Nowhere in the West was the chasm between the old world and the new so wide as in the lands of the pope-king.
David Kertzer,
The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara

If you are unfortunate enough to bear a name trailing a history, as I am, you will understand why I have decided to change mine—though not quite yet. I must live with the original until I have squeezed out of it the last syllable of iniquity. A great sin was committed against this name, the name of an honest and peaceful family, and whether the choice of an American commonplace will serve as anodyne, I can hardly predict. It was in 1940 that my own fraction of these relations arrived here from Bologna to escape the racial laws. My widowed father, Isacco Giacobbe Mortara, had already been expelled from the university, where he taught philosophy. And it was in this same year, 1940, that my great-uncle, Pio Edgardo Mortara, died at age 88, after living out his last years in a monastery in Belgium. The incident that had made a small boy notorious was by then mainly forgotten, except by a handful of scholars, and was regularly attributed to mediaeval ignominy, as if modernity—railway, telegraph, photography—hadn’t at the time already permeated everywhere.

Photography! How often I have studied that face—the face of Father Pio in a posed photo. Those round black eyes seem both to protrude and to lie peculiarly flat, like a screen laid over a marble egg, as if declining to see, or else as if able to see only what they already know. It is a look that refutes, and denies, and abhors curiosity. In the same photo a woman is seated before him. She is soberly dressed, a mother in mourning, all black satin and black ribbons. Her downcast head speaks agony, agony.

When I ultimately came face-to-face with Father Pio—the very one, the legend, the scandal—I was myself a child of eight. He had returned to Bologna to visit my father, his nephew; in his mature years it was his habit to seek out this and that remnant of kin, sometimes to proselytize, sometimes not. I was at the time alone in our apartment, darkened by too many draperies and densely adorned lampshades and antimacassars on velvet armchairs, all the heavy assurances of our Bolognese comforts. I let him in, as I had been told to do, prepared to explain that my father was delayed and would soon arrive. In the dining room a bottle of wine had been set out. He declined to sit, and simply stood there, in his long black gown and short black cape. It was as if he had no legs, no arms, only a neck with its Adam’s apple rimmed by a white cloth. His hat, round and black and broad, lay on the table.

He said, “Tua madre è a casa?”

His voice was dark and thick, and his speech was no longer like ours.

I told him that my mother was not at home. She was dead.

His answer frightened me. He spoke it not as a man to a child, but as a child to another child. As if daring to tell a secret.

“Anche mia madre è morta,” he said.

And to my relief soon afterward my father hurried in, bustling and breathless and apologetic: “My students, they linger, they chatter, they jabber away, I can’t get rid of them!” My father was always apologetic, and always outwardly cheery, though now and then, in quieter periods, I would see him tighten his mouth into a saddened twist.

The two men sat down together. The wine stood uncorked. I was sent away, but listening from a distance was useless—the talk was too quick, and on matters too long-ago for me to understand. Something, a kind of skip in the rise and fall in their grownups’ voices, made them sound alike.

When the visitor left—an arm in its black sleeve crept out from the cape to lift his hat—my father said, “What a pity, what a pity.”

To my mind, there was more to be afraid of than to feel sorry for. Father Pio for me was a black crow that had flown into our lives and was never seen again. A crow that spoke like a small boy.

When my father and I landed at last in New York on a Portuguese ship—he to begin again at the New School, which had arranged for our visas and his employment—our circumstances had become severely stripped. We settled into a small apartment in the borough of Queens, where everything, even the table and chairs, seemed deprived of ornament. My father, who was adept at several languages, tutored me in English, and I went every morning to the public school, where there was a scattering of other foreign children, but none from Bologna, and not one who had a father like mine.

My father’s scholarly preoccupations were with Stoics and Essenes; he intended to pry out their affinities by seeing Job in Stoics and Zeno in Essenes. This was so lively and new and disconcerting that it made him popular as a teacher. And still these quixotic notions were far from his inmost broodings. I sometimes imagined that I had two fathers, the ebullient professor with his checkered accent surrounded by delighted students, and the grief-besotted descendant of a tragic history who propelled me into his private convulsions. It was as if our tiny windowless kitchen were a kind of clandestine theater where that distant tableau of outrage and violation could be called up out of the air. Yet we ourselves had been hounded by tyranny, by Mussolini and his fascist polizia, so why was my father inflamed by a vanquished pope, an obsolete and silenced inquisitor?

