by Judith Cabaud
First of all, Zolli was born in Galicia, now in the Ukraine, in a town called Brody. His name was Israel Zoller, which was “Italianized” by the Fascists in 1938. Instead of Israel, they called him Italo, and Zoller became Zolli. During his childhood, he lived in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire where the Jews were not as persecuted as in the Russian Zone. His own father had a textile factory in Lodz, and the family, after a few years, was reduced to poverty in the Russian Zone. The Russian government at the time confiscated the homes, the goods, and the factories, especially if they belonged to Jews. Israel was the youngest of five children, and the family moved then to a place near Brody, where he did his primary studies. Actually his real attachment to God began with his parents. His father would comment for him on the prayers that were recited by heart in the synagogue, and his mother taught him by her example the invisible laws of love and charity. In this town where they lived, there was a tacit rule of tolerance. In fact, in what is today the Ukraine, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, there was tolerance between these different groups whether they were Orthodox, or Catholic, or Jewish.
But the boy, Zolli, would start asking questions. This is always a major flaw in people who are looking for God and who manage to find Him. He asked questions about the differences between the Christians and the Jews. Of course, the answer was, “You don’t talk about it, and you don’t ask questions. Christ is for Christians and not for us.” This is quoted from Zolli. His mother had come from a long line of Rabbis, and her fondest wish was to see her youngest son undertake the rabbinical studies. So, she would scrimp and save her money for Israel’s future, and the boy worked very hard to meet her expectations. By the age of eight, some serious questions came up. “What was God doing before he created the world? Why did He do it? Who is the servant of God in Isaiah? Why does he suffer?” And especially, “Who was that man on the cross?” He had noticed it in passing through a room of his classmate’s house. His classmate’s name was Stanislaus, and he was Catholic. This really plagued him. “What was that man doing on the cross? What outrageous things had he done to be in such a predicament?” We never talked about these things, so how can you know?
After his secondary studies, his family moved to Lvov. There was more German culture there, and a better quality of schools, so Israel aspired to higher studies. You needed to have some ways and means to get into the university, so he had to prepare for it, and he started doing this by teaching and coaching rabbinical studies in Hebrew language and literature, and so on. After a while, his mother died, and he left for Vienna where he only stayed for a few months before going to Florence. In Italy, he was admitted to the higher rabbinical seminary. He was also interested in everything else. That’s the whole problem. He was not only interested in knowing the quantity of water that was necessary for a ritual bath, or if you were allowed to eat the egg of a hen that had laid the egg on the day of the Sabbath. These questions were not tormenting him, but the others were. So he did undertake profane subjects at the same time.
He continued general studies in Philosophy, Psychology, Greek, Semitic languages, Arabic, and so on. He eventually became Professor at the University of Padua, married his first wife Adele, and was nominated Vice Rabbi of Trieste. Now in 1918, after World War I by the treaty of Versailles, Trieste had become Italian territory. It had been a part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire before. That’s why, at that time, he opted for the Italian nationality, because he was not only named Chief Rabbi of the city, but he was enthusiastic about the Italian way of life. After that, we have the rise of Mussolini in the 1920s. The Jewish community of Trieste was divided between the Zionists who thought that the only solution for Jews was to immigrate and to establish the State of Israel, and those who wanted to collaborate with the Fascist regime, because they argued that the Fascists had no intention of harming the Jews. It is true that Mussolini did nothing blatant against the Jewish community until 1938. Then he had anti-Semitic laws passed that obliged them to have a status. However, this was not the same thing as putting people into concentration camps and gas chambers. Even with the racial laws of the time, discrimination was obviously negligible in comparison with what was going on in Nazi Germany.
In the 1920’s, Zolli tried to help both sides. He obtained passports and money for the Zionists flooding into Trieste from Eastern Europe trying to go to Palestine, and he also helped people who had trouble with the Fascists. In his personal life, he had many trials and tribulations. His first wife died, and he was left with a daughter whose name was Dora. Several years later, he married Emma, and the couple would have to live through World War II. They had a second daughter, Miriam, the one we met in Rome. During this period, Zolli actually had a double life. He was a Rabbi who accomplished his rituals and exercises with his people, and he also had a career as a writer, a professor, a thinker, and an exegete. This really brought him closer to the road to Christ. He had always been attracted to the Gospel, in fact, and he tells that story in his wonderful autobiography.
