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September 1, 2003|
This young Israel, of the Zoller family, was born on September 17, 1881, in Brody, in Galicia, now a region in southeast Poland, but at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. He was the youngest of five children. Members of the Jewish religion, the family was relatively well-off, as the father was the owner of a silk factory in Lodz, then in Russian territory. In 1888, the Czar decided to nationalize every business owned by foreigners. Mr. Zoller's factory in Lodz was confiscated without financial compensation. The family's way of life was simplified considerably, and the eldest sons were forced to move away to look for work.
At the age of seven, Israel attended the Jewish primary school where the children learned passages from the Bible by rote. But his taste for religious learning came primarily from his father. For her part, his mother taught him to help the needy. Moved by her neighbor's poverty, she redoubled her good works, appealing when necessary to the other ladies in her neighborhood, Jewish or Catholic. In the Brody area, there was no scorn or mistrust between Jews and Christians. A bond, in fact, «spiritually ties the people of the New Covenant to Abraham's stock. Thus the Church of Christ acknowledges that, according to God's saving design, the beginnings of her faith and her election are found already among the Patriarchs, Moses and the prophets. She professes that all who believe in ChristAbraham's sons according to faithare included in the same Patriarch's call, and likewise that the salvation of the Church is mysteriously foreshadowed by the chosen people's exodus from the land of bondage. The Church, therefore, cannot forget that she received the revelation of the Old Testament through the people with whom God in His inexpressible mercy concluded the Ancient Covenant» (Vatican II, Nostra ætate, 4).
In 1904, Israel left his family whom he would never see again. His mother, who had always wished to see him become a rabbi, had just died. While giving lessons to provide for his family's needs, he studied philosophy at the University of Vienna, then at the University of Florence where he completed his doctorate. At the same time he pursued rabbinical studies. Named vice-rabbi of Trieste in 1913, which at that time was an Austrian port, he married Adele Litwak, a Galician Jew, from which union a daughter, Dora, was born. During the First World War, Israel was hounded by the Austrian police as an Italian partisan, because he had studied in this country. At the end of the conflict, Trieste was united with Italy, and Israel Zoller was named Chief Rabbi of the city.
Wasn't Jesus a son of my people?
Zoller married again in 1920, to Emma Majonica, who would give him a second daughter, Miriam. From 1918 to 1938, living all the while in Trieste, he taught Hebrew and ancient Semitic languages at the University of Padua. Surprisingly, he frequented the New Testament as well as the Old. In this way did he become familiar with the person of Jesus Christ and His teaching. He could not keep himself from comparing the Old Testament to the New: «In the Old Testament, justice is carried out by one man towards another... We do good for good received; we do harm for harm we have suffered at the hands of another. Not to do injury for injury is, in a certain fashion, to fall short of justice.» What a contrast with the Gospel: Love your enemies... pray for them, or even Jesus' last words on the cross: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do! «All this stupefied me,» Zoller wrote. «The New Testament is, in fact, an altogether new Testament.» And he clarified, «Here a new earth, a new heaven begin... The rich who are attached to the earth are poor, and the poor who have been able to detach themselves from the earth are truly rich, because they possess a kingdom that belongs to the afflicted, to the silent, and to the persecuted, who have themselves never persecuted, but have only loved.» Little by little, Zoller discovered the bond that links the two Testaments. Indeed, «God, the inspirer and author of both Testaments, wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old and the Old be made manifest in the New... The books of the Old Testament... acquire and show forth their full meaning in the New Testament» (Vatican II, Dei Verbum, 16).
The striking agreement between the story of Christ's Passion in the Gospel and the Suffering Servant described by the prophet Isaiah eight centuries before His coming left Zoller doubtless that this prophecy was fulfilled in Jesus: He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity... we held Him in no esteem. Yet it was our infirmities that He bore, our sufferings that He endured... He was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins...; by His stripes we were healed (Isaiah 53, 3-5). In addition, examining Jesus' declarations on His divinity led him to write, «Christ is the Messiah; the Messiah is God; therefore Christ is God.» Zoller was intellectually convinced, but he did not yet have faith. Faith was a grace that he would receive seven years later.
The rapprochement between Mussolini and Hitler's Germany at the end of the 1930's brought with it anti-Semitic campaigns in Italy, particularly in areas close to borders with the Third Reich. In Trieste, where there were many Jews, a Catholic historian organized a series of anti-Semitic conferences. A large audience was expected. Zoller decided to intercede with a Jesuit, a friend of the speaker's. The religious arranged a meeting between the rabbi and the orator. With gentleness and kindness, Zoller exhorted his listener, in the name of Christian principles and especially in the name of the forgiveness that Jesus Christ granted on the Cross, to cancel his conferences. The professor raised the difficulty of his situation as an objectioneverything had already been organized. The rabbi shrugged his shoulders and advised him only to read the Gospel, as he often did himself. He predicted, «The time is near when we will become good friends.» The following Sunday, in front of a packed auditorium, the lecturer announced that a high-ranking Jew had enlightened his conscience. He no longer wanted to continue on the path he had strayed down until then, and canceled the scheduled conferences.
