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Before the Dawn: the Mysterious Conversion of Rome's Chief Rabbi

by Inside the Vatican Staff

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  • Descriptive Title:
    "Before the Dawn": the Mysterious Conversion of Rome's Chief Rabbi
    Description:
    An article about the conversion of Rabbi Israel Zolli, the Chief Rabbi of Rome during the Nazi Holocaust.
  • Larger Work:
    Inside the Vatican
  • Pages: 78-83
  • Publisher & Date:
    Inside the Vatican, February 1999

Reverend Stephen Boyle is an assistant priest at English Martyrs Church, Strood, Kent, England. He studied at the Venerable English College in Rome and earned a license in dogmatic theology at the Gregorian University, studying the theology of Henri de Lubac. He also has an M.A. in mathematics from Kings College, London. This is his first article in HPR.

Why return once more, at a time when Catholic-Jewish relations seem somewhat strained (see Inside the Vatican, "Defusing a Timebomb," December 1998, pp. 16-21) to the controversial figure of Israel Zolli, the Chief Rabbi of Rome who became a Catholic in 1945? Why return to the story of a man whose conversion is still a painful memory for most Jews? Is it a provocation?

No. We return to the story of Zolli not to irritate Jewish sensitivities, but for two entirely different reasons: (1) to shed the clearest possible light on the wartime role of Pope Pius XII: and (2) to do justice to Zolli.

With regard to the first point: the attacks on the wartime record of Pope Pius XII continue unabated. In the court of public opinion, these attacks have already achieved their purpose: Pius is now widely believed to have been a coward or perhaps even covertly pro-Nazi. This seems to us a grave distortion of the historical record, one which compels us to try to "set the record straight." In previous articles, we have cited the testimony of many Jews who, after the war, expressed gratitude to Pius for his efforts on behalf of Jews during the war years. But Zolli's testimony may be the most important of all. He was arguably the most important non-Catholic witness to the role of Pius XII in wartime Italy. As Chief Rabbi of Rome during the Nazi occupation and persecution of Jews, Zolli, a keen observer of Roman life and a respected scholar, was uniquely positioned to know what both the Holy Father and the Nazis were saying and, most importantly, doing.

Yet Zolli's testimony has been almost completely ignored. His eye-witness observations are seldom cited to explain or defend Pius. In fact, Zolli has generally been treated as though he had nothing to offer, not only by Jews but also by Catholics.

This brings us to our second point: Zolli, too, has now come under attack. A book by two American professors — Robert Weisbord and Wallace Sillanpoa, The Chief Rabbi, The Pope, and the Holocaust: An Era in Vatican-Jewish Relations (1992) — casts doubt on Zolli's scholarship, courage and integrity by suggesting that his scholarly work was superficial and that his conversion stemmed, at least in part, from cowardice, selfishness and neuroses. Their argument, finally, is that testimony from such a man should not carry much weight.

In light of these two developments, we thought it important to return to Zolli, to try to understand the man and to listen to his testimony about Pius XII. We first turned to his written works. We found that almost all have never been translated into English and that his autobiography, Before the Dawn, has never been translated into Italian(!). We then sought out his living heirs and, by great good fortune, were able to meet and speak at length with his daughter, Miriam, and his granddaughter, Maura. Our reading and our conversations with Zolli s family members persuaded us that the efforts to discredit Zolli s life and scholarly contributions are misguided. Zolli was a remarkable man, a profound scholar, a contributor to Pius s Pontifical Biblical Commission, and a courageous man of faith.

If we are to arrive at a fuller understanding of the actions of Pius XII, and those nightmarish wartime years, the testimony of Zolli and his daughter, who was 20 when Rome's Jews were deported by the Gestapo in 1943, is invaluable.

