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Convertito

The Jews of San Nicandro tells the remarkable story of a group of Fascist-era Italian peasants who became Jews and ultimately made aliyah

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Two boys from San Nicandro reading the Bible in Meiron, Israel, in the 1950s. (Courtesy Beit Hatfutsot Photo Archive, Sonnenfeld collection)

The story that John A. Davis has to tell in The Jews of San Nicandro (Yale University Press) falls under the category of “truth is stranger than fiction.” Who would believe, outside of a fable or maybe a joke, that in Fascist Italy, a group of several dozen Catholic peasants would spontaneously decide to convert to Judaism; that they would persist in calling themselves Jews even as Italy introduced Nazi-style anti-Semitic laws; that they would make contact with Jewish soldiers from Palestine, serving in the British Army that invaded southern Italy during World War II; and that finally, after two decades of dedication and hardship, they would undergo ritual circumcision and emigrate en masse to the newly created state of Israel? Yet it all really happened, in the town of San Nicandro in the impoverished, isolated Gargano region of southern Italy.

According to Davis, a professor of Italian history at the University of Connecticut, the Jews of San Nicandro represent “the only case of collective conversion to Judaism in Europe in modern times.” Why did it happen just then, at the darkest hour for European Jewry, and in a region where no actual Jews lived? The answer lies in the religious genius or madness of Donato Manduzio, the founder of the San Nicandro group. Born in 1885, Manduzio grew up in the extreme poverty typical of southern Italy at the time, and he never went to school. Of his childhood, little is known except that his father gave him the nickname “Shitface” (“although to judge from an early photograph,” Davis objects, “he seems to have been quite good looking”). His first exposure to the wider world came during World War I, when he was conscripted into an infantry regiment and contracted a disease that left his legs paralyzed.

After he returned to San Nicandro, Manduzio developed a reputation as a faith healer and seer. It is one of several elements in his story that makes him seem more a figure of the Middle Ages than the 20th century—and in fact, Davis writes, the life of poor southern Italians was in many respects still premodern. (It was not until the 1930s that San Nicandro got a railroad line.) Certainly, the way he discovered Judaism has a pre-Reformation flavor. In the late 1920s, Manduzio read the Bible for the first time. Even at this late date, the Catholic Church in Italy discouraged lay people from reading the Bible; it wasn’t until evangelical Protestants started to distribute an Italian-language edition that scripture became accessible. (These Protestants, Davis writes, were often Italians who had spent time in the United States, where they were exposed to Christian sects like the Pentecostals and the Seventh Day Adventists.)

What Manduzio read in the Old Testament amazed him. He became convinced “that Jesus had been a prophet but not the Messiah” and that the fallen state of the world—so full of poverty and suffering—was proof that the Messiah had not yet arrived. When he read that God had established the Sabbath on Saturday, he could not understand why Christians celebrated it on Sunday. Salvation, he now decided, “lay in following the Law of the God of Israel as it had been given to Moses on Sinai. … Those seeking salvation and comfort must therefore learn to observe the Law of the God of Moses, forsaking other gods and idols, and following the path of the righteous.”

This is exactly the kind of conversion experience that led so many Protestants, in the 16th century, to reject established churches and identify their own sects with ancient Israel. Where Manduzio went beyond them was in deciding that he must actually revive the religion of Israel. For the most remarkable thing about his story is that, when he had these revelations in the late 1920s, he actually didn’t know that any Jews existed in the world. As Davis writes, “Manduzio at first believed that the Jews had all perished in the biblical Flood and that he had been called by the Almighty to revive a faith that had long since disappeared from the face of the earth.”

Accordingly, Manduzio, who now used the name Levi, set about converting a small number of his neighbors—initially, 19 adults and 30 children—to his self-invented Judaism. He told them not to eat pork and not to work on Saturday—rules that, in this time and place, he had much difficulty enforcing—and ordered them to give their children Biblical names: Sara, Ester, Myriam, and Gherson, among others. The question of naming, in fact, led to one of the group’s most serious schisms. When Concetta di Leo, Manduzio’s favorite disciple, gave birth to a son, her husband wanted to name the boy Vincenzo, after his own father; but Concetta insisted that he be given the name of a Biblical prophet. (They compromised on Giuseppe, or Joseph.) This episode gives a sense of how totally Manduzio dominated his little sect. Paralyzed and bedridden—in all the time he led the Jews of San Nicandro, he never left his house—Manduzio relied on visions and dreams to communicate with God and laid down the law in a way that his followers increasingly resented.

The San Nicandro group could easily have remained just a cult of personality and ended up dispersing as such cults usually do. But eventually Manduzio learned from a traveling peddler that there were other Jews in Italy, and he began to write to Jewish organizations in major cities, asking for guidance. Those organizations were reluctant to write back, which Davis calls “not difficult to understand. Anyone reading the correspondence would immediately have been aware of the very humble background of the writers and would probably have suspected some sort of prank.”

