The Jews of San Nicandro
By John Davis
Yale University Press, 252 pages

Apulia is the least typically Italian region of Italy. Facing the Adriatic Sea, it extends from the high, carbuncular peninsula of Gargano, north of Bari, all the way down to the heel of Italy’s boot. The local genetic soup is a gazpacho of outlandish ingredients, Greek, Roman, German, French, and Spanish. Crusaders sailed out from Trani to kill Muslims and Jews in Jerusalem (they rehearsed by first massacring the indigenous Jews). Saracens sailed into Otranto to rob and kill Christians. Rich only with the relics of vanished supremacies, Apulia, in modern times, has been one of the poorest parts of the Mezzogiorno. In the first decades of the 20th century, peasants toiled for a pittance in the fields of domineering landlords.

Fighting in the Great War of 1914-18 gave many inhabitants their first experience of the outside world. Among them was Donato Manduzio, from the town of San Nicandro, deep in the then-inaccessible heart of Gargano. Already 30 years old in 1915, his only inheritance from his father had been his nickname Caccabra—which, in The Jews of San Nicandro, the University of Connecticut professor John Davis translates, unflinchingly, as “shit-face.” In fact not a bad-looking man, Manduzio fell ill while on military service; his disease, never identified, left him crippled.

While convalescing, he learned to read and write fluently. Army service advanced his education, as it did for so many GIs. After he returned to San Nicandro, with a small pension and an appetite for the written word, the housebound Manduzio became a spiritual traveler. He organized shows and recitals in narratives that combined Alexandre Dumas with Christian, Roman, and Greek myths. Manduzio was both impresario and faith healer for peasants and artisans who could not afford doctors or medicine. His patients had to accept that their sickness was God-sent punishment for their sins; he then divined its origin and proposed a penance. All “scientific” treatment would be counterproductive. Donato gained a reputation for miraculous cures.

Faith healers were not rare. The church had one of its own in Padre Pio, who lived in nearby Giovanni Rotondo. He claimed authenticity by virtue of his saintly stigmata; his hands were said to bleed like those of the crucified Jesus. Davis says that Padre Pio was promoted by “a carefully devised marketing operation directed by a bizarre and not very spiritual group of politicians, entrepreneurs and fraudulent speculators.” During the war, locals believed that a bearded image in the sky deterred allied bombers from attacking San Nicandro as they had Foggia, the only military target in the area.

Manduzio had no publicity machine. What would make him unique stemmed from a vision he experienced in 1928. In his own words: “God gave inspiration to a man he deemed worthy to establish the Jewish religion. . . . By Divine inspiration [he] was instructed to declare the Law of the One God.” A more elaborate version, written two years later, describes how he had dreamed of a voice calling out, “I am bringing you a Light.” In the darkness, he saw a man holding an unlit lantern. When asked why he did not light it, the man said, “Because I have no matches, but you do and they are in your hand.” Manduzio looked down and saw that he was holding already lighted matches, which he applied to the oil lamp. He now could see the Way and was enabled to lead others along it.

Enzo Sereni with Jewish converts from San Nicandro, 1944
Enzo Sereni with converts from San Nicandro, 1944

Born a Catholic, Manduzio’s spiritual journey to Judaism began once he acquired an Italian version of the Bible. Copies in the vernacular had been circulated by evangelicals who had returned after immigrating to the United States. Having read the Pentateuch, he felt “like a man who had been blind.” He questioned various Christians and “understood that all their fantasies were untrue,” not least the notion of the “Second Coming.” How could Jesus have been the Messiah, when “there was still so much suffering in the world”? Comfort and salvation, he decided, could come only from observing the original Law of Moses.

At first, Manduzio imagined that he was reviving a faith whose followers had all been drowned in the Flood. He believed himself to be the sole Jew in the world. His reputation as showman and shaman must have played a large part in his ability to become “Levi,” the prophet who, within a short time, had recruited a community of 19 San Nicandro adults (eight of them women) and 30 children.

