James Carroll

Tullia Zevi's 'fruitful dialogue'

By James Carroll
January 31, 2011

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LAST WEEK, an extraordinary woman died in Italy. She was Tullia Zevi. Her obituary was headlined “Led Italian Jewish Community.’’ As the president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, she welcomed Pope John Paul II in his historic visit to Rome’s main synagogue in 1986. Upon her death, the Vatican issued an almost unheard-of expression of condolence, praising her for “sincere and fruitful dialogue’’ between Christians and Jews. But given her experience, “dialogue’’ is too weak a word for what she represented. I was privileged to interview her a few years ago. Tullia Zevi was a living link with a past that must not be forgotten.

By her own account, 1938 was a defining year in her life, for it was then that her family began its exile from Italy. That year, the Fascist government passed the so-called racial laws, an explosive institutionalization of anti-Semitism. Tullia’s parents, and the man she then married, were firm anti-Fascists, and she became a committed liberal journalist. After the war, she covered the Nuremberg trials, and saw for herself what had followed from 1938. The horrors attached to Adolf Hitler speak for themselves, but Tullia’s awareness was sharpened by first-hand knowledge of a far broader collapse of morality. Even today, when the Holocaust stands as a pillar of public memory, the full scale of the assault on Jews is hardly appreciated. Italy’s racial laws are a prime case in point.

The exclusion of Jews from Italian society was total. Expelled from schools; banned from most professions; forbidden to work in theater, film, or publishing; driven out of sports associations; blacklisted from the academy — the extremes to which Mussolini’s government went are well known. Il Duce was even ahead of Hitler in many of these anti-Jewish insults. But what is still hard to fathom is the near total compliance with which Italians greeted the anti-Jewish legislation. The Senate overwhelmingly voted for it. King Victor Emmanuel readily signed it. Intellectuals fully cooperated in the blacklist. Whatever private misgivings were felt, there was no discernible protest. Or almost none. Pope Pius XI objected — but to one rule only, the banning of the official recording of interracial marriages. His successor, Pius XII, never uttered a word of complaint. Communists were as compliant as Catholics. Academics, musicians, journalists, physicians, students, the military, the royal elite — from every quarter of Italian society there was approval.

In fact, the restrictions imposed on Jews by the 1938 racial laws were not unfamiliar. Many Italians could still remember equivalent restrictions that had been enforced by the pope himself on Jews living in the Roman Ghetto, a kind of urban prison that had been liberated only in 1870, when papal rule of Rome was overthrown. Those restrictions of the Ghetto were aimed at pressuring Jews to convert to Christianity, while the later impositions of Fascist racial laws were aimed at driving Jews from Italy. It would take Hitler to turn anti-Jewish assaults into genocide. But by then, the at least passive compliance of society-at-large could be counted on, and that is what must be reckoned with still.

Tullia Zevi’s “sincere and fruitful dialogue’’ was at the service of that reckoning. After the war, she and other Jewish leaders had every reason to mistrust Roman Catholicism, yet they engaged it, with results. Under Pope John Paul II, the Vatican even acknowledged that the papacy-enforced Roman Ghetto was “the antechamber to the death camps.’’ Church oppression of Jews across the centuries laid the groundwork for what Hitler did. Tullia Zevi told me that she understood John Paul’s visit to the Roman synagogue in the Ghetto as the beginning of his historic repentance. She enabled that.

Tullia Zevi is dead, along with most of those who were direct witnesses of these events. Clouds of denial threaten again to obscure the truth to which such witnesses testified, with heinous crimes restricted, in a phrase Pope Benedict XVI used at Auschwitz, to “a ring of criminals.’’ As if the German nation were innocent. Or the broader culture. Or the church. Or, for that matter, Pope Pius XII. Anti-Semitism is the poison fruit of Western civilization, which is what became so undeniably apparent when it flowered in the Eternal City.

James Carroll’s columns appear regularly in the Globe.