Sarah Atara Leon-Vaccino

The San Nicandresi Jews

The drawings of Donato Manduzio and pictures of the community (image courtesy of author)

I recently had the pleasure of spending some time in an enchanting village on the Adriatic coast of Italy. The country that had previously been my home for many decades. As I was discovering the wonders of this region, I decided to go and see for myself, this place called San Nicandro. I had heard about the mysterious story of the Jews there and on a sunny day, I traveled along the turquoise seacoast by train and went to meet with Lucia Batisheva Leone, the head of the San Nicandrese Jewish community. She greeted me and proceeded to show me the small area of their community, the synagogue, and the home of Donato Manduzio. Donato Manduzio, the forefather of the Jewish movement in San Nicandro was a man looking for G-d. He had been a farmer who was conscripted into the first world war and during this time in the war, he had been injured. While in the hospital a fellow soldier taught him to read and write. He began to read voraciously and he studied various topics including astrology. As he studied the heavenly bodies and their influence on man, he made charts according to what he learned, and as he learned he taught others. As Lucia Leone tells the story Manduzio said “If there is a god, I want to know Him and serve Him.”

During his search, he dreamed he was in a dark place, and a voice spoke to him and said Ï am bringing you a “light” and he sees a man holding a lantern. “Ï cannot light it,” he says “ because I have no matches but you do and they are in your hand.” Manduzio looked at his hand and saw that he was indeed holding matches and they were already afire. As Lucia Leone gives the account, the very next day a friend of his who had received a bible from a protestant friend gave it to Manduzio. At that time only protestants had access to Bibles. This mysterious vision and his reading of the Torah in the bible he was given inspired him to live by the laws of Moses. He studied and absorbed the Tanakh and discovered that there were instructions for man’s relationship to G-d and for man’s relationship to man woven into the fibers of this writing. Having previously studied the celestial bodies he gained an understanding of the Hebrew calendar and the festivals and deduced the timing of the Jewish holy days. He truly connected with the early parts of the bible. He thought that the stories and the books of the prophets made sense but he did not have that same feeling about what is called the New Testament.

Having no knowledge of Jewish history beyond the bible he thought that these people, the Jews, no longer existed. He believed that like other people and populations in ancient history, the Jews along with them had faded into dream stuff. However, Donato Manduzio believed that he should be following the religion of the ancient Jews and he believed that he and his students were the only ones on that path. He taught this group to observe the Sabbath, he taught the dietary laws, and how to live according to the commandments. In Donato Manduzio’s home, he held the gatherings for Shabbat and the Chagim.

This group believed that they were rekindling this religion of the ancient Jews from the ashes of history. In 1930, the railway was constructed and San Nicandro was connected to other regions. Merchants began to have access to the area and the San Nicandresi began to meet people from other parts of the country. Soon afterward Manduzio had encounters with merchants from other parts of Italy who told him that there were many Jews in Rome, Milan, and Florence. Manduzio began to write to the community of Rome and tell them of their Jewish lifestyle and they responded. They realized the earnestness of this community and sent books and tallitot to the San Nicandrese community. Manduzio developed a good relationship with Raffaele Cantoni a prominent Italian Jewish figure who arrived in San Nicandro the evening before the promulgation of Italy’s racial laws was put into effect.  Cantoni aided the community immensely. The San Nicandresi wanted to convert and the majority of the conversions took place during the racial laws imposed on Italy which meant putting the people of San Nicandro at risk of persecution and death. This did not deter them from wanting conversion. Somehow word had gotten to the German officials that there were Jews in San Nicandro. They arrived and found the home of Donato Manduzio which they ransacked and demanded of him information on the whereabouts of the others. The Italian Carabinieri, the Marshall, and other Italian authorities intervened saying these people are Italian citizens, they are San Nicandresi, and they possess no documentation that says they are Jewish. You cannot touch them!  At that time, they were not yet officially Jews. The San Nicandro community feels that this was miraculous and they retell the story throughout their generations.

Soon after their conversion an Italian Zionist, Enzo Sereni visited them. He was instrumental in helping many of them to make Aliyah to Israel. Later he was captured by the Nazis and taken to Dachau concentration camp and eventually shot and killed. Many San Nicandresi Jews made Aliyah leaving behind their properties for the land of Israel. For faith and fervor. Thanks to the mysterious calling of a man who believed he was alone in his conviction Donato Manduzio set foot on a path that led him and his followers to search for the home of their souls.

Donato Manduzio passed away just months before Israel became a state.

About the Author
Sarah Atara Leon-Vaccino is originally from Los Angeles, California. At a young age, she moved to Paris to live and work. She later moved to Italy where she studied the Italian language, culture, and art history and where she spent 30 years of her life. She has lived in Switzerland, England, Ireland, Malta, and Croatia and made Aliyah to Israel in 2021. She has lived and worked in these countries as a language teacher and as an international cross-cultural trainer and mediator. She has written about her travels and cultural experiences. She has discovered that there were areas that she traveled to that had Jewish history that she had not known about before. This has always fascinated her and she continues to search for these communities in her travels.
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