Jewish history in Monferrato
The first sure traces of Jews in Monferrato dates around 1492, year of the great expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Before, we don’t know anything about a presence in the region of Jewish groups, that had, on the contrary, already settled in other zones of Piedmont.
This relatively late presence isn’t strange: the history of the Monferrato’s Jews is different from the one of the other Jewish groups that have lived in Piedmont. Casale and the marquisate have in fact had a political history independent from the Savoy, in whose orbit they entered only in the 1700’s.
The Jews lived without many problems under the dynasty of the Paleologo (until 1533), under the Gonzaga (dukes of Mantua), and finally under the Gonzaga Nevers (from 1536 to 1708), even if in this period the Monferrato was upset by continuous wars which directly involved the Jews. They had in fact to pay large sums for the military expeditions, in order to have the right to live in a city.
In town they were subject to many limitations; in particular, during the Saint week and religious processions, it was avoided to the Jews to walk in some roads. They had the obligation to wear a distinctive symbol, a yellow band, from which they were exempted only when travelling, on the day of departure and on the day of arrival.
In 1611 the Jews were accused of ritual homicide, yet -differrently than in other places- this libel didn’t have a tragic epilogue and at eventually they were completely exculpated.
The Jews of Casale mostly practiced the loan on pledge. In the community’s archive many interesting documents can be found, concerning how the pledge was regulated, the interest rates a lender could ask (no more than 25 per cent), the damages to pay the debtor in case of the destruction of the pledge by act of G-d (pillages and fires) or for more banal and culpable causes (rats or wood worms).
The Monferrato’s Jews also practiced commerce, even on wide scale. Jona Clava and Salomone Jona, as an example, in 1640 became the wheat suppliers of all Casale. Then, they extended their field of action to the commerce of jewels, peaks, spices and they even obtained the monopoly of the sale of game cards in Casale.
The Jews joined then the lead, rice and salt commerce. Their activity reached the apex when, in 1643, they were adjudicated the supplying of grain for all the French army in Casale: the general commander of the troops became their associate. They also obtained the contract for the construction of some fortifications, after having lent money without interests to the garrison’s officers.
In 1708 the Monferrato was annexed to the Savoy’s dominions and the Jewish condition got immediately worse. The first disposition, that wasn’t followed by all the Jews, regarded the transfer of the Jewish population in one zone, from 1724. The ghetto was chosen in a wide quarter of Casale where many Jews already lived. The synagogue was built up in the centre of the neighbourhood, in a protected position, in the alley now called Salomone Olper. Even if the chosen quarter was large, it soon became very crowded: in 1761, 136 families lived in the ghetto of Casale, with a total of 673 people. It was the most populated ghetto in Piedmont after Turin.
The French Revolution and the Napoleonic occupation (1799-1814) took a momentary equality and the doors of the ghetto were eliminated.
Re-established with the Restoration, the doors fell definitively in 1848 when King Carl Alberto gave the Jews of Savoy civil rights. The Jews of Casale were then 850.
Soon the community began to grow thinner because, following the general phenomenon of the urbanism, the Jews of Casale moved to the newborn industrial cities, in particular to Turin and Milan.
The Community of Casale, that in 1931 counted still 112 persons, today, after World War II hardly has ten members.