Even as a young child I argued with him.

He said, always with the same words, “When you’re older you’ll understand. You think it distant, but nothing is distant, it’s as close as you are to me,” and he would fetch me up against his scratchy shirt, and kiss me; but how could I believe him, when I knew that I was alive and breathing his breath, and that the boy he was possessed by had even less reality than the unlikely uncle who dressed like a crow?

It was at moments like these that I felt infiltrated by the fearsome incorporeality of my father’s phantoms. As we sat in the little kitchen, he with the newspaper at his elbow, eating the supper he had affably and efficiently cooked, some evocative word or phrase might all at once erupt under his eye, and he would speak of the boy as if he, like me, were alive and near and breathing his breath. Or as though there might at any instant come the knock on the door, and the boy—or was it I?—would be snatched away. Whether these visions were my father’s or my own, I cannot say. Nor can I call them hallucinations, or driftings of displaced dreams, or willed delusions, or dramatizations torn out of my father’s fevers—but whatever they were, it was in such untethered intervals that I saw what he saw and knew what he knew.

Allow me to add: only in part. My father was embedded, as I could not be, in those faded chronicles of the Resorgimento, the decline and defeat of the papal states, the rise of the kingdom of Italy, and all the rest. And though I have since absorbed (I mean conscientiously pursued) this same history, I apprehend all the more now what I took in only by instinct then: that none of it touched him, that he was indifferent to the boy as the spore of all these upheavals, that it was the boy, solely the boy, the living boy in the darkened room, the boy standing there, sobbing, bewildered, the boy, the boy, the boy. The boy whose life called to ours: my father’s life, and mine.


In Bologna the pith of summer’s heat is set to boiling chiefly in July and August, but on the 23rd of the blazing June of 1858 the rooftops were sizzling as they never had before. In the household of Solomone and Marianna Mortara, the shutters were closed and the draperies drawn, to keep out the assault of the furnace that pressed all around. Even so, the small rooms were stifling, and children of various ages, five boys and the twins Ernesta and Erminia, lay sprawled and enervated on beds and sofas. Imelda, the baby, was at her mother’s breast. Both mother and infant were streaming with sweat. It was the afternoon hour of riposo, when Solomone—the family called him Momolo—had as usual shut up his shop, and he and Riccardo, his oldest son, went looking for respite, strolling through the shadowy cool of the neighborhood’s ancient colonnades, and then stopping for iced vino in a nearby café. Riccardo had a knack for numbers, and Momolo thought he might soon be useful in the shop.

As they approached home—the Mortara apartment occupied the lower half of the house—Riccardo noticed that the door was wedged open by the boot of a man in uniform.

“Papa,” he said, “there’s a soldier, and look, another one inside —”

What they saw was the pope’s military police, a uniformed marshal and his deputy, a brigadier in ordinary dress; and Marianna holding up two paralyzed naked fists, howling, imploring.

The marshal thrust a hand into a crevice alongside his epaulets and drew out a paper. He chose a boy who stared back at him with petrified eyes.

“What is your name?” he said.


“And you?”




“You, and your brother hiding behind you—”

“Ercole. Edgardo.”

“Come here, little one. Don’t be afraid. Tell me your full name.”

“Edgardo Levi.”

“How old are you, Edgardo?”


The marshal consulted his paper.

“This is the one,” he said, and placed his hand, the one not gripping the paper, on Edgardo’s head. His fingers explored among the black curls—what was he searching for there?—and then on to the small thin neck, where a pendant of some kind dangled from a jeweler’s chain.

“What’s this?”

“Whatever it is,” the other man said, “we’ll soon get him a better one.”

The marshal was inwardly disappointed; he hadn’t found the soft baby horns that all Jews are born with. Turning to Momolo, he asked, “Are you the head of this family and the father of this boy?”

Marianna shrieked, “It’s a mistake, a horrible mistake—Momolo, tell him he’s come to the wrong house, tell him to go away—”

“I am here as a representative of Father Pier Gaetano Feletti, the Inquisitor in service to the pope. Your son is a Christian, and according to law may not be reared under a Jewish roof. I am instructed to remove him to Rome, to the House of the Catechumens.”

