The amazing story of the Jews of San Nicandro

20/07/2020

Did you know about the Jews of San Nicandro, protagonists of the only case of mass conversion to Judaism in modern western Europe?

Picture of Donato Manduzio

San Nicandro Garganico is a small village in Apulia, the heel of the Italian peninsula. Although there is no evidence of a historic Jewish presence here, in the late 1920's, San Nicandro became the stage of the only case of mass conversion to Judaism in modern western Europe, when a group of Italian Roman Catholics collectively embraced the Jewish religion in the midst of Fascism.

The story begins with Donato Manduzio (1885-1948) a farmer's son who had never set foot in a school. During World War I, he was drafted into the army, was wounded and hospitalized. In the bed next to him lay a man who taught him to read and write.

When Manduzio returned to San Nicandro, he read a great deal of Italian literature and became a folk healer. By 1930, he had had encounters with some Protestant preachers who provided him with a Bible in Italian, and he read the Old Testament for the first time. Claiming to have had a "divine revelation" in the middle of the night, he abandoned Christianity and began observing the Jewish commandments, although at the time he thought there were no Jews left in the world. He delivered his new teachings to his followers, and established the San Nicandro Jewish community, which at its height numbered 80 people.

Sometime afterward a merchant who passed through the village revealed to him, to his great astonishment, that there were thousands of Jews living in Italy, and supplied some contacts. After a long exchange of correspondence, the Chief Rabbi of Rome sent a messenger to San Nicandro, and on that visit the village's first synagogue was dedicated and the community received prayer shawls, a menorah and several other religious articles.

They adopted a Jewish lifestyle with determination and did not give it up even after Mussolini decreed the racial laws against the Jews of Italy in 1938. These laws were not applied against them due to their Italian Catholic origin, despite their insistence on telling fascist policemen, and later the German Nazi soldiers who entered the village, that they were Jews.

By the end of 1943, after Allied forces had invaded Italy, members of the British Jewish Brigade passed through the village, with Stars of David painted on their jeeps. For Donato and his followers, it was their first encounter with real Jews. In 1946, the rabbinate in Rome converted most of the community and they reached their all-time peak of celebrity when they were featured in Time magazine on the occasion of the Jewish New Year issue of 1947.

In the years 1947-1949, 74 members of the San Nicandro community immigrated to Israel on ships that brought Holocaust survivors from Europe, but Manduzio objected to their emigration. He remained in the village with his wife. A few months prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, Manduzio passed away and was buried in the Jewish section of the small cemetery in San Nicandro.

Today, there are about 50 people living in the village who continue to maintain a Jewish lifestyle in every way, even though many of them are not considered Jewish according to Jewish law. The San Nicandro community in Israel, mostly based around cities in the Galilee, continues to maintain contact with the "mother community" in Italy and their members come for visits and vacations in the summer. The women of San Nicandro consider the possibility of immigrating to Israel, but claim that without formal conversion it is unrealistic. Their economic situation also makes it difficult for many to visit Israel, but that does not stop them from "dreaming about the Promised Land".