Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Christian Rabbi, The

by Wlodzimierz Redzioch


An interview with Judith Cabaud, an American Jew who converted to Catholicism, regarding her biography of Israel Zolli (1881-1956).

Larger Work

Inside The Vatican


44 - 46

Publisher & Date

Urbi et Orbi Communications, New Hope, KY, June - July 2002

Vision Book Cover Prints

Rabbi Zolli (1881-1956) was one of the most remarkable men of the 20th century. A leading European Jewish intellectual, chief rabbi of Rome, he underwent a mystical conversion to Christianity — and was promptly forgotten.

Reading through the recent history books of Italian Jews, one notes an extraordinary fact: these books speak little or not at all about a Jew, Israel Zolli, who throughout the crucial period of World War II was chief rabbi of Rome. Why has Rabbi Zolli's story been condemned to oblivion? The answer is quite simple: in 1945, Zolli asked to be baptized and, out of his profound respect for Pope Pius XII, decided to take as his new Christian name the first name of the Pope — Eugenio.

The decision troubled many Jews and outraged some, not only those of the Roman Jewish community (for whom he was an "apostate") but also around the world. But Zolli's choice was also an embarrassment for some Catholic circles.

In a word, the story of Eugenio Zolli, since it was both politically and theologically incorrect," has been expunged from the history books.

Even in recent years, during the great debate over the alleged "silence" of Pope Pius XII during the persecution of the Jews, Zolli's case has remained hidden. Now this silence has been broken by Judith Cabaud, an American Jew who converted to Catholicism and now lives in France with her French husband. Her biography of Zolli first appeared in France and has just been published in Italy. Finally, someone has filled the missing gap in modern historiography. — Wlodzimierz Redzioch

Would you tell us something about your life?

JUDITH CABAUD: I was born in the United States into a Jewish family. My grandparents had emigrated from Poland and Russia at the beginning of the 20th century. Everyone practiced traditional Judaism without ever questioning its meaning. At the time of Passover, the youngest of the family would ask four ritual questions. This was a pretext for the oldest member of the family to explain the Books of Genesis and Exodus.

However, I had other questions about what it meant to be a Jew. If we were the "chosen people" as I was told, what did God choose us for? Was it to accomplish something? How did the Law of the Torah fulfill this requirement? Why were Jews hostile to Gentiles? There were no satisfying answers to these questions and you were not even supposed to ask them.

Then, I felt that my father's premature death was too heavy a price to pay for his success in business. I wanted to find a less materialistic purpose in life than to become a work addict, even for the best of reasons. My discovery of music showed me that another world did exist and my studies led me to take up literature, science and French. In 1960, in France, I read a lot of French writers, thinkers and philosophers. Blaise Pascal particularly fascinated me because he made it clear to me that there was a link between science and faith. He gave me answers to the questions I had had in my mind for such a very long time.

While trying to improve my French, I would go to Catholic churches to listen to sermons, as I would go to the theater to hear good texts. One day, something very strange struck me: I had the feeling that there was a link between the Passover meal and the Catholic Mass. Something warm and familiar came flowing out of that beautiful liturgy, especially from all those marks of adoration shown by the priest and the assembly — kneeling, praying with the same fear of offending God as the Jewish people who hardly dare to utter His Name.

I learned that the Catholic Church had been saying this for the past 2,000 years.

Then, by the grace of God, I realized that Jesus Christ is God, that the Old and the New Testaments were one and the same religion, Christianity being the continuation of ancient Judaism, and Christ being the Messiah announced by the prophets of old.

Later on, I married a Frenchman and we raised nine children. I read an article about Eugenio Zolli by an American priest. Father Arthur Klyber, and I also read Zolli's autobiography Before the Dawn. But it was only when our son went to Rome to study at the French seminary that I had the occasion to find documents about Zolli and meet his daughter Miriam. I thought it would be necessary to write a book about him, but I hesitated for about 10 years because of all the polemical aspects of the story: the problem of World War II and Fascism.

Who was Israel Zolli?

