The Jewish Boy Who Was Secretly Baptized and Kidnapped by the Catholic Church

In accordance with Papal law, Jewish families were not permitted to raise Catholic children. Once news of his baptism leaked, Edgardo Mortara was taken into custody by the Vatican.


"The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara," painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1862

It all started with a well-meaning decision. A decision that, without the intention of inflicting harm or pain, would change the lives of an entire family and forever impact public opinion of the Catholic Church.

Edgardo Mortara was born in 1851, the sixth of eight children born to a Jewish Italian family living in Bologna. When he was just a few months old, Edgardo fell seriously ill and, despite his doctor’s best efforts and the desperate prayers of his parents and loved ones, his condition did not improve.

During this time, the Mortara family employed a 16-year-old Catholic maid named Anna Morisi. Anna watched the young boy grow ever sicker. Assuming there was nothing left to be done for the poor child, the young maid took it upon herself to secretly baptize Edgardo in the hopes that, if God decided it was time to take him from this world, at least she would have saved his soul. Without asking for the permission of his parents or considering the potential repercussions of her actions, Anna baptized Edgardo. To the surprise of those around him, the boy grew stronger, conquered his illness and returned to full health.

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At least, that was the story Anna Morisi told her priest during confession six years later.

In accordance with his dedication and loyalties to the Church and their rulings, the priest reported the story to the proper authorities who immediately took action. After all, according to the law of the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition, a child who underwent baptism – even unofficially – was undeniably Catholic and the law of the Papal States strictly forbade families of other faiths to raise Catholic children.

Papal Soldiers of Pope Pius IX
Papal Soldiers of Pope Pius IX.

The knock on the door came on a peaceful July evening in 1857. The quiet atmosphere of the Mortara home was quickly shattered as papal soldiers stormed the house and seized six-year-old Edgardo, informing the family that their son was no longer theirs to keep. The boy was ripped from the protective arms of his stunned parents and taken directly to the Vatican.

News of the kidnapping of Edgardo and the plight of the Mortara family quickly spread across the globe. Major international figures including the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef I and Napoleon III of France tried to influence Pope Pius IX to return the child to his family to no avail.  The Church insisted that the law was clear: once the boy had been baptized, he was undeniably Catholic and could not be raised by Jewish parents.

Evidence was brought forth proving that the maid was not a trustworthy person and had been dismissed from the Mortara home and the homes of several subsequent employers. The Mortaras denied that Edgardo had ever been seriously ill which made the purpose of the secret baptism completely irrelevant and refuted any right the Catholic Church had to take the child – for if the baptism was never necessary it should not have taken place, leaving the child as nothing more than Jewish.

Sir Moses Montefiore
Sir Moses Montefiore, from the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Sir Moses Montefiore, activist, philanthropist and president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, took up the cause of the Mortara family, writing letter after letter to communities in America and Europe in the hopes of rallying more support for the Mortara family and to increase the pressure on the Church to return the boy to his rightful home. After several months of advocating in Britain, Montefiore and the Board of Deputies decided that more drastic measures were necessary to gain traction with the Church. He packed his bags and prepared to travel to Rome to try and appeal to Pope Pius IX directly in the hopes of finally reuniting the boy and his family.

Bevis Marks Synagogue
Interior of the Bevis Marks Synagogue, London. Image from the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University.

Before he left on this mission of vital importance, the Synagogue of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews (the Bevis Marks Synagogue) in London where Montefiore was a participating member, prepared a special prayer that was read during services by the congregation to beseech the heavens for his success. With the prayers of his community to strengthen him, Montefiore and his wife set out on their journey with the knowledge that they were to face many tough battles ahead.

prayer was written in honour of Montefiore’s mission to Rome in April 1859
Prayer in honor of Montefiore’s mission to Rome in April 1859. From the National Library of Israel collections. Click image to enlarge.

Upon his arrival in the Italian capital city, Montefiore had several of his contacts reach out to the pope on his behalf in an attempt to receive an audience with him. As the days dragged on into weeks, he began to understand that this mission was not going to be a success. Several weeks after his arrival in Rome, Montefiore finally received a response to his inquiry for a papal audience: “To my sincere disappointment,” wrote his contact, “I am informed that the pope would not receive you. His Holiness could not permit any discussion of the Mortara case, it being a closed question.”

In place of a meeting with the Pope, Montefiore was granted an audience with the Cardinal Secretary of State, who, after hearing the pleas of Montefiore, cynically suggested that at the age of 18, the Mortara boy would be given a choice on whether to remain in the Catholic Church or to return to his family but that until then, he would be raised and educated in accordnce with the Catholic faith. Despite what turned out to be a generally unproductive meeting, the Cardinal did agree to allow the Mortaras to visit their son.