But already discriminatory laws had been enacted against the Jews. Israel Zoller italianized his name to «Zolli.» Nevertheless, he was soon stripped of his Italian nationality, but he was not particularly worried. In 1940, the Jewish community in Rome offered him the vacant post of Chief Rabbi of this capital. He accepted the position offered him, with the goal of protecting his brothers in the persecution that was anticipated, and of making peace among the divisions within the Jewish community, whose members he exhorted to set politics aside and turn their attention to prayer, teaching, and mutual aid. But this appeal met with almost no response.
A solidarity that saves
However, this was only a respite. The Chief Rabbi made every effort to convince the Jews of Rome to scatter to avoid deportation. Soon the German ambassador to the Holy See, von Weizsäcker, who was secretly hostile to Nazi policy, warned the Pope that Himmler had ordered the deportation of all Jews in Italy. Pius XII immediately ordered the Roman clergy to open their sanctuaries so as to receive the Jews who would come to hide there. Zolli, who had a price on his head, lived in hiding for the next nine months and, lastly, with Christian friends of his daughter, Dora. He thus succeeded in escaping from the Gestapo. But despite the precautions taken, in the night of October 15-16, a thousand Roman Jews (out of about 8,000) were arrested and deported. Most would not return.
«From now on you will follow Me»
A few days later, the Chief Rabbi relinquished his duties, and went to find a priest in order to complete his instruction in the truths of the faith. On February 13, 1945, Archbishop Traglia conferred the sacrament of Baptism on Israel Zolli, who chose «Eugenio» as his Christian name, in a tribute of gratitude to Pope Pius XII for his decisive action on behalf of the Jews during the war. Zolli's wife, Emma, received Baptism with her husband, and added the name «Maria» to her first name. Their daughter Miriam would follow her parents after a year of personal reflection. Eugenio Zolli's Baptism was the result of a long spiritual evolution: «This event, in my soul, was like the arrival of a beloved guest. I began only to hear the voice of Christ expressed more clearly and more strongly in the Gospels. In my soul, God did not reveal Himself at all by means of tempest or fire, but through a gentle murmur... I became aware of a God Whom I loved, a God Who wants to be loved, and Who Himself loves... The convert, like the man miraculously cured, is the object (the one who receives) and not the subject (the worker) of the miracle. It is false to speak of someone who has converted as if he has acted from personal initiative. No one says of the miraculously cured that he has cured himself, but that he has been cured. We must say the same of the convert.»
All men and women are her children
The night of his Baptism, Zolli did not even have something to eat for dinner. Archbishop Traglia gave him 50 lira. At the age of sixty-five, Zolli found himself suddenly confronted with grave financial problems, starting with that of supporting his family. Up until that time, he had always lived from his fees as a Rabbi and a professor. He accepted this new situation with the greatest detachment: «I am asking for the water of Baptism and nothing else. I am poor and I will live poor. I have trust in Providence.» The news of the Chief Rabbi of Rome being baptized launched a chorus of slanders. He was accused, among other grievances, of having apostatized out of self-interest. It was easy for him to answer: «The Jews who convert today, as in Saint Paul's time, have everything to lose in terms of material life, and have everything to gain in the life of grace.» He responded to the reproach of treason with indignation: «The God of Jesus Christ, of Paul, is He not the same as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?»
In our time, certain Catholics think it is pointless for a Jew to convert to become Christian. This opinion is contradicted by the teaching of the Second Vatican Council: «The Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; He is present to us in His Body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it» (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 14).
At three o'clock in the afternoon, just like Jesus
Through his spiritual journey, Eugenio Zolli shows the continuity between the Old Covenant and the New: Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have come, not to abolish them, but to fulfill them, Jesus had said (Mt. 5:17). «God has visited His people. He has fulfilled the promise he made to Abraham and His descendents. He acted far beyond all expectationHe has sent His own beloved Son... In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us by a Son (Heb. 1:1-2). Christ, the Son of God made man, is the Father's one, perfect, and unsurpassable Word. In Him He has said everything; there will be no other word than this one... 'In giving us His Son, His only Word,' wrote Saint John of the Cross, 'He has no more to say... Any person questioning God or desiring some vision or revelation would be guilty not only of foolish behavior but also of offending Him, by not fixing his eyes entirely upon Christ and by living with the desire for some other novelty' » (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 422 and 65). For Zolli, the demands that this truth brought with it were not easy to implement. At the end of his life, he said, «Those of you who are born into the Catholic faith do not realize the opportunity you have, to have received the grace of Christ since your childhood. But those who, like me, have come to the threshold of faith after long work continued over the course of many years, appreciate the grandeur of the gift of Faith and feel all the joy there is to be Christian.»
Let us thank God for the gift of Faith that He has granted us undeservedly. Let us preserve this treasure through a holy life, and let us pray that all men might know the Messiah, believe in Him, and obtain eternal Life.
Bibliography: Judith Cabaud: Eugenio Zolli, Prophet of a New World(de Guibert, Paris, 2000).
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