CABAUD: He was born in 1881 in Brody, in Galicia (now Ukraine), a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time. His father had a textile factory in Lodz. At the end of the 19th century, this zone of Poland was occupied by the Russian Empire and measures were taken to confiscate all the factories belonging to foreigners, especially if they were Jews. Zolli's family was reduced to poverty. They moved to Stanislawow and there he began his studies. In order to earn the necessary money to do his university studies, Zolli had to give private lessons. He worked first in Vienna and then in Florence where he also did his rabbinical studies. He became professor at the University of Padua and was named vice-rabbi of Trieste. In 1918, he became chief rabbi of this city, which had just turned Italian, and Zolli opted for Italian nationality.

After 1922, the Jewish community of Trieste was divided between Zionists who thought that the only solution for Jews was the state of Israel, and in those who wanted to collaborate with the Fascists because, they argued, the Fascists had no intention of harming the Jews. (It is true that Mussolini did nothing against the Jews until 1938. But even with the racial laws at that time by which they had to Italianize their names and many did lose their jobs, it was obviously nothing in comparison with Hitler's Nazi Germany.) Zolli tried to help both sides: he obtained passports and money for the Zionists who wished to go to Israel, and he helped those who collaborated with the Fascists in order to find them jobs.

During this period, Zolli led a double life: the life of a rabbi who had to celebrate a certain number of rituals and exercises with his people, and the life of a writer and thinker. This latter work eventually brought him onto the road leading to Christ.

He had always been attracted to the Gospel. As a young rabbi studying the Old Testament, he could not just stop at the end of it: so he continued, and read the New Testament. For him, it was the natural continuation of the Old. He had always been attracted to the figure of Christ on the cross in which he saw the evidence of His being the "Suffering Servant of God" spoken of by Isaiah.

In 1938, he wrote The Nazarene in which he explored the exegetical problems concerning the relations between the Old and the New Testaments. I think, but I have no real proof of this, that this work was not appreciated by his people. In any case, it is probably one of the reasons why he was transferred to Rome and named chief rabbi of this city. The former chief rabbi of Rome had left for the United States and the rabbinical college had been closed.

In Rome, the majority of Jews thought that both Fascism and Nazism would blow over. After all, the Roman Jews had been in Rome for more than 2,000 years and the present problems seemed nothing in comparison with those that had occurred during the Roman Empire. When Zolli arrived in Rome, it was wartime. The Italians were Hitler's allies, but there was still no real discrimination against Jews in Italy. However, Zolli knew what was going on in Nazi Germany: he also was certain that Hitler would ultimately occupy Italy and that there would be trouble for Jews.

In 1941, he tried to warn the Jewish community of Rome. He asked them to destroy the archives of the community members. But no one believed what he said and they did not trust him. Was he not a foreigner? What did he know about the Jews of Rome? They repeated that they had been there for more than 2,000 years.

In September 1943, the Nazis invaded Rome, and Zolli wanted to immediately destroy all the files and send Jewish people into hiding. The head of the community still refused to do anything, saying it would only alarm the Jewish population. The first thing that happened is that Colonel Kappler wanted to take advantage of the situation for himself and he ordered the community to hand over 50 kg of gold. The ultimatum was: 50 kg or 300 hostages. The Jews managed to assemble 35 kg and a friend of Zolli's asked Zolli to go to the Vatican to ask for the missing quantity. This was his first contact with the institutional Church.

In the Vatican, he was received by the administrator of the Holy See, Nogara. Zolli declared: "The New Testament cannot abandon the Old." Nogara was moved and went immediately to ask Pius XII for the missing gold. The Pope agreed on the spot and Zolli was asked to return in the afternoon to fetch the "package." In the meantime, Zolli's daughter informed him that 15 kg of gold had been assembled by the Catholic parishes of Rome.

What was Zolli's attitude toward Pius XII?

CABAUD: Zolli was a witness to the generosity of Pius XII. He knew that the Pope had ordered the monasteries and convents of Rome to open their doors to Jews. He knew that there were thousands of Jews being protected by Catholic families, also in the Vatican itself as well as in the Pope's residence in Castel Gandolfo. He was very struck by the openness of the Pope. Zolli lived during the whole war in Rome, not in the U.S. or in Switzerland, and he was an eyewitness to the action of the Church. Now we know, in fact, that during the war, Pius XII saved more Jews than any other person at that time.

What happened to Rabbi Zolli after the liberation of Rome?

