Venetian Jews to restore cemetery

VENICE — When the great English poet Lord Byron lived here nearly 180 years ago, he loved to go horseback riding on the Lido, the strip of island that protects the Venetian Lagoon from the Adriatic Sea.

With companions such as fellow poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, he would ride through what Shelley described as a sandy, windswept wasteland.

It was an especially haunting wasteland, however.

"The spot where we usually rode," wrote Byron's friend, British Consul Richard Belgrave Hoppner, "was a Jewish cemetery whose walls had been pulled down and stones overturned by the French."

The ancient Jewish Cemetery on the Venice Lido was founded in the 1380s, but by the time Byron was riding there, it had not been used for burials for half a century.

Although the cemetery is one of the treasures of European Jewish heritage, it has languished in a virtually abandoned state for more than 200 years while the rest of the Lido was developed into an area of homes, beach resorts, hotels and a big casino.

Time, neglect and human destruction have taken their toll, and today alarm bells are going off about the cemetery's deteriorating condition.

Venice's tiny Jewish community, as well as international monument preservation organizations such as Save Venice, Inc. and the World Monuments Fund, are seeking sponsors to repair and conserve the graveyard.

The groups hope to restore tombstones, drain swampy areas, clear weeds, bushes and undergrowth and reconstruct the wall. Recent surveys indicate expenses for the work could total $300,000.

"Unless we intervene, little will remain after only a few more years," according to a recent issue of the Save Venice Inc. newsletter.

"This cemetery has had a tormented life," said Aldo Izzo, a Jewish retired sea captain who has devoted the past decade to looking after both the ancient cemetery and a newer Jewish cemetery nearby.

For four centuries, the ancient cemetery served as the only burial ground for Venetian Jews. Funerals took place in convoys of gondolas that set sail from the Jewish ghetto, at the northern edge of Venice.

Time and time again its area was cut back, its walls were torn down or its tombstones were uprooted in order to build fortifications along the Lido shore.

The cemetery was finally abandoned about 1770, and the newer cemetery, which is still in use today, was opened several hundred yards away.

In the 1920s, a large part of the cemetery was destroyed to construct a road along the shore. Tombstones were pulled up and laid on the ground or against the walls in the main cemetery area — and here they remain.