I tried to place him in his context to say all the things that he could not say about himself, and that is why I wrote the book. I tried to write with objectivity what he could not say himself. That’s why the book exists. As a young rabbi studying the Old Testament, he said you can’t just stop at the end of all the prophecies in which God’s will is accomplished. He would have to continue. Therefore, he read the New Testament, and for him it became the natural continuation of the old one. He had always been attracted to the figure of Christ on the Cross, as we saw before, and he began to understand, in the sense of the suffering servant of God in the book of Isaiah. So, in 1938, he published the fruit of his long labor in Biblical research called, The Nazarene, in which he explored the exegetical problems concerning the relations between the Old and New Testaments. I have no real proof of this, but I think it is these writings that were probably not appreciated by all his superiors. In any case, it is likely to be one of the reasons why he was transferred to Rome, and nominated to Rome in 1939. The former Chief Rabbi of Rome at that time had run away to the United States in seeing the gathering clouds of war, and the rabbinical college was shut down.
In the Lion’s den
So here he was, the superior of a closed college, and the head of a synagogue in which there was just whoever had the courage of coming. People were having a lot of difficulty in this community. In Rome, in spite of the threat created by a new treaty between Italy and Germany, the majority of Jews thought that Fascism and Nazism would blow over in a short time. After all, the Roman Jews had been there for over two thousand years, and the present problems were small in comparison with those that had occurred during the Roman Empire. So, when Zolli arrived in Rome, it was wartime. The Italians were Hitler’s allies, but no real discrimination was practiced. The prejudice that appeared mostly was administrative. Zolli, on the other hand, knew what was really going on because he was German-speaking and was still writing articles for newspapers in the Viennese press.
The first thing he did was to ask the leaders of the Jewish community to destroy the archives of the community members, which they refused to do. After all, they did not trust him. For them he was a foreigner. What did he know about the Jews of Rome? They repeated that they had been there for 2,000 years, and in comparison, he had been there for five minutes. In September of 1943, after the collapse of Mussolini’s Fascist state, the Nazis occupied Italy and invaded Rome. Zolli wanted to destroy the files again and send Jewish people into hiding. The president of the community still refused to do anything. He even said, “Go and buy some courage in the pharmacy.” The first thing that happened during Nazi occupation was a vile negotiation for fifty kilograms of gold. There was an ultimatum of either fifty kilograms, or three hundred hostages. Zolli said, “Put my name on top of the list. I will be the first hostage, that is no problem.” The Jews of Rome managed to collect thirty five kilos of gold. At that moment, a friend of Zolli’s asked him if he would go to the Vatican to ask for the missing quantity. He agreed to do it, and this experience was going to be his very first contact with the institutional Church.
The Gestapo was looking for him. As he was “Wanted” for three hundred thousand Lire, his friend drove him directly to the back door of the Vatican disguised as an inspector of a construction site, an engineer who had come to see the works that were going on inside the Vatican. He was received finally by Commander Nogara, the administrator of the Holy See, and Zolli simply made this declaration: “The New Testament cannot abandon the Old.” Nogara was very moved, and he went immediately to see Pius XII, who said, “Of course, tell him to come back at 1:00 PM, and he’ll have the package.” In the meantime, Zolli’s daughter informed him that the missing fifteen kilograms of gold had already been collected by the Catholic parishes of Rome, a fact that you will not be told very often.
When it comes to discussing Zolli’s attitude towards the Church, the Chief Rabbi is the first witness to the generosity of Pius XII. He is thus at the peak of this wound that Bob Moynihan mentioned before. He knew that the Pope had ordered the monasteries and convents of Rome to open their doors to Jews. There were thousands of Jews being protected by Catholic families in Rome, in the suburbs as well, in the Vatican itself, or even in Casa Gandolfo. He was very struck by the openness of the Pope, and he said so. During the whole war, Zolli remained present, living in Rome, not in the United States or Switzerland like many of his colleagues, 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 in the world at that time. The Jews themselves, like Mrs. Golda Meir and others who were officials in Italy, came to thank him for this. It was only afterwards, twenty years later, that a German Protestant, Rolf Hochuth, who was probably looking for some way to excuse himself for being German, obviously wanted to knock the Catholic Church in writing his play called The Deputy, which is a ridiculous caricature of Pius XII with no factual evidence.