Momolo said, “You have no right, my son is a Jewish child circumcised into the Covenant, and you have no right to override the natural claim of his parents.”

“Baptism overrides your superstitions,” the other man said.

“Baptism! Rome!” Marianna wailed. “Oh my God, my God, what are you blathering, never on this earth—”

“Madam,” the marshal said, “Your son will be treated kindly, you need not be anxious, and now, Edgardo, give me your hand, the horses are ready, and in Rome you’ll have a new father.”

Momolo thundered: “I am his father, and you will not take him!”

The marshal’s fingers crept to the silver buttons on his blue coat. “These,” he said, “are my authority and my right.”

The thunder collapses. Pleading, Momolo begs to keep the boy another night, but the day’s reprieve will mean nothing, the boy will be led to the carriage weeping, gasping, his backward look straining toward his mama, why doesn’t she come after him, why does she crouch there with her mouth open, why is his papa immobile, silent, and here is the carriage with four huge horses snorting, and never before has he been in a carriage, and why must he go to Rome when all he wants is mama, mama, they tell him Rome is where his new father the pope lives, and where he too will live in a fine big house, what are they saying, what are they saying, what is happening . . . . . but no no no, make an end of it, this clumsiness cannot stand, and what have I done, such oafish play-acting and cardboard speeches, a scene no one can animate, no one has witnessed. A scene? Call it a blasphemy. An Inquisitor in service to the Pope, and in burgeoning, fermenting modernity? Railways, telegraph, photography, international journalism, public gas lamps in every municipal thoroughfare! What consumes my father is a sensation, a ravaging tide, a moment rent out of time, an instance of immateriality knit out of pure will. Phantasmagoria betrayed into words, words, words, oh make an end of this farce, this melodrama, this treacle!

I will not attempt it again. I am not a playwright. History is not a theater. As for the House of Catechumens, my father inhabits it, he inhales it, the fetid odor of the strange repugnant food, the unholy mixing of meat and milk, and how the boy in his new clothes eats nothing, he can chew and swallow none of it, they have taken away his mezuzah, his little locket and its bit of parchment inscribed with the Sh’ma, he had already begun to learn his Hebrew letters, but now he is told he must learn his catechism, and from the slim gold chain on his neck hangs a medallion engraved with a woman sheltering an infant, and he cries because it makes him think of his mama nursing Imelda, he cries and he cries until the well of his tears is emptied, he is parched and famished, he chews their strange and repugnant meat, he swallows their forbidden wine, he is afraid of the Rector, afraid not to obey him because of his scowl, but when he studies his catechism the Rector smiles and pets him, no wonder they say the Jews are clever, the baptized boy is a prodigy, a prodigy!

My father in our kitchen in Queens, transfixed, ensorcelled, and I with him: the stuff of tale and myth, Circe and Juliet, the powerful potion secretly introduced, sometimes with an incantation, sometimes not. And in Bologna, in modernity, the servant girl, simple, devout, illiterate, unseen, clandestinely performing a baptism on the fevered Edgardo, and all for the sake of saving his soul if he should die. How, with what water, from where? Well, bucket, pitcher, cup? The brevity of the formula, the sacral eternity of the mutation. The fever is transient and the boy does not die. Yet in a fleeting particle of a second my father’s uncle, Edgardo Levi Mortara, is transfigured from Jewish child to Christian neophyte, and never mind Momolo’s repeated importunings, the futile interventions of the Rothschilds, of Sir Moses Montefiore, knighted by Victoria, of Napoleon the Third of France, of the Jews of Rome, of the foreign press, never mind the zealots of civic equality, the armed proponents of Italian nationhood who mean to wrest the papal lands from the Church’s grasp, never mind the weight of the future—never mind all of it. The baptized boy Edgardo is now a man, and the man is my great-uncle, Father Pio Mortara.


I was fully independent when my father died, and long before. This I owe to him. He had always urged me not to lose the little native Italian I still retained from childhood, and to master not only the breadth of the language and its literature, but also its annals and politics—wasn’t it politics that had turned us into panicked refugees? At twenty, I was already employed as a research assistant for an eminent historian of Italian fascism, but I was soon earning my living—our living, in fact, my father’s and mine—as a translator of commercial documents. As my father declined, his professorial ruminations on Essenes and Stoics waned, and he was encouraged to retire from teaching. From then on, his obsession with our heritage of crisis and catastrophe became mine alone.

