Towering over the Piazza Marina near the sea in Palermo, Sicily, stands an ornate medieval structure that conceals within its walls chilling evidence of one of the darkest chapters in European history.
With its crenellated walls and imposing fortress-like architecture, the Palazzo Chiaramonte, or Steri Palace as it is better known, is one of the coastal city’s most prominent sites, a place drenched in a torment that many would prefer to forget.
From 1601 to 1782, the site served as the headquarters of the “Holy Inquisition,” an institution that used decidedly unholy means to hunt down suspected heretics, sectarians and of course secret Judaizers, or crypto-Jews.
But it was far more than just an administrative facility.
The building housed holding cells where prisoners were tortured by the Inquisitorial zealots, who apparently failed to see the irony in tearing people’s flesh in the name of faith, or shattering their spirit for the sake of the soul.
In several rooms at the Steri, stark graffiti etched by prisoners awaiting their fate has been preserved, embodying the last hopes and dreams of countless men and women whose only crime was a failure to toe the papal line.
As a Jew and a human being, I was overcome by the aura of grief that each cell contained. In one room, Hebrew letters are visible in two places on the wall, tangible evidence that forcibly-converted Sicilian Jews suspected of “relapsing” into Judaic practice had spent their final hours on earth here.
In another, an obviously talented and heartbroken secret Jew had painstakingly drawn a detailed sketch of Jerusalem, a city he must have dreamt of seeing yet would never merit to.
As I stood gazing at these disheartening scenes, I realized that the engravings on the walls of the Steri Palace’s jail cells are the silent screams of the Inquisition’s victims, calling out to us centuries later, pleading that they not be forgotten.
Among those who perished within the Steri were descendants of Sicily’s once-vibrant Jewish community, which possibly dated back to the Roman era.
By the end of the 14th century, Sicily’s Jews had been confined to ghettos and were subjected to massacres and forced conversions to Catholicism.
Increasing persecution in subsequent years reached its climax in 1492, when Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, who controlled Sicily, issued the Edict of Expulsion, which ordered all the Jews remaining in their kingdom to leave.
There were over 50 Jewish communities spread out across Sicily, numbering at least 37,000 people and possibly many more. Historians estimate that 10% of Palermo’s population at the time was Jewish.
When the date of the expulsion arrived on January 12, 1493, many left, but large numbers of forcibly converted Jews, known as Anusim (whom historians refer to by the derogatory term “Marranos”) were prohibited from departing, and they came under the suspicious scrutiny of the Inquisition, which wasted little time in hunting them down.
Indeed, the first auto-da-fe in Sicily took place in Palermo in June 1511, when the Inquisitors publicly executed nine Sicilian Anusim and burned them at the stake in front of a large crowd.
With that, the story of Sicilian Jewry should presumably have come to a close, smothered by hatred and oppression.
But against all the odds, and despite the dangers they faced, many of the Anusim continued to pass down their Jewish heritage from generation to generation, preserving various Jewish customs and clinging to the identity of their ancestors.
That courage was rewarded last week at a remarkable ceremony I attended in Palermo on the anniversary of the 1493 expulsion. In a grand gesture of reconciliation, the local Archdiocese officially returned the site where Palermo’s Great Synagogue had once stood to the Jewish people.
Working together with the Sicilian Institute of Jewish Studies, Shavei Israel, the organization that I founded and chair, will open the first synagogue and beit midrash in Palermo in over 500 years.
It will be overseen by Rabbi Pinhas Punturello, the former chief rabbi of Naples who is Shavei Israel’s emissary to Sicily, and will serve as an educational, cultural and spiritual hub for the growing numbers of people throughout Sicily who are rediscovering their Jewish roots, enabling them to reconnect with the faith of their forefathers.
As I held in my hand the large and heavy key to the site where the ancient synagogue had once stood, I couldn’t help but think about the indestructibility of the Jewish spirit, for neither expulsion nor the Inquisition was able to quash Sicilian Jewry.
The cries of those who were once held in the dungeons of the Steri palace may have fallen silent, but soon enough, with God’s help, the sounds of Shabbat hymns being recited by their descendants will once again resonate in the alleyways of Palermo.
If that isn’t testimony to the eternity of Israel, what is? The writer is founder and chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which assists lost tribes and other hidden Jewish communities to return to the Jewish people.