The Jews of San Nicandro

The Jews of San Nicandro

Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    The Jews of San Nicandro
    Book Description:

    Not many people know of the utterly extraordinary events that took place in a humble southern Italian town in the first half of the twentieth century-and those who do have struggled to explain them. In the late 1920s, a crippled shoemaker had a vision where God called upon him to bring the Jewish faith to this "dark corner" in the Catholic heartlands, despite his having had no prior contact with Judaism itself. By 1938, about a dozen families had converted at one of the most troubled times for Italy's Jews. The peasant community came under the watchful eyes of Mussolini's regime and the Catholic Church, but persisted in their new belief, eventually securing approval of their conversion from the rabbinical authorities, and emigrating to the newly founded State of Israel, where a community still exists today.

    In this first fully documented examination of the San Nicandro story, John A. Davis explains how and why these incredible events unfolded as they did. Using the converts' own accounts and a wide range of hitherto unknown sources, Davis uncovers the everyday trials and tribulations within this community, and shows how they intersected with many key contemporary issues, including national identity and popular devotional cults, Fascist and Catholic persecution, Zionist networks and postwar Jewish refugees, and the mass exodus that would bring the Mediterranean peasant world to an end. Vivid and poignant, this book draws fresh and intriguing links between the astonishing San Nicandro affair and the wider transformation of twentieth-century Europe.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16036-9
    Subjects: History, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Illustrations and Maps
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-viii)
  5. [Map]
    (pp. ix-x)
  6. Introduction: The Prophet of San Nicandro
    (pp. 1-16)

    To mark the coming of Rosh Hashanah and the start of the Jewish New Year, in September 1947Timemagazine carried the curious story of an unusual conversion to the Jewish faith that had taken place in a remote part of southern Italy. The story had begun some twenty years earlier in the town of San Nicandro Garganico in Apulia, when Donato Manduzio, a ‘dark-eyed, sallow’ veteran of the First World War, decided to abandon the Catholic faith to become instead a self-proclaimed Jew. He was soon joined by others, all of them very poor, and within a few years...

  7. CHAPTER ONE Manduzio’s Story
    (pp. 17-33)

    The fullest account we have of the origins of the story is provided by Manduzio himself in his Journal, which he began to keep in 1937. It is a rich and idiosyncratic assemblage of inconsistent entries freely interspersed with personal reflections, dreams, visions and prayers, which at times becomes a rather jumbled stream of consciousness. Though a reader might struggle to identify dates, names and facts, it is nonetheless crucial to understanding the community, the conversion and the man.¹

    To start at the beginning. Manduzio tells us that he was born in San Nicandro on 25 July 1885 and that...

  8. CHAPTER TWO Jewish Encounters
    (pp. 34-56)

    It seems that Manduzio first came to hear that there were other Jews in Italy from one of the many travelling pedlars who visited San Nicandro. But once he knew of their existence he was eager to contact these Jews without delay. He wanted to communicate the special mission that had been entrusted to him, but he also needed to seek recognition of his own position as leader and negotiate the community’s admission into the wider community of the Children of Israel. This, however, was no easy task. The would-be converts knew nothing about the Jews they wanted to reach...

  9. CHAPTER THREE The Duce and the Pope
    (pp. 57-70)

    What brought the officers of the criminal court in Foggia to Manduzio’s door in February 1936? After a decade of Fascist rule, Italians had grown accustomed to living under the watchful eyes of the state and its representatives, not to mention a faceless army of informers and spies. The arrival of the court bailiffs was an indication that the activities of the would-be converts had now come to the attention of the authorities.

    The crisis of parliamentary government and the passing of the liberal order in Italy had not gone unmarked in San Nicandro. In the years after the Great...

  10. CHAPTER FOUR The Man from Milan
    (pp. 71-88)

    The 250 lire fine imposed by the Foggia criminal court was not large, but it posed major problems. The fine had to be paid at once to avoid incurring further penalties, but the bigger problem was that the group was now banned from using Manduzio’s house for their weekly prayer meetings. Instead, each family would have to meet in their own houses to pray, something that was neither practical nor desirable since they depended on Manduzio’s leadership and guidance in their worship. An additional problem of which they were unaware is that Jewish prayer requires, if at all possible, the...

