Keys to Understanding the Conversion of Rabbi Zolli of Rome

Interview With Alberto Latorre

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ROME, APRIL 25, 2004 ( The 1954 autobiography of a rabbi who converted to Catholicism was recently published in Italian and has become a best seller in Catholic bookstores.

Eugene Zolli, chief rabbi of Rome at the time of World War II, was baptized into the Church in 1945. His autobiography, «Before the Dawn,» was published two months ago in Italy under the title «Prima dell’Alba,» by St. Paul Publications.

«Before the Dawn» contains the memoirs of Israel Zoller, who when he was baptized took the name Eugene Zolli, in honor of the help that Pope Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli) offered his community during the war.

Zoller was of Polish origin. His mother belonged to a family with a rabbinical tradition of more than four centuries. He first studied at the University of Vienna, and then at the University of Florence, where he received a licentiate in philosophy, while studying at the same time at the Rabbinical College.

In 1920 he became chief rabbi of Trieste, and in 1933 he was granted Italian citizenship. He Italianized his surname from Zoller to Zolli because of the Fascist laws of the time.

He became a professor of Jewish letters and literature at the University of Padua, but had to leave the teaching profession because of the racial laws of Benito Mussolini’s government. Zolli was appointed chief rabbi of Rome in 1938.

He led the Jewish community here until July 1944. On Aug. 15 of that year, he told Jesuit Father Paolo Dezza, rector of the Gregorian University, of his intention to become a Catholic.

On Feb. 13, 1945, he and his wife — who added Mary to her name Emma — were baptized in the chapel of St. Mary of the Angels Church.

Zolli recounts in his book that, after the arrival of the Nazis in Rome, he gave himself heart and soul to hiding Jews in order to save their lives, thanks to the collaboration offered to him by Vatican institutions and, in particular, by Pius XII.

According to the book, Ugo Foa, president of the Jewish community, did not share the rabbi’s fears and considered Zolli’s warnings about the Nazis to be alarmist.

To understand the historical and religious issues in the book, ZENIT interviewed Alberto Latorre, who oversaw the Italian edition of the autobiography. Latorre finished his studies in philosophy at the University of Verona three years ago with a thesis entitled «From Israel Zoller to Eugene Zolli: Itinerary of a Scholar in Search.»

Q: Could you explain the decisive aspects of Eugene Zolli’s history?

Latorre: Zolli’s figure is too complex, both as a man and as a scholar, to summarize his history in some decisive points.

On one hand, there are complicated situations and enormous personal sufferings that were with him from his early childhood and continued throughout his life. On the other, there is his complex cultural formation and extraordinary scientific activity. He was a rabbi but above all a historian of religions and an exegete.

I can only state that to understand his history fully, without hasty or laconic judgments, one should study his cultural and spiritual formation profoundly, beginning with the Jewish, Ashkenazi and Hasidic environment in which he grew up.

Any other interpretations lend themselves to numerous debates and criticisms of these weeks [leading up to his conversion], which arise every time Zolli’s name is mentioned — debates, criticisms and interpretations orchestrated ad hoc by all those who, for the most varied reasons, accuse Zolli of treason or make use of him for apologetic ends.

Q: What do you think of Zolli’s conversion? You seem to imply that much took place before the meeting with [Pius XII].

Latorre: I answer, quoting Zolli, that it was not a question of a conversion, but of an adherence. The baptism of fire, namely, Zolli’s profound adherence to the Gospel message, probably took place during his adolescent years.

Zolli, as he himself says, nourished from the years of his formation a profound love of Jesus — an attraction attested subsequently by a historical-religious study published in 1938: «The Nazarene: Studies of New Testament Exegesis in the Light of Aramaic and Rabbinical Thought.»

The baptism of water, received on February 13, 1945, was an act of formal adherence carried out when he was already clear about manifesting openly, «in primis» to himself, his religious faith.

I must emphasize that Zolli never abandoned Judaism; rather, following in the steps of St. Paul, he entered Christianity as a Jew. A Jew as was Jesus of Nazareth.

Q: Could the rabbi’s meeting with the Pontiff have influenced the decisions that were brewing in Zolli’s heart? In what way?

Latorre: I think it is impossible to establish objectively if the meeting with Pacelli influenced Zolli’s decisions and in what way. How is it possible, in fact, to enter a man’s heart and understand profoundly its movements and uncertainties? It is already very difficult to enter one’s own — can you imagine understanding another’s?

Yet, on the basis of my studies of Zolli, I think that the meeting with the Pontiff did not influence him at all.

I would like to add that, in my opinion, the repeated rapprochement between Zolli and Pius XII, and vice versa, was not for the benefit of either one. The personal and historical situations of both ended, inevitably, by coming together, but I think that the analysis and historical judgment of the two personalities must be carried out autonomously. …

Q: Specifically, when the Nazis occupied Rome, Zolli recounts a variety of meetings with the then president of the Jewish community. What really happened and what was the essence of the dispute? Is it true that if more attention had been paid to Zolli, perhaps all the Jews could have been saved?

Latorre: According to what Zolli says in his autobiography, there were different points of view between him and political representatives of the community of Rome, attested also by the decisions adopted by the Allied provisional government in the months following the liberation of Rome, which led to the dissolution of the community’s council and the re-designation of Zolli as chief rabbi.

During the occupation Zolli was deprived of his authority by the council’s deliberation. I cannot affirm what really happened and what was the essence of the dispute.

Zolli himself expresses his point of view and the reasons for his elections without going too deeply into the question of others’ conduct.

The fact remains that Zolli knew very well both the Teutonic mentality — he was the son of a German mother — as well as the persecutions directed at the Jews, perpetrated in Germany during the ’30s when, as chief rabbi of Trieste, he helped many fugitives from Germany and Eastern Europe to reach Palestine.

He argues in the text that the different points of view regarding the danger posed by the Germans stemmed fundamentally from these reasons. But I cannot tell you if, following Zolli’s decisions, all the Jews would have been saved.

It is almost certainly true. One cannot deny that the measures he suggested — such as the closing of the temple and of the oratories, the general alarm, and many other things — would have saved the lives, if not of all, of very many Jews.

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