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Guido Calabresi: ‘I Am a Practicing Catholic and I Am a Proud Jew’

The Jewish cemetery in Ferrara, Italy, is a melancholy place nestled against the walls that encircle the medieval city. Its 800 gravestones are bunched in clusters amid overgrown grass, fallen leaves, and brooding trees. The impressive expanse is evidence of what had been, before the Second World War, a large, vibrant Jewish community, now reduced to a few dozen souls. An occasional visitor comes to photograph the jarringly modernist gravestone of Giorgio Bassani, the author of the novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which opens with a description of the Finzi-Contini family’s mausoleum here. Others come to see the memorials to some of the 150 Jews of Ferrara who were deported to Nazi death camps.

While walking through the cemetery one day last year—I was in Ferrara for the launch of the Italian edition of my book The Pope at War, about Italy and the Vatican during the Second World War—I came across a group of gravestones bearing the name Calabresi. One in particular caught my eye. I stopped to look more closely at the pockmarked granite slab, which lay surrounded by a sea of dandelions. It was the gravestone of a man named Massimo Calabresi. Unlike many of the others in the cemetery, it displayed no Hebrew, only Italian. It gave Massimo’s place of birth (in 1903) as Ferrara and the place of death (in 1988), curiously, as New Haven, Connecticut. The gravestone had another unusual feature. At the bottom, under the inscription for Massimo, were the words, in Italian:

in memory of his wife
Bianca Maria Finzi Contini
buried in New Haven CT USA

For some reason, Bianca’s remains had not joined Massimo’s in Ferrara.

The name Calabresi got my attention: It brought to mind the prominent American jurist Guido Calabresi. I had never met him, but I knew that he had served as dean at Yale Law School before being appointed to the federal bench by his former student President Bill Clinton. I also knew that he came from an Italian Jewish family and had emigrated to America when he was a child, as Italy imposed anti-Semitic “racial” laws and war engulfed Europe. And I had heard something else: that despite his Jewish ancestry, he was a devout Roman Catholic.

Given the surname and the New Haven reference, the gravestone in Ferrara seemed likely to hold a connection to the American professor and judge. And it made me wonder: How had the family managed to find their way out of Italy? And why had only Massimo made his way back?

By coincidence, shortly after my visit to the Jewish Cemetery, a friend emailed me to report that he had mentioned The Pope at War to an old law-school professor of his—Guido Calabresi, then 90 and still living near New Haven. I decided to take a deeper look at the Vatican’s records to see if they had any information about the Calabresi family. And they did.

I was one of the first scholars to gain access to the Vatican archives for the papacy of Pius XII, the controversial wartime pope, when they were finally opened in 2020. Among the mountain of documents made available for the first time was what Vatican archivists call the “Jews Series”—tens of thousands of pages detailing the desperate attempts of Jews in Italy to escape persecution by appealing to the pope or the Vatican secretary of state for help of some kind. Most of the appeals came from Jews who had converted to Catholicism—many of them very recently—and hoped that the Holy See might exert some leverage on their behalf.

Delving into the Jews Series in the Vatican archives is a haunting and taxing experience; following every trail would be an endeavor without end. I focused first on the Calabresi family because of a connection—seeing the gravestone; recognizing the name—but their story is just one of many. The Vatican archives hold folders from immediately before and during the war on more than 2,700 Jewish families. The stories differ greatly, but they are united by a common thread: While doors around them closed, all of the families sought Vatican help—in many cases to no avail.

In the summer of 1938, the Fascist government had announced its new racial policy, identifying Italy’s overwhelming Catholic majority as Aryan and the country’s tiny Jewish minority as members of a separate race. The announcement came as a profound shock to Italy’s Jews. It was followed by a series of draconian anti-Jewish measures: Jewish students could no longer attend public schools and universities. Jewish teachers and professors were fired. Jews lost their jobs in large swaths of the economy, leaving most of the Jewish population impoverished and desperate. The Fascist regime’s glossy magazine, La Difesa della Razza (“The Defense of the Race”), cited the pronouncements of popes, saints, and Church councils as precedent for the anti-Jewish laws. One article, typical of the time, featured the 16th-century pope who first confined the Jews to ghettos, praising his “legislative work” as “fundamental for the protection of civilization against the Jewish menace.”

