The Jewish Cemetery and the undead children

Jewish cemetery

The Jewish cemetery was created in 1386 when the Republic of Venice first authorized the Jewish community to bury their dead on a piece of land on Lido island. It was in use from 1389 and reached its greatest extension in 1641. After the fall of the Republic in 1797, the Jewish cemetery came into disuse. Some efforts were made to re-establish it as a Jewish burial ground, during the 19th century. With the racial laws (1938) under the Fascist regime, the cemetery was definitely abandoned.

The old Jewish cemetery at Lido is subject to restoration and conservation efforts supervised by Save Venice Inc, a non-profit organization with its headquarters in New York, the US.

It is open to the public for guided tours only. For more information about the tours and how to buy tickets, please contact the Museo Ebraico di Venezia at the Venice Ghetto, tel. 041715359 

Jewish Cemetery

A short background.

After the launch of the Jewish Ghetto in 1516 at Cannaregio in Venice, the whole Jewish community became concentrated right there. Before that, Jews were living all over Venice. Giudecca was a considerable Jewish hub, and that fact actually named the Island… Iudaica, Latin for Jewish. 

There were no restrictions for Jewish citizens and they lived and established their activity wherever it was convenient. 

All that changed with the creation of the Ghetto. 

headstone cemetery lido

Before 1516, the Jews buried their dead in the Jewish cemetery on Lido island. After 1516 they continued doing so, although getting from the Ghetto now was a more difficult task. And carrying caskets with those mourning across a landscape that was hostile versus those of the Jewish fate, sometimes could prove troublesome. All kinds of unfounded rumors flourished among the Christians. The Jews were this and that, their rites were dangerous, and their beliefs were heretical. And when the Plague hit, the terrible, deadly pestilence that killed the Venetians in tens of thousands… The first to blame were the Jews… 

The horrifying Bubonic Plague.

The Plague of 1575 killed around 50.000 people in Venice. Every house, every school, every guild in every part of the city was affected. In every corner of Venice, death was lurking in the shadows together with the big black rats. 

But in the Jewish Ghetto, something very strange was happening. Instead of killing everybody at the same rate, in the Ghetto, the children were exceptionally infected. In fact, while in every other part of the city, the disease hit indiscriminately, in the Ghetto, only the children perished. And they did so much more than in the rest of Venice. It was as if for every adult that was saved, one or more children died in his place. 

The story of the undead children at the old Jewish cemetery at Lido.

Rabbi Jacob Sterchel.

After dinner, the Rabbi prepared for Maariv. These days there were very few gatherings in the Synagogue. Most of the faithful were isolated inside their small apartments. There, they prayed and studied alone. These days Jacob did so too. There was a knock on the door, and the old man got up. Ariel, one of his disciples stepped inside with a sad expression on his face. 

– I am very sorry Rabbi, but there’s been another one, he said.

– Oh…

Jacob sat down heavily on the kitchen chair.  

– It’s the Isserlen, Ariel continued. Their youngest. He died just an hour ago…

– … And the parents?

Jacob got up again, twisting his hands. Very slowly and seemingly with enormous effort, he walked over to the small window facing the square.

Jewish Rabbi at window

– Yes, Ariel sighed… They’re alright.

This was the 47th in just a few weeks. 47 innocent children, little boys, and girls who hadn’t done anything to anybody. Still, they all died in the most gruesome of ways. By the Bubonic Plague.

Rabbi Sterchel had been searching his books. And he had prayed. Besides trying to comfort grief-stricken mothers and fathers, all his remaining energy had been focused on this one thing… Trying to understand why the Lord would punish the children, but not their parents.

– Go, Ariel, he said. Go home and care for your family.  

The old Jewish cemetery at Lido.

That night the Rabbi dreamt.

In a vision, he saw Elijah. The holy prophet stood right there by his bed, and he spoke.

– Jacob, get up, he said. Get up and follow me.