CABAUD: In June 1944, the Americans arrived in Rome. Colonel Poletti. an Italo-American commander of the American army, asked to dissolve the Jewish community council by saying: "Get all these collaborators out and give me Zolli back." But Zolli was now 65 years old, quite tired and on the point of retiring. In fact, Father Dezza, the Jesuit General, said that on August 15, 1944, Zolli had come to him and said: "How can I continue living in this way when I think very often of Christ and I love Him?"

In October 1944, he had an extraordinary experience, which was to be decisive: on the holy day of Yom Kippur, he was in the synagogue in contemplation and suddenly, in a vision, Christ said to him: "You are here for the last time: from now on you will follow Me." That was it. Zolli was profoundly moved.

At home that evening, he did not want to say anything to his family, but his wife told him that while he was celebrating in the synagogue, she too had seen a figure of Christ next to him. His daughter Miriam, who was then 18, added that she had seen Jesus in a dream. For Rabbi Zolli it was the last sign he needed. He resigned from the synagogue and asked a priest to give him instruction in view of entering the Church. He was baptized in 1945 and took the Christian name of Eugenio in honor of Pius XII.

What can be the significance of Zolli's experience for Christians and for Jews?

CABAUD: Zolli's experience certainly has a great significance for Jews today, but also for Christians. In the first place, through his exegetical findings, we are led to understand that we do indeed have only one religion — the Judeo-Christian faith. It began with Judaism, in the Law and the Prophets: it continues today with the Catholic Church. The pivot is Jesus Christ, the Messiah for whom all religious Jews at that time were waiting and whom all Christians recognize as the Son of God. Present-day Judaism does not take into account the duality of the old Judaic faith: it was composed of the Law written in the Torah which ensured all the necessary prescriptions of daily life, therefore the letter: and then it contained the Messianic Promise which was announced by the prophets. This was the spirit. These two components were fused together in the person and the teachings of Jesus Christ.

From the Christian point of view, there is no turning back to ancient customs and laws which had been made for God's children before Christ. However, it is indispensable for the Church and her members to be more fully aware of their Jewish inheritance. It is in this way that Christianity assumes its permanence in the world. If not, we are only poor orphans who strive for good and truth without knowing who our parents were. If we contemplate Zolli's experience, we can see that the interreligious dialogue occurring today between Catholics and Jews is not satisfactory because, in reality, we are already one in the same Judeo-Christian religion. Zolli tells us to seek truth, on both sides, and to fight against ignorance.

This obviously means that we should take ancient Judaism as it was and continue it. This is only possible in spirit. This spiritual logic brings us forward. And all men of good will naturally desire this continuity, for it's like wanting to see the second act of a play of which we have attended only the first act. The road to reconciliation between the older and younger brothers can come about by seeing the relationship, which exists between the Old and the New Testaments.

Jews who become Christians are often seen in Jewish circles as traitors. Why?

CABAUD: Today, Jews have a tendency to consider Judaism a way of life. And this way of life is a part of social community life. The result is that the importance of the community overrides that of the individual. Religion becomes more of a tribal concern than a personal relationship with God. In this way, the community determines one's behavior, and cultural identity is mistaken for religious identity. So, if one begins to act according to one's individual conscience, one is actually committing an act of treachery against the community norm. A Jew who chooses to become an agnostic, a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Muslim or a Communist (all options of social-religious identity) is truly betraying Jewish customs and rituals, while not engaging his inner spiritual self: whereas, on the other hand, a Jew who becomes a Catholic is guilty of rejecting social exterior behavior, but also adopts a spiritual allegiance to Christ, the Son of God, who represents the epitome of Jewish conscience.

In the United States, many Jews who have witnessed the decline of their religious faith due in part to assimilation, have resorted to claiming the Holocaust perpetrated during World War Two as a source of religious identity. In this, no reference to God can be stronger for them than the attraction of human bonds. The circle of general confusion is then widened to the false responsibility of the Catholic Church, which has been greatly exploited by the media on ignorant public opinion. I think this recent development is a very important part of the long misunderstanding that has existed between Jews and Christians for the past 2,000 years.

If we listen to the message of Rabbi Zolli, I am sure that in searching for Truth on both sides, we could mend many of the wounds which have created this cruel separation between brothers. The quest for Truth will and can enfold us together with all our diversity in the loving arms of our One and Eternal God.

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