Exploring Estelle: AIA Advocate, Jewish Site Preservation Pioneer
Lecture at the 2018 Archaeology Institute of America Annual Meeting (Colloquium IJ: "New Approaches to the Catacombs of Rome")
by Jessica Dello Russo, Executive Director, International Catacomb Society
I. Estelle Shohet Brettman: Advocate and Adversary
Attendees at the Archaeology Institute of America's Centennial Meeting in Boston in late December of 1979 had an exceptional opportunity to learn about new research on Jews in the Roman Diaspora, including Jewish tombs in the underground cemeteries or "catacombs' of Rome and Venosa. With the financial backing of AIA Deputy Coordinator Estelle Shohet Brettman, an international panel of experts on Ancient Judaism convened at the AIA meeting to share their work on archaeological evidence of Jewish communities within the larger context of Greco-Roman civilization.
The meeting of like minds at the 1979 meeting was timely, and not just for the AIA's big anniversary. While none of the panelists spoke primarily about Rome's Jewish catacombs, these were the archaeological remains most in the public eye at the time, as Italy and the Vatican moved forward to ratify a new treaty which would remove these ancient Jewish burial grounds from Vatican control, a deal at long last made in 1984. Talking about Ancient Jews in Rome was the same as talking about the ancient tombs of Jews in Rome, since virtually all the evidence was from mortuary remains. It was too big an elephant in the room to be ignored.
And it wasn't. The other big Boston event that coincided with the AIA panel was an exhibit of photographs of the Jewish and Christian Catacombs of Rome taken by Brettman herself. This exhibit, however, was not held in a conference hall, or limited to a scholarly audience. It was free and open to all in the foyer of the Boston Public Library at Copley Square from the December holiday season through early February of 1980 (extended by popular demand). According to BPL Assistant Director Liam M. Kelly, Brettman's display "was one of the most successful programs ever held at the Boston Public Library, in terms of public interest, enthusiasm, and reception".
At the time of the BPL show's inauguration, the International Catacomb Society was born. This presentation contextualizes the significance of the AIA and BPL events for the society's founding, and outlines the rich public legacy Brettman left behind at her death in 1991.
II. Estelle Rose Shohet: Family Background and Education
Estelle Rose Shohet was born in Boston on August 4, 1925. Her father, Gabriel Harry Shohet (1892-1976), a Yiddish-speaking immigrant from the outskirts of Vilnius in Lithuania, came to America with his family around 1900. Shortly thereafter, Gabriel’s father, Rabbi Chaim Nossen Shohet, moved the family from the entry port of New York City to the much smaller New England coastal city of Portland, Maine, known to immigrant Jews as the “Jerusalem of the North.” Rabbi Shohet was a founding member of the Congregation Shaarey Tphilo, or Noyes Street Shul in Portland in 1904, but broke with this community in 1917 over a disagreement about the modernization of Jewish practices, moving with his supporters to the Congregation Adas Israel. Upon his death in 1921, the congregation renamed the synagogue in his memory Etz Chaim, with one of his sons, Moses, in charge. Coincidentally, the building in Shohet’s name now houses Maine’s Jewish Museum, dedicated to Jewish art, history and culture, a mission that Shohet’s granddaughter Estelle would also pursue.[i]
Raised an Orthodox Jew in staid New England, Gabriel paid his way through Colby College by giving Hebrew lessons, but unlike his older brothers who became rabbis like their father, he obtained an M.D. degree from Tufts Medical School in Boston, opening a general practice in the predominately Jewish neighborhood of Roxbury around 1920. His wife, Estelle’s mother, Anna (Hannah) Gittelson, raised in the West End and Roxbury neighborhoods of Boston, also had Lithuanian Jewish roots. The family practiced the Conservative form of Judaism (as Etz Chaim had become in the years after Shohet’s father’s death), and valued education highly. Gabriel Shohet’s two daughters, Estelle and Elaine, were educated at local Boston public schools and then at Girl’s Latin, the city’s Classical High School, where Greek and Latin were taught at a stone’s throw from one of the world’s great collections of Greek and Roman Art, where Estelle and many other co-founders of the international Catacomb Society would later be employed.
