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Eugenio Zolli’s Path to Rome | Stephen Sparrow | September 5, 2005

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It’s 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

Let’s 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 act."

The late nineteenth century provided the backdrop for Israel Zolli’s 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 Europe’s 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 God’s 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 Israel’s classmates at the school was Christian and when visiting this boy’s 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 couldn’t 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 Israel’s 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 Christ’s 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, Zolli’s 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 Israel’s 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 Isaiah’s 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 mother’s 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 city’s 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 wasn’t long before the Italian military called it a day.

With the collapse of Mussolini’s regime in 1943 and Italy’s 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 Kappler’s 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 City’s exits.

Zolli met with the Vatican’s 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 Pope’s summer residence in Castel Gandolfo were filled with Jews who had nowhere else to hide.

Zolli, who met Pius XII, was impressed with the Pope’s 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 Germany’s race policy.

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 her parents.

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 Zolli’s childhood.

Fifty years have elapsed since Zolli’s autobiography was first published in English and only within the last four years has Judith Cabaud’s 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.

"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 of God 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."

"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:

Interview with Roy H. Schoeman, author of Salvation is from the Jews

Stephen 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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