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Eugenio Zollis Path to Rome | Stephen Sparrow
| September 5, 2005
Its little wonder that biographer Judith Cabaud considers Eugenio
Zolli one of the most remarkable men of the twentieth century.
Born in 1881 in Ukraine, then part of the Austro-Hungarian
Empire, the Zolli's baby boy was given the first name Israel. Sixty years
later he was chief Rabbi of Rome. In 1944, while in the synagogue celebrating
Yom Kippur, Zolli experienced a mystical vision of Jesus Christ. Within
a year he was baptized a Catholic at which time he changed his first name
from Israel to Eugenio, the same Christian name as Pope Pius XII. He did
this to honor the Pope for the help he gave Jews trying to escape the
Nazi's extermination program during World War II.
The First Act
Lets backtrack and look at the life of this Central European Jew
whose restless and courageous mind enabled him to step beyond the Old
Testament and become a follower of Jesus Christ. That long path from Judaism
to Catholicism was also taken by Madame Cabaud, who likened it to "wanting
to see the second act of a play of which we have attended only the first
The late nineteenth century provided the backdrop for Israel Zollis
formative years. It was a particularly turbulent period in Europe. France
was reeling from a prolonged bout of political instability exacerbated
by military defeat at the hands of Prussia. The philosophical and scientific
theories of Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer were starting to
blur Europes Christian perspective, while inside the Russian Empire
anti-Semitism was on the march. The Zolli family had substantial business
interests in what had become Russian controlled territory. The Russian
Government classified the Zollis as foreigners and being Jewish made them
even more vulnerable, so it was not unexpected they lost virtually everything
to a confiscation order issued by Tsar Alexander III. Like many Russian
Jews, the suddenly poverty stricken family moved to Poland where the older
children had to leave home to find work. However, young Israel was sent
to a strict Jewish school where the students spent much of their time
studying the books of the Pentateuch.
That young restless Jewish mind had been agitating about Gods inner
life since the age of eight. "What did God do before He created
the world? And why did He create it?" Questions, questions: the answer
must lie somewhere. One of Israels classmates at the school was
Christian and when visiting this boys home, Israel had been deeply
affected by the sight of a crucifix hanging on the wall. Who was that
man? What had he done to deserve such a punishment? Surely he couldnt
have been bad? But then maybe he had been and so deserved crucifixion!
But why was that image treated so reverently? Perhaps the man represented
truth? Israel eventually concluded that the man on the cross was good
and had been wrongly punished.
During his teenage years, the image of that crucifix sparked Israels
curiosity so much that he began secretly studying the New Testament, often
taking a copy into the fields where he would read quietly and contemplate.
He found delight in Christs sayings, especially those from the Sermon
on the Mount: "But I say to you: love your enemies," and "blessed are
the pure in heart." And from the cross: "Father, forgive them." The New
Testament really was a new covenant crammed with messages of extraordinary
beauty and importance.
For Israel Zolli the teachings of Christ truly marked out the Kingdom
of Heaven, as a place reserved for those persecuted, who in eschewing
vengeance had loved instead. From then on the Gospel would prove an irresistible
attraction and when studying the Old Testament for the Rabbinate he read
further on into the New, regarding it as the natural continuation of the
Old. Many years later, Zollis daughter Miriam would tell Judith
Cabaud that her father had once taken her to the Sistine Chapel in Rome
and used the prophets, apostles, and saints painted on the ceiling to
explain the bond uniting the Old and New Testament. But in Israels
youth the clue connecting the two was how closely the man on the cross
matched the identity of the suffering servant from Isaiah. That Zolli
would hit on the idea that the Gospels were inside the Old Testament from
the beginning was seemingly inevitable.
Naturally enough Judaism exerted a powerful pull on Israel Zolli. For
his family, it was a way of life tied up with community, a cultural identity
that tended to steer religion away from any personal relationship with
God. His mother had always wanted him to be a Rabbi and she scrimped and
saved to pay for his studies. And still the young man fretted about the
years of hard study ahead and the purpose of the 613 commandments of the
Torah. "Surely," he thought, "it would be better for the
Torah to be lived?" He felt isolated from the talk and ideas of other
young Jews and his thoughts returned many times to the crucifix in the
home of his friend Stanislas. The person of Isaiahs suffering servant
of God continued to provoke questions about God, suffering, and, of course,
the identity of the servant referred to by Isaiah.
Rabbi in Rome
Israel fell in with his mothers plans and began studying, first
in Poland, then Vienna and ending in Florence where he completed his rabbinical
studies. Next he gained a professorship at the University of Padua. In
1918 he was appointed chief Rabbi of Trieste in Italy. It was the period
between the wars and the political scene in Europe was rapidly assuming
a sinister look. Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini took charge in Italy
in 1922 and Hitler came into power in Germany eleven years later.
Just as World War II broke out, Zolli moved from Trieste to Rome to take
up the post of the citys chief Rabbi. The Jews of Rome were confident
they could survive any fallout from Fascism and Nazism and observed no
safety precautions. But Zolli, knowing what was happening in Germany,
predicted Hitler would soon occupy Italy. His warnings to Jews to destroy
their records and go underground went unheeded. While the Italian army
fought alongside the Germans things went reasonably well, but then the
Allies invaded Italy and it wasnt long before the Italian military
called it a day.
