Our History

Estelle Shohet Brettman (1925-1991)

"A few words about the International Catacomb Society, which I was instrumental in founding in 1980.  The Society's members, from varied professions, disciplines and faiths, have been dedicated to three priorities: education, ecumenism, and the need to preserve our past.  Their devotion has made possible the realization of the Society's goal: to create awareness of the need to preserve and document the catacombs, those rare vestiges of history which illustrate the commonalities of origin and expression of Jewish, Christian, and pagan funerary practices during the Roman Empire.  The hope is also that our project will serve to foster respect and appreciation for the roots and traditions of all cultures, so closely interdependent in our contemporary world;  To increase understanding among faiths and cultures by circulating exhibits, sponsoring lectures, and disseminating publications is a major aspect of our work." (Estelle. S. Brettman)

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"I have devoted many years to the exploration and interpretation of the Jewish catacombs in Italy.  What began as an intensely personal interest in the historical and cultural bonds uniting Jews and Christians has grown beyond personal bounds.  My research into the origins and sharing of common funerary symbols ... has captured the attention and interest of scholars and laymen in the USA as well as abroad.  Further information and insights in to the oldest continuing community of the Jewish Diaspora will enrich us all, and will pave the way for future investigations into many other areas of Europe, the Near East, and North Africa.  The horizons are unlimited." (Estelle S. Brettman)

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Estelle Shohet Brettman was the daughter of a doctor who inspired in her a love for Judaic Studies and the ideals of ecumenism. She was a graduate of Girls' Latin School and majored in sciences at Radcliffe, from which she was graduated in 1945. She began her career as a marine biologist, but by the late 1960s and early 70s, an interest in antiquity led her to become an expert on the iconography of ancient gems and seals, and a docent and lecturer on the subject at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She also had a thriving business in antique jewelry, for which she made frequent trips to Europe (especially Italy) and North Africa to buy antique and exotic pieces.

The Classical background of her high school years, the fascination with ancient gems that led her to study symbolism and iconography, her travels, and her own heritage came together in preparation for what became the passion of her later life. Her art lover's eye and researcher's intellect were stimulated by the decoration of ancient structures, especially the catacombs, and the inscriptions she sometimes literally stumbled over at ancient sites. Wanting to know more about what she was seeing, she had to delve ever deeper and find her way to original sources.

She set out to learn all she could about the life and beliefs of the people who had created or were commemorated by the ancient remains. She was impressed that for a time under the Roman Empire, Classical paganism, Judaism, and early Christianity existed side-by-side, mingling influences, until the differences between them became the ruling issues and common roots were ignored and lost sight of. To Estelle, the common roots were the keys to reconciliation.

The fragility of the ancient material and the loss that had already occurred of valuable monuments, with all that they could teach us, disturbed her. With characteristic energy and determination, she undertook to awaken people to a cause that few might have been concerned about until Estelle touched them with her vision.

The International Catacomb Society grew out of her heart, her home, and an ever-widening circle of friends that eventually included every creed, class, and interest. It was their dedication, for which Estelle was enormously grateful, that helped her to build the Society and bring the exhibition "Vaults of Memory" to reality.

Estelle spent some of her happiest times in Italy. The beauty, history, and language, the Italian temperament, and the close friendships she formed, made her feel at home. The Italians seemed to respond to her with equal warmth. Her brilliant dark eyes, sparkling with enthusiasm, the quick smile and confiding manner that implied her trust in the listener's readiness to be a friend and make her happy no matter what she asked, seemed to speak to them as clearly as her spoken words in the Italian language. The help and consideration she received from the Vatican, the Antiquities Service, and the innumerable individuals who became supportive friends made her research and accomplishments possible. One of Estelle's great missions was to pass on the knowledge she so delighted in gathering. With her exhibitions, she hoped to get us all to understand how much more we have in common, as people of good will, than there is to separate us.

If Estelle could be summed up in a few words, they would be that she "cared passionately." Whatever she took on, she committed herself to completely. There may have been those who found her intensity and energy too much to keep up with, but for those who could, there was excitement: a sense of being in on something important and of sharing in a significant cause, whether it be to save a local shul or to illuminate an ancient period of history, half a world away.

Estelle gave us a wider vision of what can matter to us. She showed what one woman could accomplish with determination, terrifically hard work, and a gift of persuasion that made her friend Walter Persegati, then Secretary General of the Vatican Monuments say, "They tremble in the Vatican when they hear it is Mrs. Brettman on the telephone." It was hard to say "no" to her.

Estelle hasn't really left us, because her vitality, her dedication and love of scholarship have made such a strong impression on us all; we must see to it that the work she started will go on to be a living memorial to her remarkable life.

- Florence Z. Wolsky, ICS Founding Member and Officer of the Board

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It is my distinct pleasure to honor the memory of Estelle Shohet Brettman, the founder of the International Catacomb Society.  We honor her today in a way she would have loved, in fact, would have loved three times over; a lecture, a lecture about art in Italy, and a lecture given by a dear and respected friend. The fact that our lecturer also happens to be an Italian scholar and her friend from the Vatican would certainly have turned triple love into undisguised ecstasy.

I can almost see her now... see the start of that wide, generous smile, see her overflow with warm feelings for everyone around, see her joy infect us all.  However, were it to dawn on her that this event was, indeed, in her honor, I can see her becoming flustered and embarrassed; she would no doubt then pull out her trusty camera and start to take pictures of everything and everyone around.  In this way, she sought some distance and emotional respite, and thus was able to preserve cherished moments for the future, for a private savoring.  And those moments certainly mounted up, for there are literally thousands of her slides left to the Society, documenting a life filled with intense interests and pleasures.  Florence Wolsky's lovely tribute to Estelle describes but briefly her wide range of interests and activities.

