The Kidnapping of Edgardo Levi Mortara
The tale of the kidnapping of Edgardo Levi Mortara (1851–1940) is not an easy one to sit with; nor was it amenable to ears in the years it came to pass. The boy, Edgardo, you see, was a Jew. Born to Italian Jewish merchants in Bologna, Italy, in the year 1851, Edgardo lived and breathed in a Jewish home. At the time of Edgardo’s childhood, the Catholic Church – which set communal laws – forbade Jewish families to hire Catholic workers. Unfortunately, Edgardo’s family did hire a non-Jewish servant in their home, a Catholic woman named Anna Morisi, whose actions paralleled (if not exceeded) in causing the ordeal that befell the young boy.
When Edgardo was an infant, he had fallen ill; in her desperation and disarray, Morisi performed a secret, “emergency baptism” on the Edgardo. While the law made it illegal for a Jewish family to employ a Christian, the Church also wrote into law that any child baptized, no matter under what conditions or to what faith a family that child was born, was in all matter of fact a Christian.
Roughly six years later, at the bequest of an Inquisitorial officer following a lead on the rumor, Morisi gave testimony to the Church that she had, in fact, baptized Edgardo as an infant. Therefore, the Papal state ruled that the baptism conducted by Morisi while Edgardo was sick made him a Catholic. The Church had also made it illegal for Christian children to be raised by anyone belonging to another faith – even family. Seeing as the Church especially forbade the raising of Christian children by members of the Jewish faith, on the night of June 23, 1858, government agents seized the six-year-old Edgardo from his family home and placed him under the protection of Pope Pius IX.
The conflict was published in the free press and led to global outrage among many Jews, and some non-Jews. However, despite impassioned pleas by Edgardo’s parents, prominent Italian Jews, and international Jewish organizations, Edgardo was never returned to his family. Instead, Edgardo was raised by the Catholic Church, where his father was welcomed to visit only sporadically. From then Edgardo became a Catholic and, in the years that past as he grew up, the son of Jews became ordained as a priest. Thirty-nine years after his abduction, Edgardo wrote a letter to a man named Isaac Feibel in which Edgardo discussed his relations with his parents, his views on Judaism, and his Christian faith. On the law and the actions of his parents, he wrote:
I was born in Bologna Italy, where there existed a law forbidding the Employment of Christian servants by none of the Jewish faith. This law of the state my parents violated and had naturally to suffer the consequence. It was not against my wish that I left my home knowing full well that a refusal to do so would be a resistance to lawful authority.
This rare document is preserved at the American Jewish Archives and accessible as a PDF below.
Original letter from Edgardo Levi Mortara, 39 years after his abduction.