The world's first ghetto, 500 years later

Story highlights

  • The word "ghetto" is derived from a community in Venice, Italy
  • That area -- mostly empty now -- is where Jewish people were forced to live for centuries

(CNN)In preparation for the 500th anniversary of Italy's Venetian Ghetto, Ziyah Gafic scoured the 7-acre-wide part of the Cannaregio district where, for centuries, Jews were forced to live.

But all he found was an overwhelming silence -- an element that became central to the photographs he made there.
"It was summer in Venice, and the place was fairly deserted and quiet," Gafic said. "You can tell that very few people still live there."
    There is a palpable void in each of Gafic's photos, a recognition of the vast silence of the world when crimes against humanity were committed. A mourning silence for a once-bustling community devastated by centuries of prejudice and finally the Holocaust. The photos are filled with wide spaces, usually featuring a lone character framed by an empty expanse.
    Photographer Ziyah Gafic
    "I do understand what it is like to be in a lockdown situation, so it was sadly an advantage during that assignment," said Gafic, a Bosnian who was 12 years old during the Siege of Sarajevo. "That (experience) really shaped my vision of the world, which I try to translate into imagery."
    In the early 13th century, persecuted Jews from Europe and the Levant began settling in Venice. As their population grew, so did their living restrictions, and in 1516 Venetian authorities forced all Jews to live in confinement in the "geti," which is where the modern-day term of "ghetto" is derived. In this gated islet, Jews lived in lockdown by night but were allowed to trade by day as long as they wore an insignia.
    They were merchants and moneylenders, artisans and artists. They injected Venice's economy with much-needed capital and intellect. There were also famous doctors and scholars in the ghetto, which by the 14th century became a melting pot of Jewish ethnicities all crammed into small rooms and apartments of substandard ceiling height.

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    In the 1790s, Napoleon's army destroyed the ghetto's gates, allowing Jews to live freely among Venetians. Many Jews opted for the lavish palazzos across the canals.
    The Venetian Ghetto has survived a long history of atrocities, from early religious persecutions to the Holocaust. Of the 246 Jews deported from Venice to concentration camps, only eight have survived.
    There is a seductive, timeless aura to Gafic's photos of the ghetto.
    One shows a scholar reading in a large empty courtyard where a bronze Holocaust memorial was installed. Above the memorial's ancient walls is some rusting barbed wire.
    This photograph seems to allude to a wound that only human enlightenment can heal. As a survivor of the Bosnian War, Gafic relived some of the unhealed traumas during his visit.
    "I have a special empathy for people who have lived under siege," Gafic said. "The siege mentality is very particular, it never leaves you.
    "It is known that people in Sarajevo always have this sense of confinement and claustrophobia. Anyone who has been through it has a form of post-traumatic syndrome which is passed on to other generations."