Unjustly slighted as a tourist destination, Piedmont is one of the richest regions of Jewish heritage in Italy, with magnificent small Baroque synagogues like those of Carmagnola, Casale Monferrato, Cherasco, Mondovi, and Saluzzo. In 1848, the Piedmontese Jews became the first in Italy to definitively obtain full equality. The main restrictions on their residence or authorized economic activities had been lifted since 1816 in the territories of the Savoy dynasty. The rulers had never dared to fully rescind the rights Napoleon had accorded to the Jews. With the emancipation, the Jews emigrated in greater numbers to large cites, beginning with Turin, and thus abandoned the small cities where the wealthy communities had lived until then. The Jews benefited from a relatively protected situation, and their place in the economic life was already well established. The ghetto in Turin was not created until 1679, and the ghettos in the other nineteen centers in the Piedmont region, where some 5000 Jews lived, were not established until the beginning of the eighteenth century. In addition to moneylending and trade in used clothing, the Jews were allowed other economic activities such as goldsmithing, printing, and textiles, especially silk production.
Jews were fairly well represented in elite positions in the administration of the Savoy monarchy, which became the source of the first kings of a unified Italy. Piedmontese Jews also played a significant part in the economy and cultural life of the region. Large synagogues were built in the region toward the end of the nineteenth century: a neo-Byzantine synagogue in Vercelli, a neo-Gothic synagogue in Alessandria, and a large neo-Moorish structure in Turin. The local community in Turin had at first commissioned architect Alessandro Antonelli, who emulated the transalpine style of Gustave Eiffel in creating a “tower synagogue” in steel rising to a height of over 500 feet, whose purpose was to celebrate not only the Jewish community’s newfound power but also its modernity. Lack of funds, however, forced the Jewish community to forfeit the half-finished work. The municipality revived the project and completed the Mole Antonelliana, which became the National Independence Museum.
Jews from Piedmont payed a high price during the Second World War -there were 4000 Jews in the region in 1939 and fewer than 2000 in 1945. Despite this tragedy, the community remained active after the war and included such prominent members as the businessman Adriano Olivetti and the intellectuals and writers Primo Levi, Carlo Levi, and Natalia Ginzburg.
“Rejected or given less than warm welcome in Turin, they settled in various agricultural localities in southern Piedmont, introducing there the technology of making silk, though without ever getting beyond, even in their most flourishing periods, the status of an extremely tiny minority. They were never much loved or much hated; stories of unusual persecutions have not been handed down. Nevertheless, a wall of suspicion, of undefined hostility and mockery, must have kept them substantially separated from the rest of the population, even several decades after the emancipation of 1848…”
Primo Levi, The Periodic table, Trans. Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Schocken Books, 1984).