But, irrespective of the war and Pius, it would he well for us to he more familiar with Zolli. Why? Because of his biblical knowledge and prophetic voice: because he was a learned, wise, and holy man who has something important to say to today's world. —The Editor

Father Arthur Klyber was born in 1900 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to orthodox Jewish parents. He joined the U.S. Navy at 17, served in World War I, and was baptized in 1920. He entered the Redemptorist Congregation, was ordained in 1932, and served nearly 65 years in the priesthood before retiring — at the age of 96 — to the Redemptorist Nursing Home in Liguori, Missouri, where he now lives. This article is taken, with .permission, from a forthcoming anthology of Fr. Klyber s writings edited by Matthew J. McDonald: an earlier version (titled "The Chief Rabbis Conversion "), written at the time of Rabbi Zolli s baptism, appeared in the Redemptorists ' magazine. The Liguorian, in 1945.

On February 17, 1945, Israel Zolli, the Chief Rabbi of Rome, and his wife, were baptized in the Basilica of St Mary of the Angels, by Msgr. Luigi Tralia. Zolli was the Chief Rabbi of Trieste for 25 years before coming to Rome. His deep learning in the Scriptures and Semitic literature may be seen in the many books he published. Catholic scholars publicly recognized this learning years before his conversion, when they invited him to assist in the work of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and in the compiling of the Italian Catholic Encyclopedia.

The former Rabbi is now 65, but fairly vigorous. He was born in Poland. His mother was a German-Jewess: on her side of the family there was actually 130 years of rabbinical tradition.

It is no surprise to find newspaper comment on Zolli's action insolent, at least by implication. For instance, it was neither necessary, nor good sportsmanship, for certain newspapers to headline the story: "Voices, Rays, Convert Rabbi to Catholicism." Moreover, it was disrespectful and offensive to millions to call the conversion a "religious switch" since it was the outcome of at least 13 years of serious thinking and study by a serious-minded ecclesiastic of the Synagogue.

Only in the Associated Press dispatch by George Bria do we find any reference to the "voices and rays" supposed to have affected the Rabbi. Nevertheless, even if Zolli did use such expressions, they did not mean what the casual reader of the news was led to think, namely, that the convert was a dreamer or crackpot; and that this conversion was to be passed off with a pitying shake of the head. If Zolli did use the phrase, he was referring to interior inspirations he had received from the Light of the World. As Chief Rabbi of Rome, this sincere man had offered himself as a hostage to the Nazi forces then occupying the city if they would release several hundred of his fellow Jews. Was that the conduct of a dreamer? Wasn't it rather the action of a practical-minded, self-sacrificing pastor?

Jews, and especially the rabbis of the Orthodox group do not become Christians light-mindedly, nor without powerful help from God. Experience has proved that a prospective convert from Judaism may nearly always look forward to severe boycotts from his family and friends and all former Jewish associates. If Orthodox, he may expect even father and mother to turn bitterly against him. They will put him out of their home, and blot out his name from their will. If the convert is a member of some milder branch of Judaism, such as the conservative or liberal, his penalty for conversion will be bad enough.

Israel Zolli and his wife had to face most of those evils. In reply to a suggestion that he had become a Catholic for gain, the courageous Rabbi said, "No selfish motive led me to do this. When my wife and I embraced the Church we lost everything we had in the world. We shall now have to look for work: and God will help us to find some."

Therefore, when a Jew is willing to take such a cross as this as the price of his conversion, he makes his momentous break with the past only from rock-like conviction that he is doing what God wishes him to do, and only by the power of God. This is clear in Zolli's case, from his defense of his decision.

When the good Rabbi was asked why he had given up the Synagogue for the Church, he gave an answer that showed he had a keen understanding of his present position: "But I have not given it up. Christianity is the integration (completion or crown) of the Synagogue. For, the Synagogue was a promise, and Christianity is the fulfillment of that promise. The Synagogue pointed to Christianity: Christianity presupposes the Synagogue. So you see, one cannot exist without the other. What I converted to was the living Christianity."

"Then you believe that the Messias (the Christ) has come?" the interviewer asked. "Yes, positively," replied Zolli. "I have believed it many years. And now I am so firmly convinced of the truth of it that I can face the whole world and defend my faith with the certainty and solidity of the mountains."

"But why didn't you join one of the Protestant denominations, which are also Christian?"

