Professor Enrico Mascaro-B’nei Anusim Historian
Born as an identical twin during the Nazi occupation of Italy, Professor Enrico Michele Mascaro survived to become a champion for children who faced economic, emotional and spiritual challenges as well as a dedicated historian whose depth of knowledge of his beloved Calabria has earned him the respect of those who live and work in Italy’s most depressed area.
Back in the day, school ended at the fifth grade – a situation that was unacceptable to his crypto-Jewish family whose dedication to education led his mother to send twelve year old Enrico north to Turin so that he could have an opportunity denied to many Calabrian children in the 1950’s – a high school education.
During his years in Turin, Enrico Mascaro served as an assistant teacher for children who were challenged by polio or who had lost limbs to land mine explosions that plagued Italy after World War II. In Turin Enrico was able to complete a high school and college education and return to Tiriolo ( a Calabrian mountain town) as Calabria’s first male elementary school teacher.
Enrico recalls that “I became well known as ‘U maestru cchi nun mina,” a dialectic phrase that translates as “the teacher who would not use corporeal punishment in his classroom” – a stark deviation from the norm at time. And it was Professor Mascaro who revolutionized elementary classroom social norms by eliminating the seating pattern which, up to that point, had separated boys from girls.
Enrico Mascaro combined his skill as a teacher with his expertise as a historian, earning a Ph.D in modern Italian history and Latin language. Mascaro says, “It was during my study of history that I came to embrace my Jewish roots. I remembered how my grandmother would read from the only available Jewish text at the time – a Catholic Bible highlighting the Old Testament – so that we could have some contact with our Jewish heritage.”
It was during the late 1970’s when Prof. Mascaro published his first book, a demographic study of the Calabrian population, that he realized the depth of his own Jewish history. As he immersed himself in the hidden traditions of the area, Mascaro unearthed a treasure trove of customs, foods and personal practices that defined a rich Jewish presence in Calabria.
Mascaro’s career included 17 years as superintendent of schools in Lamezia Terme, a position he held until his retirement in 2008.
Thanks to Mascaro’s dedication, in 2006 Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud, the first active synagogue in Calabria in 500 years since
Inquisition times came to life in the village of Serrastretta, the village where Enrico Mascaro was born. He is an active synagogue member, leading the Kiddush wine blessing, making and serving challah (the braided bread of the Jewish Sabbath – Shabbat) and welcoming visitors from all over the world.
As a Board member of the Italian Jewish Cultural Center of Calabria (IjCCC), Mascaro teams with Professor Vincenzo Villella to study archival records to document the Jewish heritage of hundreds of Italian surnames. “I am proud to do this work,” Mascaro says. “I have embraced my Jewish roots and I want to give others the opportunity to do the same.”