And he brought the Jew through the narrow Calli, over the Campi, and finally out over the waters of the lagoon. Together they hovered over the waves, passing Sant’Elena and Certosa, and ended up at the Jewish Cemetery at Lido. With a firm hand, Elijah escorted him in between the tombstones. It was midnight and with amazement, Jacob witnessed hundreds of little ghost children playing in the moonlight. It was a strange and unnatural sight, and just as Jacob turned to ask the prophet what all this meant, he woke up in his bed.

The rest of the early morning, as the first light of the rising sun sparkled behind the window shades, he just laid there pondering. He knew there was a message in there somewhere but he couldn’t figure out what it was.  

Ariel’s task.

When Ariel came to visit later on that day, Rabbi Sterchel had a task for him.

– Go to the cemetery, he said. You must go there tonight, at midnight.

But Ariel was not very keen on the idea…

– But Rabbi, he said, shaking his head. It is all the way out there… And what about the guards, and the law? Can I break the law? he asked.

jewish cemetery

It was not an easy thing, the Rabbi requested of him. Leaving the Ghetto at night was very difficult. More so, it meant breaking the law, and if you got caught, that could mean many years in prison… And prison would almost certainly mean “i piombi”, the dreaded prisons of Venice, from where very few men came out alive.

But the old man was determined.

– Look, my son. It’s not with a light heart I ask you to do as I say. I am very well aware of what it means, but I have had a vision.

He took his disciple’s hands in his.

– And I think I understand what it means.

The escape from the ghetto.

An hour after nightfall, Ariel waited in the basement of a house at the northwestern wall of the Ghetto. Very slowly, a boat came gliding almost effortlessly towards him and stopped right beside the small window opening that with the rising tide was halfway under water already. Ariel squeezed himself through the opening, onto the Sandolo, and hid under the thick tarpaulin.

Now, the fisherman steering the boat with Ariel hid deep under the thick fabrics, started a long journey. Elijah had brought Jacob flying like the wind to Lido, but Ariel had to wait motionless for many hours together with fish scales, and fishing nets under the canvas. No more than fifteen minutes before midnight, he was dropped off at San Niccolò.

He rushed through the shadows of the shrubberies inland, not to be spotted from the water. Just seconds before midnight, he climbed the northern wall, and he was inside. 

In the distance, he heard the bells of the monastery, and with a pounding heart, he hid behind a big stone.

First, there was nothing more than the wind sweeping through the old oaks. Then, suddenly he heard a crack. Like the dull sound of fracturing stone. And immensely slowly, the gravestones started moving.

– She-ma yisrael, adonai eloheinu, he whispered.

Ariel was so scared, he almost couldn’t breathe.

old jewish cemetery

– … adonai echad…

Hundreds of little, white hands stretched out from under the stones. Hundreds of little corpses pushed the graves open, and hundreds of little ghost children were suddenly all around him.

The shroud.

Hidden behind the big monumental headstone Ariel witnessed in horror how the shadowy figures moved around between the old graves. The phantoms were all dressed in white. They all wore shrouds, white as the morning sun. And the shrouds fluttered in the night breeze. The fabric was dancing as the children ran around the graveyard, playing and teasing each other, just like any living children would do. 

Ariel was terrified. His heart pumped like a steam engine, but still, he felt like he was fainting. His mentor, friend, and Rabbi had asked him for one thing, and one thing only. If he would succeed in getting it, that could mean the end of the curse of the dying children. He could save countless lives, but to do that he would have to show proof of courage that he honestly didn’t have. After all, he was just a poor apprentice and not a very good one at that.

He closed his eyes…

– chazak chazak venit-chazek!

Then he waited for a few moments. When one of the white-clad little children came within reach, he shot up, grabbed his shroud, pulled it as hard as he could, and ran for his life towards the exit.

He ran out on the quay, shouting for his driver, not even caring if someone would spot him or not. Going to prison suddenly seemed like a child’s play compared to what he just had been through.

The demon.

The following night Rabbi Stenchel didn’t dream. He didn’t sleep either but laid awake in his bed, waiting. Perfectly folded in the wooden chest lay the white shroud.

