Born Israel Zoller in 1881, he was appointed chief rabbi of Trieste, Italy, in 1918. In the 1930s, he helped German Jews fleeing the Reich. As World War II broke out, he became Rome’s chief rabbi.
In September 1943 the Nazis demanded gold for the lives of the Jews of Rome. Zolli asked for and received a loan of gold from the Vatican. The Nazis reneged and, on October 16, 1943, began to round up the Jews for deportation to Auschwitz. Pope Pius XII interceded with the German ambassador and ordered the Roman clergy to shelter the Jews. The Nazis caught only about one thousand of the eight thousand Jews in Rome.
Zolli, who had secretly studied the New Testament, had a vision of Jesus in the synagogue while presiding over the Yom Kippur service in October 1944. A few days later, he resigned his post. He was baptized in 1945 and took the name Eugenio in honor of Pope Pius (born Eugenio Pacelli).
A controversial figure, Zolli died in 1956. His daughter Miriam stated, “My father felt he was a Jew who had come to believe in the Jewish Messiah. But there was no rejection of his Jewish roots or of the Jewish people.”