FEATURES Stories of Hopes from Naples

napoliBy Jacqueline McKenna*

The Holocaust was a horrendous tragedy that threatens to diminish our faith in humanity. All over Europe families, children, mothers were separated and killed, revealing the utmost barbaric and inhumane side of our society. However, during this time there occurred events that may restore our faith in the goodness and compassion of humankind. One of these stories comes from Naples where families cast aside their religious differences and risked their lives to save their neighbors and fellow countrymen.

The Jewish community in Naples has never been large. Today there is only a fraction of the Jewish population that there was in the past. Around 200 Jews now live in Naples, but the size of the Jewish community has fluctuated over time. Naples went through periods of acceptance and periods of persecution of the Jews. In the 12th century around 500 Jewish families lived in Naples but the 13th century brought the arrival of priests and monks spreading anti-Jewish sentiment causing all Jews to be expelled from Naples or forced to convert. At the end of the 15th century many Jews came to Naples from Spain and Portugal seeking refuge under the protection of King Ferdinand of Naples. Unfortunately, three years after these Jewish refugees arrived, the French took control of Naples and persecuted them again. By the 16th century there were almost no Jews living in Naples. Again, in the 18th and 19th centuries Jews began to return to Naples. Jews were granted full rights when Naples became part of the nascent Kingdom of Italy in 1861.

The following century brought a time of Jewish oppression familiar to all: The Fascist Racial Laws and the Holocaust. During this time, many of the 1,000 Jews living in Naples were sent to concentration camps. Fortunately, many families in Naples saved Jewish residents from deportation. About 50 members of the Neapolitan Jewish community were sheltered by their neighbors, who brought them secretly to small nearby towns where they became “guests” of the Christian households. These residents of Naples displayed acts of compassion during a time of unjust repression and harassment but not many historical records could verify that this was more than just local legend until recently.

At the end of 2017, the son of Giuseppe D’Urso, one of the men who sheltered Jews during the German occupation of Italy, was presented with evidence that confirmed the stories that his father had helped approximately a dozen Jews evade capture by the Nazis. The evidence was a diary found in the National Archives of Italy that documents the details of how Giuseppe had saved the Ascarelli family from deportation to concentration camps. Tony D’Urso, Giuseppe’s son, says that he remembers that he didn’t see his father for almost a year when he was 5 years old, because he was helping Jews seek shelter and evade German soldiers. He describes how he specifically remembers keeping a lookout and calling out to his mother if he thought he saw German soldiers approaching. Moreover, even after German soldiers tore apart his home and harassed his family, Tony noted, his parents continued to provide aid to the Jews they were helping, because they knew it was the right thing to do. Tony has recently met one of the families his father sheltered. A reunion was held in the Naples Synagogue nearly 70 years after these events took place.

This story is heart-warming, but also a reminder that Jews were persecuted unjustly for their religion. Along with hiding from Nazis, the Jews of Naples also hid their synagogue. The 19th-century synagogue appears to be private apartments and is rather nondescript from the outside. Many tourists looking for the synagogue are unable to find it without help from the locals. The synagogue is mostly decorated with simple wood carvings and subdued decorative pieces. The synagogue of Naples is a representation of the Jews living there. The Neapolitan Jews were forced to hide simply because of their association with Judaism, much like the synagogue which had to be hidden due to its symbolism and connection to the Jewish religion.

*Jacqueline McKenna is a student at Muhlenberg College (Allentown, Pennsylvania, USA).