An Italian Case-Study
On a summer’s evening in June 1858, in the town of Bologna, Italy, there was a sinister knock on the door of a Jewish house. The house belonged to the Mortara family and the family had been dreading the knock all day.
Upon opening the door, they found a group of policemen demanding to come in. The uniformed men asked the parents to bring all the children into the room. It was at about ten o' clock at night and the children were already asleep. The parents had no choice, however; they knew what to expect. They quickly dressed the children and brought them in. The policemen questioned the parents as to the identity of each of the children. They then took the youngest child, Edgardo, not yet seven years old, and left the house. Before leaving, they made it clear to the parents that Edgardo no longer belonged to them: from now on, he belonged to the Church. It was possible that the Mortaras would not see their child again.
Had the parents done something wrong? Not that they knew of. Six years earlier, when he was yet an infant, Edgardo had fallen seriously ill. A Christian servant in the Mortara household, a teenage girl named Anna, fearing for the child’s soul should he die, decided that she must do something. It was unthinkable, Anna felt, that the child would die as a Jew: she believed that his soul would descend straight to hell. So, to save his soul, she baptized him (the ceremony used to bring a person into the Christian faith), without telling his parents. Anna performed this ceremony to prepare the child for death, but he survived.
The entire incident might have been forgotten but for the fact that, in early 1858, Aristides, the youngest Mortara child, fell ill and died. Anna was guilt-stricken: this time she had not managed to baptize the child. However, Edgardo, the boy that she had baptized, lived on as a Jew, unaware that he was ‘really’ a Christian. Anna shared her feelings of guilt with a neighbor and the word quickly spread to the leaders of the Church in Bologna.
At that time, Bologna was part of a region was ruled directly by the Pope. According to Christian law, which was thus in force in this area, a child who had been baptized could be taken from his family and brought up in a Christian family. Such situations had arisen before but the Church did not always interfere. In Bologna, however, the Church leaders were adamant that this would not be such a case. The day before the police arrived, the Mortaras were informed that the Church had taken an interest in their children. While they did not yet know the details of the story of Anna and Edgardo and the baptism, they expected the worst.
So Edgardo Mortara was taken from his parents. According to reports, he was carried from the house, crying and screaming, while his terrified parents looked on helplessly, and put in a carriage bound for Rome. It is also said that, during the journey to Rome, Edgardo’s guards tried to put a cross round his neck but that he tearfully asked for a mezuzah instead. When he arrived in Rome he was placed in a special house for converts. He never returned to his family.
Jews living in the areas of Italy ruled by the Pope had learned, over the years, to live with and bear such incidents, rare as they were. However, Edgardo's father Momola decided to fight back. The question was, what should he do?
One thing was in the father's favor: there were regions of the country not under the Pope’s control in which there had been much criticism of the Church in recent years. Momola Mortara decided that he would write to the Jewish leaders in those areas, to enlist their help in publicizing the case.
The Jewish leaders decided to help. They got the non-Jewish press involved which, in turn, published a series of enraged articles demanding that Edgardo be returned to his parents. They went further by also turning to fellow leaders of the Jewish communities of other countries in Western and Central Europe, asking them to intercede with their governments. The Italian Jews hoped that these other governments would pressure the Pope to return the child to his parents.
It was by no means certain that the leaders of the other European communities would agree to help. We have stressed a number of times that the nineteenth century saw a weakening of the idea that the Jews were a people with common national ties. The idea had developed very strongly, especially in Western and Central Europe, that Jews were a religious community that was part of the national collective in which they lived. There was no guarantee at all that a Jew in Italy could appeal for help against his/her own government (and the Pope was a political leader with direct control over certain areas) to Jews abroad and expect them to answer positively. Jews were keen to show their respective governments that they were loyal citizens and had no intention of sucking their national leaders into potentially-embarrassing political situations by conducting their own ‘foreign policy.’
Moreover, there was another potential problem. It could be that such an appeal might be seen by French or English Jews, for example, as coming from Italians who happened to be Jewish rather than from fellow Jews who were part of the same group and who could thus claim sympathy on the grounds of mutual Jewish responsibility.