Many of Italy’s Jews cast about for an escape from conditions that they feared would only worsen. Some sought to flee the country. Others found a glimmer of hope in a legal loophole: If they could show that they were not really Jewish but in fact Catholic, they could effectively switch races.

The new race laws defined who was to be considered a Jew and who was not. Those who had one Jewish parent and one non-Jewish parent could be considered members of the Aryan race if, as of October 1, 1938, they had “belonged to a religion different from the Hebraic.” Further instructions added the caveat that, to be considered Aryan, the offspring of such mixed marriages could not have shown any sign of attachment to Judaism following their baptism; for instance, by marrying a Jew.

The October 1 deadline—announced only in November, after it had passed—prompted a frantic search for cooperative priests who might provide backdated baptisms. The Vatican soon found itself coping with an avalanche of requests from recently converted Jews, many appealing to the pope himself, seeking help to vouch for their Catholic credentials. This paperwork, including hundreds of baptismal certificates, makes up a major part of the Jews Series.

Both of Judge Calabresi’s parents came from prominent and wealthy Italian Jewish families. Guido’s father, Massimo, was born in Ferrara at a time when the Jewish community in the city numbered about 1,300. He was a distinguished physician with a specialty in cardiology. Massimo’s father, Ettore, had been a major industrialist and a fervent anti-fascist, and Massimo, too, was an active anti-fascist. Guido’s mother, Bianca Finzi-Contini, was born in Milan; at the time of her marriage, her father, Armando, was among the wealthiest citizens in Bologna. After Bianca married Massimo in 1929, the couple moved to a fashionable neighborhood in Milan, where Massimo secured a faculty post at the university as well as a position at one of the city’s major hospitals. Guido was born in Milan in 1932, two years after his brother, Paolo.

Neither the Calabresi family nor the Finzi-Contini family had been very religious, but they both were proud of their Italian Jewish heritage and closely tied to a family network that was almost entirely Jewish. After the promulgation of the racial laws, Massimo was dismissed from his faculty and hospital positions.

As Benito Mussolini prepared the way for his racial campaign, he ordered a census of Italy’s Jews. In August 1938, Massimo Calabresi had completed an official form dutifully listing himself, his wife, and his two sons as Jews. But as the consequences of the new laws became clear, Massimo began to explore his options. For one thing, he decided to look for work outside of Italy so that, if the situation became intolerable, he might try to leave the country with his family. To that end, he applied for a fellowship at Yale School of Medicine. But that was just a first step. Even if he got the fellowship, he would need the Fascist government’s approval to leave Italy.

In the Vatican’s Jews Series, I came across a letter written on Massimo’s behalf by Agostino Gemelli, a Franciscan friar and the founder and rector of the Catholic University of Milan. It was addressed to an influential cardinal at the Vatican, who had passed it on to the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Luigi Maglione. Gemelli described Massimo as “a distinguished scholar of medical pathology.” He made reference to a previous communication pertaining to Calabresi’s need for permission to emigrate. Gemelli attached a detailed supplementary letter written on Calabresi’s behalf by the head of his medical department in Milan, as well as a long CV for Calabresi.

Agostino Gemelli was not some unknown correspondent. He was one of the most prominent churchmen in Italy at the time. The Gemelli Hospital, in Rome, where popes receive medical treatment to this day, was named for him. Gemelli was vocal in his support of both the Fascist regime and the racial laws. The same day that Gemelli wrote his letter on behalf of Calabresi, Italy’s newspapers prominently carried the story of his speech the previous day praising the racial laws and recalling, in Gemelli’s words, God’s “terrible sentence that the deicide people brought on themselves.” With the words “deicide people,” Gemelli was referring to the long-held contention, repudiated by the Roman Catholic Church only in the 1960s, that Jews were collectively responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. Yet incongruously, Gemelli would, over the course of the next years, regularly send letters to the Vatican on behalf of Jews—primarily academics—asking for Church assistance as they faced the harsh consequences of Italy’s anti-Semitic campaign.

Gemelli was far from an exception. High prelates who publicly praised the Fascist regime and embraced the need to limit the influence of Jews also worked behind the scenes in favor of individual Jews they knew who sought their support. The web of influence in Fascist Italy involved a trading of favors among an elite that wove together government bigwigs, aristocrats, captains of industry, and high Church officials.

