A Jew in Rome: Christian Antisemitism and the Holocaust (Part 1).

Ellis, Richard S. "A Jew in Rome: Christian Antisemitism and the Holocaust (Part 1)." Midstream 47.4 (2001): 14. Academic OneFile. Web. 18 May 2011.
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Full Text:COPYRIGHT 2001 Theodor Herzl Foundation

Dedicated to the memory of Philipp Fehl (1920-2000)

I am a Jew by birth, a mathematician by profession, and a student of Jewish history and literature by choice. My Jewish obsession is the Holocaust. My mathematical passion is probability theory; in particular, the study of rare events via the theory of large deviations and applications of that theory to statistical models of turbulence. During a recent two-week visit to Rome, these strands of my life became unpredictably and intricately intertwined. While I lectured on a large deviation approach to turbulence at the University of Rome, outside the lecture halls I was buffeted by the turbulent currents of Jewish history in a series of mostly unplanned but intense confrontations, the synchronicity of which can only be characterized as a large deviation.

It all began with the man I called Hercules Harry, who was a Greek statue come alive: six-foot-four athlete's torso, bronze complexion, bulging biceps and pectorals, matted wavy hair. On the morning of my second day in Rome, I joined a tour at the Vatican for which Hercules Harry was the guide. In his booming voice he informed us, while we were standing in St. Peter's Square under an intense July sun just before the pope appeared in a high window, that the Jews murdered Christ.

That same evening, a Friday, I sat next to Luigi at Shabbat services in the Via Cesare Balbo Synagogue. After we exchanged pleasantries, Luigi informed me, in his broken Italian English, that during the Nazi raid on the Roman Jewish Ghetto on 16 October 1943, his mother was arrested and deported to Auschwitz with hundreds of other Roman Jews. There she was gassed to death.

The confluence of those two interactions on the same day--Hercules Harry's antisemitic accusation in the morning about the murder of Christ and Luigi's revelation in the evening about the murder of his mother -- forced me to face an inescapable historical truth, aspects of which were to engage me almost continuously during the remainder of my stay in the Eternal City and for weeks thereafter.. Christian antisemitism made the Holocaust possible.

On that Friday morning in July, the nearly infinite sea of people engulfing me in St. Peter's Square prevented me from responding to Hercules Harry. But I did not miss my chance a week and a half later when fate conspired to have our paths cross a second time. This time Harry was the guide on a tour to the Catacombs of Saint Sebastian. He first led us into the Domine Quo Vadis Church, genuflected before the altar, and crossed himself. After quietly saying a prayer, Hercules Harry told us about the death of Christ. The work of the Sanhedrin Jews and Jewish priests, he said. They wanted that troublemaker dead. He added that the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, was innocent of Christ's death. Pilate acted merely to placate the Jews.

I was furious. It was his haughty tone, his certainty, just like at the Vatican. Amidst the crowd of tourists inside the church, my hand shot up. I wanted to shout that he was a bigot, that blaming the Jews encouraged antisemitism, that his statements contradicted history and Church teachings. But he didn't ask for any questions.

I met him at the bus. "Harry, I am Jewish and I strongly object to your version of the story of the death of Jesus."

Hercules Harry stared at me in disbelief. "I only speak the truth," he asserted. "And I'm not going to avoid controversy." I felt intimidated. He towered over me. After shepherding the people onto the bus, he climbed on, picked up the mike, and eyes on me, declared, "I tell it how I see it. Like Mother Teresa telling Bill Clinton to stop murdering innocent babies."

I wished I had the mike, but I was stuck in the middle of the bus. So I stood up and called out to Hercules Harry over the sea of heads. "You are blaming the Jews for killing Christ," I said. Now all eyes were on me. I continued, "Don't you realize that the crucifixion of Jesus has been used to justify two millennia of antisemitism sponsored by the Church? Where's your sensitivity?"

"Sorry, mister," he replied. "It's all in the Gospels, and I take everything in the Gospels as the literal truth."

I gave up. There was no point speaking any further with this antisemite. There was no point telling him that the Church has rejected the charge that the Jews murdered Christ. (Nostra Aetate 1965) There was no point telling him that modern scholarship has revealed numerous historical inaccuracies in the Gospel texts, especially in portions alleging Jewish complicity in Jesus's death.

