Hidden Jewish heritage in the Dolomites

"We can report that there are definite traces of Jewish heritage in the Non Valley" in Italy, the writers say.

A mountain near the Dolomite resort of Madonna Di Campiglio in northern Italy (photo credit: REUTERS)
A mountain near the Dolomite resort of Madonna Di Campiglio in northern Italy
(photo credit: REUTERS)
We spend our weekends in the Non Valley, Italy. The Non Valley (Val di Non) is located in the Dolomites, in the northern part of Italy, not far from Austria. It is part of the Trentino Region and, though bordering with German-speaking South Tyrol it has always been Italian- speaking. Historically, linguistically and culturally it is a typical border region, lying between the German and Italian worlds. It was here that John W. Cole and Eric R. Wolf wrote their seminal work, The Hidden Frontier in an Alpine Valley, in 1974. Different cultures have always met here but only rarely have they melted together.
It is a valley of rare beauty, dotted with small villages, each with its own personality and still untouched by mass tourism.
Some time ago a friend from Brooklyn visited us and we took her out for dinner in a local restaurant, where they serve the specialty of the Non Valley, a dish known as Tortiei. As she ate her meal, our friend expressed her enjoyment, exclaiming, “This is exactly what my grandmother cooks for us at Hanukka, only we call them levivot, or latkes!” We were intrigued by her observation and thus it was that we began to research the possibility that the valley contained traces of a hidden Jewish heritage.
It is well known that culinary traditions show a remarkable resilience to all change. Yet the suggestion of Jewish heritage was puzzling: the Non Valley has always been profoundly Catholic and there are neither present nor past signs of Jewish presence: no Jewish cemeteries, no synagogues, no nothing. We then discovered what we believe to be another significant clue in the presence of a substantial number of family names of Jewish origin in the valley: names such as Abram and Franc. In Sarnonico, for example, Abram is the most common family name. The municipal offices of Sarnonico (whose mayor is Sandro Abram) was most helpful in providing books and references about the history of the place. However, we couldn’t find any historically well-documented studies on this subject.
See the latest opinion pieces on our page
But where might these names have come from? The most engaging hypothesis is to relate their arrival to the story of San Simonino.
In 1475 the Jewish community of Trento (better known as Trent, where the Catholic church held the eponymous council between 1545 and 1563) was unjustly accused of a horrible crime. In Easter of that year, a three year-old Christian child named Simonino was found dead and the Jewish community was accused of carrying out a ritual killing. The head and other members of the Jewish community were arrested and forced to confess under torture. Some were sentenced to death and burned at the stake. The Jewish community was subsequently banned from Trento and all their assets confiscated. The community retaliated by pronouncing a herem (shunning) against the city of Trento.
A most complicated history followed concerning the sanctity of Simonino.
There was strong disagreement between the pope, who considered Simonino a fake, and the local bishop, who wanted Simonino to be considered a martyr and declared a saint. In the end Simonino was declared a saint but the argument between the opposing camps went on for centuries. It took some time, but in 1965 Pope Paul VI finally eliminated Simonino from the Calendar of Saints. This opened the way to reconciliation, and a meeting took place in Trento between the Jewish community and the Mayor of Trento. Trento was thus removed from the herem list by the Jewish community.
The Simonino story has been the subject of a number of important historical publications. After the Simonino trial, the Jewish community of Trento dispersed and it is possible that part of it ended up in the Non Valley (about 40 km from Trento).
But when did these names first appear in the valley? We interviewed Diego Abram from the village of Ronzone, who has done a remarkable job of tracing his family’s origins. He was able to find a Nicolo Abram of 1659 and a Frank Giovanni in 1610, both of whom were born in the valley.
Felice Zadra has published a work on his and other Jewish names in the Non Valley, in which he posits that the presence of a Jewish population is much older than previously thought, possibly dating back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE. He also reports the presence of a synagogue in the valley, which was converted into a Christian church during the 13th century.
However, again, well-documented studies are lacking.
To sum up, we can report that there are definite traces of Jewish heritage in the Non Valley but we cannot define the exact time or origin of this heritage.
It should be noted that there are a number of excellent publications regarding a well-documented Jewish presence in this area, particularly in Bolzano and Merano. But in these are cases of a “classic presence,” with Judengasse, synagogues, etc. The interest of our finding is the identification of a Jewish heritage in the absence of a Jewish tradition. Indeed, in the absence of the very notion of heritage itself. It is for this reason that we have preferred the term “hidden” heritage.
It is important to note that this Jewish heritage relates to names and culinary traditions, but not to religious faith or to religious traditions. It seems reasonable to suggest that, given the times in which they lived, the Jews were “converted” to Christianity. It seems not unlikely that similar hidden Jewish heritages might be present in other places in Europe or elsewhere.
For the delight of lovers of stereotypes, people from this valley are renowned in the region for their parsimoniousness, their ability in dealings with money and their intelligence.
Mariapia Bigaran (mpbigaran@alice.it) is a historian. And Franco Bonetti (bonettifranco@hotmail.com) is a tourist.