  11. CHAPTER FIVE Persecution
    (pp. 89-109)

    During the period of Raffaele Cantoni’s visits to San Nicandro in 1937, political changes were taking place that would have important consequences for the would-be converts and above all for the Italian Jews who had taken a close interest in their case. It was not until the following year that Mussolini’s regime defined Judaism as ‘an international conspiracy of anti-Fascism’, but the decision to expel Italian Jews from the Fascist national community was preceded by a violent campaign of anti-Semitism that began in the second half of 1936. Attacks on Italian Jews by the Fascist press reached a climax with...

  12. CHAPTER SIX Falling into the Net
    (pp. 110-127)

    Italy declared war on France and Britain on 10 June 1940, two days before the arrest of Raffaele Cantoni. The war was slow to reach San Nicandro, but when it did finally come to the remote Gargano promontory it would transform the story of the would-be converts. A critical part in that transformation was played by an encounter with a group of Jewish soldiers serving as volunteers in the British Eighth Army there. This meeting was the more remarkable because No. 178 General Transport Company of the Royal Army Service Corps was one of only a handful of units made...

  13. CHAPTER SEVEN A Hero Comes to Visit
    (pp. 128-135)

    In Bari Enzo Sereni gathered together the different threads of Shertok’s Net in Italy. A secret assignment behind enemy lines had brought him to the Apulian city, but during his short time there he worked hard to promote emigration to Palestine and to encourage young Jews to volunteer for service in the Jewish combat force that was due to be established. Given his very heavy schedule, his decision to include a visit to San Nicandro cannot have been a matter of chance.

    Sereni was from a prominent Jewish family in Rome, and both his brothers had played distinguished roles in...

  14. CHAPTER EIGHT A Difficult Conversion
    (pp. 136-152)

    After their encounters with the Jewish soldiers and with Enzo Sereni, the would-be converts believed that their conversion would soon be recognized. But in fact they were in for more long delays and, once the Jewish soldiers left to follow the war as it moved northwards up the Italian peninsula, Manduzio and his community found themselves alone again. Although they would have a long wait before they were able to re-establish contacts with the outside world, a number of important changes had already taken place. As we have seen, the meeting with Enzo Sereni had turned them into enthusiastic and...

  15. CHAPTER NINE What Next?
    (pp. 153-168)

    The long-awaited entry into the Jewish community had in many ways increased the problems facing the converts. How were they now to live as Jews? They had no rabbi, no synagogue, no schools, no means of following the Jewish religious calendar or even of observing Jewish dietary laws. All of these problems might have been foreseen, but they were not, and once they became evident there was little agreement about how they were to be resolved.

    Emigration was, of course, one obvious solution, but it was not yet feasible. The British restrictions on Jewish emigration to Palestine were being enforced...

  16. CHAPTER TEN After Manduzio
    (pp. 169-181)

    Just as the community seemed to be on the point of breaking up, two events occurred in the early part of 1948 that would decisively affect it’s destiny. The first was the death of Donato Manduzio, followed two months later by the second event, the founding of the State of Israel on 14 May.

    Early in January, Manduzio had written to the Union in Rome to tell them of the community’s excitement on reading in the December 1947 issue of the monthly journalRassegna Mensile di Israelthe news that the United Nations General Assembly had decided in favour of...

  17. CHAPTER ELEVEN The Promised Land
    (pp. 182-195)

    Cantoni’s exasperation with Concetta di Leo is understandable. He was working day and night for the Jewish refugees, and in recognition of his work had been honoured with the issue of the new state’s first foreign entry visa when he visited Israel in June 1948. But all the while he was now struggling to fend off the increasingly persistent demands from his dear friends in San Nicandro despite everything that he had done for them. He had assumed that once their conversion had been formally completed they would carry on as before. Yet despite his repeated advice they were still...

  18. CHAPTER TWELVE The Story’s End
    (pp. 196-212)

    The emigration of the San Nicandresi proved to be a highly complicated operation. Although the main group sailed from Bari in November 1949, others had preceded them and others would follow soon after. But none of this would have been possible without the intervention and assistance of the Zionist Federation and the Jewish Agency in Rome. This was true even for the younger migrants who had tried to make their own arrangements, as the young Eliezer Tritto discovered. Although he had told Cantoni in the previous year of his plans to marry before he left, the marriage had caused additional...

  19. Notes
    (pp. 213-222)
  20. Sources
    (pp. 223-228)
  21. Index
    (pp. 229-238)