A Niche for a Prophet

Eric Hobsbawm

  • The Jews of San Nicandro by John Davis
    Yale, 238 pp, £20.00, November 2010, ISBN 978 0 300 11425 6

San Nicandro Garganico is a modest agrarian township of some 16,000 inhabitants on the edge of the spur of the boot-shaped Italian peninsula. It has been somewhat bypassed by Italy’s postwar development and has never been on the tourist circuit, or indeed had anything about it that might attract outsiders. The railway didn’t even reach it until 1931. To judge by the photo in the current Italian Wikipedia entry, it looks pretty much the same as it did in 1957, when I visited it, curious about the subject on which John Davis has now given us a first-rate, concise and attractively written book. San Nicandro has made only two entrances onto the historical stage. It was an early centre of Italian socialism and agrarian struggle in the grain-fields of northern Apulia, whose local political head, Domenico Fioritto, became its deputy and subsequently leader of the Italian Socialist Party. The former Communist Party (now the Democratic Party) continues to supply its mayor. The second appearance of the town in the wider world was less relevant to Italian politics, but globally more prominent, though the postwar headlines would soon be forgotten. It linked the town to a group of local peasants who decided in the 1930s to convert to Judaism and eventually emigrated to Israel. John Davis has not only rescued the ‘Jews of San Nicandro’ from more than a half-century of oblivion, but used them to illuminate 20th-century Europe’s extraordinary history.

In purely quantitative terms the phenomenon was negligible: the Fascist police, ever on the watch, reported them as nine families, or 40 people. Some 30 migrated to Israel in 1949. If this group of friends and kinsmen had not chosen to be Jews, but had joined one of those evangelical sects – Seventh-Day Adventists, Pentecostalists – brought into southern Italy by emigrants returned from the US, nobody would have paid any attention to them. They would have been regarded as just another kind of Protestant, as indeed they were by the authorities on their first contact with the sect in 1936, when their prophet, Donato Manduzio, was fined 250 lire as ‘a Protestant pastor’ for conducting an unauthorised religious service. It was in that world of postwar grassroots religiosity that they belonged, though dissident village conventicles were much smaller than Catholic miracle cults such as the one that developed around Padre Pio of San Giovanni Rotonda in the same region at the same time. Though the Vatican was then, understandably, sceptical about the holy man’s claim to bear the mark of Christ’s stigmata, he was to be promoted to sainthood by Pope Wojtyla.

Where else, except from a neighbouring Pentecostalist, would Manduzio have acquired a copy of the Bible in Italian, his study of which converted him to Judaism? How, except in debates with other evangelicals, Pentecostalists in San Nicandro, Seventh-Day Adventists in Lesina, could he have discovered that the others were wrong, if only because they challenged Holy Writ in taking their day of rest on Sunday and not the Sabbath, and even more convincingly, because they believed, against all plausibility, in the second coming of the Messiah – i.e. in his first coming. Jesus himself could only have been a prophet. ‘In the books of the Hebrew Bible,’ Davis writes, Manduzio ‘discovered a world of cruelty and suffering, of false prophets, false idols and false religions which he recognised as his own. If the Messiah had already come to earth, why did all this suffering and hardship still exist?’ One might add – I think the point was made in the first serious study of the San Nicandro Jews, Elena Cassin’s San Nicandro: histoire d’une conversion (1957) – that a countryman’s life in the Old Testament did not seem all that different from early 20th-century rural Apulia, especially given the importance of livestock transhumance in that region.

So he converted to the Old Testament. To the best of my knowledge his was the only case of unmediated conversion to Judaism on the part of a village prophet in Italy or elsewhere in Europe; he seems to have believed that the post-biblical Jews were extinct and certainly in 1928-30 he was unaware that any could be found in Italy. In a sense he drew the strength of his prophetic vocation from the belief that God himself, by the dreams and visions in which he spoke, had given him the mission to bring ‘the Laws of the One God’ not just to the folk of San Nicandro, but back to a world that had forgotten them. This universal vocation is easy to overlook, since Manduzio soon discovered the existence of an actual Jewish community in Italy (presumably from some pedlar who brought news of the wider world to the back country), after which he concentrated his formidable energies on the task of becoming part of it. Not that he proved a very successful restorer of religion. The San Nicandro Jews never expanded significantly beyond the original nucleus, or looked like doing so.

It was not God’s command, however, that told Manduzio what his laws were, but the endless stubborn study of God’s printed word. As Davis shows, Manduzio and his converts were village intellectuals insofar as all of them – even the women, who seem to have been more attracted to the new religion than the men – appear to have been able to read and write, a rather unusual situation in rural southern Italy. (They included among them at least two members of the quintessential village thinkers’ trade, the cobblers.) They seem to have been not so much peasants as a group living in the interstices and on the margins of a large agrarian township. Since all were poor, some desperately so, nobody seems to have paid much attention to them.