"Because protesting is not attesting. I do not intend to embarrass anyone by asking: 'Why wait 1,500 years to protest?' The Catholic Church was recognized by the whole Christian world as the true Church of God for 15 consecutive centuries. No man can halt at the end of those 1,500 years and say that the Catholic Church is not the Church of Christ without embarrassing himself seriously. I can accept only that Church which was preached to all creatures by my own forefathers, the Twelve (Apostles) who, like me, issued from the Synagogue.

"I am convinced that after this war, the only means of withstanding the forces of destruction and of undertaking the reconstruction of Europe will be the acceptance of Catholicism, that is to say, the idea of God and of human brotherhood through Christ, and not a brotherhood based on race and supermen, for 'there is neither Jew nor Greek; neither bond nor free; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.'

"I was a Catholic at heart before the war broke out; and I promised God in 1942 that I should become a Christian if I survived the war. No one in the world ever tried to convert me. My conversion was a slow evolution, altogether internal. Years ago, unknown to myself, I gave such an intimately Christian form and character to my writings that an Archbishop in Rome said of my book, The Nazarene, 'Everyone is susceptible of errors, but so far as I can see, as a bishop, I could sign my name to this book.' I am beginning to understand that for many years I was a natural Christian. If I had noticed that fact 30 years ago, what has happened now would have happened then."

As was to be expected, the announcement caused a great stir in Jewish religious circles. Overnight, the once venerated, learned Rabbi who had offered his life for "sheep," became to some an ignoramus, and to all a heretic and traitor. The Synagogue of Rome proclaimed a several days' fast in atonement for Zolli's defection, and mourned him as dead, while at the same time they denounced him as a meschumad (apostate, one struck by God) and excommunicated him. Here is a sample of the vehemence with which a Jew was cast out of the Synagogue in the days when the Jewish leaders were still able to wield the axe. Whether or not such a document was read out in the Synagogue concerning Zolli has not been made clear; but even if it were not read, we may be sure that its sentiments were burning in the hearts of the Jews of Rome toward one whom they sincerely believed was now a traitor to God and the Jewish people. This condemnation was hurled against the philosopher Baruch Spinoza at Amsterdam in 1656, on account of his heretical views about God: "With the judgment of the angels, and the sentence of the saints, we anathematize, execrate, curse, and cast out Baruch Spinoza, the whole of the Sacred Community assenting... pronouncing against him the curse written in the Book of the Law. Let him be accursed by day and accursed by night; accursed as he lies down and accursed as he rises up; accursed in his going out and accursed in his coming in. May the Lord never more acknowledge him; and may the wrath and displeasure of the Lord burn from now on against this man; load him with all the curses written in the Book of the Law and blot out his name from under the sky. May the Lord cut him off forever from the Tribes of Israel.

"Hereby, then, all are warned against holding conversation with him either by word of mouth or by writing. No one is allowed to do him any service; no one may live under the same roof with him; no one may come within four cubits' length of him; and no one may read any document dictated by him or written by his hand."

To the uninformed Christian, this may appear excessively severe, but the Jews sincerely believed Spinoza deserved it: they believe that Rabbi Zolli deserves the same. Though to many it looks like frightful bigotry to condemn a man like Zolli, we must yet be wary against hastily condemning the Jews for this. The Catholic Church also excommunicates heretics with severe penalties.

Rabbi Zolli, like others who became Christians, was condemned by the Jewish elders because in their judgment he had violated God's Name by believing that the man Jesus was God. To be fair, we must give to the Jews of Rome credit for acting honestly in the Rabbi-convert's case.

Moreover, the Jews have long memories. Their souls are still smarting from countless past persecutions; today their poor bodies are suffering in a most horrible mass murder of millions in Europe.

Christians most certainly should restrain the temptation to scold the Jews for their treatment of Zolli and other converts, and instead should be compassionate and pray for them, as the former Rabbi and his wife are doing.

