Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

My Father Never Stopped Being a Jew

by Inside the Vatican Staff


A conversation with Miriam Zolli, daughter of the former Chief Rabbi of Rome, Israel Zolli.

Larger Work

Inside the Vatican



Publisher & Date

Urbi et Orbi Communications, February 1999

Miriam Zolli walked slowly across the piazza, leaning on her daughter Maura's arm. Behind them rose the ancient facade of Santa Maria in Trastevere. It was the spring of 1998. The Vatican had just issued its long-awaited document on the Shoah and the press was filled with reports on Catholic-Jewish relations and on the alleged "silence" of Pius XII and the Church in general before Hitler's genocide.

At 76, Rabbi Israel Zolli's daughter is weary of the polemics. A few days before, she had answered a phone call from Stefano Zurio, a journalist for // Giornale, and — breaking her usual rule of "no comment" — had spoken at length about her father, his conversion, and his attitude toward Pius XII. The interview, in which she defended both her father and Pius XII, had been published on March 21. Now she is extremely tired; in a few weeks she will suffer a debilitating, but not fatal, heart attack.

"I remember quite clearly what my father said about the Pope, Pope Pius XII," Miriam began. "'You will see,' he said, 'they will blame Pope Pius XII for the world's silence in the face of the Nazis' crimes!"' Despite her white hair, Miriam Zolli's voice is steady. She seems to be summoning up strength to speak about the years when Rome was occupied by Nazis and the Gestapo prepared to deport the entire Jewish community.

"The controversy now over the Vatican's document on the Shoah is based far too much on emotion," Miriam said. "Almost no one is giving enough consideration to the actual circumstances of those years."

As we talk, it becomes clear Miriam feels the full story of her father has never been told, that, because it arouses so many emotions, it has been "buried" by consensus.

In 1945, Israel Zolli, leader of one of the most ancient Jewish communities of the diaspora (Israel did not yet exist) asked to be baptized and took the name of Eugenio — a sign of his admiration for Pope Eugenio Pacelli, who had helped the Jews of the capital during the tragic days of October 1943.

Zolli was quite clear. In his book Antisemitismo (today, like all of his works, almost impossible to find), he wrote: "World Jewry owes a great debt of gratitude to the holiness of Pius XII for his repeated and pressing appeals for justice on behalf of the Jews and, when these did not prevail, for his strong protests against evil laws and procedures."

Miriam, too, believes the image of a pontiff imprisoned by his own fears in the Vatican palaces is a myth.

"When the Nazis asked for 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of gold to spare the lives of the inhabitants of the Portico d'Ottavia (a Jewish quarter of central Rome)," she recalls, "my father, almost in despair, rushed to the Vatican and spoke with the Vatican's treasurer, Monsignor Nogara. Through Nogara, Pius XII made it clear to my father that the Vatican would place at his disposition the 15 kilos (33 pounds) that were lacking. From that moment, my father established a relationship of human sympathy, almost of identification, with Pacelli."

Unfortunately, the gold did not serve to placate the Nazis. Between the 15th and 16th of October, the Germans rounded up the Jews of the ghetto.

"My father," Miriam recalls, "had understood this as well: how things would turn out in the end. He did not trust the SS and previously had suggested to the leaders of the community that they bum the registers and make the people flee the city. They thought his fears exaggerated, that he was a prophet of doom. This was in part because they had received assurances from the chief of Rome's police force, Carmine Senise. In the end, nearly all of them died."

Zolli was born in Brodj, in Galizia, on September 17, 1881. His mother tongue was German: his brothers lived in Austria and Germany.

"Perhaps this is why he understood long before many others the nature of Nazism and of Hitler," Miriam said. "As did Pacelli, who understood German culture thoroughly, having spent many years as the papal nuncio in Munich and Berlin. Already in the 1930s, my father had worked hard in Trieste, where he was Chief Rabbi, to save the German Jews who were fleeing from the Reich. He had helped large numbers of them board two Trieste ships owned by Lloyds of London, with the complicity of the king and Mussolini. And he used to comment on Hitler's actions with a ferocious, entirely Yiddish, sarcasm. For example, one day in Trieste, when a cafe violinist with a broken arm came to see my father, my father said 'Hitler has won a great victory, making a bad violinist into an excellent schnorer.' The word might be translated as 'mendicant."'

The destiny of the rabbi inter-twined with that of Pius XII. "Historical personages must be placed in the context of the epochs in which they live," Miriam said. "Pacelli and my father were tragic figures in a world where every moral reference point had been lost. An abyss of evil had opened up, but ordinary people did not believe it and the great ones — Roosevelt, Stalin, de Gaulle — were silent. Pius XII had understood that Hitler would not descend to pacts with anyone, that his madness was of the type that could explode in any direction, in the massacre of German Catholics or in the bombing of Rome, and he acted in the light of this knowledge. The Pope was like a person constrained to move in solitude among the lunatics of an insane asylum. He did what he could. His silence must be read in that context, as an act of prudence, not of cowardice."

In 1945, Zolli and his wife were baptized; the next year, Miriam followed.

The rabbi, a biblical exegete, studying the passages in Isaiah concerning the Servant of Yahweh, had become convinced that the Crucified One coincided with the Servant. In 1945, he took the great step, explained in a few brief but passionate words in his autobiography Before the Dawn'. "A man is not converted at the moment he chooses but at the hour when he receives God's call. And when he hears this call, the one who receives it has only one thing to do: obey."

Zolli's conversion aroused a huge scandal. "Avoid was made around him," Cardinal Paolo Dezza, now 96, told // Giornale. "The name of Zolli was even canceled from the list of the rabbis of Rome; the Jewish weekly came out with black cover as in a time of mourning, and the Zolli family, which still lived a few steps from the synagogue, received telephone calls filled with insults and threats. The family had to seek a new place to live. In the interval, I hosted Zolli at the Gregorian University, where I was Rector, while his wife and daughter found refuge in a convent of nuns."

"I am poor," Zolli told Dezza. "The Nazis took everything from me. It doesn't matter; I will live poor and die poor. I trust in Providence."

When Eugenio Zolli met Eugenio Pacelli — the conversation was in German from the first to the last word — the ex-rabbi asked the Bishop of Rome to excise from the Good Friday liturgy the adjective "perfidious" in reference to the Jews. The Pope responded with a public declaration explaining that in Latin "perfidious" means "unbelieving" not "treacherous." He couldn't do more at that time.

Zolli died on March 2, 1956. He was immediately forgotten. Miriam, a psychoanalyst, still lives in Rome, in Trastevere, cultivating her father's memory quietly.

"It is important that you make clear that my father never abandoned his Judaism," Miriam said. "He felt he was a Jew who had come to believe in the Jewish Messiah. But there was no rejection of his Jewish roots or of the Jewish people. So many find that impossible to understand...

"In the past few days, when the polemics over Pius XII's silence erupted, I thought of sending an open letter to the newspapers, but then I let it go. The last time I spoke with a journalist, years ago, my thoughts were distorted."

It is better not to speak about Zolli, even 40 years after his death.

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