The Right Coast

March 12, 2004
Council Of Trent, Part II
Simonino In Old Europe

By Maimon Schwarzschild

Life as a law professor is not all bad. (Is there a Nobel Prize for English understatement?) I was one of fifty-or-so lucky participants in a conference on international law and human rights ("Building a Culture of Peace") in Trento, Italy, at the end of February. Trento, of course, was the site of the Council of Trent, where the Roman Catholic reaction to the Reformation was crystallized in the mid-1500s. In addition to reaffirming quite a few Catholic dogmas, and casting many anathemas, the Council also adopted the version of the Mass known as the Tridentine Mass. "Tridentine" doesn't mean the Devil will poke you with a trident if you don't attend Mass: "Tridentum" is the just the Latin name for Trent. There is a pretty baroque fountain in the Duomo Square in Trento with Neptune and his trident, though, so perhaps I am not the first person to have thought of the "trident" connection.

Trento today is a pastel town, surrounded by snow-covered Alps. The place looks almost as much Swiss or Austrian as Italian, and in fact it was under the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of the First World War. Today the town is Italian-speaking, but the language boundary -- not the international boundary -- is just a few miles north of Trento. The next town to the north, Bolzano, is German-speaking, as is that entire region of northern Italy south of the Austrian border.

(Trento is on the Adige River, or Etsch in German. Connoisseurs of national anthems will recall that Deutschland Ueber Alles mentions the Etsch as one of the boundaries of Germany: "Von der Etsch bis an den Belt..." All the other three boundaries the song mentions are also far beyond the actual boundaries of Germany, even the extended 1938 boundaries.)

My "culture of peace" conference was hosted very generously by the Trento town government, and by the government of the Alto Adige province. There were quite a few Israelis and Arabs among the conferees, and the Italians clearly hoped that the conference would contribute to Arab-Israeli peace, which made the Italians' generosity all the more impressive and touching as far as I was concerned. (Given what the Palestinians and other Arabs actually had to say, it might be fair to assume that peace is not right around the corner. But that is another story.)

For a Jewish traveller, though, Europe is full of painful history. On my first day in Trento, I noticed a nice-looking palazzo with an eighteenth century bas-relief and a Latin inscription that somehow made me stop and try to decipher the inscription. The bas-relief was of an infant apparently being strangled with a scarf, surrounded by hook-nosed characters wearing caftans. The inscription explained. This was the site of the synagogue in Trento. In 1475 the local Jews were accused of having murdered a Christian child in order to use its blood for a Passover ritual: the old blood libel. The Jews were convicted, of course. Many were burned alive. Others were murdered in a pogrom. The survivors were expelled, the synagogue torn down, the "victim" child canonized, and the family of the prosecuting attorney got the synagogue property and built the palazzo. The child's name was Simon, known by the diminutive "Simonino". There are "Simonino" frescoes and paintings in all the Trento churches: perhaps they provided extra inspiration during the long sessions of the Council of Trent. One of the town's main shopping streets is the Via del Simonino, now featuring United Colors of Benetton, and a Starbucks of course.

What came to mind looking at the Simonino bas-relief, of course, was the famous front-page cartoon in La Stampa, one of Italy's two most important newspapers, two years ago at Easter time. The cartoon has the Christ child in the manger in Bethlehem staring terrified at an Israeli tank emblazoned with a Star of David; the Christ child says "Surely they don't want to kill me again?!"

Trento is a lovely town. But Simonino -- and La Stampa -- are reminders of why Israelis might be reluctant to entrust their survival to the good offices of Old Europe.