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

Early life

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.

Zoller earned a PhD 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 as rabbi of the city of Trieste, which had just been transferred from Austria-Hungary to Italy. Fascism changed his name to "Italo 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.


Prior to the First World War, when the majority of the Trieste Jewish Community was decidedly anti-Zionistic, Zolli was part of the anti-Zionist trend. Later, however, when Trieste became a center of embarkation for Palestine and thus consequently became more Zionistic, so did Zolli. When the "Italians of the Jewish Religion" supported his candidacy for the position of Chief Rabbi in Rome, he assured them and Silvio Ottolenghi, one of the anti-Zionist leaders, that he would give them no trouble on the issue of Palestine. After he emerged from concealment in 1944, he again became Zionistic.


Zolli was given advance warning about an imminent "Aktion" of the Nazis. Some critics claim he failed to warn other Roman Jews about what was about to transpire and about his own plans, describing this alleged failure to share his information with other Jews as a serious moral lapse. He said he tried but the president of Roman community accused him of excessive fear.

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!'"[1]

Some, however, view Zolli's failure to warn the "remnants of Israel" of their imminent deportation and demise as in contrast to his tearful prayers while in hiding.

After Zolli emerged from his hiding at Pierantoni's house (a member of the Roman resistance party "giustizia e libertà"), his position as Chief Rabbi was restored by Charles Poletti. The Jewish community finally rebuffed his request.

On July 9, 1944 Zolli, while still attempting to retain the title of "Chief Rabbi", gave an interview to a reporter named Matthews. He described how two Italian families hid him, but he made no mention of the fact that during the major portion of his absence he hid in the Vatican since he wasn't there.

After the war a great debate arose between Foa, the president of the Jewish community in Rome, 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, p. 31), Jane Scrivener blames Zolli for not destroying his register of Roman Jews before the Nazis got hold of it.

During this period, Zolli was filled with anxiety. He was concerned that the Jewish community, some of whom were upset about him, would replace him with his predecessor. He also noted that some Americans were slowly losing faith in his ability to run the Jewish community. American visitors noted his agitated mental state. Newman, however, suggests (A Chief Rabbi of Rome Becomes a Catholic, p. 135) that Zolli's culpability in not destroying the register indicated to him that "his future must lie elsewhere than in the Jewish community."


According to biographer Judith Cabaud, in 1944, while conducting a Yom Kippur service, Zolli allegedly experienced a mystical vision about Jesus of Nazareth, who is called Messiah.[1]. No mention of this, however, was made contemporaneously to his conversion. Notice also that his book "Before the down" in the English version contains this mystical vision that doesn't appear in the Italian book based on the original manuscript ("prima dell'alba" Edizioni San Paolo)

Shortly after the end of World War II, Zolli and his second wife (his first wife had died years before) converted to the Roman Catholic Church. Their decision continues to be controversial. Zolli then went to the Gregorian University. He was baptized by Mgr. Luigi Traglia in the presence of Father Dezza, also known as Paolo Cardinal Dezza, his godfather was Father Augustin Bea.

Catholic publishers say that Israel Zolli was named Eugenio Maria Zolli in honor of Pope Pius XII, who was born Eugenio Pacelli. The ceremony was done with much publicity, although he didn't want to. Newman contends,

On Wednesday, February 14, 1945, the day after Zolli was baptized, Chaplain Meyer Berman of the British Forces and Chaplain Jacob Hochman of the American Forces visited him at home. According to their report (Vorwaerts, March 7, 1945 p. 2), Zolli spoke of himself as a "Meshumad Lehachis" - an apostate out of spite. The conversation had begun with Zolli's listing his grievances at the hands of the Jewish community in Rome, Trieste, and elsewhere for 35 years.

Later life

Employed at the State University in Rome and at Pontifical Biblical Institute, Eugenio Zolli died in Rome, at the age of 75.


Israel Zolli has critics. While Christians often mention Zolli as an example of an observant Jew who found Christ, some Jewish scholars contend that Zolli's conversion was a result of having been ostracized by the Jewish community following the Holocaust, rather than a spiritual awakening.[2]


Zolli's 1954 memoir Before the Dawn describes the details of his conversion and explains his deep admiration for Pope Pius XII. It was reissued by Ignatius Press in 2008. He wrote several other books of Christian devotion and theology that included autobiographical elements.


  • "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."[3]
  • "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. Eugenio Zolli, "Before the Dawn," quoted in, Sweet Honey from the Rock, edited by Roy Shoeman, page 73.
  2. Rabbi Tovia Singer, "Why Did the Chief Rabbi of Rome convert to Catholicism?"
  3. Eugenio Zolli, "Before the Dawn," quoted in, Sweet Honey from the Rock, edited by Roy Shoeman, page 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.

External links

uk:Iсраель Золлi

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