In many of the cases recommended by Gemelli, the Vatican followed up by appealing directly to Fascist officials. If officials did so for the Calabresi family, none of the relevant documents has survived in the Vatican folder. What we can say for sure is that Calabresi was awarded a medical fellowship by Yale and, in the end, somehow secured permission to leave Italy with his family.

On September 8, 1939—one week after Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the start of the Second World War in Europe—the Calabresis boarded the SS Rex in Genoa. They arrived in New York City eight days later.

Left: Star of David from the entranceway to the Jewish Cemetery in Ferrara; baptismal attestation for Guido Calabresi, 1938; and, inset, the SS Rex, which transported the Calabresi family from Genoa to New York. Right: Pope Pius XII. (Photo-illustration by Blake Cale for The Atlantic.*)

I wrote to Guido Calabresi after finding this first tranche of Vatican documents about his family, thinking he might be interested, and offered to send him copies. He was, and I did. Although I would be in Italy for a few more months, we made plans to meet for lunch in New Haven in February, when I would return.

Judge Calabresi chose the Union League Cafe, a favorite of his, across the street from the Yale University Art Gallery. Right on time, he strode in, shorter than I imagined but remarkably vigorous. He wore a black beret and a modest brown jacket that seemed unequal to the frigid temperature outside. When he removed his beret, I saw that strands of gray hair thinly covered his head. He asked me to call him Guido.

“I am a practicing Catholic,” he told me, before adding, with a smile that turned slightly mischievous, “and I am a proud Jew.” His knowledge of his extended Italian Jewish family and how they had faced persecution in Italy was impressive; many of his recollections can be found in the recently published two-volume Outside In: An Oral History of Guido Calabresi. But as I would discover in this meeting and a later one, there was much family history that Guido was unaware of. We spoke for three hours about what he knew and what he thought he knew. He began by talking about his mother and what he had long believed about how and when she became a Catholic. Bianca had been a strong-minded, highly intelligent woman, Guido said. Shortly after his birth, he told me, his mother experienced a deep spiritual yearning that led her to look toward Catholicism. Additionally, she was very independent and put off by the constricted role of women in the Orthodox practices of Italy’s observant Jewish communities. And so, he said, she had decided to be baptized. She became a Catholic, and began regularly attending Mass, sometimes bringing her two little sons with her. Guido added that his father, though not religiously observant, was unhappy about this.

I told Guido that I found it unusual that his mother would have been baptized in the early 1930s, given that her husband and children remained Jewish. Moreover, although Jewish women in Italy found themselves in a religious tradition dominated by men, and were consigned to the balcony in Italy’s synagogues, the situation in the Catholic Church seemed not so different to me. Guido insisted that his mother’s conversion had long predated the racial laws. We left the matter there.

The letter of intervention from Gemelli that I had discovered in the Vatican archives had clearly taken Guido by surprise. He knew that the departure of his family from Italy had been dramatic, the result of months of struggle with the authorities. He believed that high officials in the government had held his father’s anti-fascism against him. Ultimately, the application to leave had been approved. Guido did not know how or why.

But he was firm in one conviction: His father never would have asked for help from the Vatican. Guido remembered that his father always looked askance at those Italian Jews who had converted in the hopes of escaping persecution. By way of making his point, Guido told the story of how, shortly after his father arrived penniless in New York with his wife and children in September 1939, with no income until his fellowship at Yale began in January, the family moved into a modest residential hotel on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. One day, said Guido, his father got a message that a package of books had been received for him at the offices of the Archdiocese of New York. He refused to set foot there, discovering only later that it had all been part of a plan by his sister in Italy to surreptitiously channel a significant amount of cash to him. (He never received it.)

I couldn’t help remembering that this same Massimo Calabresi had, as Guido himself had related, gone to the Vatican to minister to a gravely ill pope in 1938. And the letter from Gemelli, however one might interpret it, was there in the archives.

When our meal was cleared, Guido asked for an espresso. We talked some more. He told me that he continued to teach and write, and to hear some cases as a judge. At 90, he seemed to have no thoughts of retirement, nor could I see any reason why he should.

I walked him to the passenger door of a car that had arrived to take him home. Before turning to step into the car he embraced me, kissing me, Italian style, on both cheeks.

The conversation with Guido had raised many questions, and I resolved to see what else I could discover about the Calabresi family in the 1930s, whether in the Vatican archives or in Italy’s state archives for the Fascist years. With the help of my colleague Roberto Benedetti, I was able to learn a lot more.

