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Keys to Understanding the Conversion of Rabbi Zolli of Rome

4/26/2004 - 6:00 AM PST

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Interview With Alberto Latorre

ROME, APRIL 26, 2004 (Zenit) - 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, 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 ...

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