   We must conclude from this evidence that Jesus was not tried by a legally
   established Jewish court.... Pontius Pilate arranged Jesus'[s]
   conviction.... Then he convicted Jesus of being a revolutionary and
   sentenced him to crucifixion, the punishment reserved for political crimes.
   This conviction is reflected accurately in the sign over Jesus'[s] cross,
   "King of the Jews." In Pilate's eyes, Jesus was planning to replace Roman
   rule over the Jews with his own rule.(1)

Although the Romans were responsible for Jesus's death, the Gospel authors shifted blame onto the Jews "so as not to provoke the Romans in the aftermath of the unsuccessful Jewish war against Rome."(2) Another reason for shifting blame lay in the missionary activities of the young Christian church.

   In the decades after the crucifixion ... the church shifted blame away from
   potential Christians, the Romans, and toward the Jews who had rejected
   Christianity. In shifting blame, the gospels represent this missionary
   concern of their own period rather than the historical realities of
   Jesus['s] time.(3)

There was no point telling Hercules Harry any of this. But because the evidence is so conclusive, I hope that the Hercules Harrys of the world will eventually pay heed to these and other historians, such as William Nicholls, who ends his detailed examination of the Gospel narratives with the following exhortation.

   The time has come, and came long ago, for Christians to drop all
   accusations against the Jewish people in the death of Christ.... There can
   be no doubt that the Romans bear the responsibility for Jesus['s] death,
   which they and not the Jews brought about. If any person is to blame for
   Jesus'[s] death, it is Pontius Pilate, so implausibly represented in the
   Gospels as his defender. In any scholarly inquiry, many conclusions remain
   uncertain. This is not one of them. The Jews are innocent of Jesus'[s]

The outrage of it all. The Romans committed a political murder that the Gospel authors transformed into an act of deicide committed by the Jews. Amplified by Christian antisemitism that was centered in the Roman Catholic Church, the charge of deicide reverberated through history, culminating in the deaths of six million Jews, including Luigi's mother, who in 1943 was arrested by the Nazis and deported to Auschwitz with hundreds of other Roman Jews. There she was gassed to death. Unlike the death of that famous Jew in Palestine two thousand years ago, the death of Luigi's mother was ignominiously obscure, recorded as just another entry in the Nazis' meticulously kept log.(5)

The Dove of Creativity

Giovanni Jona-Lasinio is a physicist and was one of my hosts at the University of Rome. Upon entering his office, I was greeted by his Jewish face. When I asked him whether "Jona" was a typical Italian name, Giovanni immediately decoded my question and answered that he was half Jewish on his father's side. His mother's grandfather, Fausto Lasinio, had been a famous scholar of Semitic languages. On 16 October 1943, the day on which Luigi's mother was thrown into a Nazi truck parked on Via del Portico d'Ottavia in the Jewish Ghetto, Giovanni's father escaped down the back stairs of his building and was saved by a Christian janitor. Giovanni explained to me that during the war there were intensely strong anti-German emotions in Rome. Saving a Jew was saving a neighbor.

Giovanni expressed interest in a book I had bought on Italian Jewish history. From it I learned that "the Jews are arguably the only inhabitants of Rome who can claim an uninterrupted presence in the city for over two thousand years."(6) It was the oldest Jewish community in the Western world.(7) That evening I bought a copy of the book in Italian and gave it to Giovanni the next day. When he asked why I did this, I replied that it was to honor his father's escape from the Nazis in 1943.

It was not just his father, of course. For many centuries enough Jews have escaped the swords of their oppressors to assure not only the survival of the Jewish people, but also their continuing impact on Western civilization. In the vast panorama of world history, in which the city of Rome has played a major role, there is no larger deviation than this one. Interacting with Jews, writing about Jewish topics, and teaching Jewish texts allow me to celebrate the miracle of that survival and to help perpetuate it.

My visit to Rome confirmed what years of travel and involvement in Jewish learning had already revealed. A network of chasms -- spiritual, cultural, artistic -- separates Judaism from Christianity, all rendered nearly abyssal by the centuries of antisemitism that has been promulgated by the Vatican. However, during my visit to Rome, I also found hope. Today, through a series of initiatives involving reconciliation with the Jewish people and self-examination, the Church is finally facing its legacy of antisemitism and hatred.

