Hanukkah at Steri
Hanukkah at SteriCourtesy Shavei Israel

A Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony was held Wednesday at the infamous Steri prison in Palermo, Sicily, which served as a headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition between 1601 and 1782.

The ceremony – the first of its kind – was headed by Rabbi Pinhas Punturello, emissary for the Shavei Israel organization to southern Italy and Sicily. Among the participants were Prof. Roberto La Galla, Chancellor of Palermo University, and other faculty members, as well as about 100 Bnei Anousim who live in Sicily.

Bnei Anousim are the descendants of Jews who were forcibly converted to Christianity ubder the Inquisition's regime of terror. Many of these “New Christians” did their utmost to remain loyal to their Jewish roots, passing down the faith and practices of their ancestors across the generations.

"Hundreds of years after the Steri prison palace operated to put out the light of Israel, we came here today to show that the Jewish flame continues to burn,” said Michael Freund, founder and chairman of Shavei Israel, which works to bring the Bnei Anousim back to the Jewish fold.

"For 200 years, Jews were tortured within the walls of the palace, and many of them were burned at the stake by the Inquisition for secretly maintaining their Judaism. And that is why this event is not only historic – it is also symbolic, in that the light of the Hanukkah candles has come to the place where the Inquisition's darkness once ruled.

Freund said that there are still graffiti inscriptions on the walls of the prison's solitary confinement cells, among them two written in Hebrew letters.

Persecution of Jews in Sicily came to a climax in 1492, when the Jews of Spain – including those in Sicily – were forcibly expelled. There were at least 37,000 Jews living in 52 communities on the island at the time. Many were expelled, and others, who were forced to convert, continued to suffer under the Inquisition for generations.