In the spring of 1939, according to a document found in the central state archives, in Rome, Bianca’s two brothers and her sister applied to change their racial status. Bianca’s brother, Bruno Finzi-Contini, a physicist, had, like Massimo, been on the faculty of the University of Milan. He, too, had been fired. Bruno now claimed to have been baptized at the age of eight months, in 1905, and he produced documents showing that his three children had all been baptized in the 1930s. Bruno also maintained that his father, Armando Finzi-Contini, had been baptized 10 days after his birth, in 1871. As a result, Bruno won reinstatement to his faculty position in Milan. Both of Bianca’s brothers also sent applications to the government to change their Jewish-sounding surnames.

Archival documents reveal that the Vatican got behind Bruno’s efforts to have his Jewish name expunged. Cardinal Maglione, the secretary of state, sent supportive instructions to his Jesuit go-between with the Fascist government. The Jesuit in turn wrote to one of the Fascist regime’s highest-ranking members, who oversaw the racial laws. “Dr. Bruno Finzi Contini,” the Vatican emissary’s letter began, “does not belong to the Jewish race … he has asked that his surname Finzi be substituted with the other one, Contini, the name Finzi being frequent among the Jews with whom he has nothing in common.”

Ultimately, Bruno’s efforts to claim Catholic ancestry, and save his job, were for naught. The Special Commission on Race expressed doubt about whether Armando had truly been baptized back in 1871. Even if he had been, the commission concluded, that wasn’t good enough: “He married a Jew, and so engaged in manifestations of Judaism and must be considered as belonging to the Jewish race. The children are born, therefore, from parents who are both Jews.” The commission rejected Bruno’s plea. He was once again dismissed from his faculty position in Milan.

At around the same time that members of Bianca’s family were applying for Aryan racial status, Massimo was doing the same for his wife and two sons. In March 1939, Massimo wrote an appeal to the Special Commission on Race, in Rome, on behalf of his wife and children. “The undersigned” asks that his wife and sons “not be considered to be of the Jewish race.” As a matter of principle, according to Guido, his father himself would never have agreed to be baptized to escape the racial laws. But it is also true that Bianca had a claim to having a Catholic parent, and so had a potential escape route under the terms of the racial laws not available to Massimo. Among the documents Massimo sent the Fascist authorities to support his petition were three attestations of baptism by a parish priest in Bologna, stating that he had baptized Bianca, Paolo, and Guido on September 27, 1938—just three days before the legal deadline.

In April 1939, Massimo wrote to Milan’s statistical office asking that his wife be removed from the Jewish census files that had been compiled the previous August. He based his request not only on the contention that she herself had been baptized, but also on the claim that her father, Armando Finzi-Contini, had himself been born of a Catholic mother and baptized in infancy.

A month after that, in May, Massimo transferred the family home and other nearby property to his wife. This legal maneuver came in response to a new law that threatened the seizure of “excess” real estate owned by Jews.

Spring had arrived by the time Guido and I met again in New Haven. He was dressed more formally this time, wearing a blue sweater vest over a dress shirt and a dark tie—he had a memorial service to attend. He had had an eventful week, traveling to Washington for a small dinner in his honor at his son’s house. The guests had included his former student Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Attorney General Merrick Garland, and Dr. Anthony Fauci.

In advance of our meeting, I had sent Guido a summary of the new discoveries and copies of the key documents. We began by focusing on what I had learned about his mother’s family—the appeals that she and her three siblings had made to have their Jewish racial classification changed to Aryan, and the appeals of her two brothers to have their Jewish-sounding name changed. Much, I told him, seemed suspicious about their claims, and Guido agreed. For instance, the baptismal certificate produced to support the contention that Armando Finzi-Contini was a Catholic had come from the diocese of Terni, a town in southern Umbria that today is three and a half hours by car from Bologna, where Armando was born. It would obviously have taken much longer to get there in 1871. Something was off about this scenario. Nor did Guido find credible his uncle Bruno’s claim to have been baptized when he was eight months old, even though Bruno had presented the Fascist authorities with an attestation to that fact from a parish priest.