The gates of the Ghetto had closed earlier than normal, and nobody knew why. Two of his Jewish brothers didn’t make it in time, and they had found themselves outside. That would be a crime against the Republic, but Jacob was able to bribe the guards to let them in all the same. 

These things always put him down. How was it that they were subject to rules that nobody else had to follow? How was it that they had to be confined? Weren’t they an asset for the Republic lending money, keeping financial projects afloat, healing the sick, and helping the needy?

There was a hard knock on the door.

Jacob wasn’t expecting friends or family, and as the hour was late, he very well knew that it wasn’t just a normal, friendly visit.

He got up. Very slowly he walked over to the door and opened it. There was nobody there. The hallway was dark and very empty. He closed the door again, but as soon as it shut, there was another knock. This time harder, angrier…

The hallway was still dark, but now there was a small shadow at the far end.

– Hello…

Rabbi Stenchel tried to focus.

– Is there anyone…?

And the darkness grew. It took form. First, it was the size of a man, but growing with speed, it soon became overwhelmingly big. It filled up the corridor, and its glowing red eyes glared at the old man.

He fell backward and landed on the floor. Before him, he witnessed the demon coming closer. He tried to crawl away, but his hands and knees didn’t obey.

– bezot haddelet lo tavo bahalah…, ha prayed.

The demon closed in. Jacob could smell the breath of the creature. And he could see its eyes. he stared into them and felt the anger and the hate. He sensed more than actually perceiving the darkness and terror in front of him. Then he closed his eyes and waited for the death blow. This was beyond his knowledge. He couldn’t fight an evil this powerful.

old venice jewish cemetery

The naked boy.

But the blow didn’t come. Instead, he heard quiet sobbing. A light voice seemed to be crying behind him. And suddenly the force that had kept him down, that had shackled him to the ground was gone.

– I’m sorry, the voice said. I’m sorry…

The Rabbi got up with considerable difficulty.

– I just wanted my shroud… So I can play again…

In the corner sat a small naked boy. His chin rested on his bent knees. He looked at Jacob with sad eyes, and the old Jew almost felt sorry for him. But then he remembered the image he had witnessed just seconds ago. 

– Who are you? he asked.

– My name isn’t important, sobbed the boy. I just need my shroud.

– Well, it’s important to me, said Jacob.

He sat down on the small couch. The boy got up.

– I can’t tell you my name, he said.

– Then you can’t have the shroud.

– … So if I tell you who I am…?

– …Then you are a bit closer to getting it, said Jacob trying to keep his voice firm and authoritative.

The little ghost looked down and put his hands together.

– I am Uri.

Jacob stretched his hand towards the boy.

– Hello Uri, he said. Come and sit with me.

Old Jewish Cemetery
The Monastery San Niccolò

The undead child.

– Now there’s only one more thing I need to know, he continued. You need to tell me why the children die but their parents do not.

At that, the boy got up.

– I can’t say…

He walked a few steps and still facing away from Jacob he continued:

– I’m not allowed to say.

Jacob knew that what he said, and how he put the words would be crucial if he was going to have any chance of getting the information he needed. 

– Uri, he started. You have something very important that I need. You know a secret that I would like to know as well.

– I’m not allowed to say.

– Uri, do you know that I am a very important man in the Ghetto?… Do you know that? And do you know that I have the power over the Cemetery, how and when it’s used… And the Monks at Lido have always tried to snatch it from us… Do you know that?

The boy sat down on the floor again.

– I’m not allowed to say, he muttered.

Now Uri had denied him the information four times. One more time and it would be over.

– Uri… he continued hesitatingly. I am Mara de’atra, did you know that?

– No.

crab window ghetto venice

– And I can give you not only the shroud, but I can guarantee that the old Cemetery at Lido will live on for centuries. I can grant you pardon for breaking your oath because what you do will save many lives. 

