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The Story Behind the Painting That Is the Basis for Steven Spielberg’s Next Film

The work, lost for a century, depicts Edgardo Mortara, an Italian Jewish boy seized by Church authorities

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Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, detail of “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara,” 1862. (Courtesy of Sotheby's, photo © Jüdisches Museum der Stadt Frankfurt am Main)
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The book is about the relationship between Pius XI and the Italian dictator Mussolini in the 1920s and ’30s. It was a very dramatic, interesting, and controversial relationship, particularly during the period in the 1930s when the Italian racial laws were introduced. It was a kind of antechamber to the Holocaust in Italy, and there has been a lot of conflict about the role played by the church in connection with the racial laws and with the demonization of the Jews. So, this is one of the things [the book focuses on]. In 2006 the church opened the archives for this period, this very dramatic and important historical period. I felt privileged to be one of the first people into those archives and now, with thousands of newly available documents from the archives, to be able to tell the story of what actually happened and the role of the papacy and the Vatican.

Do you think that the Vatican archives that were opened up from this period were whitewashed a bit, particularly when one considers this controversial period in the history of the papacy, that perhaps there were crucial documents—perhaps the most damning—that were removed or destroyed?

I don’t think that anything was burned or destroyed. There are things that one suspects are not being made available, but in some cases there are ways around it. The church has a very strong sense of its history. For example, when Pius XI died, it was right at the 10th anniversary of the Concordat, which had established peace between the Italian state and the church and basically made the Vatican a partner with Mussolini’s dictatorship. But by that time, in early 1939, the pope had become increasingly upset with Mussolini and was having second thoughts about the deal he had made with him. Pius XI hated Hitler and was upset with Mussolini for growing closer and closer to the führer. The pope called all the bishops of Italy to Saint Peter’s for this anniversary—there were about 300—and I know from Mussolini’s private correspondence that he was convinced that the pope was going to denounce Fascism and him. The pope—rather conveniently for Mussolini and therefore rather suspiciously—died the day before he was supposed to give the speech. On the desk was a copy of the speech, and in the Vatican printing office were 300 copies that he’d prepared to give to all the bishops. He also had on his desk the so-called Secret Encyclical, which he had asked an American Jesuit to draft, denouncing racism and anti-Semitism. I learned from Mussolini’s archives and also from the Secret Vatican Archives—that’s the official name of the Vatican’s main historical archive—that Mussolini heard about all of this. When the pope died, Mussolini immediately sent his ambassador to meet with the man in charge following Pius XI’s death—Eugenio Pacelli, the pope’s secretary of state (who would himself, in a couple weeks, succeed the pope and become the controversial Pius XII).  Mussolini wanted Pacelli to see that all copies of the speech were destroyed, as well as the Secret Encyclical. In fact, Pacelli ordered all 300 copies of the speech that the pope had wanted to distribute to the bishops destroyed, but he had the original text, as well the Secret Encyclical, hidden, never to see the light of day as long as he lived. (Pius XII died in 1958.) So, this is an example that even Pacelli, or Pius XII, would not destroy the actual documents but made sure that others weren’t going to see them.

Speaking of controversial popes, interest in the Mortara case resurfaced recently during efforts to canonize Pius IX. Were you involved in the debate?

Yes, I was. Actually, I had a debate with the bishop in charge of the Vatican’s Office of Making Saints.

There is an Office of Making Saints?

Yes, and it is a very long process. In some case it takes decades. They have a quasi-juridical procedure in which one person is appointed as the prosecution, and another is appointed as the defense, and there is testimony. This is something that is taken very seriously by the church and generates huge amounts of materials in the archives. Pius IX had been proposed for sainthood for many decades, since the 19th century. (He was the longest-serving pope in history, from 1846-1878, for 32 years.) In the year 2000, among the many activities organized to mark the millennium Pope John Paul II wanted to beatify both Pius XII and John XXIII on the same day: Sept. 3, 2000. John XXIII is a hero of the liberals, and Pius XII is a hero to conservatives, but because of the controversy over his silence during the Holocaust it was determined that they would have to postpone Pius XII. (Now that my book [on Mussolini and Pope Pius XII] is coming out, I’m not sure that they are going to continue with that.) So, they decided to substitute another hero of the conservative movement, Pius IX, and that provoked a lot of controversy, particularly from the Jewish community of Rome. They organized against it but were unsuccessful.

I was asked to go on a well-known, nationally broadcast daily morning radio program in Italy, and there was a live debate [in Italian] between me and this bishop in charge of this Office of Making Saints, two days before the beatification ceremony at the Vatican. So, for me it was kind of a surreal experience, because I could not be there—it was the first day of freshman reporting to Brown, and I needed to be in Providence—and it was a 9 a.m. show so it was going to be 3 a.m. in Providence and I had to question whether to get dressed up in a suit and tie at 3 a.m., or could I really do it in my pajamas. Of course, the bishop is Italian, and he was in the studio; it did wind up getting a lot of publicity in various ways. So, that was my involvement in the beatification of Pius IX.

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The Story Behind the Painting That Is the Basis for Steven Spielberg’s Next Film

The work, lost for a century, depicts Edgardo Mortara, an Italian Jewish boy seized by Church authorities

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