Since the trappings of my work often made it opportune for me to travel to Italy, and to Rome in particular, it became my habit to search out the oldest congregants in one synagogue after another: did they remember hearing of Edgardo Mortara, the stolen Jewish child? Or had they seen the priest himself in the flesh? Fruitless excursions—what do I suppose I may find? The name of the child, blotted out. The name of the Inquisitor, vanished. But only at first. If I persist and return again and again, then wisps of incidents, rumors, fables, figments, fantasies, might somehow rise like a vagrant mist to coalesce into what claims to be memory. What must I call these legendary strands that lodge in the unaware spirits of generations? And what am I to make of these wavering semblances? The rabbis of Rome, summoned by law from the ghetto to utter in embroidered speech their gratitude to the pope for his charitable solicitude, and standing at the side of the papal throne, a small solemn boy in clerical robes. A visit to the grownup Edgardo by his mother, fearful, grieving, her back to him, unable to look him in the eye. Edgardo, shedding his friar’s dress, and in ordinary street clothes fleeing his father. His brother Riccardo in the uniform of the antipapal forces, and Edgardo leaping at him, hissing “Satan! Satan!”

Myths and mirages. Or do such streaks of lamentation—the story of my family—hang trapped in Italy’s ancient winds to be swept among strangers? And if you who do not carry the bitter name of Mortara are riddled and dizzied by such lurking images, what of my father’s leanings, and of his legacy to me?


It was not until many months after his death that I felt driven to open a certain drawer in my father’s desk. There was no obstacle, no lock and no key, no prohibition of any kind. I expected nothing to surprise. In fact, I was already familiar with much of the contents of this private space: his curious map (he called it our geography lesson) of our flight south from the carabinieri in Bologna, moving perilously in farmers’ carts by night and hidden for the price of a few lire in villages along the way, until we came to Livorno, where we cowered under the bombings, and where the remainder of my mother’s jewels bought us a corner of the engine room of a freighter to Lisbon—and from there, after weeks of travail, and always in fear of errant torpedoes, to our American deliverance.

Here too were my father’s folders of ingeniously webbed notes on his Greek thinkers and Hebrew ascetics (they had earned him deference but no glory), and the envelope that preserved the handful of salvaged photos of my mother. Her face was not young. As the deadly child born of late middle age, I had long been careful to keep away from evidences of the life I had expunged.

It was among these worn and meager snapshots that I discovered my father’s correspondence with Father Pio Mortara. There are no letters from my father to his uncle (he had apparently made no copies), and Edgardo’s replies, on the letterhead of the abbey of the Canons Regular, are all dated in the years of my very early childhood. If I had ever been aware of these papers before, I have no memory of it. Nor do I see any mark of intimacy—every letter from the priest falls into a missionary fervor—until the one dated last, confined to the margins of a page torn from a missal. The baptized prodigy, renowned for his fluency in Latin, French, Spanish, Flemish, German, Basque, preaching to Jews as far away as Mainz, Munich, Paris, Breslau . . . but in this furtive plaint to my father, it is as if—as if, as if!—the small boy, the terrified captive child Edgardo, speaks. He comes to me now as a voice tangled in the prickle of our old Bolognese consonants, evading, prevaricating, entreating. I see him looking back, I hear him beseeching. A smothered appeal, a wilderness that eludes my telling. And what was the force, what was the pledge, that my father uttered to bring such whispers, such whimpers, such naked bleats, into helpless being?

Ricordo mea madre.
Ricordo mio padre.
Recordo quasi i miei fratelli e mie sorelle.
Mea madre mi ha abbandonato.
Mio padre ha cercato di portarmivia.
Cosa sono?
Chi sono?
Cosa posso fare? 
I remember my mother.
I remember my father.
I almost remember my brothers and sisters.
My mother gave me up.
My father tried to steal me.
What am I?
Who am I?
What can I do?

Below these lines I recognize, in my father’s hand, three sparse words:

pity pity pity 

Image: Jüdisches Museum der Stadt Frankfurt am Main via Wikimedia Commons.

We want to hear your thoughts about this story. Click here to send a letter to the editor.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link