Even once Angelo Sacerdoti, the chief rabbi of Rome, entered into correspondence with Manduzio, he remained wary. “You and your companions have often expressed your desire to convert to Judaism,” the rabbi wrote, “and I have always made it clear how much this amazes me. I have asked you many times how you came to this conviction, since you have had no previous contact with Jews and know very little about what Judaism is.” Sacerdoti also referred to “spiritual tendencies that had nothing to do with Judaism,” and it is unmistakable how deeply Manduzio’s language and thinking were infused with Christian concepts. His Sabbath service, for instance, involved reading a passage from the Pentateuch and singing the Paternoster, a Catholic prayer in Latin. How could it have been otherwise, since Catholicism was the only religion he ever knew?

But the sannicandresi were persistent, and in time their sincerity began to win over members of the Jewish establishment. At this point, Davis’ story begins to broaden into a larger portrait of the Italian Jewish community—a small and highly assimilated group, whose relations with the Fascist regime were mostly good until the late 1930s. Prominent Jews took an interest in San Nicandro—especially the small but influential community of Italian Zionists, who found the devotion of these self-made Jews an excellent example for Jews at large. One of their major patrons was Raffaele Cantoni, a brave anti-Fascist whose work on behalf of Jewish refugees before and after the war put him in a good position to help the Jews of San Nicandro. Much of the later part of Davis’ story unfolds through Cantoni’s correspondence with his proteges, as he tries to balance cautious support with impatience at their infighting and demands for help.

The war, which might easily have meant the end of the Jews of San Nicandro, actually turned out to be the making of them. Donato Manduzio’s house happened to be located on a highway used by a transport unit of the British Army, which occupied the region after September 1943. That unit, Company 178, was composed of Jews from Palestine, who had enlisted in the British Army in order to fight Germany. (Their commander, Major Wellesley Aron, is one of several fascinating Jewish figures in Davis’ story.) When their trucks, painted with the Star of David, drove through San Nicandro, the local Jews greeted them with their own Star of David flag.

In this way, Davis shows, the sannicandresi came to the attention of the network of Jewish activists—Italian, Palestinian, and British—who organized throughout Italy to shelter Jewish refugees and smuggle them to Palestine. The Jews of San Nicandro were especially inspired by their meeting with Enzo Sereni, an Italian Jew who was a leading Haganah activist. The photo of Sereni in San Nicandro, surrounded by solemn-looking men holding the Zionist flag, was the last taken of him before he parachuted behind German lines on a mission that led to his death.

What these experiences meant for the Jews of San Nicandro was that their home-made Judaism grew into a passionate Zionism. From 1944 on, the community’s goal was to emigrate and build the Jewish state. This was by no means easy, as the patient Cantoni kept reminding them: The British were intent on keeping Jewish immigrants out of Palestine, and the few available permits were meant for Holocaust survivors, not the comparatively well-off Jews of San Nicandro. Yet in November 1949, after a series of clashes that Davis documents—and after the death of Donato Manduzio, who grew increasingly alienated from his flock—the Jews of San Nicandro did make aliyah. Davis writes only sparingly about their experience in Israel, which was apparently as difficult as that of most immigrants to the new country. But perhaps this very hardship was the best proof that they had achieved their extraordinary goal of becoming ordinary Jews.

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Shemayah says:

This is very inspirational, and reminds me of my own experience. The same type of thing happens in America. Although we have Jews in places few would expect, it is difficult to become Jewish because of pluralism as well. There can even be socio-economic barriers as well as culture. The isolation of the sannicandressi faced in rural Italy exists in different forms. I think there are people in the US who would meet Jews with their own flags bearing the star. Jews are too unaware of the significance they bear.

jamie nachinson says:

yes some 70 or so did make aliyah and they and their decendents did succeed here in israel and are still here but not all came and there is still a jewish community in san nicandro, the decendents of those who stayed. it numbers some 30 persons who live a jewish life and worship together every shabbat and holidays. rome even sends them a rabbi every so often. an amazing story.

I read the story of this conversion many years ago. The book, THE PROPHET OF SAN NICANDRO, may still be in print. Look for it online.

Judaism has much to offer the world. It has long been my belief that many more people would be drawn to Judaism were its gatekeepers more welcoming.

Chana Batya says:

Fascinating!

Dr. Michael Margaretten says:

In a good cause, there are no failures; only obstacles to be overcome and challenges for the future.

Eric Hadze says:

Should the descendants of the San Nicandro Jews have more rights than the Palestinian people (who are actually semites)? I can’t get my head around it. Please explain?

Eric,
The question of rights has nothing to do with region–i think it is certainly more excusable to deny people who vow your destruction rights than people who simply do not originate from your region. Palestinians suffer because they violently reject and oppose the Jewish state of Israel. Hamas’s motto is “We love death more than the Jews love life,”
When the Palestinian lay down their arms and recognize the Jewish state of Israel, there will be peace and they will have their own state. If it were the other way around and the Jews laid down their arms and declared peace there would be the immediate realization of the Palestinian and Arab threats and Israel and its Jews would be annihilated. Golda Meir said it best: “Peace will come to the Middle East when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us.”