Conflicting narratives emerged as to what happened during the parental visits with Edgardo. According to one account, the child would desperately cling to his parents and cry that he wanted to return to his home. The other version of events claimed that the child was enlightened and emboldened by the spirit of redemption and was heartbroken that he could not convince his parents to convert and join his new way of life.

Edgardo Mortara with his parents
Edgardo Mortara (right) with his mother.

After weeks of effort, Sir Moses Montefiore left Rome and returned home having been unsuccessful in his attempts to meet with the pope. Edgardo Mortara remained unwaveringly in the custody of the Church despite the international attention and pressure imparted on the Vatican.

Bnai Brith Messenger, May 10, 1940
Bnai Brith Messenger, May 10, 1940.

The Mortara family continued to advocate for the return of their son to no avail. Edgardo Mortara became a priest at the age of 21 having trained under the pope himself from childhood. He dedicated his life to the Church, traveling throughout Europe and preaching his religion, until his death in Belgium in 1940.

Special thanks to Karen Ettinger from the Education Department at the NLI for her assistance in writing this post. Click here to view the NLI Education website.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.

For additional information on Montefiore’s visit to Rome, read “Anglo-Jewry and the Mortara Case,” available in the National Library collection.


The Black Suitcase of Magical Amulets with a Mysterious History

No one knows the exact origins of the little black suitcase filled with hand-written scrolls now kept at the National Library of Israel.

Very little is known about Dr. Max Leopold Brodny’s trip to the Soviet Union in 1959, a trip from which he returned to Chicago with one more suitcase than he had when he left.  The suitcase was small, black, and tattered, but Brodny understood he had received something special and he cared for it and kept in a closet in his home where it stayed until his death in 1979. When dividing Brodny ‘s estate, the suitcase was passed on to his daughter, Eleanor. Like her father before her, she kept the suitcase hidden in her home.

Dr. Max Leopold Brodny, photo courtesy of the family.

Twice Eleanor turned to Judaica researchers in Chicago but they did not have any insights to provide on the suitcase. It was only when Eleanor approached biographer and writer, Stacy Derby, for help in putting the history of the Brodny family down on paper, that the suitcase again played a part in Eleanor’s life. Eleanor showed Stacy the suitcase and told her the story of how it came into her possession.

Eleanor, daughter of Dr. Brodny. Photo courtesy of the family.

The Story of the Suitcase

Let’s return to Dr. Max Brodny’s trip to the Soviet Union in 1959.

During his stay in Moscow, Max visited a synagogue. The local rabbi pulled him into a side room and pushed a black leather suitcase into his hands. “It has no future here – take it away and preserve it,” he begged of the doctor from Chicago, “but be careful – we’re being followed.”

Max listened to the request of the rabbi and took the suitcase with him from the Soviet Union. The contents and the back story of the suitcase intrigued Stacy. She turned to a former professor of hers who in turn put her in touch with the National Library of Israel in the hopes that someone could give her a better idea as to what was hiding within it.

The suitcase Eleanor donated to the National Library of Israel.


The contents of the suitcase and its story also managed to intrigue Dr. Zvi Leshem who received the inquiry. Leshem is the head of the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library of Israel, which specializes in Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism. He, in turn, told the story to Dr. Yoel Finkelman, the Judaica Curator at the library.

The library’s staff discovered 85 different items in the suitcase, the majority of them (76 to be exact) being small amulets made of parchment or paper, designed for magical purposes. Almost all of them had been hand-written in North Africa at the end of the 19th-century or the early 20th-century, with a few of them written in the Land of Israel or elsewhere. This was determined based on the writing style, or on the names written on the amulet scrolls like Salem ibn Gedaal or Sultana Bat Istariliya. In one or two cases, the location of origin was clearly written upon the page (“Here in the Land of Israel”).

All of the scrolls were written to summon angels and other heavenly forces to protect against natural and supernatural dangers. Some were written for health, some to protect a pregnant woman and her child, others to defend the home against danger.

Seventy-six of the scrolls were written on paper or parchment of different sizes – the longest of which reaches close to a meter in length. The scrolls were rolled up tightly (a few were folded) making them easy to carry in a pocket or wallet or amulet. Eleven of them were dyed pink, while others were dyed in darker colors.

Seven of the scrolls were written in greater detail, indicating a higher level of skill, especially those that describe the Sephirotic tree – the map of the divine structure according to the Kabbalah.

Another fascinating item from the suitcase, dating back to 19th century North Africa, is a manuscript containing various magical recipes describing how to prepare different kinds of scrolls for a myriad of purposes. It is one of the most damaged items in this extraordinary collection, likely because it was used regularly.

Several pages from the magical recipe book.