After the liberation of Rome by the Americans, there was Colonel Poletti, Commander of the American Army, who sized up the situation. “Let’s dissolve this Jewish community counsel, get all these collaborators out, and get me Zolli back.” But Zolli was now aged 65, and he was exhausted. He was actually about to retire. Despite this ordeal he had gone through, this Chief Rabbi had maintained his inner life of prayer with God and Christ. Many a time he would pray and never think that the word conversion contained any reality for him.
“You are here for the last time”
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 appeared to him in a green pasture and said, “You are here for the last time. From now on you shall follow me.” Well, that was it! Zolli was very moved, even though he knew Christ before, and he had even had certain mystical experiences with him. But this time it was really precise. At home that evening, breaking the fast after Yom Kippur, he did not want to say anything to his family because he thought, “Maybe this is a psychological problem of my fasting today.” But suddenly his wife, Emma, said to 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 eighteen at the time, burst in and said that she had seen Jesus in a dream. For Rabbi Zolli, this was the last sign he needed. He resigned from the synagogue and asked a priest to give him instruction in view of entering into the Church.
He was baptized in 1945 in the Church Santa Maria de Angeli and took the Christian name of Eugenio, in honor of Pius XII — not because of Pius XII, but in honor of him. His wife received baptism that day too, and she added the name Maria to her first name Emma. He was severely criticized for his action, and of course they called it a “nervous breakdown,” which was mild in comparison with some of the insults and invectives recorded in documents at the time. Zolli accepted his new status of poverty again, and he declined many invitations such as teaching theology in Basil in Switzerland on the condition that he would become a Protestant. He was accused of accepting bribes from the Church, large sums of money for doing this or that, or saying this or that. This usually made him laugh, because the dire reality of his situation was such that on the day of his baptism, it is reported that Monsignor Traglia gave him fifty lire so that he and his wife could have dinner. It is thanks to Pope Pius XII once more that he was able to continue teaching at the Gregorian University in Rome and do research at the Biblical Institute for his exegetical works. In 1953, he gave a series of lectures at Notre Dame University in the United States. It is at this time that his book of memoirs was published in English under the title, “Before the Dawn.”
In his writings, Zolli explores the spiritual problem which arises from conversion in general, and he asks, “Is conversion an infidelity?” This is in “Before the Dawn.” He answered by giving a definition: “infidelity toward the faith previously professed.” Then, he questioned the term “faith” before trying to answer this difficult question. Faith, he states, is an adherence, not to a tradition, not to a family, not to a tribe, not to a nation. It is an adherence of our life and our works to the will of God as it is revealed to each one of us, also in the intimacy of conscience. I think that is the definition that we can really keep for faith. There can be no suspicion of pretense in such reality. You can’t make believe. Zolli truly sought the truth wherever it was. And it was indeed, in the Catholic religion. He preferred the law of love to the love of the law. And he had this word about Jewish converts in general: The Jews who are becoming converts today, as in the day of St. Paul, have much or even all to lose in regards to earthly life, and have much if not all to gain in the life of Grace.
Toward the end of his life, he lived quite modestly with his wife in Rome. He continued writing and lecturing until his last breath. In January 1956, he was suffering from pneumonia and had to remain confined to bed, meditating with tears on the Passion of Christ. On March 2nd , a first Friday, he received Holy Communion and entrusted his soul to God. He died at three o’clock in the afternoon.
A lesson for the world today
The great significance for Jews today in the substance of Zolli’s writing, if not only in his life and his experience, is that we have only one religion, the Judeo-Christian faith which began with Judaism, the law and the prophets, and 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 this into account. We can see the old Judaic faith was composed of the law written in the Torah which ensured all the necessary prescriptions of daily life, therefore the letter; and it contained at the same time the Messianic promise as conveyed by the prophets — this is the Spirit. These two levels of meaning are 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 its 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 goodness and truth without knowing who our parents were.
