On September 27, 1944, while leading Yom Kippur services in Rome, Israel Zolli, the chief rabbi of that city, is said to have had the religious epiphany that led him to convert to Christianity – though it was a move he had been considering for years. Several months later, in February of 1945, both he and his wife were baptized, and Zolli was christened as Eugenio Maria Zolli, after Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII.
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Zolli was also born on September 27 (1881), as Israel Anton Zoller, in the town of Brody, Galicia, then part of Austria. His father had owned a silk factory in Lodz, Poland, but lost his business and all his assets when the czarist government nationalized foreign-owned industries. His mother came from a long line of rabbis, and growing up, Israel was groomed to become one himself.
Zolli earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Florence, and studied for the rabbinate at the same time. In 1913, he became deputy rabbi of the city of Trieste, which at the time was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Five years later, he became the town’s principal rabbi, and changed his name to the more Italian-sounding Zolli as the city was in Italian hands following World War I.
Zolli held that position until 1939, and during the same period, he also taught Hebrew at the University of Padua. Independently, he also began studying the New Testament. His interest in Christianity was in part demonstrated by his publication in 1938 of a book about Jesus, “The Nazarene.” It looked at Jesus as a Jew, and at early Christianity as an outgrowth of Judaism.
Rome gets an arrogant chief rabbi
In 1939, Zolli was appointed chief rabbi of Rome, after the combination of Fascist Italy’s Racial Laws and the Jewish community’s anti-Zionist tendencies led his predecessor, Rabbi David Prato, to emigrate to Palestine. From the beginning of his tenure, Zolli had problems with the lay leadership of the city’s Jewish community, and generally seems to have been perceived more as a scholar – and an arrogant one, at that -- than as a pastoral figure who possessed the human touch.
In their 1992 book, “The Chief Rabbi, the Pope and the Holocaust,” Robert G. Weisbord and Wallace P. Sillanpoa quote a contemporary account that cited Zolli as telling a meeting of the Rome Jewish council in 1942 that, “I consider it an honor for the community of Rome to have me as Chief Rabbi and I do not consider it an honor for me to be Chief Rabbi of the Community.”
To this day, Zolli’s conduct during the German occupation of Rome, which lasted from October 1943 to June 1944, is a subject of controversy. He always claimed that it was clear to him from the start that the Nazis intended to arrest and deport the city’s 8,000 Jews, as they were doing in the country’s north. He urged the heads of the Jewish community to close their offices, and to encourage their fellow Jews to go into hiding. He also called on the community to destroy all of its records, so as to make it more difficult for the Germans to undertake a roundup. For the most part, Zolli’s lay counterparts did not take his warnings seriously.
On September 26, 1943, the head of the German security police in Rome, issued a demand to the Jewish community: Either pay a ransom of 50 kilograms of gold (worth about $56,000 at the time) within three days, or a list of Jewish men from the city would face deportation.
The Jews began hurriedly collecting gold, both among its own members and from non-Jews. Yet when it became clear they would not have the needed amount by the deadline, feelers were also put out to the Vatican – both by Zolli and, separately, by two other members of the Jewish community -- for a loan of gold. Zolli visited the Vatican, where he met with the Church’s treasurer, Monsignor Nogara, who promised a loan of the needed quantity, but within a short time, it became clear the loan would not be required. The gold had been collected, and it was soon delivered to the German occupiers.
Temporarily, the anti-Jewish measures that were in place in Rome were suspended, but any appearance that the ransom payment had saved the Jewish community was an illusion. On October 16, the Germans surrounded the Ghetto, and, armed with lists of Jewish community members, they began rounding up people. Fortunately, they found and arrested only 1,259 Jews: The remainder had already been taken in by non-Jews, including in churches and monasteries in the countryside. The Italian police also refused to cooperate with the German action.
Visions of Jesus
At the urging of the Roman police, Zolli went into hiding among members of the Italian resistance (not in the Vatican, as has often been claimed), and he remained out of view until the city’s liberation, the following June. He later claimed that his colleagues in the lay leadership knew how to reach him; they claimed that he had abandoned his post.
After the liberation, the Allied forces saw to it that Zolli resumed his position as chief rabbi, despite the fact that he now was held in disrepute by many of his fellow Roman Jews. While Zolli sought to turn his position into a lifetime appointment, he also began scouting around for an academic position. In December 1944, he confidentially told the new head of the Jewish community that he was in poor health, and would be resigning his position as chief rabbi.
Later, it turned out that he had decided to convert. Recalling his Yom Kippur vision, some years later, Zolli wrote that while he was praying on September 27, 1944, “Suddenly, I saw, with the eyes of the mind, a large prairie, and standing in the middle of the green grass was Jesus, dressed in a white robe... At the sight of this, I felt a great interior peace, and, from the depths of my heart, I heard these words: 'You are here for the last time. From now on, you will follow Me'.”
That same day, Zolli recounted, both his wife and his daughter reported to him that they too had had visions of Jesus. “I wished them both a good night,” he wrote, “and, without feeling at all ill at ease, I continued to think about the extraordinary sequence of events."
On February 13, 1945, Zolli, together with his wife, Emma, underwent baptism, at the Santa Maria degli Angeli church, in Rome.
In an August 1945 article in a Catholic newspaper, Israel Klyber, himself a Jewish convert to Christianity, quoted Zolli as saying that, “I was a Catholic at heart before the war broke out, and I promised God in 1943 that I should become a Christian if I survived the war.”
Zolli also claimed that he had not left the Jewish people. “Did Peter, James, John, Matthew, Paul and hundreds of Hebrews like them cease to be Jews when they followed the Messiah and became Christians?” he asked rhetorically, according to Klyber. “Emphatically, no.”
The Jewish community of course did not see things quite that way. News of Zolli’s conversion was greeted with a period of mourning in the Roman community, and he was condemned by Jewish figures internationally, who portrayed him as a traitor to his people. In the meantime, Rabbi Prato was called back from Palestine to resume his former position as chief rabbi.
In the remaining years of his life, Eugenio Zolli, as he now called himself, held academic positions at both the Pontifical Bibilical Institute and at the State University in Rome. He also wrote a memoir, “Before the Dawn,” in which he described his conversion. It was republished in English translation in 2008. Zolli died on March 2, 1956.