Despite these initiatives by the Church, the wounds are still raw. That is why Luigi, Giovanni, and all the other Jews I met in Rome opened up to me with their life stories and why I listened in rapt attention. In the continent-wide cemetery of Europe created by Hitler, we Jews are drawn together out of an ancestral need to protect one other, to communicate with one other, to comfort one other. For in Europe, the impossible happened: our people were marked for slaughter and six million died. Nearly 60 years ago, while Pope Pius XII remained silent, our people were arrested on these streets of Rome, deported to Auschwitz, and gassed to death.

While the demon of antisemitism haunted me in Rome, it was not the sole focus of my stay there. My experiences also included the two visits I made to the Palazzo delle Esposizioni to view an exhibition of the art of El Greco, my favorite artist of Christian themes. His work reveals to me a contemplative, spiritual side of Christianity otherwise inaccessible to outsiders. Over my desk at home there hangs a reproduction of his 1597 painting, The Annunciation, which depicts the Virgin at the moment she is being told by the Archangel Gabriel that she will bear the Son of God. As in many of El Greco's paintings, the gate between heaven and earth stands open. At the top a celestial orchestra celebrates the sanctity of the moment as the dove of the Holy Spirit, ablaze in the center of the painting, descends. For me, the dove is a symbolic representation of creativity descending upon the artist.

But in spite of my love of El Greco's art, the history of mistreatment of my people at the hands of the Church has affected my perceptions. These perceptions are summarized in a simple but poignant formula: Christian Europe frightens me. All of the European Jews I met understood this fear. However, back home in America, where no one in my family and none of my Jewish friends ever experienced flagrant antisemitism, it was difficult to convey how painful it could be for an emotional, historically aware Jew to travel in Europe, where two millennia of Christian antisemitism exploded in the twelve years of Hitler's murderous antisemitism.

How closely are the two related? Intimately, according to Hans Kung, the Roman Catholic priest and theologian and the author of such books as Judaism: Between Yesterday and Tomorrow and Why I Am Still a Christian. In a 1997 article in The New Yorker, James Carroll reported on a meeting in which he asked Kung to comment on the Church's behavior during the Holocaust. Kung answered:

   "I realized the problems for the first time when I was at the Second
   Vatican Council.... I then saw it as a major issue, because it was no
   longer possible to say the Nazis were responsible without saying the Church
   is co-responsible. In the balance of the Council, I wrote that Nazi
   anti-Semitism would have been impossible without two thousand years of
   Christian anti-Judaism. It was not racial. It was religious."(8)

Nazi antisemitism, of course, was of a fundamentally different character from Christian anti-Judaism, for the Church never intended to exterminate the entire Jewish people. Nevertheless, because the Church promulgated the poison of anti-Judaism that the Nazis transformed into genocide, the Church bears a heavy burden of guilt. In his book on Judaism, Kung elaborated on this issue, writing: "And is not the case of the Austrian Catholic Adolf Hitler the most abysmal example of this? Even now many people do not recognize the religious roots of his anti-Semitism."(9)

Because of the difficulty I felt expressing my feelings about Christian Europe back home in America, I wrote this essay. The idea of doing so came to me during an early morning walk soon after my return. While arguing with Hercules Harry for the hundredth time, I saw El Greco's Virgin smile as the dove of creativity descended upon me, and the opening paragraphs began to form.

That dove -- in Hebrew yonah, in Italian colomba -- is the symbol of my pilgrimage to Rome. Other doves flutter through my mind. The dove of the Torah portion of Noah. The dove of the family name of the Genoese explorer, Christoforo Colombo, who opened up the New World in the same year that the Jews were expelled from Spain. The "Jona" in the hyphenated last name of my Italian host, a name that he shares with Giuseppe Jona, the president of Venice's Jewish community during World War II, who, when ordered by the Nazis to produce a list of the names of Venice's Jews, killed himself, an act of self-sacrifice that saved hundreds by giving his fellow Jews the chance to escape.

From Hitler's Vienna to Rome

Two days after Hercules Harry informed me, in St. Peter's Square, that the Jews murdered Christ, I met Raina and Philipp Fehl. They left Hitler's Vienna in the late 1930's and emigrated to the US, where they did important work in art history. Now living in Rome, they continued their scholarly work at the Vatican. Everyone at the Vatican was extremely kind to them, Philipp told me.

