A Jew in Rome: Christian Antisemitism and the Holocaust (Part 2).

Ellis, Richard S. "A Jew in Rome: Christian Antisemitism and the Holocaust (Part 2)." Midstream 47.5 (2001): 6. Academic OneFile. Web. 18 May 2011.
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Full Text:COPYRIGHT 2001 Theodor Herzl Foundation

One of the goals of my visit to Rome was to walk the sweets and learn the history of that seven-acre section of the city known as the Jewish Ghetto. With this in mind, I called the office of SIDIC, an acronym for Service International de Documentation Judeo-Chretienne, and spoke with a nun named Sister Margaret. Although my guidebook indicated that SIDIC offered walking tours of the Jewish Ghetto, these tours were no longer available. However, Sister Margaret said that she would fax me a map and a detailed history of the ghetto.

I was perplexed. Why would an organization within the Catholic Church publicize the history of the Jewish Ghetto, which had been established under order from a pope? A letter accompanying the fax explained that SIDIC had been founded in 1965 after the Second Vatican Council. "Underlying SIDIC's work is the call of the Church to understand and esteem the Jewish people as it understands itself and to deepen Christian faith through the study of the faith of that people Pope John Paul II referred to as the `elder brothers' of Christianity." I resolved that before leaving Rome I had to meet with Sister Margaret.

The Roman Jewish Ghetto was established by Pope Paul IV on 14 July 1555, following the example of the compulsory quarter set up in Venice in 1516. The Roman ghetto lasted 315 years. Pope Paul IV explained his actions in the Cum nimis absurdum bull, which began with the following words: "Since it is absurd and utterly inconvenient that the Jews, who through their own fault were condemned by God to eternal slavery...."(1) My book on Jewish Italian history listed some of the measures proposed by the pope.

   [T]he Jews had to live in separate quarters with gates; they could not have
   more than one synagogue; they must [sic] sell all their property to
   Christians; they could not employ Christian servants; they had to wear a
   badge; and, as economic activities, they could only practice fixed-interest
   moneylending and the craft of strazzariae seu cenciariae -- the rag

Not all of these measures had been strictly implemented. For example, the Jews of Rome ended up having five independent synagogues, all in one building.

As I walked through the ghetto, I referred to the map and the history that Sister Margaret had faxed to me. The ghetto abuts the Tiber, which frequently overflowed, flooding the homes of the inhabitants. Just outside the northeast gate of the ghetto, there was a church, Sant'Angelo in Pescheria, where the Jews were forced to listen to conversion sermons. Jews exiting the ghetto through the southeast gates were confronted by an anti-Jewish inscription on the facade of the Church of San Gregorio alla Divina Pieta, which stood directly opposite those gates. The inscription, from Isaiah 65:2-3, speaks of "a rebellious people, which walketh in a way which was not good, after their own thoughts; a people that provoketh Me to anger continually to My face." Its placement on that church was no accident.

Today the Roman Jewish community has 15,000 members and seems to be thriving. The center of their religious and cultural life, and a masterpiece among the houses of worship in Rome, is the great synagogue built in the area of the ghetto between 1901 and 1904, some 30 years after the ghetto had been dismantled and the Jews of Rome emancipated. I attended Friday night services there under tight security. Because of a terrorist attack in 1982 that killed a two-year-old boy and wounded 40 worshipers, the synagogue is now guarded around the clock. The dedication in the Shabbat prayer book recalled other recent Jewish suffering as it mentioned a path to God opened up during that suffering: "To Rabbi David Izhaq Parzieni, because of whose merit the prayers did not cease flowing from our lips during the days of the persecution and the years of the war." In this city, history is everywhere, multilayered and complex.

After my first of many walks through the Jewish Ghetto, I strolled over to the nearby Campo dei Fiori. In the middle of the square stands a statue of the philosopher Giordano Bruno, who used Copernican principles in formulating his cosmic theory of an infinite universe. Bruno was burned at the stake by the Church in February 1600 for heresy, immoral conduct, and blasphemy. In this same square, during the Jewish New Year of 1553, the Talmud was burned. Thus were the words of Heine actualized: "Where books are burned, in the end people are also burned."(3)

The Nun of SIDIC, Healing Christianity

Near the end of my stay in Rome, one day before the tour of the catacombs with Hercules Harry, I met with Sister Margaret at the office of SIDIC. It was located in a converted palace not far from the Palazzo Venezia, where I had met the Fehls for the Bernini exhibition. The waiting room of SIDIC was filled with Judaica. On the receptionist's desk there was piled the three-volume set, The Wisdom of the Zohar, an anthology of texts from the mystical commentary on the Torah. On one wall were hung reproductions of the Chagall windows at the Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem, Jerusalem; a menorah sat on a side table; a newspaper stand in the corner carried a number of issues of the Jerusalem Post and other periodicals.