But the Catacomb Society was her baby.  She was building an ecumenical family for the Roman catacombs she so dearly loved, for all of them, the pagan and the Jewish and the Christian.  She loved them all.

- Howard Weintraub, MD, President, International Catacomb Society

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From her forebears, Estelle Shohet Brettman inherited an ecumenical spirit. Her grandfather, a rabbi known as the "Wise Man of Arbel" in Lithuania, exerted a wise, compassionate influence in his country. Her father, Dr. Gabriel H. Shohet, was a physician who worked with many types of people and wrote a book entitled Kinships about the fundamental bonds uniting all men. His daughter Estelle's search for interpretations and uses of symbols shared by Christians and Jews - such as the dolphin, pegasus, dove, sheep, winged victory, pomegranate, and peacock - seems to have been predestined. Vaults of Memory is the culmination of her years of research at archaeological sites and museums throughout the Mediterranean including trips to Sicily, Italy, Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, Israel, Spain, and Greece. Her archaeological scholarship and commitment gained her the cooperation of eminent Vatican churchmen in obtaining access to Roman catacombs seldom viewed.

- Boston Public Library Press Release, November 29, 1979

All of us who have known Estelle, know well her courage, her strong will, and her commitment to carrying out the tasks she set for herself.... (But) that Estelle was an extraordinary person, we do not have to tell you... the Society, her exhibition, her book, and what they will accomplish in bringing people together to recognize and celebrate their shared humanity, will be her memorial." 

- Florenze Z. Wolsky,  June, 1991

"The International Catacomb Society was founded in the late 1970's by Estelle Brettman, a dynamic woman who had had a classical as well as a scientific education, and lectured on Classical Art, especially ancient gems, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and elsewhere. During her extensive travels in Italy, Israel, and North Africa, Mrs. Brettman explored and studied the ruins and relics of the ancient world. She became aware of how much could be learned from the funerary art and inscriptions in the underground burial grounds of the period when Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity were developing in the pagan world. When she began her researches, Christian catacombs were, to the general public, mysterious, fearsome places, not well understood. Few knew that Jewish catacombs even existed, and ancient inscriptions were of interest only to scholars and specialists.

As a trained art historian, Estelle was struck by the relationship between the funerary art and iconography which she saw in the catacombs and their antecedents in the ancient Mediterranean area, recognizing in these the expression of the common concerns of mankind.

Her interest in the history of the Jews of Rome, the oldest continuing Jewish community in Europe, and the early Christians, who came from that Jewish community, turned to dismay when she realized how fragile the archives were in which the precious information existed. The damage to the structures and decoration of the catacombs from water seepage, ground collapse, decay of materials, vandalism, and looting, was an ongoing threat. The guardians of the catacombs tried to protect them as well as they could, but the extent and complexity of the preservation that was needed exceeded the resources.

Estelle Brettman never sought attention for herself, but was unstoppable in promoting causes in which she believed. Through her infectious enthusiasm and her gift for friendship, she involved everyone around her in support of projects she thought would benefit the community. Estelle believed that the preservation of the catacombs for their contribution to a better understanding of history, religion, and ecumenism, not to mention the history of art, was something that would be of benefit to the community of the world.

In 1979, she recruited a group of scholars, art historians, and other professionals, to form the International Committee for the Preservation of Catacombs in Italy, which later formally became the International Catacomb Society. Its aims were to preserve and document the common heritage of the Jews and Christians, and to increase understanding through educational and cultural activities. In that year she organized an exhibit of photographs and related artifacts for the Boston Public Library. The exhibition proved to be a moving experience for many visitors and brought a great deal of attention to the subject of Estelle's work. She wrote a catalogue for later presentations of the exhibition, and soon thereafter began to put the fruits of her many years of research, including her photographs, into an illustrated book about the catacombs. In the exhibition and the book, both entitled "Vaults of Memory", the catacombs, their inscriptions, their art, architecture, and sociology, are presented from the point of view of an art historian and humanist. She focused to a certain extent on the explorations and structure of the Jewish catacombs because relatively little information about them has been available for the general public. Despite the funerary context, the beauty of the art and the fascinating details revealed about the lives and feeling of those who lived so long ago make the exhibition a life-affirming experience. The book will be the same.

Since Mrs. Brettman's death, the International Catacomb Society has been dedicated to using her bequest in ways that will best fulfill her wishes. Following Mrs. Brettman's example, the Society every year sponsors lecture programs with distinguished speakers in the fields of art, archaeology, and biblical studies. Past speakers have included Baldassare Conticello, Director of the Pompeii excavations; Marisa de' Spagnolis Conticello, of the Italian Antiquities Service, who spoke at Hebrew College of an ancient synagogue at Ostia; Magen Broshi of Israel on new aspects of the Dead Sea Scrolls; Walter Persegati, formerly in charge of exhibitions for the Vatican, on the cleaning of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel paintings. Most recently, Lisa Kahn of the University of Tulsa gave an overview of excavations at Cesarea Marittima and described her striking find of parts of a lost Herodian Temple.

Another goal for the Society is to use a part of Mrs. Brettman's bequest to endow a fund for teaching fellowships and/or research grants. 

In all this activity, we aim to further the educational and ecumenical ideals which informed Estelle Brettman's life and led to the work in which she was committed - literally, to her last breath."

- Howard Weintraub, MD, President, International Catacomb Society (February 7, 1995)

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