He sighed silently. What he was about to say next was not really sanctioned by the teachings, either by the written or the oral Torah. And none of his fellow Rabbi would probably be in agreement with him on this.

– And you can come to the Synagogue for prayer.

The young boy looked up at him with a smile.

The crime.

This is what Uri told him that night.

Many years earlier a young girl by the name of Rachel had fallen in love with a young boy named Simon. Simon was a carpenter and he was working to establish his own workshop. He found the perfect place, borrowed money for the deposit from his uncle, and moved in.

He cleaned it out, repaired, painted, and equipped it, and soon he had his own small but perfectly functional workshop. And the couple could start planning for marriage. 

As happy as they were about their future together, the neighborhood didn’t share their convictions. The persecution of Jews from other parts of Europe infected Venice too, and just as they were getting ready to celebrate their matrimony, the Ghetto was instituted. And suddenly Simon’s workshop was confiscated, his money lost, his tools stolen, and they both had to move away from their homes. 

But as if these problems weren’t big enough, Rachel found herself pregnant. That wouldn’t have been a big issue if they could have married right there and then. But in the Ghetto, their situation swiftly became much more difficult. 

Rachel lived with her mother, father, and six siblings in just two rooms. And Simon couldn’t make a living… Not even for himself. 

i piombi
Main Entrance Venice Prison

So Rachel hid. She lived for three months in the space underneath one of the palaces on the southern side of the Ghetto. Her mother knew, but her father didn’t. He thought she had gone to live with relatives in Treviso. 

Rachel gave birth to the child all alone in the darkness in the damp basement. And in her desperation, she killed the child. She drowned it right outside the wall, in the canal surrounding the Ghetto. 

The sentence.

With a heavy heart, Jacob reported the crime to the representatives of the Republic. There wasn’t really any evidence. Rachel’s mother was long dead, and nobody else really knew anything about it. But the quarantia, the dreaded court of the Republic, sentenced her anyway. Life imprisonment in the terrible jail at the Doge’s Palace… I Piombi.

Rachel was at that time already an aged woman, and she didn’t last very long in the prison. After 8 months she died.

The funeral was an extremely intimate event. The only family she had were nephews and their families, and only two lived inside the Ghetto. One, a woman named Golda, showed up. Then there was Rabbi Isaï and five other functionaries of the Synagogue to help with the casket. 

And of course Jacob and Ariel…

The boat carried them all directly from the prison to the island if Lido.

When the casket was safely into the ground, and everybody had shoveled dirt on top of it, Rabbi Isaï led the Kaddish. They were only eight men, but considering the circumstances, they figured that was enough. 

Reunion and salvation.

But while praying, a soft warm breeze blew up from the seaside. The leaves rustled for a few seconds before it all stopped again. It was dead silent. From the far end of the Cemetery, a few light, hardly visible shapes were seen moving towards where they stood. It was as if a little group of children came walking through the Cemetery. And as they made way, somehow the group grew. They became more and more, and soon the group was no group anymore but a sea of white boys and girls. There were hundreds of them.

The others took a few steps back in terror, but Jacob and Ariel stood still. 

For a short while they all just stood there, facing each other, the old Rabbi, and his apprentice, and the huge crowd of small ghosts. The whole Cemetery was crowded with children all dressed in pure, shining white. Then one little boy stepped forth from the lot.

Uri looked at the two men. Then he smiled, took off his shroud, folded it, and laid it on the ground right in front of Jacob. He grabbed a handful of dirt, threw it on the casket, turned, and walked away.

And with him, all the others. 

From that day, no child died from the Black Plague inside the Ghetto. And nobody ever saw anything strange or unnatural at the old Cemetery at Lido again.

Rabbi Stenchel and the ghost child

But sometimes, even today, you can sense a presence in the Great German Scola in the Ghetto of Venice. Some say they have actually seen the thin legs of a small boy dangling from the gallery to the left over the ark. 

And if you look very closely, the wooden floor is slightly more worn right there, in the gallery, close to the railing, on the left side over the ark…