If we contemplate Zolli’s experience, we can see that the inter-religious dialogue nowadays between Catholics and Jews remains very unsatisfactory. Why? Because we are already one-and-the-same Judeo-Christian religion, but we fear the evidence of it. 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. This is only possible in Spirit. Spiritual logic brings us forward, and all men of good will naturally desire this continuity. It’s like wanting to see the second act of a play in which we have attended only the first. The road to reconciliation between the older and younger brothers can come about by seeing the relationship which already exists between the Old and New Testament. It is an old foundation for new theological research.
Today, a majority of Jews have a tendency to consider Judaism as a way of life, and of course this way of life, like cultural identity, is part of social community life. The result is generally 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 your behavior, and your cultural identity is mistaken for religious identity. So if you begin to act according to individual conscience, you’re actually committing an act of treason against the community norm. However, a Jew who chooses to become an agnostic, a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Muslim, or a Communist, is actually betraying Jewish customs and rituals but is not engaging his inner spiritual self. On the other hand, a Jew who becomes a Catholic is guilty of rejecting exterior social behavior as well as adopting the spiritual allegiance to Christ, Son of God, who represents the epitome of Jewish consciousness. This quest for cultural identity is linked to “political correctness.” I hear it every day in France and throughout the western world. Cultural identity has played an eminent role also in the United States. Many Jews, including some members of my family, who have witnessed the decline of their religious faith due in part to assimilation, have resorted to using the Holocaust perpetrated during World War II as a source of religious identity: “You were in the Holocaust, I was in the Holocaust, we lost so and so.” This is religious identity. So we go and look up the names to see that this represents our relationship to God. We should remain Jews because of the Holocaust. Really, no reference to God can be stronger than human bonds. This may be difficult to hear, but it is a truism. The circle of general confusion is widened to the false responsibility of the Catholic Church, which everybody finds guilty of something or other. This has been greatly exploited by the media on ignorant public opinion, even on people thinking how true that film really was. I think this recent development is a very important part in the long misunderstanding that has existed between Jews and Christians for the past two thousand years.
If we listen to the message of Zolli which cannot be developed here for lack of time, I am sure that in searching for truth on both sides, we can mend many of those wounds which have created this cruel separation between brothers. The quest for truth will and can enfold us, together with all our individual diversity, into the loving arms of our One Eternal God.
Jewish conversion is one of the most important issues at this present time. We can naturally imagine some of the effects on peace in the world, in the Middle East, for example, or a reinforcement of vocations in the Church. Now, these are actually answers. We are always told, “Oh Jews, you’re in the media, you’re in the publishing world or in finance,” and so on. It’s a natural atavism if we want to announce the Catholic Church, if we want to announce Jesus Christ. It will certainly be on a big scale. As for the Middle East, Israelis and Palestinians would be able to live together only in Christ. Many a rabbi could become a Catholic scholar and theologian.
At the present time, I am working on other subjects brought up by Eugenio Zolli, that is, the meaning of liturgical sacrifice from the Seder to Holy Mass that he only outlined in his conferences in the United States at Notre Dame. This offers really new horizons, and I wrote an essay on this which will appear next April, about the liturgical sacrifice from the Seder to the Holy Mass, according to Zolli. In another year or so, my “Prophet of a New World” will appear in the English edition, published by Ignatius Press.
The lack of convictions in the world in which we live, in New Age style where each person possesses his or her own truth without any real understanding of Truth, is leading us all today straight into the abyss. I hope that these remarks and comments on the life and works of Eugenio Zolli can contribute in our time to giving a better knowledge of his message of truth and faith in a world of uncertainties and doubt about divine reality. This good Rabbi, Eugenio Zolli, gives us a glimpse of the beginning of that new world, announced in the scriptures in the Second Coming, at which time the only inhabitants to survive will be those who love one another in the contemplation of God’s love for us all. Thank you!