In the world’s first ghetto.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The top floor apartment shares its stairs with that of the women’s section of the historic Italian synagogue. This is a very old house. The walls of the dark-wood stairs show large patches of bricks underneath. The Delhi Walla is in a late sixteenth century building in the ancient Jewish ghetto of Venice. The world’s first ghetto is observing its 500th anniversary this year.
Doctor Sergio Steffenoni, a retired psychiatrist (see above), lives with his wife in this dimly lit apartment. Everything is so submerged in silence here that the sounds of footsteps on the creaky wooden floor feel like a foreign intruder. The windows open to Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, the larger of the two squares in the ghetto. The roof offers a panoramic view of the entire district.
But that’s not the most remarkable thing about the doctor’s apartment, not even the hundreds of books and art works he has acquired during his travels in different parts of the world–there are too many Hindu artifacts from India. His house is most famous for a ghost. Sitting down in the living room, the retired psychiatrist tells the story of his house guest.
“It was the ghost of a Jewish man,” says the doctor, his eyes glistening behind his red-rimmed glasses. “The man was said to be in love with a Christian woman. It is not clear what was the fate of the romance but he was killed along with many other Jews during the inquisition in Italy in seventeenth century. Since then his ghost lingered in this apartment, which was a special place in the ghetto. Every other house in the ghetto had very small rooms but not this one. It had the living quarters of the chief rabbi… This house also used to host the male representative of each Jewish household in the area during special feasts.
“I moved here with my first wife 23 years ago. The previous resident, like me, was a Christian. The ghost used to live in a storage room, just behind my bedroom. At night he would knock on the wall, or even go down in my study and throw away all the books from their shelves. Very often he would play with the book I would keep on my bedside table before falling asleep. On waking up, I would discover that he had taken out the bookmark, and then I would have to struggle to look for the page where I was last… Finally, my mother in Verona went to a catholic exorcist who helped me get rid of the ghost. He left this house on the night of 2 November 1993. The morning after, I found all the exit doors of the house were open. The synagogue’s door below, too, was open.”
The doctor says that the ghost hasn’t appeared since then. Suddenly: tick, tick, tick. It is the clock, the doctor says. Even so, one can never be absolutely certain.
Can you hear the knocking?!
3. (The door to the women’s section of the Italian synagogue)
4. The door to the men’s section of the Italian synagogue