Sister Margaret entered the room. In physical stature and, as I would soon learn, in mental outlook, this nun was the complete opposite of Hercules Harry, who, I had to admit, was one of my reasons for coming here. Hercules Harry was a big-boned giant while Sister Margaret could not be more than five feet tall. He took literally every word of the Gospels and seemed insensitive to the feelings of Jews. By contrast, the words spoken by Sister Margaret -- even down to the small details: "Torah" instead of "Old Testament," "Shoah" instead of "Holocaust" -- reflected the mandate of SIDIC, which was to plant seeds of openness and goodwill toward the Jewish people and to urge Christians to seek in Judaism the roots of their religion.

The day before, in preparation for my visit to SIDIC, I had read about the history of Christian antisemitism. The material included such highlights as edicts from the sixth and seventh centuries calling the Jews "a wicked sect, contaminated people" who followed a "perverse doctrine,"(4) and excerpts from a pastoral letter of 1936 by the Roman Catholic Primate of Poland, August Cardinal Hlond. The letter made the grave and prescient pronouncement that "there will be the Jewish problem as long as the Jews remain." Stating the "fact that the Jews deceive, levy interest, and are pimps," the letter accused the Jews of "fighting against the Catholic Church, persisting in free thinking," and being "the vanguard of godlessness, Bolshevism, and subversion."(5)

Sister Margaret and I moved into a small room. My reading the day before, the atmosphere of the SIDIC office filled with Judaica, Sister Margaret's graciousness, my memory of Hercules Harry's pronouncement in St. Peter's Square that the Jews murdered Christ -- all contributed to my decision not to mince words. "Sister Margaret," I began, "I hope you don't mind if I speak honestly." "That's why we're here," she replied. "As I go through Rome," I continued, "and hear how the Jews were forced to live in a ghetto, and as I read more and more about Christian antisemitism, the Crusades, the period leading up to the Shoah, I find myself internalizing all the anger and the hatred and turning it back against the Church." I looked at Sister Margaret, who was listening attentively, sympathetically even. "I am really concerned about this," I added. "These are not productive emotions." In the course of the morning, it became clear to me that she had heard it all before, that in countless discussions she had been the target of Jewish anger and hurt just like mine. But when she spoke, she did not address my concerns glibly. Her words were measured and careful and healing.

During the next two hours, we had a broad and open discussion, which eventually reached one of the most painful topics in 20th-century Jewish-Christian relations, the silence of Pope Pius XII concerning the murder of the Jews during World War II.

First we discussed Edith Stein, who was born Jewish, converted to Catholicism, became a Carmelite nun, and was murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz. Her canonization in October 1998 upset many people, both non-Jews and Jews, who viewed it, in the words of James Carroll, as "another attempt by the Church to Christianize the Holocaust -- to present it as something that happened as much to the Church as to the Jews -- and ... to deflect criticism of its relationship to the crimes of the Nazis."(6) Sister Margaret told me that she certainly understood why people could be angry over the canonization, but added that many Christians were pleased that a former Jew accepted Christ. The tact of this response and her ability to see the issue from more than one perspective were indicative of her manner during our entire conversation.

The silence of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust remains a topic of heated discussion. Concerning events in Rome, the historical record is clear. From Vatican City no voice was raised in protest as the Nazis arrested hundreds of Roman Jews on 16 October 1943, took them to a temporary jail located only two hundred yards from Vatican City, and then deported them to Auschwitz. In our conversation, Sister Margaret admitted that there was much controversy around the figure of Pius XII. She also pointed out some of the pressures acting on him -- for example, the risk of worse persecution both of Jews and of Catholics if he had spoken out. The general uncertainty about what was happening to the Jews in the camps might also have been a factor. She added that during the war, priests, monks, and nuns saved many Jews of Rome in convents, seminaries, and the buildings of the Vatican itself.

Near the end of our conversation, I observed that Christianity does what in an individual would be psychologically extremely damaging: namely, it denies its origins and represses its past. (In his book, Judaism, the theologian Hans Kung wrote, "I am concerned with that past which will not go away, a past which still continues to determine the present and which is still virulent today among large sectors of the nations. A repressed past easily becomes a curse."(7)) How many Christians, I asked her, somewhat heatedly, knew or cared that Jesus was born a Jew and died a Jew; that the Gospels were not historical narratives but theological interpretations of historical events; that, until fairly recently, the Church openly supported antisemitism; that significant aspects of Church ritual and dress derived from Judaism; that the Gregorian chant is believed by many scholars to have originated in Jewish liturgical music?

Sister Margaret's response was significant. "Relations between the Church and the Jewish people have often been marked by anti-Judaism and discrimination. We must look to the future by trying to educate and to enlighten."

