE (Baby boy)


  • Salomone, “feneratore”[lender] of the city of Trieste.
  • Triestin ambassadors Antonio and Leonardo Blagovicchio held by: Federico conte di Cilli [Frederick Count of Cilli] - Carinthia

VENEZIA (La Serenissima = “The most Serene”) - Venice

  • GIUDECCA = Jewish quarters
  • Marin Sanud il Giovane [Marin Sanud the Young], Venetian, diplomat, historian and reporter ("cronista"), author of "Itinerario per la terraferma veneziana dell'anno 1483" [itinerary of the Venetian mainland in 1483] - a unique source of Istrian news.
  • “Doge” Francesco Foscari, Doge = dux = Duce = leader of the “Council of Ten

YIDDISH (in German: judisch = a short for judisch-deutsch).  A language spoken by many European Jews and their descendants in many other continents, it is a dialect of High German written in Hebrew alphabet characters and containing elements of Hebrew, Russian, Polish etc.

JEWS, HEBREWS, “Zudei” [in Venetian dialect]

  • Ashkenazic Jews: settled in middle and northern Europe after the Diaspora
  • Sephardic Jews: originated from Spain and Portugal before the Inquisition

MUSICAL ITEMS - “YIDDISH: Lullabies” similar to the one in the text may be found at:

Translation and Glossary compiled by Franco G. Aitala


  • Presenza ebraica in Istria (Italiano) - and
  • Misc. internet sites.

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This page compliments of Franco G. Aitala, Marisa Ciceran and Guido Villa

Created: Saturday, October 18, 1999; Last updated Saturday, April 16, 2016
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