From the time of the UN’s splitting of Palestine into Jewish and Palestinian parts until this very day, there has been violent antisemetic rhetoric in Palestinian media. Tune in and you will hear it. This reaches all the way down to children in their schooling, where they receive textbooks, which, confirmed by the UN, call for the annihilation of jews. One of the very first real political leaders of the Palestinian people, and proclaimed (by Yasser Arafat) hero of the Palestinian people, Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, wrote in his diary about collaborating with Hitler in Germany about bringing the gas chambers and concentration camps over to Israel to solve the “jewish problem.” He and the people he represented sought to not only ally themselves with Hitler, but to benefit from his genocide against the Jews. The PLO still maintains antisemetic, genocide promoting public media and education and Hamas still has the destruction of the Jewish state written into its constitution. How can anybody expect Israel to not treat these people as hostile enemies?

Read the palestinian children’s textbooks and watch their media broadcasts and then you will have your answer.

Avrohom Wachs says:

There is no such people in history known as palestinians! It is a word invented by the British government to describe Arab nomads squatting in the Promised Land. The rightful owners of what we now call Israel are the Jews who have been living here, since the time when Joshua led them into the land promised to them by G-d! Though some of the Arabs have been in the Holy Land for a few generations, that in itself does not give them the right to claim it for their own!I believe there is more than enough room in all the Arabs countries to invite their relatives in! Isn’t it amazing how the majority of major Arab Moslem countries would not accept their brothers in 1948. Isn’t it astounding to find that even the Moslems’ house of prayer is not hallowed ground as Shites and Sunis slaughter each other.Those are just some of the facts!

Eric Hadze says:

Hello Davis & Avrohom.

Aligning with Hitler is wrong.Just as your extremist views are.There is no difference between the hate Palestinians preach and the hatred you have,which you just posted.

Rights have everything to do with region.If someone kicks me out of my house, hell yes I’m going to hate that person,especially if that person claims it to be based on the religion their ancestors converted to.When the Chosen People decided to follow Moses or Joshua,there were other semitic tribes from the same land who decided not to follow him(Palestinians cannot really be anti-semitic since they are also Semites).That would make Palestinians(or whatever name you want to call them) the descendants of the non followers.Palestinians have absolutely more right than those converts who are not even of Semitic origin.In fact since Jews were not the only ones living on the land when Judaism was born,Palestinians have just as equal rights as the Jews.

By your reasoning,if I decided to convert to the Jewish way of life,even if I’m Scandinavian,I have a right to kick out the original people who inhabited that land.Then I’m asking to be hated.Imagine if I created a religion and declare that only those who follow it are allowed to stay in my neighborhood,which I demarcate myself.Hold on a minute,aren’t there other people already living in my neighborhood who don’t want to follow me?Surely I expect to be hated then should I try to kick them out and replace them with others including foreigners just because they happen to follow me?

During the Holocaust,any uprising by the Jews against the Nazis was considered as terrorism by Hitler.But Jews had every right to fight back and hate the Nazis as they were kicked from their homes,killed and had their wealth stolen,just as Palestinians should have the right to dignity.It is a shame that some of the children of the people who have gone through the Holocaust are perpetrating the same crimes.Shame for trying to justifying their actions.

Subbotniks and others in Tsarist Russia started adopting Jewish rites.

Andrew Gow says:

Mr. Hazde: Judaism is a religion, and the Jewish people define themselves *as a people* through that religion–not by common language, culture and not *necessarily* even by a shared territory. Jewish peoplehood does not mesh with modern ideas of national belonging because being Jewish was defined before modern national ideologies in which a shared language and territory define peoplehood. Your real objection, I guess, is to the Jewish ethno-religious character and definition of the state of Israel as a Jewish state according to the logic of Judaism. Israel and Judaism do not function the same way as Christian/secular nation-states and national cultures do. Again, the reason is that Judaism is in fact a different *type* of religion–not a variety of Christianity, and not *merely* a religion either.
When someone takes on American or Dutch or Swedish citizenship, they have to spend time becoming American, or Dutch, or Swedish, learn about those nations, their language(s), history and culture, pass an examination, and declare their allegiance to their new people and nation. Much the same is true about converting to Judaism–except one is taking on a religion AND a peoplehood. It is your right to object to a state, a people and a religion defining themselves as one and the same–but there are plenty of Americans ready and willing to say that America is a Christian, English-speaking nation, too! The fact that Judaism and the Jewish people are not symmetrical with other national cultures and/or religions has often led to misunderstandings and difficulties.
The displacement of the Muslim and Christian Arabs of Palestine is a recent historical injustice that requires redress (as does the often violent displacement of 700,000 Jews from Arab countries in the 1950s)–but it does not justify outsiders deciding that the way Judaism and Jewish people define themselves is wrong. That is not merely “anti-Semitism” (whatever that is), but anti-Judaism.

I’ve said that least 2457736 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

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Convertito

The Jews of San Nicandro tells the remarkable story of a group of Fascist-era Italian peasants who became Jews and ultimately made aliyah

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