ROME, FEB. 16, 2004 (Zenit.org).- The autobiography of Israel Zoller, a wartime rabbi of Rome who converted to Christianity in 1945, has just been published in Italy — a half-century after it was written.
In “Before the Dawn” (“Prima dell’Alba,” St. Paul Publishers), Zoller says that at his baptism he took the name Eugene, in honor of the wartime help his community received from Pope Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli).
Zoller led the Jewish community in Rome from 1938 to July 1944. On Aug. 15 of that year, he revealed to Father Paolo Dezza, then rector of the Gregorian University and eventually a cardinal, his intention to become a Catholic.
The former rabbi was baptized, together with his wife — who added “Mary” to her given name Emma — on Feb. 13, 1945, in the chapel of St. Mary of the Angels Church. The author wrote the book in 1954. He died in 1956.
Israel Zoller was of Polish origin. His mother belonged to a family of rabbinical tradition, which could trace its origins back four centuries. Israel studied at the University of Vienna and later at the University of Florence, where he received a licentiate in philosophy, while at the same time studying at the Rabbinical College.
In 1920, Zoller became chief rabbi of Trieste. Thirteen years later he was granted Italian citizenship. Because of the Fascist laws, he had to Italianize his surname from Zoller to Zolli.
Eventually he became professor of arts and Jewish literature at the University of Padua, but was forced to leave the field of teaching because of the racial laws of Benito Mussolini’s government. He was appointed chief rabbi of Rome in 1938.
In his book, Zolli recounts how after the arrival of the Nazis in Rome he dedicated himself to hiding Jews and saving their lives, thanks to the collaboration of Vatican institutions, and in particular, that of Pius XII.
According to the book, Ugo Foa, president of the Jewish community at the time, did not share the rabbi’s fears, and believed that Zolli’s warnings about the Nazis were alarmist.
To those who accused him of being a traitor for having been baptized, Zolli answered: “I haven’t denied anything; I have a peaceful conscience. Is not the God of Jesus Christ, of Paul, the same God as that of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Paul was a convert. Did he, by any chance, abandon the God of Israel? Did he cease to love Israel? Just to think something like this is absurd.”