Manduzio was clearly the founder and inspiration of the San Nicandro Jews, though, to his irritation, never their uncontested chief. He clearly was the sort of rural original who, if suitable records had been available, would have made a splendid subject for someone in the great Italian school of microcosmic history. But records such as those of the Inquisition, which allowed Carlo Ginzburg to produce The Cheese and the Worms, belonged to earlier periods. We have a good deal of information about Manduzio’s activities and, from 1937 on, his thoughts, as recorded in the journal he began to keep in that year, which still exists only in manuscript. But otherwise we have to rely on the reports of policemen and ecclesiastical authorities anxious to control religious or other dissidents, among whom the San Nicandro Jews were regarded as negligible, and those of a growing number of Jewish observers and visitors who were too surprised at the conversion to inquire how it came about. Besides, some of them had their own, and larger, Jewish fish to fry.

Manduzio was in his forties when he had his revelation. Born in 1885 in a family too poor to send him to school, he was illiterate until he was called up to serve in the 94th Infantry Regiment, where he acquired an unspecified but permanently disabling disease. This gave him the two bases for his future career: an ex-service pension sufficient for him to get by without work, and literacy, acquired during a long convalescence in military hospitals. He became a voracious reader of the medieval dramatic romances so popular in southern Italy, and of novels, such as The Count of Monte Cristo. In Primitive Rebels (1959) I wrote that during one of the many crises within the Jewish community ‘the image which came spontaneously to his mind was that of King Pippin, when he saw that Elisetta, who had taken the place in his bed of Berthe-aux grands-pieds, had deceived him, wanted to throw the traitress and the two small daughters he had by her into the fire, but was prevented by those around him.’ (Berthe-aux-grands-pieds was immortalised in Villon’s ‘Ballade des dames du temps jadis’.) Though he took a strong interest in astrology, there is no sign of any serious early interest in the study of sacred texts. It isn’t clear how far he had got in his biblical studies before he had the sudden vision or dream of being chosen by the Lord that converted him in 1928. Certainly being chosen by the Lord encouraged his further biblical study, but he continued to base his authority on visions and dreams. Perhaps what converted him to the Old Testament was that, unlike in the New Testament, God makes frequent personal appearances to assert and confirm his power, to threaten, punish and instruct.

His circumstances placed him both at the centre and on the margin of his small backwoods universe. A crippled adult, married but childless, a pensioner who didn’t have to earn a living by labour and had the time and incentive to speculate about the universe, he was an anomaly. As an unofficial male with a daytime presence on the street, a talker, listener and walking library of local lore, he could not be overlooked, all the more so as he had a reputation as a general adviser and healer. In the Gargano the gift of healing didn’t require medical expertise in our sense, but rather the ability to recognise the external or internal forces, the cosmic influences and personal actions believed to be responsible for creating the sickness, and to exorcise them, or counteract them by the right sort of propitiatory action or penance. Visions were the engine of diagnosis. Denouncing sin could cure malady. Miracles were to be expected. And was not the world itself in need of guidance and cure? In such an environment there was a demand for ways in which poor countrymen and women could have access, direct or through intermediaries, to the realm beyond the unmanageable troubles of every day. And consequently a niche for magi and prophets.

Manduzio’s response to this need was so untypical that we can’t read too much into his and his tiny group’s conversion. If anything, it looked like a non-millennial mini-breakaway from the sect-generating universe of evangelical Protestantism. It was certainly far less significant than the wider outbreaks of unofficial religious practice in Italy, which suggested the felt inadequacy of the Roman Church, though the Church developed considerable skill at defusing this implied dissatisfaction by co-opting dissident cults. Certainly the San Nicandro Jews were not particularly interested in secular questions. With one brief exception (the usual cobbler) none of them had been involved in agitation, and their expressed views were conventionally patriotic. Even after 1945 they kept aloof from the surge of left-wing countryside militancy in their part of Apulia. They seemed perfectly harmless to the police. And so they were. Being Jews was what they were about.