With the collapse of Mussolinis regime in
1943 and Italys defection from the Axis, the Nazis immediately seized
control of all Italian territory not in Allied hands and occupied Rome.
The Nazis quickly established their usual routine: find the Jews, squeeze
them for their wealth, and then deport them to death camps. Enter Colonel
Kappler, a senior German officer who saw a chance to line his pockets.
Kappler issued the Jewish community an ultimatum: either hand over 50
Kg of gold or, failing that, deliver 300 named hostages a list
headed by none other than Zolli himself. Within a short time the Jews
managed to scrape together 35 Kg of gold but it was insufficient to satisfy
Kapplers monstrous appetite and so, on behalf of the Jewish community,
Israel Zolli was deputed to approach the Vatican for the shortfall. This
was his first contact with the institutional Church and it took place
in secret since the Gestapo watched all Vatican Citys exits.
"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
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."
Zolli met with the Vaticans Secretary of State Cardinal Maglione
and appealed to him saying, "The New Testament cannot abandon the
Old." Maglione immediately approached Pius XII to help with the needed
gold. The Pope agreed to the request and Zolli was told to return later
for the "package." Not only did the Pope act with alacrity,
the Catholic parishes of Rome hurriedly gathered together a further 15
Kg of gold, something Zolli found out about from his daughter when he
returned home. For the time being, the hostage crisis was averted.
That Pius XII played an enormous role in saving Jews from the Nazis was
well known to Zolli. He was aware that monasteries and convents in Rome
and all over Italy had opened their doors to Jews at the urging of the
Pope. In addition, thousands more were being sheltered by ordinary Italian
Catholic families, and both the Vatican and the Popes summer residence
in Castel Gandolfo were filled with Jews who had nowhere else to hide.
Zolli, who met Pius XII, was impressed with the Popes open attitude
and willingness to help. The Zolli family lived underground during the
Nazi occupation of Rome and saw first hand the charity of the Church in
action, inspired as it was by the personal courage of the pope, who did
more than anyone else at that time to frustrate the arrest and execution
of European Jews. Official Jewish sources cite a figure of 850,000 Jews
saved as a result of the direct intervention of Pius XII, a fact that
flies in the face of the current media smear campaign directed at Pius
over his alleged failure to speak out publicly against Nazi Germanys
The Second Act
In June 1944, an agreement was reached between the German and Allied High
Commands; the German Army withdrew from Rome and the Allies occupied the
city without a shot being fired. At the time the Jewish Community Council
in Rome was full of collaborators and the American military wanted them
out and Zolli back in control. But the very day he was asked to resume
leadership of the Jewish Council, he confided to his Jesuit priest friend
Father Dezza that he had other plans. "How can I continue living
in this way when I think very often of Christ and how I love Him?" Zolli
was then sixty-five years old, weary and wanting to retire.
Four months later, while in the synagogue for the feast of Yom Kippur,
Zolli received a vision in which Christ spoke to him saying, "You
are here for the last time: from now on you will follow Me." For
Israel Zolli there would be no going back. Relaxing at home that evening
he was at first reluctant to mention what had happened but when he did
his wife admitted that she to had seen the same vision of Christ standing
next to him. Miriam, their eighteen-year-old daughter then told her parents
that she had recently seen Jesus in a dream. Zolli saw it all as confirmation
of what he should do and immediately resigned from the synagogue. He and
his wife took instruction from a priest and were baptized within a year:
Israel taking the additional step of changing his first name to Eugenio,
the same Christian name as Pope Pius XII. Miriam converted a year after
The Chief Rabbi of Rome converting to Catholicism was a big story in Italy,
but the secular media tried to rationalize the matter. In his autobiography,
Before The Dawn, Eugenio Zolli refuted all assertions that his
conversion was out of gratitude to Pope Pius XII. Certainly he was extremely
grateful for what the Pope had done to protect Jews, but the singular
reason behind his conversion was his attraction to the person of Christ
the Messiah an attraction that had been growing steadily since
Fifty years have elapsed since Zollis autobiography was first published
in English and only within the last four years has Judith Cabauds
well-researched book, Eugenio Zolli, Prophet of a New World (de
Guibert, Paris 2000), been available, but not yet in English. However,
in a recently
published interview, Cabaud provided this perceptive insight into
current relations between Jews and Christians.
"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."
After his conversion, Eugenio Zolli was given a post at the Pontifical Biblical
Institute. Early in 1956 he contracted bronchopneumonia and was admitted
to hospital. The week before his death, Zolli told a nun looking after him
that like Our Lord he would die on the first Friday of the month at three
o'clock in the afternoon. On Friday, March 2, 1956, after receiving Holy
Communion in the morning, he drifted into a coma and died as he predicted,
at 3.00 p.m.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com link:
Roy H. Schoeman, author of Salvation is from the Jews
Sparrow writes from New Zealand. He is semi-retired and reads (and writes)
for enjoyment, with a particular interest in the work of Catholic authors
Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Sigrid Undset, Dante Alighieri and St Therese
of Lisieux. His secondary school education was undertaken by Society of
Mary priests at St. Bedes College and after leaving school in 1960 he joined
a family wood working business, retiring from it in 2001. He is married
with five adult children. His other interests include fishing, hiking, photography
and natural history, especially New Zealand botany and ornithology.
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