In a new book, “The Jews of San Nicandro,” author John Davis, the chair in Modern Italian History at the University of Connecticut, sheds light on the little-known but highly curious tale of how a community of Italian Catholic peasants came to embrace Judaism during the rise of Fascism and the Second World War. Using a variety of first-person and other accounts, most notably the diary of self-appointed group leader and “prophet” Donato Manduzio, Davis describes the series of remarkable events and complex characters who somehow intersected at the right place and time in both Italian and Jewish history.
Here, he answers a few questions on how and why he came to embrace this particularly unusual historical episode.
Marla Brown Fogelman: To paraphrase the line from “Casablanca,” out of all the idiosyncratic episodes in the annals of modern Italian history, why did you choose to spend years of research on the story of the converts of San Nicandro?
John Davis: I first came across the story, would you believe it, in graduate school at Oxford. One of the books we were all reading at that time was “Primitive Rebels,” by historian Eric Hobsbawm. Right at the end of it, was a reference to Donato Manduzio as an old millenarian religious character who had somehow happened found himself in the 20th century.
Something about this story got inside my head, and over the years, I kept going back to it and trying to find out more about it. About 10 years ago, I spent a couple months at the American Academy at Rome, and at dinner, I started telling the story and within minutes, the entire room fell silent, and then we discussed it all evening and people were saying, “You’ve got to write a book on this.” So I started thinking, perhaps they’ve got a point. The other thing that struck me is that it was a story that enabled me to take a look at some of the big narratives of 20th century history.
Is there anything in your personal background or religious affiliation that could have drawn you to this particular story? I assume that you are not Jewish.
I am not Jewish, and I couldn’t say that I’m a person for whom religion plays an important part in my life or the life of my family. In this case, the thing has worked the other way around. It is actually through this story that I understood the importance religion plays in the lives of so many others. It revealed a certain blindness in my ways of thinking as a historian, the notion that secularity and modernity went hand in hand in the 20th century.
Was there anything you found particularly illuminating in the diary?
The diary is a very curious document. It’s not easy to read, a real stream of consciousness. From the diary, you get a very clear picture of the obsessiveness of Manduzio’s character.
What happened to any of the descendants of the original converts? How do they feel about your revival of the story after so many years?
I deliberately didn’t follow the immigrants’ story when they moved to Israel, first because they were spread all over Israel and it would have been difficult. Secondly, because it was their story — the story of how they assimilated into Israeli society — and it’s up to them to tell it. One of the interesting things now is that the descendants who are young Israelis have taken up an interest in their past, and they want to revisit that story. Coincidentally, while I was writing the book, I got a call from an Italian filmmaker in Rome, Vincenzo Condorelli, who was making a documentary on Manduzio, and I worked on the movie as a consultant. Condorelli tells the story through the eyes of one of the descendants, who is in film school in Tel Aviv. It starts in Israel and goes back to San Nicandro and is fascinating.
I [also] met with the community of Jews in San Nicandro, mostly all women, and they were extremely generous and showed me all kinds of things (except Manduzio’s diary). However, they were quite disturbed by my interest and said that they felt like they were being treated like animals in a zoo. It seemed to me that they had a valid point. That I had a legitimate in the historical part of the story, but I didn’t want to intrude on their privacy. I wanted to respect their wishes as far as I could.
What would you want readers to take from the story most of all?
As much as anything, it’s a story that I feel compelled to share with people because it is so unusual. There’s a wonderful mixture of man’s terrible inhumanity on one hand, and on the other, these remarkable humanitarian initiatives.
Marla Brown Fogelman is a writer in Silver Spring, Md. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Moment, Parents and elsewhere.