The Great Synagogue in Rome, where Elio Toaff presided as the city’s chief rabbi for half a century, stands on the banks of the Tiber River in the Jewish ghetto established by papal order in the 1500s.
On Oct. 16, 1943, Nazis converged on the neighborhood and arrested more than 1,000 Jews for deportation — the largest such roundup in Italy during World War II. Fewer than two dozen returned.
The ghetto’s synagogue, about two miles from the Vatican, had witnessed so many years of hardship that a saying was coined: “The persecution will end when the pope enters the synagogue.” Such an event seemed unthinkable — until April 13, 1986, when Rabbi Toaff welcomed Pope John Paul II into the temple.
The occasion marked the first recorded visit to a synagogue by the spiritual leader of the Catholic church, whose teachings had historically blamed Jews for the death of Jesus and had helped fuel centuries of anti-Semitism.
“You are our dearly beloved brothers,” John Paul said to the crowd gathered in the synagogue, “and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.”
Rabbi Toaff, who died April 19 at age 99, was widely regarded as one of the most significant Jewish leaders in Europe in his generation. He became Rome’s chief rabbi in 1951 — six years after the end of the war — and led the city’s Jews in their recovery after the Holocaust.
Dubbed the “pope of the Jews,” he became known internationally as a force for reconciliation between the Jewish and Catholics faiths, whose relationship had long been strained by prejudice and mistrust.
Rabbi Toaff often recalled his many positive encounters with Catholic priests. His father, as chief rabbi of the Tuscan port city of Livorno, befriended the local Catholic prelate. During the German occupation, the son told an interviewer, a priest learned of the rabbi’s impending arrest by the Nazis and sheltered him in the rectory.
In John Paul, the former Archbishop Karol Wojtyła of Krakow, Poland, Rabbi Toaff found a counterpart who was similarly open to interfaith dialogue. One of the pontiff’s closest boyhood friends in Poland came from an observant Jewish family and lost many relatives in the Holocaust.
Some critics argued that John Paul did too little to improve Catholic-Jewish ties, but he is widely credited with having done more in that effort than any previous pope. In 1979, he became the first pope to visit the Auschwitz death camp in Poland. In 1998, he offered an official “act of repentance” for insufficient actions by Catholics to stop the Holocaust.
When Rabbi Toaff welcomed John Paul to Rome’s Great Synagogue in 1986, the two men sat on identical thrones. Speaking in the synagogue, John Paul declared his “abhorrence” at the Holocaust and condemned anti-Semitism “at any time and by anyone.”
“I repeat, ‘by anyone,’ ” he said in a statement that was interpreted as a reference to past actions of the church.
Later, in an interview, Rabbi Toaff described the emotion of the day.
“When I saw John Paul II approaching me inside the synagogue with arms open, and embracing me in front of everyone,” he told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “all the tension dissipated and the whole thing became most friendly. This gesture overturned all the persecution that the Jews of Rome had suffered over the years.”
Rabbi Toaff was born April 30, 1915, in Livorno. He was a boy when Fascist leader Benito Mussolini came to power and was studying at the University of Pisa when the Italian government promulgated the anti-Semitic racial laws of 1938.
He struggled to find a professor who would consent to overseeing a Jewish student, the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reported, but succeeded in obtaining law and theology degrees.
After further studies in Livorno, he became a rabbi. The family chose to remain in Italy during the war, Rabbi Toaff said, because of his father’s conviction that a rabbi must not abandon his community.
After the war, Rabbi Toaff was a rabbi in Venice before moving to Rome. He led the community until 2001, through crises that included a 1982 attack on the synagogue by gunmen in which a 2-year-old boy was killed and dozens were injured.
Rabbi Toaff was frequently asked to comment on public affairs. He surprised some members of his community by calling for leniency — house arrest rather than imprisonment — when Erich Priebke, a former German SS officer then in his 80s, was convicted for his role in the 1944 massacre of 335 Italian men and boys in the Ardeatine Caves outside Rome.
Five years before John Paul’s visit to the synagogue, Rabbi Toaff visited the pope at a church in Rome. The two later appeared at a concert to commemorate the Holocaust, and Rabbi Toaff was credited with helping to arrange a papal visit to Israel.
Rabbi Toaff’s death at his home in Rome was reported in the Italian media, but the cause was not immediately available. He was predeceased by his wife, the former Lia Luperini. Survivors include four children, according to the Associated Press.
John Paul’s last will and testament, released after the pontiff’s death in 2005, included remembrances of two living people. One was his personal secretary. The other was Rabbi Toaff. The document showed, Rabbi Toaff said after it was made public, that “John Paul thought of me at least in part as much as I thought of him.”