April 2013: As the Nazis poured into Poland and began rounding up Jews, many tried to escape, whether to the forests, where they hid out and held out as long as they could, or to the cities, where they tried to blend in with the gentile population. The Nazis caught many of them and murdered them of course, but others managed to escape and survive. After the war, they were faced with a choice: Continue their current lives as members of Polish society, or rejoin the Jewish people, whether in the Land of Israel or America.
Some chose the latter, but others, for their own reasons, chose the former and remained in Poland, living as Polish gentiles. Many married and had children, and often, even when marrying a fellow Jewish survivor, they did not tell their children who they really were.
By doing so, many were repeating a pattern that had been established in previous generations. After particularly severe pogroms, some Jews would just “opt out,” escaping their village to live in a big city like Warsaw, where they could attempt to assimilate. They, too, never told their children the truth about their backgrounds, and in some cases, they themselves had children and even grandchildren who had hidden Jewish roots. But the indomitable Jewish spirit is difficult to stamp out, even generations later.
On Holocaust Memorial Day eve, dozens of the “hidden Jews” of Poland gathered in Oswiecem, better known as Auschwitz, the town adjacent to the most notorious of Poland’s concentration camps. The gathering, a Shabbat celebration, was organized by the Shavei Israel organization, which has helped people young and old around the world get back in touch with their Jewish identities.
Jews first settled in Oswiecem in the 1500s (the village was known to Jews as Oshpitzin), and contained dozens of synagogues until the very eve of the Holocaust. In 1939, 14,000 people lived in the town, 8,200 of them Jews. Nearly all were murdered by the Nazis. By September 1945, only 186 Jews were left in the town and by November 1946 there were just 40, most of whom had left for Israel or the U.S. by the mid-1950s.
In recent years, a growing number of young Poles have begun researching their Jewish roots, those roots that Hitler and his Nazi regime sought to stamp out. Shavei Yisrael CEO Michael Freund stated, “I cannot think of a better way to express the victory of the Jewish people than to celebrate Shabbat with young Poles who wish to learn about their Jewish roots at the edge of the valley of death in Auschwitz.” The seminar, held over Shabbat, featured traditional Shabbat meals, discussions and symposia on Judaism and Jewish history, and events to encourage the youths to reach out to others with the same concerns and desires as their own. The event was held in the Lomdei Mishnayot Synagogue, the only active synagogue in the area.
April 2013: After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, many Jews sought refuge in Naples, Puglia, Sicily and Calabria. They included Don Isaac Abarbanel, the great Torah scholar and Biblical commentator who also served as Finance Minister to Spanish King Ferdinand, along with his family. However when the Spanish monarchs captured the region in 1510, a series of further persecutions began, which included forced conversions and expulsions.
The Inquisition was active in the area for centuries in which Marranos and conversos were tortured until 1700 and possibly later. But the Bnei Anousim of the area clung to their Jewish identity handing it down from one generation to the next. It is their descendants who are beginning to return to their roots of their Jewish past. In southern Italy, much like Spain and South America, descendants search for their Jewish ancestral history.
The Jewish presence in Sicily dates back some two thousand years. Some historians state the first Jews in Sicily were brought there as slaves by the victorious Roman legions during the Second Temple period. The community steadily grew in the ensuing centuries despite various periods of persecution, and produced an array of great scholars and rabbis. There were 52 Jewish communities spread out across Sicily, numbering at least 37,000 people.
Many left by December 31, 1492, but large numbers of forcibly-converted Jews were compelled to remain behind, where they suffered under the heavy hand of the Inquisition. The first auto-da-fe in Sicily took place in Palermo in June 1511, when the Inquisitors executed nine Sicilian Bnei Anousim for secretly practicing Judaism. Towards the end of the 14th century, Sicily’s Jews were confined to ghettos and faced increasingly harsh decrees as well as massacres and forced conversions to Catholicism. At the time, Sicily was under the control of the Spanish crown and in 1492, the anti-Semitic measures reached their peak with the Edict of Expulsion, which ordered the remaining Jews to leave.
Rabbi Pinchas Punturello, has been appointed to serve as the new emissary for the Shavei Israel organization in southern Italy and Sicily. In his new position, Rabbi Punturello will serve as the area’s chief rabbi, and will work to strengthen the local Jewish community in regions such as Puglia, Campania, Sicily, and Calabria, while also reaching out to the Bnei Anousim (whom historians refer to by the derogatory term Marranos) throughout the area, many of whom are looking to reconnect with the Jewish people.
Rabbi Punterello will work to expand Shavei Israel’s activities throughout Italy, which will include: convening seminars and symposiums for the Bnei Anousim, organizing prayer services and regular classes on Jewish subjects, publishing newsletters and other Italian-language material on Jewish topics and distributing them among various communities in southern Italy; as well as providing assistance with the aliyah, conversion and absorption processes for those members of the community who choose to immigrate to Israel. He will also head the “Sud Italia” project organized by Shavei Israel and UCEI, Union of Italian Jewish Communities, aims to recover traditional, spiritual and religious rights of all groups, families and individuals, in Puglia, Sicily, Calabria and Campania who are rediscovering their origins and need help.
Shavei Israel, which reaches out to communities of “hidden Jews” and helps them to reconnect with the Jewish People and State of Israel, is undertaking this project in conjunction with the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, the official umbrella organization of Italian Jewry. It marks the first time that a rabbi has been appointed to work specifically with the Bnei Anousim of southern Italy and Sicily. In recent years, a growing number of Bnei Anousim in southern Italy have begun rediscovering their Jewish roots and expressing a desire to draw closer to Israel and the Jewish people. It is incumbent upon us to reach out to them and help them to do so.
January 2013:The Bnei Menashe live in the Manipur state in north-eastern India. They claim descent from the Biblical tribe of Menashe, one of the ten “lost tribes” exiled when the Assyrians invaded the northern kingdom of Israel as is recorded in the Hebrew Bible. The community is now returning to Israel under the auspices of the Shavei Israel organization, a group that encourages communities of “lost Jews” around the world, including descendants of Jewish converts to Catholicism.
Bnei Menashe waiting to come home, with Shavei Israel
The government of Israel allowed immigration from Manipur to resume last October after a five-year freeze. Since then 275 members of the Bnei Manashe community have come to Israel as new citizens. The latest arrivals will live in an absorption center in Givat Haviva, and are then expected to move to Akko and Migdal Haemek in northern Israel.
Israel marked an aliyah (immigration) milestone January 17, 2013, with the arrival of the 2,000th member of the Bnei Menashe community. Eighteen-year-old Mirna Singsit arrived in Israel along with 53 other members of the community, including her parents and three siblings.Mirna Singsit stated, “It’s hard to express in words how excited and happy I am right now.” “This isn’t just my dream from the day I was born, it’s been my community’s dream for thousands of years, and now it’s finally coming true.” Singsit plans to complete a degree in political science that she began in India, and then work as a teacher. Her family will start its life in Israel in an absorption center, but Singsit hopes to someday move to Jerusalem, “the holiest place on earth.”
Shavei Israel director Michael Freund gave Singsit a certificate naming her the 2,000th arrival. Singsit told him that her arrival in Israel is the fulfillment of a life-long dream. Freund stated, “the arrival of the 54 new immigrants was “unforgettable.” “After 2,700 years, the tribe of Menashe is coming home.”