As it is unlikely that we will find any additional information about this mysterious suitcase, there is no way of knowing how this rich collection arrived into the hands on the rabbi in Moscow. The lack of European scrolls of this type suggests that the author of the scrolls was probably not a Russian or Eastern European mystic. It is possible that the collection belonged to a researcher or collector who lived in Moscow, and that it was then left to the synagogue following his/her death.  Still, as they say, your guess is as good as ours.

Even if we never find out who put this collection together, the great distances it traveled (from North Africa and the Middle East, through Russia, then to the United States and ultimately Jerusalem), are evidence of what is today increasingly clear to scholars: Jewish magic is not a trivial or marginal pursuit. Though the story we have shared here has many holes, it shows that Jewish magical practices have a day-to-day nature, both historically and contemporarily.

“Throughout history, Jewish communities have busied themselves with magic and demons,” explained Dr. Yoel Finkelman.

After much deliberation and with the generous help of Judaica scholar David Wachtel of New-York, Eleanor decided to donate the collection to the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, along with the little suitcase in which it was kept. Two weeks after the suitcase left for Israel, a pipe burst in Eleanor’s home just where the scrolls had been kept for years. Dr. Finkelman joked that perhaps this is a coincidence, but then again, “maybe not.”

It’s not every day that such a significant donation arrives in the manuscript collection of the National Library. The collection is currently being cataloged, after which it will be scanned and put online, making it accessible to the general public and to researchers of Jewish magic and mysticism – a field that is currently flourishing.

“In donating the collection to the National Library of Israel,” said Eleanor, “we have fulfilled the request of the rabbi from Moscow.”

The First Jewish Translation of the Book of Books into Spanish

As many conversos began to return to their heritage after the Inquisition, several Jewish cultural books were translated into Spanish for their use - including the Book of Books.

With the decree to expel the Jews from Spain in 1492, many Jews chose to remain in the Spanish kingdom and live as Christians while others accepted the invitation of the King of Portugal, King Manuel I, to emigrate to the neighboring realm where they could live openly as Jews. When the King of Portugal married the Princess of Spain, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, he changed his policies and forced the conversion of the newly arrived Jews of Portugal.

Towards the end of the 16th-century and into the 17th-century, thousands of “New Christians” took advantage of the newly eased travel restrictions between the Iberian Peninsula and the countries beyond it and emigrated to Western Europe and the New World. Upon arrival in their new communities, many chose to openly return to Judaism and the tradition of their forefathers. Those who returned to the old faith dealt with many questions on their journey, including: How does one revive a once forbidden culture, relearn lost religious practices and revive a language that has been long forgotten?

With the return of many Spanish Jews to their heritage, there was a sudden demand for translation of Jewish texts.  A great number of Jewish texts, including Halakhic and ethical treatises, prayer books and even the “Book of Books,” the Hebrew Bible, were translated into Spanish and Portuguese over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries. One major project of this sort was the first complete Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible into Spanish, printed in Ferrara in 1553.

Making the Books of Jewish Heritage Accessible 

“The Holy Bible in the Spanish tongue. Translated word for word from the true Hebrew by very excellent literati . . . with the privilege of the most illustrious Lord Duke of Ferrara.”

(Subtitle of the Ferrara Bible, the first complete Jewish translation of the Bible into Spanish, printed in 1553)

Safely ensconced in their new home in the Duchy of Ferrara in Italy, far from the reach of the long arm of the Spanish Inquisition, the translator Abraham ben Salomon Usque and the typographer Yom-Tob ben Levi Athias — themselves ex-conversos who had escaped from Spain and Portugal — labored together to translate and print twenty-seven titles of Jewish books in Spanish and Portuguese. The Ferrara Bible was their most important work. It was a new translation and revision of earlier, partial translations of the Bible into Spanish.

The original printed edition of the Ferrara Bible of 1553. Click here to access the item in the library catalog.

The revised and translated Bible became an important Judeo-Spanish text in Western Europe and the New World. It was first printed and distributed in Ferrara which, in the second half of the 16th century, was an important stop along the route for conversos emigrating from the Iberian Peninsula.


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The Ferrara Bible had multiple printings and editions including an edition published in Amsterdam in 1726 when the city became the preferred destination for conversos returning to Judaism in the 17th century.

Chapter One, Genesis, from the Ferrara Bible, printed in Amsterdam. Click here to access the item in the library catalog.

The Ferrara Bible filled a central need in the Spanish Catholic world as well. Researchers posit that the new translation influenced Catholic religious thought and many Christian authors quoted directly from the translated text. None the less, anyone caught by the Inquisition with a copy of the Ferrara Bible in his possession opened himself up to real danger.

Spanish translation of the Bible published in 1945 in Argentina, based mainly on the Ferrara Bible. Click here to access the item in the library catalog.

