Catholicism · Fiction · Judaism · Philosophy of History

Interlude: Idea for Historical Fiction on the Twentieth Century

TheKnightAtTheCrossroads“PLEASE BE RESPECTFUL OF THOSE AT PRAYER,” the signs read in Italian, English, and several other languages. “NO PHOTOGRAPHS WHILE SERVICES ARE IN SESSION.” Nonetheless, as a priest intoned Mass in one of the side chapels of the basilica, several tourists tried to pull out their phones discreetly and snap a picture as they passed by. This Mass was particularly worthy of illicit photography, as it was a Tridentine Mass, the most-used liturgy of the Catholic Church from the time of the Renaissance to the 1960s, and these Masses could now seldom be heard in the basilicas of Rome. The priest, who softly intoned the words of the ceremony in Latin, his back turned to the few people in the pews, wore splendid, heavy-looking silk vestments of blood red, which indicated that he was celebrating a martyr’s feast day.

The decoration of the small side-chapel was striking. While the rest of the immense basilica, which had twelve such side-chapels, was decorated in the florid yet funereal baroque style of most Roman churches, all white marble and gold leaf and unconvincing cherubs, someone had remodeled this one chapel in a more modern religious style. Blood-red light streamed through the two stained-glass windows behind the altar, which had darker pieces of glass interspersed that were meant to resemble prison bars. A colorful mosaic, which faintly reflected the muscular style of Soviet poster art or of Works Progress Administration murals, covered both walls. It was meant to depict the history of a nation in Eastern Europe, from the 1500s onwards. Here, forested hills and a grim fortress overlooked a clash between Christian and Ottoman warriors. Further on, a group of determined-looking peasants, led by a Catholic bishop, stood in a ruined town, carrying fresh building materials. The sun shone on fields of grain. There, a happy scene- villagers spun and danced, and Hasidic Jews prayed with arms upraised in ecstasy. By the time the mural reached the far wall, however, it took a darker turn. A banner bearing a double-headed eagle fluttered to the ground, tanks rolled across a ruined landscape, and flames enveloped a bombed-out city. Doomed masses forced onto railroad cars. Scenes indicating Soviet censorship and arrests. A new conflict- outnumbered freedom fighters throwing Molotov cocktails at tanks in a city street. The last scene of the mural was simply an old man, sitting by himself at a desk, books by his side, writing something with an indecipherable look on his face.

From time to time, the few people in the pews knelt, stood, or murmured a response to the priest’s Latin, all except for a young woman who simply sat, taking in the ceremony. She was, obviously, not participating on purpose, yet didn’t seem hostile, or uncomfortable being there, or even to have the naked curiosity of the tourists who filed behind them. Although she was dressed as modestly as a religious woman, something about the cut of her clothes seemed not quite church-like, perhaps more like something a professor would wear when she had to give an important lecture, or meet with another scholar she respected. She sneaked a glance at the time on her phone, then abruptly got up and left the chapel quietly, but without genuflecting or crossing herself as a Catholic would.

Outside, the sunlight was blindingly bright, and the sky was blue and cruel. It was early spring, and still cold outside. The ubiquitous tourists flocked everywhere, along with native Romans, who could clearly be picked out by their fashionable, dark clothing, and, if they were women, stiletto-heeled boots. The young woman turned and went up the street by the church until she reached the exterior wall of the chapel she had been sitting in.

By the wall, out of the flow of foot traffic, a young man was standing and reading. Many of the passing tourists seemed to be suppressing the urge to stop and photograph him, as well, as he was a figure who would have blended in perfectly in certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn, but constituted a rare sight in Rome, Italy. He wore the black suit, black hat, full beard, and tzitzit of an Orthodox Jew.

She hesitated for a moment before walking up to him, stopping a bit more than arm’s length away. “Hello,” she said, and waved at him awkwardly.

He looked up and gave her an unexpected smile. He was someone whose habit was to keep a meek and studious exterior, but if you looked closely, you could see that there was something decidedly not meek, perhaps even fiery, about him, and he was broad-shouldered beneath his black coat. “Hello!” he said. “It’s nice to finally meet you.”

“Do you want to come inside? Mass will be over in a few minutes, and the Cardinal’s chapel is really beautiful. You should come look.”

“That’s all right,” he said lightly.

“Oh! I’m sorry, I forgot.” Many Orthodox Jews won’t go into any Catholic churches, as the statues, icons, and images within seem to them, if not outright idolatry, at least to be veering dangerously close to it.

“I’m not offended,” he said, in the same light tone. He was, in fact, very pleased to finally meet her.

Although they had never met, they knew a great deal about one another: their biographies, academic specialties, latest articles; even further, they knew one another’s family histories and tragedies, how their ancestors had related to the great events of the twentieth century, individuals caught up in the crushing grind of world wars, cultural upheaval, and modern anomie. Their families held artists and politicians, soldiers and priests, idealists and criminals, all with a common streak of vitality that made them attractive, but restless. Perhaps because of their similar temperaments, their ancestors’ paths had collided several times, sometimes as friends, sometimes as enemies.

They had been brought there that day by their shared interest, both personal and academic, in the Cardinal, a prince of the Catholic Church, who lay buried behind a wall of the side-chapel, only a few feet from where they now stood. He had lived a long, and largely unhappy, life before his death in the mid-1970s.

“In his way, he was a great man,” she said, indicating the approximate location of the Cardinal’s final resting place. “You wouldn’t meet his type today.”

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore his failings,” he said. “I understand his motivations, but that’s not an excuse.”

“I still think he did the best he could, knowing what he did at the time. Even in 1944.”

“Even in 1944?” His voice rose slightly. “Everyone failed in some way that year. Catholics did. Jews did. Secular types did. To say nothing of our enemies.”

“And do you think most people today would have done better, if they were put in the same situation?”

“No.” A pause. “I think they would have done worse.”

“Then how can we stand here and judge the past?” she asked.

“How can we not?” he cried passionately. “We don’t judge the past out of some imagined sense of justice for the victims of history, we do it for ourselves.” He lowered his voice and added, “It’s especially important for people who study and write about history, like you and me. We don’t want to become cynical.”

“I think I am pretty cynical.”

“I think you’re a kind person and it’s easier on you to be morally neutral about the past. To judge would mean you have to contemplate how evil and sick most people are.”

“You’re very kind,” she smiled. “So you want to pick my brain about my research?”

“Yes, very much.”

They set off on a search to find a kosher restaurant in Rome, and, after much joking between them that no such place existed, actually managed to locate one. Later, as they ate, and drank their coffee with non-dairy creamer (the restaurant was fleishig), their conversation devolved from high academic matters to more personal topics. Naturally, two people who had so much in common, and, at the same time, so little, would be curious about one another.

As he ate and chatted, part of him wished that he had accepted her invitation to enter the basilica. Not, G-d forbid, to pray, but simply to see the Cardinal’s grave and the colorful mural dedicated to him with his own eyes. He had, in fact, looked up photographs of the Cardinal’s chapel online dozens of times, studying the pictures closely. Everything he did was motivated by an unquenchable desire to know, a desire that had existed long before he had decided to become religious, a desire, in fact, that had informed his decision to become religious. He was also a very rational man, but part of him still felt, or hoped, that such proximity to a great figure in modern history might confer some kind of special insight into the past, a knowledge so intimate it might have belonged to one who lived through and suffered the injustices of the past himself.

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