Inconsistently enough (or consistently, would one say?), non-Orthodox Jews of today have called Baruch Spinoza the greatest Jew of modern times. Such an "about-face" by modern Jews is no reflection on Orthodox Jews of the past or present. "Reformed Jews," perhaps unknown to themselves, have surrendered the revealed faith of their fathers; they can teach almost anything and get by with it. Since many of them are very hazy about the Adonai Echod (the One God) for whom their fathers surrendered their lives, it is no surprise to find them now praising one their forefathers condemned. Einstein, the scientist, committed the same spiritual crime as Spinoza; yet he, too, is praised and respected by Reform Jews. Now the Orthodox have condemned Einstein, too, at least silently; and they would like to condemn him publicly as they did Zolli, but they reasonably hesitate because they feel their people are suffering enough, and perhaps, because Einstein did not profess himself a Christian.

All the difference between the religious beliefs of devout Jews and Catholics hinges on one question: "Is this Jesus whom the whole world worships as God really the Messias whose coming was foretold by the Jewish prophets of the Old Law?"

Any Catholic who stubbornly denies Jesus is the Son of God will be excommunicated from the Church and in danger of eternal punishment in hell, unless he retracts. Conversely, a Jew who professes Jesus is the Messias, will be cast out of the Synagogue as Zolli was. Orthodox Jews of today believe their own ancient doctrines as completely and firmly as Catholics hold to the teachings of the Church.

It is necessary to point out, for the sake of peace, that although Jews repudiate Jews who have become Christians, they teach plainly that non-Jews (Gentiles) who believe in the one God of heaven and earth, and do His will, can enter eternal life, even though their understanding of the one God is somewhat spoiled by their notions concerning Jesus and His mission.

Zolli's daughter, not a convert, asserted in defense of her father, "I don't feel that my father's conversion was a betrayal of the Jews. The fact that he could spend 40 years teaching Judaism proves the profound connection between the two religions." Zolli himself said sadly, "I continue to maintain unchanged all my love for the people of Israel; and in my sorrow for the lot that has befallen them, I shall never stop loving the Jews. I did not abandon the Jews by becoming a Catholic."

"Once a Jew, always a Jew," is a shibboleth too often quoted by well-meaning Jews as a sort of proof that a Jew cannot in his heart of hearts ever become a Christian. When Israel Zolli was asked whether he still considered himself a Jew he answered with the same expression, but explained it in its deeply correct significance. "Did Peter, James, John, Matthew, Paul, and hundreds of Hebrews like them cease to be Jews when they followed the Messias, and became Christians? Emphatically, no."

A Jew who accepts a Messias today remains just as much a Jew as he would expect to remain if and when he were to accept a Messias at some distant future coming. In other words, a Jew who accepts Jesus as his Messias accepts a Jew, and himself remains a Jew. This may sound strange and even heterodox to Catholics who have only a surface knowledge of Jewish prophetic history and Catholic teaching concerning it. A Jewish-convert takes as his Messias the Jew Jesus who traces His ancestry back to King David without a break: can anyone be more Jewish than that? The convert accepts a Jewish Messias who proved His mission was from God by doing the hundreds of things the prophet said he would do; chief among them His unquestionable and numerous miracles and His resurrection from the dead. His miracles are continued and multiplied in His Church even up to the present moment. Has any Messias ever done the like? Could any Jew do anything greater to put the seal of God on His teachings?

When a devout Jew becomes a follower of Jesus he changes neither his nationality, which is Hebrew, nor his religion, which is Judaism. Well then, what does he do?

He merely brings his religion to completion, as Zolli pointed out: he plucks the ripe fruit from the tree that was planted by God. This is why the former Rabbi was able to say that he had not given up the Synagogue for the Church, that the one could not exist without the other. This is also why he repeated, correctly, "Once a Jew, always a Jew."

If there is any notion that must be stressed both for Christians and Jews it is that Jesus did not give to the world a new religion, but only a new covenant or testament concerning the Old Religion which He Himself had given to the Jews. God's very nature forbids His giving to the world, at any time, more than one religion or one way of life and worship.

© Urbi et Orbi Communications

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