Israel Zolli

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Israel Zolli

Israel Zolli (September 27, 1881, Brody, Galicia – March 2, 1956, Rome, Italy) was from 1939 to 1945 Chief Rabbi of Rome. After the war, he converted to Roman Catholicism, taking the name Eugenio in honor of Pope Pius XII.

Early years/rabbinate[edit]

Israel Anton Zoller was born in Brody, in the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia. His father was a formerly wealthy factory owner. His mother came from a family dynasty of rabbis. He earned a Ph.D in Philosophy from the University of Florence. At the same time, he prepared for the rabbinate at a nearby yeshiva. In 1918 he was appointed rabbi of the city of Trieste, whose territory had just been transferred from Austria-Hungary to Italy. He changed his surname to "Zolli" to make it sound more Italian. In 1939, after the "Italians of the Jewish Religion" had succeeded in deposing Zolli's predecessor, Zolli was named as Chief Rabbi of Rome.[1]


After Zolli emerged from his hiding-place in the house of a member of Rome's Resistance party, Giustizia e Libertà, his position as Chief Rabbi was restored by Charles Poletti, although the Jewish community rebuffed him. On 9 July 1944, Zolli, while still attempting to retain the title of "Chief Rabbi", gave an interview to a reporter. He described how two Italian families had hidden him, but he made no mention of the fact that during the greater part of the time he had hidden in the Vatican. After the war a great debate arose between the president of the Jewish community in Rome (Signor Foa) and Zolli, as to who was at fault for allowing the Nazis to obtain the list of Roman Jews. This list was used when they were gathered, deported, and murdered. Foa blamed Zolli; Zolli blamed Foa. In her book, Inside Rome with the Germans (1945, pg. 38), Jane Scrivener wrote: "The Rabbi did not destroy his registers and they know where every Jews lives." A Chief Rabbi of Rome Becomes a Catholic (pg. 135), suggesting Zolli's culpability in not destroying the register indicated to him that "his future must lie elsewhere than in the Jewish community". He later described his experiences as follows:

"It was from my father that I learned the great art of praying with tears. During the Nazi persecution, long years afterward, I lived near the center of Rome in a small room. There, in the dark, in hunger and cold, I would pray weeping: 'O, Thou keeper of Israel, protect the remnants of Israel; do not allow this remnant of Israel to perish!'"[2]

Conversion to Christianity[edit]

In his book Before the Dawn Zolli said that while presiding over the religious service in the synagogue on the holy day of Yom Kippur in 1944 he experienced a vision of Jesus.[3] Shortly after the end of World War II, he and his second wife (his first wife had died years before) converted to Roman Catholicism. He went to the Gregorian University, where he was baptized by Mgr. Luigi Traglia in the presence of Father Paolo Dezza; his godfather was Augustin Bea. Zolli was christened Eugenio Maria Zolli in honor of Pope Pius XII, who was born Eugenio Pacelli. The ceremony was done with much publicity. While Christians often mention Zolli as an example of an observant Jew who found Christ, some Jews contend that Zolli's conversion was a result of having been ostracized by the Jewish community following the Holocaust, rather than a spiritual awakening.[4]

Later years/death[edit]

After Zolli and his wife converted to Catholicism, he was employed at the State University in Rome and at the Pontifical Biblical Institute. In 1956 he became seriously ill and entered the hospital. While there, he reportedly revealed to a nun that he would die on the first Friday of the month at 3:00 in the afternoon. On March 2, 1956, at the age of 74, he died as he predicted he would at 3:00, having received Holy Communion that morning. Zolli's 1954 memoir, Before the Dawn, describes the details of his conversion and his deep admiration for Pope Pius XII. It was re-issued by Ignatius Press in 2008.


  • "Conversion consists in responding to a call from God. A man is not converted at the time he chooses, but at the hour when he receives God's call. When the call is heard, he who receives it has only one thing to do: obey. Paul is 'converted'. Did he abandon the God of Israel? Did he cease to love Israel? It would be absurd to think so. But then? The convert is who feels impelled by an irresistible force to leave a pre-established order and seek his own proper way. It would be easier to continue along the road he was on."[5]
  • "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 are doing! 'All this stupefied me. The New Testament is, in fact, an altogether new Testament". (Eugenio Zolli)


  1. ^
  2. ^ Eugenio Zolli, Before the Dawn as quoted in Sweet Honey from the Rock (edited by Roy Shoeman), pg. 73
  3. ^ Before the Dawn, E Zolli, p190
  4. ^ Rabbi Tovia Singer: "Why Did the Chief Rabbi of Rome convert to Catholicism?"
  5. ^ Eugenio Zolli, "Before the Dawn", quoted in, Sweet Honey from the Rock, edited by Roy Shoeman, pg. 79


  • Weisbord, Robert G., and Sillanpoa, Wallace P. 1991. The Chief Rabbi, the Pope, and the Holocaust: An Era in Vatican-Jewish Relations. Transaction Publishers; ISBN 0-88738-416-1.

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