The Jews of San Nicandro John Davis

Publication date:
15 Sep 2010
Yale University Press
252 pages: 197 x 127mm
8 pp. b-w illus.

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The intimate story of an Italian peasant community’s unique conversion to the Jewish faith, and its links to major changes that swept twentieth-century Europe

Not many people know of the utterly extraordinary events that took place in a humble southern Italian town in the first half of the twentieth century—and those who do have struggled to explain them. In the late 1920s, a crippled shoemaker had a vision where God called upon him to bring the Jewish faith to this “dark corner” in the Catholic heartlands, despite his having had no prior contact with Judaism itself. By 1938, about a dozen families had converted at one of the most troubled times for Italy’s Jews. The peasant community came under the watchful eyes of Mussolini’s regime and the Catholic Church, but persisted in their new belief, eventually securing approval of their conversion from the rabbinical authorities, and emigrating to the newly founded State of Israel, where a community still exists today.

In this first fully documented examination of the San Nicandro story, John A. Davis explains how and why these incredible events unfolded as they did. Using the converts’ own accounts and a wide range of hitherto unknown sources, Davis uncovers the everyday trials and tribulations within this community, and shows how they intersected with many key contemporary issues, including national identity and popular devotional cults, Fascist and Catholic persecution, Zionist networks and postwar Jewish refugees, and the mass exodus that would bring the Mediterranean peasant world to an end. Vivid and poignant, this book draws fresh and intriguing links between the astonishing San Nicandro affair and the wider transformation of twentieth-century Europe.

John A. Davis is Emiliana Pasca Noether Chair in Modern Italian History, University of Connecticut, and a leading authority on the history of modern Italy. He has published widely on Italian history since the eighteenth century, including the prizewinning Naples and Napoleon: Southern Italy and the European Revolutions, 1780–1860. He lives in Mansfield Center, CT.

"In The Jews of San Nicandro, John Davis has written the definitive account of one of the most unusual occurrences in modern Jewish history. This is a fascinating tale, deeply researched and compellingly written."
-William D. Rubinstein, author of The Myth of Rescue

"It is a fascinating and gripping story - unique, I think, in the annals of European history - and John Davis tells it with great flair in what is a remarkable piece of micro-history, while never losing sight of the broader picture."
-Donald Sassoon, author of The Culture of the Europeans

"This is a fascinating and little-known story, elegantly told. It sheds interesting light on southern Italian society in the first half of the twentieth century and above all offers fresh perspectives on the fascist regime's persecution of the Jews and other religious minorities."
-Christopher Duggan, author of The Force of Destiny: A History of Italy Since 1796

"Davis deploys this strange and gripping story artfully, using it to tell a broader tale of twentieth-century Italian history, the nature of Italian fascism, the meaning of religious conversion, and the changing interplay of national and religious identity."
-K.E. Fleming, author of Greece: A Jewish History

"From the half-forgotten story of a few humble people who did something extraordinary John Davis has fashioned a gripping narrative that sheds light on a bewildering range of topics, spanning peasant life in early twentieth century Italy, popular religion, life under Fascism, modern Jewish history and the founding of Israel. He brings to life ordinary people and gives terrific pen portraits of several famous personalities who have walk-on parts. This is a quite extraordinary tale, beautifully told."
-David Cesarani, author of Major Farran's Hat

"The Jews of San Nicandro tells an amazing tale, improbable yet true, of the creation of a Jewish community in one of southern Italy’s most remote peasant towns.  Becoming Jews without ever having met a Jew, or even realizing that Italy had Jews living in it, this group of pioneers faced the scorn of their Catholic neighbors and the suspicion of the established Jewish community, yet somehow persevered.  John Davis has a gift for story-telling, and here tells a whale of a story that not only recounts the travails and triumphs of this group of self-made Jews, but provides new insight into Italian society under Fascism and allied occupation.  In doing so he brings to life a little-known but fascinating chapter in modern Jewish history."
-David I. Kertzer; provost Brown University and author, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara