A Niche for a Prophet

51SGvpZifGL._SL500_AA300_ Eric Hobsbawm in the LRB:

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?

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