Manduzio must have learned quite soon that there were in fact other Jews in the world, since he wrote to rabbis in Rome and in Naples for books and instruction. The improbability of his conversion excited more suspicion than acclaim in orthodox circles. However, a Zionist of Polish origin, Jacques Faitlovich, already the champion of the Ethiopian Falashas, traveled to remote Gargano and embraced Manduzio and his followers. He told them stories of the Holy Land that laid the foundation for the mass emigration that, after many travails, would take most of them to the new state of Israel.

Manduzio himself was a deutero-Moses who never set foot in the Promised Land. In fact, he resisted emigration, considering that his mission was to “bring Light to this Dark Corner of Apulia.” He probably never discovered that there had been substantial Jewish communities in the region, notably farther south, in Oria and Manduria. I have visited the tight ghettos in both of these haunted, landlocked towns. My friend Mark Glanville, a remarkable singer of Yiddish songs, has revived Jewish music in the area, with keen local support.

Davis’s trim and scholarly narrative is neither sentimental nor skeptical. Only a cold heart could remain untouched by the determination of a community of impoverished provincials, born Catholics, to identify themselves with a faith that, although they did not know it, was about to endure the most savage persecution known to European history. While many European Jews were seeking to save themselves by baptism, Manduzio’s little band chose, for whatever curious motives, to believe in Judaism. One of their regular requests was for someone to circumcise their men. This was finally accomplished soon after the war when a doctor was sent from Rome. His alarmingly high fees were paid in full by the San Nicandresi. Perhaps because he was too old, Manduzio remained only “spiritually circumcised.”

Among the prewar Italian rabbinate, Manduzio was met with reluctance and scepticism regarding his motives. However, his little community was visited by a pair of charismatic Zionists, Enzo Sereni and Raffaele Cantoni, who kept their hopes alive. Sereni taught them “Hatikvah” and left them inspired by his enthusiasm for Zion. He later volunteered to be parachuted into occupied Tuscany, where he was betrayed, arrested, and sent to his death at Dachau.

Cantoni was a man of courage and rare patience (and had to be: the San Nicandresi were never more Jewish than in their schismatic rivalries and mutual recriminations). In Florence, in 1943, Cantoni hid Jewish refugees in the diocese’s Dominican convents with the active connivance of Archbishop Elia Dalla Costa. Arrested by the Germans, he jumped from a train on the way to Auschwitz and returned to work with “The Net,” the undercover Jewish organization that helped Jews reach Palestine despite the hostility of the British.

And here the tale begins to seem providential. In 1945, Sir Clifford Heathcote-Smith, chief of the allied control commission in Rome, continued to deny that the Jews were different from, or had suffered more than, any other Displaced Persons. As part of the undistinguished rabble, they should be returned whence they had come rather than be allowed to go to Palestine.

Despite the abiding official aversion to Jewish units in the British army, the Oxford-educated Major Wellesley Aron (born to German Jews) did in fact recruit and command a company of Jewish engineers. And it was Aron and his men who, of all the soldiers in the Allied armies, drove into San Nicandro and discovered the unlikeliest Jews in Europe, alive and well and eager for aliyah. One improbability capped another: as the Germans were retreating, two of their officers walked, by chance, into Donato Manduzio’s house and found him at prayer, with the Star of David prominently on display. They looked at each other and walked away.

Manduzio’s naive faith led him into unmitigated outspokenness. In April 1945, when the extent of the Shoah began to be known, he told the Roman rabbinate that the Jews had suffered for their sins and their failure to observe the Law. Another of the San Nicandresi, the widow Maria Frascaria, was “deeply shocked” when, in 1949, she heard that the president of Israel had sent greetings to those celebrating Christmas. “Why . . . should Jews send greetings to Christians who had always hated them and were the main opponents of the creation of a Jewish state?”

The story of San Nicandro as told by John Davis is heartening and often charming, but it does raise a number of age-old questions, not least about the qualities of those who believe themselves the recipients of divine annunciations of any kind.

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