Where Guido balked was in accepting what I had learned about the timing of his mother’s baptism, which he had so firmly insisted had had nothing to do with the promulgation of Italy’s racial laws. Not only had she been baptized in 1938, but on the same day and in the same church as he and his brother were. The date of the baptism, September 27, only days before the October 1 cutoff, would likely have raised eyebrows among the Fascist authorities. The fact, too, that the baptism took place in Bologna and not in Milan, where the Calabresi family lived, had aroused suspicions among the government officials who judged the family’s claim. The Finzi-Continis were one of Bologna’s most distinguished families. They had powerful friends. They might well have been able to find a priest willing to backdate their baptisms.

I could appreciate that Guido might find it difficult to accept that the story he had long heard, and had often repeated, about his mother’s conversion was in fact untrue. Yet he now had in his hands a copy of the official request, bearing his father’s signature, for the change in racial status of his mother, and with it the baptismal certificates for her and the children. He clearly remembered, he said, going to church as a child with his mother. He remembered, too, being told of a sardonic comment by his father about his mother’s baptism: “Now that it seems she has found another God, perhaps she’ll want to find another husband.” Guido said she must have begun going to church while still a Jew, and only formalized her new religious identity years later. He remained convinced that his mother’s baptism was not to be viewed in the same way as that of the large number of Italian Jews who rushed to the baptismal font in a desperate effort to escape persecution. It was a part of his image of his mother that he could not put in question. So attached was Guido to this narrative that I began to question my own assumptions, which were based on reading so many seemingly similar cases of conversions by Italian Jews during this time of persecution. Perhaps Bianca had begun attending church with her children shortly after Guido’s birth, even while remaining a Jew and in the face of her Jewish husband’s disapproval. But, I also wondered, could the trauma suffered by the family and the whiplash of their changing identity have affected memories? I still could not say.

The Jews Series in the Vatican archives encompasses the stories of thousands of families. Each family’s circumstances are different, and so are the ways the stories work themselves out.

Among the many dramatic family stories told in those newly available Vatican files are some that the pope himself took a personal interest in. Such was the case of the pope’s dentist, a Jewish immigrant who, under the racial laws, was ordered to leave the country in 1939. Over the next three years, Pope Pius XII repeatedly met with his advisers to orchestrate help, sending his emissaries to meet many times with top Fascist government officials. Along the way, the dentist, his wife, and his daughter all got baptized by the pope’s Jesuit emissary to the Fascist authorities, and on the pope’s orders the Vatican worked to have the government recategorize the dentist as a member of the Aryan race.

The application immediately aroused the suspicions of the Fascist officials, based as it was on a surprising discovery. The dentist claimed that, although he had previously thought that both of his parents were Jewish, he had recently learned that his real father was not the Jew from Vienna married to his Austrian Jewish mother, but an Italian Catholic man with whom his mother had had an adulterous affair. Hence, his application to the Fascist government argued not only that he should be considered a member of the Aryan race, but that he should enjoy Italian citizenship as well. The newly opened Vatican Jews Series offers an unending supply of such cases.

As for the Calabresi family, Guido remains a devout Catholic. Although he spoke of going to Mass with his mother as a child, he told me that he had become a practicing Catholic only as a graduate student in England, while studying there on a Rhodes Scholarship. He noted that several members of the generation after his had, as he put it, “reconverted” to Judaism. His older daughter, Bianca Finzi-Contini Calabresi, named for Guido’s mother, was one of them. Guido recalled with pleasure attending his granddaughter’s bat mitzvah. He went on to list others among the Calabresi and Finzi-Contini families who had rediscovered a Jewish identity.

Years ago, Guido and his brother, Paolo, purchased plots for their parents in the Grove Street Cemetery, in New Haven, the city where they had spent their lives as refugees in America. Guido could see the cemetery from his Yale University office. When his mother died, in 1982, she was buried there. But Massimo believed that his own proper resting place should be alongside his family in Ferrara’s Jewish cemetery. When he died, six years after his wife, his ashes were divided. Half were interred alongside Bianca. Guido and his brother brought the other half to Ferrara.

Guido and his brother united their parents in Ferrara the only way they could: They added the inscription about Bianca that caught my eye on that gray slab among the dandelions.

Special thanks to Rabbi Amedeo Spagnoletto for his help in Ferrara’s Jewish cemetery.

*Photo-illustration sources: Calabresi family; De Agostini Picture Library; Tupungato / Adobe; Italian state archives

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