The Ferrara Bible – A Bridge across the Generations

This book became a bridge between the glorious culture of the Jews of Spain and Portugal prior to their expulsion and their descendants who, hundreds of years after they were torn from their country, preserved that precious culture in their new homes.

This article was written with the help of Dr. Aliza Moreno of the National Library of Israel.


A Shattered Childhood: Memories of Kristallnacht

When the Gestapo knocked on 12-year-old Lilli Tauber’s door in November of 1938, her life was forever changed.


Lilli Tauber in 1938, courtesy of Centropa

Lilli Tauber woke up to a typical cloudy November morning in 1938, in Wiener Neustadt, a town located just south of Vienna. She went about her routine, ate breakfast, brushed her teeth, kissed her mother goodbye and headed out on her walk to Hebrew school as usual, not knowing that in a few hours, everything would change.

Early in the day, during morning lessons, someone entered the classroom where 12-year-old Lilli and her classmates studied. The visitor whispered urgently in the teacher’s ear. The teacher in turn immediately dismissed the children and told them to rush home – something was happening and they needed to go home immediately. At once, Lilli understood that something wasn’t right.

The town of Wiener Neustadt, Austria. The Folklore Research Center, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Click to enlarge.

As it turned out, Kristallnacht had found its way to Lilli’s hometown.

Soon after she arrived home, the doorbell rang at the Tauber home. Gestapo personnel in full uniform entered the house and arrested Lilli’s father with no explanation served to his astonished family. The Gestapo vandalized the Tauber home, smashing the front gates and ransacking the front porch and the rooms inside the house. It was only later in the day that they found out that other Jewish men in the neighborhood had also been arrested in the round up and sent to prison.

The Jewish men from Wiener Neustadt were taken to a prison holding cell that was so small that there was no room to sit. There they stayed until the Nazis divided the group, deciding who would be sent to the Dachau work camp and who would be allowed to return home.

German citizens walk past ransacked Jewish shops in Berlin on the day after Kristallnacht

After the men were removed from the area, the remaining women and children were rounded up and stripped of their belongings. The women were forced to sign over the deeds to their houses on threat of violence and Lilli witnessed her friend’s mother, Mrs. Gerstl, get physically beaten by the Gestapo forces until she agreed to sign over her home.

As evening fell over the ransacked neighborhood, the women and children were led to the community synagogue and forced inside where they were locked in for the night. The floors were covered in hay to serve as beds for the prisoners who were given the curtains from the Aron Kodesh (the place where the Torah scrolls are kept) and the covers from the Torahs to use as blankets.


The synagogue of Wiener Neustadt before its destruction during Kristallnacht in 1938 ,courtest of Centropa. Click to enlarge.

Lilli and the rest of the prisoners were forced to remain inside the synagogue for three days, unsure of what had become of their fathers, sons and brothers, and unsure of what the future held. At one point, Lilli glanced through the windows of the synagogue and saw a crowd gathered just outside the iron gates of the building. The crowd of people peered through the bars on the gates to watch the imprisoned Jews with a look of amusement on their faces.

Within the three days of forced imprisonment inside the stuffy synagogue, there was an outbreak of scarlet fever. Lilli was among the sick and was allowed to leave the house of prayer for the hospital along with her mother. They were accompanied by a Nazi officer to ensure they didn’t escape. The doctors at the hospital treated the Jews with the same level of care as they did their non-Jewish patients and the nuns working the hospital floors snuck some food to Lilli and her mother.

The women and children in the synagogue were eventually released and taken by bus to the Jewish community in Vienna. Lilli was allowed to leave the hospital after six weeks and was brought by her father who had been released from prison to join her family in Vienna. They never returned to their home and never retrieved their stolen possessions.

After the horrific events of Kristallnacht and the difficulties that befell the Tauber family, the focus quickly shifted to a plan of escape. For Lilli’s parents, it meant making the choice to send their child away in order to protect her.

Lilli Tauber’s parents Johanna and Wilhelm Schischa, courtesy of Centropa. Click to enlarge.


Certificate stating Lilli Tauber’s father Wilhelm Schischa’s right of domecile in Wiener Neuastadt, courtesy of Centropa. Click to enlarge.

In June of 1939, Lilli’s parents took her to the Vienna train station. Among the crowds were many people wearing uniforms with swastikas on their sleeves. Soldiers in German uniforms crowded the station, a sure sign that Vienna was no longer the free city it once was.

Boys and girls wearing red tags around their necks and identification numbers boarded the Kindertransport heading for England. Lilli, number 39, leaned out the windows and waved a final farewell to her parents. Despite her troubles acclimating to a new language and culture and the difficulties of life without her parents, Lilli survived the war in England. Her parents, unfortunately did not.


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The Night of Broken Glass and Broken Hearts

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When Buchenwald Was Liberated: A First Glimpse of the Holocaust