Echoing Raina Fehl, Sister Margaret also emphasized that the Church was not a monolith, but a complicated institution with a complicated history. And things were changing, she added. The following partial list of initiatives by the Catholic Church is based on what Sister Margaret told me and from what I read after returning home: the declaration by the Second Vatican Council in 1965 of Nostra Aetate, which among other changes lifted the collective charge of deicide against the Jewish people, promoted improved relations with Judaism and other religions, and inspired the foundation of SIDIC; an annual torchlight procession from a church square to the old ghetto area, in solidarity with the Jewish community of Rome, on the anniversary of the Nazis' arrest of Roman Jews on 16 October 1943; the visit by Pope John Paul II to the main synagogue in Rome in 1986, an act of reconciliation unprecedented in the history of the Roman Catholic Church; the establishment of diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Israel in 1993; the emphatic and repeated denunciations of antisemitism by Pope John Paul II ("Anti-Semitism, like all forms of racism, is a sin against God and humankind."(8)); the concert sponsored by the pope at the Vatican in 1994 to honor the memory of the victims of the Shoah, a concert at which the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Elio Toaff, was the guest of honor; the issuance in 1998 of the document, We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, in which the Church tried to come to terms with its own actions during the Shoah; the pilgrimage by Pope John Paul II to Israel in 2000, during which he visited Yad Vashem "to pay homage to the millions of Jewish people who ... were murdered in the Holocaust."(9)

My discussion with Sister Margaret did not allay my fears or make my anger disappear. However, our discussion did convince me that there were significant elements in the Church trying to address the grievous problems of the past and trying to improve relations and promote understanding with the Jewish people. Meeting with her would have been a conciliatory ending to my stay in Rome and to my grappling with the demon of antisemitism while I was there. However, the demon was not to disappear. As I described above, on the day after my visit to the office of SIDIC, fate conspired to have my path cross that of Hercules Harry a second time on the tour to the Domine Quo Vadis Church and the Catacombs of Saint Sebastian. Meeting Sister Margaret must have contributed to my self-confidence and boldness in confronting him there.

Welcome Home

I returned to the US through New York. "Welcome home," the customs agent said as he waved me through. His greeting was so casual, so friendly, so American. While over the Atlantic Ocean, I found an article in the Herald Tribune that for me as an American captured the spirit of this land in another, more fundamental way.

   A federal judge in Missouri has ordered the city of Republic to remove a
   fish symbol, known as an ichthus, from its seal, holding that the symbol
   unconstitutionally depicts Christianity as the city's official religion.
   Judge Russell Clark wrote that to include what is called the "Christian
   fish" in the city logo "impermissibly excludes other religious beliefs or
   non-beliefs." The city is considering an appeal.(10)

"Thanks," I said to the customs agent. "It's a long journey from Rome to New York."

As I waited in the departure lounge for my connecting flight, I thought once again of Hercules Harry, the morning sun highlighting his bronze complexion near the obelisk in St. Peter's Square. That day, my second in Rome, I had gone to the Vatican intending merely to be a tourist. But the statement by Hercules Harry that the Jews murdered Christ destroyed this intention. It also transformed the nature of my participation during the rest of the trip, giving it the focus on Jewish-Christian issues that would probably have been absent if I had not met him.

Hercules Harry and I met again on the tour to the Catacombs of Saint Sebastian. Why did I put myself in the uncomfortable, and perhaps dangerous, position of confronting him after we left the Domine Quo Vadis Church? I confronted him out of anger. I confronted him because antisemitism is a sin against God and humankind. But there was another, even more Jewish reason. After we left the church, I confronted Hercules Harry to honor the memories of those Roman Jews whom the Nazis arrested during the iniquitous roundup in October 1943 and whom no one, including Pope Pius XII, helped as they were being deported to their brutal deaths.

As I waited in the departure lounge, I reread, in the material that Sister Margaret had faxed to me two long weeks ago, the translation of the inscription on a medieval house on Via del Portico d'Ottavia in the Jewish Ghetto.

   On 16 October 1943, here began the merciless gathering of 2,091 Jews, Roman
   citizens who were sent to an atrocious death in the Nazi extermination
   camps, where they were joined by 6,000 other Italians, victims of infamous
   racist hatred. The few who survived the extermination, and many people, in
   solidarity, cry out with fervor for love and peace and ask from God
   forgiveness and hope.

Amen, I whispered to myself. Amen.


(1.) 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. 25.

(2.) Migliau and Procaccia, p. 25.

(3.) Quoted in Ian Kershaw, Hitler;, 1889-1936: Hubris. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, p. 483.

(4.) Migliau and Procaccia, p. 19.

(5.) James Carroll, "The Silence," The New Yorker, 7 April 1997, p. 57.

(6.) James Carroll, "The Saint and the Holocaust," The New Yorker, 7 June 1999, p. 53.

(7.) Quoted in Carroll, "The Silence," p. 60.

(8.) Quoted in Daniel Singer, "A Haunted Journey, The Nation, 27 September 1999, p. 20.

(9.) Quoted in Solomon Goldman, "Two Popes and John Paul II (Lolek)," Midstream, May/June 2000, p. 21.

(10.) International Herald Tribune, 22 July 1999. Webb v. City of Republic, Missouri 55 F. Supp. 2d 994 (1999).

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:A78333915