On a recent spring-like January day in Palermo about 1,000 Palermitani forewent hanging out at Politeama or Foro Italico and instead spent the entire afternoon in Palermo’s city archives building.
They came from all religious (and even non-religious) backgrounds to commemorate the anniversary of the tragic 1493 expulsion of all Jews from Sicily—driven out either through forced conversion, emigration, death, or in some cases all of the above. This expulsion of a religious entity, in the time of Spanish rule, came at the decree of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, with full Papal approval.
Interestingly, most historical reports say that in Sicily at that time, Christians, Jews and Muslims were by and large all getting along. In fact, hundreds of Palermo Jews joined in the city’s festivities celebrating the day Ferdinand and Isabella were wed. If they had only known…
In Sicily, the edict arrived in 1493. But I write today not of history, but of the present, and more importantly the future. As Bob Dylan once wrote, “The past is gone and the future ain’t far behind.”
There is a concerted effort in Palermo to arrange inter-faith and multi-ethnic discussions. Mainly, of course, among the so-called monotheistic troika of Jews, Muslims, and Christians. In this regard, it was heartwarming and reassuring to see so many attend this commemoration event, which by the way, was on the site, I’m told, of where Palermo’s Great Jewish Synagogue stood before the expulsion.
This day’s events in particular were organized by the Sicilian Institute of Jewish Studies in cooperation with Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem non-profit organization in the business of helping Jews reunite with Judaism. Rabbi Pierpaolo Punturello made the trip to be the face of the organization.
The day actually began early with a film and discussion of this story with school-aged children and then after lunch the adults reconvened at the Archives building, where, again, all faiths were represented at the speakers’ table. Real life testaments of the cruelties suffered by Jews at the time were read, followed by an uplifiting selection of Sephardic songs played live by the Sicilian-Spanish musician Aleandra Bertolino Garcia. Palermo Mayor Leoluca Orlando also was on hand and spoke on the contributions that all cultures bring to a city.
I should mention these cruelties suffered by Jews are told in a recent book entitled Gli Ebrei In Sicilia by Gaspare Scarcella, easily found, for example, at Feltrinelli book shop on Via Cavour in Palermo, and I’m sure wherever fine books are sold. You can also visit the actual Palermo site of the Inquisition at Palazzo Chiramonte in Piazza Marina. As “moschofilero” of New York City reviewed on TripAdvisor:
“Interesting to get inside of a palazzo from the era; the interior cells where so many were wrongly imprisoned, tortured and robbed of their belongings are incredibly moving due to the preserved graffiti that covers the walls and tells the sad stories. The contrast between this travesty of religion and the golden glorification in the cathedrals speaks volumes.”
Interesting, though, as often happened, the countries that forced Jews to leave also suffered as they lost so much culture, intellect, the Jewish tenets of justice and charity and, yes, the ability to build a nation’s economy. When some of the Jews booted out of Sicily landed in Turkey, the then Sultan of Turkey, Sultan Bajazet, welcomed them with open arms, asking, “How can you call this Ferdinand a wise king? A king who impoverishes his own land and enriches ours?” Food for historical thought.
All of this was followed two weeks later by the International Day of Holocaust Remembrance which found many events in Palermo and throughout Sicily, both for adults and in schools. As you can imagine, given the expulsion, there weren’t many Jews in Sicily at the time of the Holocaust, but there were some, and it didn’t go well for them. On this topic, I refer you to a fascinating collection of writings by Lucia Vincenti of the hardships and worse of Jewish women at the time. This engaging if small book, Le Donne Ebree in Sicilia al Tempo della Shoah, is also currently available in bookstores.