Truth Crucified: A Tale of Rabbi Zolli and Pius XII

COMMENTARY: The testimony of Catholic convert Rabbi Israel Zolli of Rome is crucial to debunking the myth of ‘Pius XII’s Silence.’

Left to right: Israel Zolli and Pope Pius XII
Left to right: Israel Zolli and Pope Pius XII (photo: Public domain)

In the summer of 1944, two events made clear Pope Pius XII’s crucial role in aiding the Jews. When the Allies liberated Rome, thousands of Jewish people gave voice to the reality that the Vatican saved their lives. “It is gradually being revealed,” the Jewish News in Detroit reported on July 7, 1944, “that Jews have been sheltered within the walls of the Vatican during the German occupation of Rome.” The Vatican’s care for the Jewish refugees extended to the smallest details. According to Congress Weekly, the official journal of the American Jewish Congress, they even were given kosher meals.

The second event was more personal. It centered around a single testimony: Chief Rabbi Israel Zolli of Rome. “The Vatican has always helped the Jews and the Jews are very grateful for the charitable work of the Vatican, all done without distinction of race,” Rabbi Zolli told the American Hebrew in New York in an interview published July 14, 1944.  A New York Times piece reported Rabbi Zolli stating, “The Pope and the Vatican were indefatigable in working to save Jews, and many hundreds were sheltered in monasteries and convents in Rome and in Vatican City” (June 17, 1944).

Less than a year later, Zolli converted to Catholicism. Out of his profound respect for Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli), he took “Eugenio” as his baptismal name. Zolli’s conversion was widely attributed to his gratitude for what Pius XII did for the Jews. He strenuously denied this. In his 1954 memoirs, Before the Dawn (later published as Why I Became a Catholic), he wrote that a vision of Christ led to his Catholic faith. Yet his conversion was not simply the result of a supernatural occurrence. “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. No one in the world ever tried to convert me. My conversion was a slow evolution, altogether internal.” Zolli’s wife and daughter also entered the Church.

Why was the Pope’s involvement in helping the Jews in dispute? It began with the fictitious 1963 play by Rolf Hochhuth, entitled The Deputy. The play and its negative impact on Pius XII was a well-crafted plan called “Seat Twelve” hatched and implemented by the Russian KGB to defame the Catholic Church. The play accused Pius XII of being anti-Semitic and a collaborator of Adolf Hitler. It is regarded as one of the most effective examples of character assassination in modern history. Sir Martin Gilbert, a world-renowned historian of World War II condemned it as a “well-crafted fiction not at all based on historical evidence.”

Nonetheless, the impact of the play has been difficult to overcome. The so-called “silence of Pius XII” was used by many people who should have known better. When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, for example, criticized former U.S. surgeon general Dr. Joycelyn Elders for her pro-abortion views, she responded by alleging the Church’s indifference toward the Holocaust. Hochhuth’s demonic portrayal of the Pope had become accepted in certain circles as conventional wisdom. On the other hand, for people who were more interested in facts than fiction, Pinchas Lapide, Israeli ambassador and historian, states that Pius XII deserves a memorial forest in the Judean Hills with 860,000 trees, corresponding to the number of Jewish lives that were saved through papal efforts. Lapide reports his finding in The Last Three Popes and the Jews (The New York Times, April 24, 1966, 13). According to Lapide, “The Catholic Church saved more Jewish lives during the war than all other churches, religious institutions and rescue organizations out together.”

Expressions of gratitude from Jewish communities for the Pope’s work in saving the lives of so many Jews are innumerable. Let one example suffice. Preaching at Temple Israel in New York, Rev. Dr. William F. Rosenblum praised both the Pope as well as Catholics the world over, stating that Pope Pius XII, “during the Hitler holocaust ... made it possible for thousands of Jewish victims of Nazism and Fascism to be hidden away in the monasteries and convents of the various Catholic orders and for Jewish children to be taken into their orphanages” (The New York Times, Oct. 12, 1958). He lauded the Pope as “a great religious leader whose work for brotherliness and peace in a time of crisis in our history should remain as an example for all religious leaders to emulate.”

In the preface of his autobiography, Zolli begins by stating: “The figure of the crucified Christ over the altar symbolizes the greatest sorrow the world knows. Truth is crucified; the highest Wisdom, the Wisdom of God, is crucified.” Truth continues to be crucified — the truth of the unborn child, of abortion and its effects on women, the family and society. Zolli tells us that he “was deeply impressed by the words of Jesus: ‘I am the light’; ‘I am the Way, the Truth, the Life.’” When Zolli was asked why he did not become a Protestant, he replied: “Because protesting is not attesting.” Attesting to the truth, to Christ, to life is what is essential. He affirmed that God’s very nature forbids his giving to the world, at any time, more than one religion. As Zolli explained: “The synagogue pointed to Christianity: Christianity presupposes the synagogue. So you see, one cannot exist without the other. What I converted to was the living Christianity.”

War is an assault on life and on the dignity of the human being. But it is also an assault on Truth. When Truth is crucified, war becomes inevitable. “Where Christ is, there is Life,” Zolli wrote in his memoir (132). The world, if it is to avoid future wars, needs to undergo a conversion. Zolli’s conversion was truly Christ-centered, although it paid homage to Pius XII. As he stated in his autobiography, “I did not hesitate to give a negative answer to the question whether I was converted in gratitude to Pius XII for his numberless acts of charity. Nevertheless, I do feel the duty of rendering homage and of affirming that the charity of the Gospel was the light that’s showed the way to my old and weary heart. It is the charity that so often shines in the history of the Church and which radiated fully in the actions of the reigning Pontiff” (189).

Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International, a professor emeritus at

St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Canada, and an adjunct professor at

Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, Connecticut. His latest book is 

Footprints on the Sands of Time: Personal Reflections on Life and Death.