From the moment Manduzio discovered that not all Jews had been wiped out in the Flood as he had supposed, but that they were still to be found in Italy, the San Nicandro phenomenon loses most of its cultural and anthropological interest, and turns into a strange but illuminating footnote to European history in the era of Fascism. The San Nicandresi’s persistent and eventually successful battle for recognition as proper Jews has considerable limits as a historical theme. It is irrelevant to Italian Judaism in this period – its most ambitious history, edited by Corrado Vivanti, Gli ebrei in Italia (1996), barely mentions them – though it is not an inconsequential marginal note to the development of Italian Zionism and the birth of Israel. After all, the San Nicandro Jews were converted to the need to emigrate to Eretz Israel, largely by one of the heroes of the then untypical Italian Zionist minority, Enzo Sereni – against Manduzio, who was opposed to emigration, and against San Nicandro’s first patron among official Jewry, Raffaele Cantoni, who seems to have had a much more realistic assessment of the peculiarity of a locally rooted mini-sect. And yet, insignificant as they may be, the fortunes of this small, quarrelsome, fissiparous and yet cohesive group on the edge of the cataclysms of the 1930s and 1940s shine small beams of light into its darkness. Most of Davis’s book naturally deals with this phase of their development.

The promulgation of Hitlerian racial laws by Mussolini in 1938 made little difference to them. It merely seemed to make it even harder for them to achieve official acceptance as Jews by the always procrastinating or sceptical Jewish authorities, who now had more urgent matters to worry about. Between 1938 and 1943 they were probably more isolated than at any time in their brief history. Mussolini’s fall brought the war close to the Gargano as the Allies destroyed the great communications hub of Foggia, and briefly into San Nicandro in the form of German armed columns. It also bought danger and hard times. For the first time being a Jew mattered: if Costantino Tritto would not remove the Star of David he liked to wear in his lapel, there might be serious reprisals against the town. The curious German officers who looked into Manduzio’s room with its Hebrew inscriptions and insignia caused a panic, but fortunately went away and didn’t return. But the Germans soon gave way to the British forces, advancing up the Adriatic coast to liberate what remained of Foggia in September 1943.

It was the Eighth Army that brought Manduzio’s small company back into world history. Apulia, the heel of Italy, turned out to be the base of the Allies’ transnational operations for several crucial months, as the organisations supporting resistance movements shifted from Cairo to Bari to send reinforcements across the Adriatic from the convenient local airfields. The British troops meanwhile remained blocked there for several months, prevented from advancing further until the Germans abandoned their very effective ‘Winter Line’. Among them there were now some non-combatant Jewish units originally recruited for the defence of Egypt. While negotiating with the reluctant British for the establishment of a Jewish combat brigade, they were quietly engaged in building up their armed forces for the eventual takeover of Palestine by the future state of Israel. Among the mass of Jewish refugees and other ‘displaced persons’ who were making their way into Allied-occupied southern Italy, they also discovered, to their amazement and puzzled gratification, the Jews of San Nicandro. Soldiers spread the news about them among the anglophone military, Haganah recruiters were ready to accept them as potential immigrants to Israel, and Italian Jews with a bad conscience about the weakness of many of their co-religionists in the face of the race laws could point to their simple but steadfast faith. They were sufficiently important for Sereni, a major figure both in Italian Zionism and in Mandate Palestine, en route in April 1944 for the secret mission in German-occupied Italy from which he did not return, to visit them and urge emigration. When German resistance ended the group had become a familiar part of war correspondent lore. 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.

The liberation of Rome brought official acceptance of the San Nicandresi as bona fide Jews by the rabbinical authorities. The males were circumcised in 1946, though for some reason Manduzio himself refused the operation. He died in March 1948, still refusing to leave San Nicandro, and still convinced ‘that we came to the Light through visions just as was the case of Moses and all the prophets and that anyone who refuses to believe or says that the visions mean nothing denies the God of the visions and Moses of the Sacred Book of Laws’. He lived long enough to hail the decision to set up the state of Israel.

Whether and under what auspices the San Nicandresi should emigrate to Israel, as the bulk of them did in 1949, remained uncertain. It was complicated by the start of the Cold War. The defeat of the left in the Italian elections of 1948 itself would have made little difference to a community never involved in secular politics, but Italy’s refusal to recognise the state of Israel, when Russia had immediately done so, made various Zionist plans for sending Jewish refugees to the Holy Land suspect to the Christian-Democratic government in Rome. In the end the pressure of the San Nicandresi prevailed over the opposition to collective emigration of their chief and most loyal supporter, Cantoni, in some way the hero of the San Nicandro story, and an altogether admirable figure. Italian, Zionist Jew, Freemason, socialist anti-Fascist though once a young activist in D’Annunzio’s capture of Fiume, he deserves a fuller study.

Once they had relocated to the land of Israel the Jews of San Nicandro disappear into the historical anonymity of ordinary folk earning their living. John Davis tells us all, and perhaps more than all that we need to know about this last phase of an extraordinary episode in 20th-century history. This excellent book by a remarkably good historian will almost certainly remain its lasting record.