I was given Philipp's name and phone number by my niece, who was editing a volume of memoirs written by Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe. Philipp contributed an essay to that volume. Raina, Philipp, and I arranged to meet at an exhibition of the great Baroque artist, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. It was being held at the Palazzo Venezia, from the balcony of which Mussolini used to address the crowds in the square below.

After we viewed the exhibition, a taxi took us to a restaurant near the Fehls's apartment, where I told them about my experience with Hercules Harry. This led to an hours-long discussion of antisemitism, Christianity, and relations between Jews and Catholics today. When I mentioned the little I had read concerning the Roman Jewish Ghetto and the role of the Church in setting up and perpetuating it, Raina confirmed my facts, but cautioned me against thinking that the Church was a monolith.

"The Church is so many things," she said. "And as for the attitude of the popes toward the Jews, it has varied enormously. The Jews were sometimes ignored; sometimes treated harshly; sometimes, in fact often, protected." It was a fundamental historical insight that I occasionally forgot during my stay in Rome, so easy was it to get caught up in the negative aspects of Jewish-Christian relations.

As I wrote this section of the essay, recalling these two gentle, creative people who shared with me their stories and their wisdom, I could hear again the Viennese lilt of their precise English. I reread Philipp's contribution to the volume of essays being edited by my niece. It is entitled "Life Beyond the Reach of Hope: Recollections of a Refugee, 1938."(10)

Phrases floated through my mind. "What I have to say is in praise of silence." Later in the same paragraph: "[P]eople I loved prepared themselves for death.... "A few pages below:. "There were so many suicides." A non-Jew helped Philipp escape from "a whole row of storm troopers walking in step along the width of the street, a net of men spread out to catch Jews, to arrest them as they came upon them." His fear of death: "Once in the night after a number of terrible things had been reported and friends had disappeared, I all of a sudden was seized by a desperate fear. I lost all nervous control. I so desperately wanted to be saved."

The last paragraph of the essay tells of Philipp's escape to Czechoslovakia and his farewell from his mother.

   As the train pulled out of the station I bent out the window ever so far to
   see my mother once more and she, who had kept her poise all along and was
   tall and beautiful as she stood there talking to me -- so she wanted to be
   remembered -- now was a lonely figure on the platform, her hands clasping
   her face and weeping. I had seen her weep only once before, when her mother
   died. I sat down in my compartment, and was all alone.

A mother bids farewell to her son as he departs on a railroad journey. In ordinary times a routine event, but in Vienna in September 1938 a sign of the impending doom. As I tried to imagine that scene in the train station, again I mourned the myriad who did not survive.


(1.) Stephen M. Wylen, The Jews in the Time of Jesus: An Introduction. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1996, p. 126.

(2.) Elaine Pagels, The Origins of Satan. New York: Vintage Books, 1995, p. xxii.

(3.) Wylen, p. 126.

(4.) William Nicholls, Christian Anti-Semitism: A History of Hate. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1995, p. 110.

(5.) James Carroll, "The Silence," The New Yorker, 7 April 1997, p. 56.

(6.) Bice Migliau and Micaela Procaccia with Silvia Rebuzzi and Micaela Vitale, Lazio Jewish Itineraries: Places, History, and Art, trans. Gus Barker. Venice: Marsilio, 1997, p. 17.

(7.) Alexander Stille, Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism. New York: Summit Books, 1991, p. 170.

(8.) Carroll, "The Silence," p. 60.

(9.) Hans Kung, Judaism: Between Yesterday and Tomorrow, trans. John Bowden. New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1992, p. 236.

(10.) Philipp Fehl, "Life Beyond the Reach of Hope: Recollections of a Refugee, 1938." Lauren Levine Enzie, ed., Exile and Displacement: Survivors of the Nazi Persecution Remember the Emigration Experience. New York: Peter Lang, 2001.

RICHARD S. ELLIS is a professor in the department of mathematics and statistics and an adjunct professor in the department of Judaic and Near Eastern studies at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst (http://www.math.umass.edu.silk.library.umass.edu/~rsellis). He recently completed a novel set in Jerusalem, entitled Blessings from the Dead.

Gale Document Number:A77134004