The Converts of San Nicandro

The Converts of San Nicandro

All over the world next week, the ram’s horns of Rosh Hashanah (beginning of the New Year) will call faithful Jews to the Ten Days of Penitence that end with Yom Kippur. No prayers will be more fervent than those from the 80-odd ex-Catholics of San Nicandro, Italy.

The conversion of San Nicandro began almost 20 years ago with dark-eyed, sallow Donato Manduzio. Invalided by shrapnel in World War I, Donato had lain for years on a miserable straw mattress in an attic room. At first he wept bitterly that he could not join in the daily life of his native San Nicandro Garganico (pop. 20,000). But gradually, the sounds of women singing as they carried water in copper vessels on their heads, the cries of the black-hatted mule-drivers, the hammering of cobblers in the tiny, dark shops (Donate had been a cobbler himself) lost their attraction for Donato. He heard them no more, because he was too busy reading the Bible.

Along with the sounds of workaday life, Donato also closed his ears to church bells. Bible study had led him to question the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church.

On the day that Manduzio was able to leave his bed, a Protestant preacher happened to be addressing a meeting in San Nicandro’s square. As the preacher attacked the dogmas of Catholicism, Donato suddenly lifted one of the two sticks on which he was leaning, and shouted: “You have demolished the Catholic Church for me. I am a Catholic no longer.”

But it was not Protestantism that Manduzio embraced. “The Messiah’s coming was to regenerate the world,” the preacher had said. “Men’s understanding of Christ’s call would herald in a new age.” Yet, thought Donato, had a new age come to the world with Christ’s coming? Was there more love and understanding? Was there less worldliness? Christ could not be the Messiah, Donato told himself. The Messiah must be an ideal not yet attained. Donato decided to become a Jew.

“Shalom!” When the Chief Rabbi in Rome received Manduzio’s first letter applying for entry into the Jewish community, he thought someone was joking. Several letters from Manduzio were left unanswered. Then the Chief Rabbi took notice. The letters—which invariably bore the date according to the Jewish calendar, began with the traditional words “beloved brethren” and ended with “shalom” written in clear Hebrew letters—told how Manduzio had made converts, first a few individuals, then whole families: a total of 80 people. Most of Donato,s fellow cobblers in San Nicandro had joined him in the Jewish faith.

The Rabbi was reluctant to take this unusual group into the community until he had heard more about them. So for many years-San Nicandro’s converts remained in a category which Hebrews call “semi-Jews.” They had no proper synagogue, but met, as they still do, in Manduzio’s own house.

The converts’ persistence was rewarded in the fall of 1943, when the town was liberated by Palestinian units of the Eighth Army. The “Manduzians” received them with wild enthusiasm. Manduzio wrote in a letter: “Allied troops have arrived at San Nicandro. . . . When we noticed that vehicles had Hebrew signs we said to ourselves: these people are Jews, and we hoisted a flag with the same sign in front of my door. A truck stopped in front of my house and so did a whole convoy. They entered our home saluting with ‘shalom.'”

A Wife for Nazaro. Now the Jews of San Nicandro are anxious to go to Palestine. Isolated as they are, they are threatened with extinction. There have been no conversions for several years, and Donato Manduzio is a greyheaded man. Marriage presents an almost insurmountable difficulty for them. Last year one of the group’s elders wrote to the president of a Jewish refugee organization: “A young man, Nazaro di Salva, born in 1925, wants to take a wife, but in our community there is none. I therefore apply to you as president of orphans and refugees, that you might find among them a girl willing to marry him and come to San Nicandro. If you think it possible . . . write . . . making an appointment for making the girl’s acquaintance so that our young man does not take a wife among other nations. … If you don’t wish to look after this matter our young man will take a gentile wife which thing won’t please the Eternal. It won’t be our fault since we know no refugee girls.”

This knotty problem still remains unsolved, but life for San Nicandro’s Jews is not without its consolations. They had their great day a year ago when they were officially received into the Jewish community. Wrote Manduzio to the Union of Jewish Communities in Rome: “We have completed our arduous undertaking as far as circumcision is concerned. We hope that after what has happened you will pay us a visit. , . .”

*For four of them (1941-45), the Chief Rabbi in Rome was Rabbi Israele Zolli, who shocked Manduzio and world Jewry in 1945 by joining the Roman Catholic Church (TIME, Feb. 26, 1945)