Estelle attended Harvard’s Radcliffe College on scholarship during World War Two, graduating in 1945 with a degree in Biology and minor in Fine Arts. For a brief period after college she worked as a technician in medical and industrial laboratories, but left this career upon marrying her high school sweetheart, also of Eastern European Jewish descent, Maurice (or Morris) Richard Brettman (1923-1991), who went by the nickname of Dick.[ii] Dick had suffered a paralyzing wound in service during World War Two, and the couple was unable to have children. With Dick’s salary as head of personnel for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and an income from the sale of a Brettman family business, the Sterling Heel Company of Chelsea, MA, the Brettmans purchased and restored an early 19th century townhouse at 61 Beacon Street, right on the Boston Common, that from a memorable quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes was known as “the sunny side for the sifted few”. Living within easy walking distance from Dick’s office at the Massachusetts State House and close to many other cultural hubs on Beacon Hill and in the Back Bay, the Brettmans were ideally situated to take advantage of Boston’s intellectual capital. And, in the midst of winter, there was a condominium getaway in Florida, or the city’s international airport with daily departures to Europe. The Brettmans were on an escape flight from the cold at least once a year, to sites in the Middle East, Africa and Europe, especially Egypt, Israel, and Italy. The photo albums from these trips now digitized in DAPICS, reveal Brettman’s fascination not just with Mediterranean antiquities, but also with people of different cultures, walking, working, eating, playing, and otherwise interacting with their surroundings.
On her resume in this period, Brettman would identify herself as a “businesswoman”. She started with an antiques store in Marblehead, co-owed with her sister-in-law, Beatrice Brettman, but went on to run Ca’d’Oro, a dealership in antique jewelry, including the resetting of ancient gems. The many trips to Europe and the Mediterranean helped stock this business. Between dealers and clients, her international address book filled with names. As Rome was her launching pad for trips around Italy, she was in frequent contact with the jeweler Salvatore Fornari, also the director of Rome’s Jewish museum in the basement of the Tempio Maggiore. Her jewelry inventory reveals also she bought African and Middle Eastern pieces, much of it tribal, but some apparently much older. She was also in the market for other types of ancient artifacts, which she would sometimes “discover” at flea markets like the weekly Porta Portese in the Trastevere district of Rome. Her purchases included decorated pottery, lamps, coins, and other antiquities that the low-tech scanners at the airport did not always pick up. Like “Mrs. Jack” (Gardner) of some decades before, she purportedly had little to declare, except to the archaeologists whom she consulted to get an expert’s opinion on her finds. An old Boston story.
To enrich her traveling experiences, Brettman audited Harvard University courses in archaeology and art history of the Ancient world from the Bronze Age to the Middle Ages, and regularly contributed financially to excavations directed by her Harvard professors at the Semitic and Fogg Museums.[iii] Yet of all the Boston-area cultural institutions that Brettman frequented, none was as beloved to her as the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). Starting in the late 1960’s, in between periods of travel, Brettman, served as a member of the museum’s “Ladies’ Committee” and trained to be a gallery docent in the MFA’s Education Department, specializing in talks on Classical and Ancient Near Eastern Art. In her research for presentations, she worked with Classical Art curator Cornelius Clarkson Vermeule, III and his wife, Emily Townsend Vermeule, one of her Harvard professors, as well as with fellow Girl’s Latin graduate Florence Zundell Wolsky, and other scholars visiting or presenting at the museum. From helping out at show inaugurations to coordinating field trips for schools, the docents were the public face of the museum, an influential, cultured network of Boston-area arts enthusiasts, and Estelle, characteristically, left her mark, for example, by drawing upon her experience working for the Boston Aid to the Blind to introduce sensory tours for the disabled and expert trade knowledge of the jewelry business to host special training sessions on ancient gems.[iv] Also characteristic was her way of creating warm friendships with people who shared her interests, and a significant number of International Catacomb Society founders came from the pool of docents and scholars with whom Brettman worked at the MFA until 1980.
III. Event Planner at the AIA (Boston Society)
Brettman regularly supported another Boston-based institution with close ties to the MFA, the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA). In addition to its global work, the AIA sponsored the creation of local societies, which were essential vehicles of promotion of AIA projects and archaeology in public venues. The AIA Boston Society, however, in the mid-1970’s, found itself to be in somewhat of an organizational crisis. As an all-volunteer group experiencing acute growing pains during its transformation into a non-profit, it was desperate for funds and better attendance at programs. Its board, which met in private houses, struggled to plan events in advance and keep on top of membership recruitment. Directors were divided amongst themselves as to whether to keep a traditional focus on Classical Civilizations or make room for programming on the Archaeology of the Americas, Africa, and the Far East, as well as less academic and more “popular” types of events, like movie nights. As one director put it, it was always “the chicken and egg problem: lack of people and interest and lack of money for a program to interest new people.”[v] The old guard membership resisted a more inclusive, non-Classical focus. On top of it all, program director Charlotte Moore announced that she was going on a hiatus to organize a symposium in the fall of 1976, tentatively titled, “The AIA Boston Society and its Role in Preserving Our Cultural Heritage”. The Boston Society needed to fill the post quickly, and its president, Arthur Steinberg, recalling Mrs. Brettman’s efficient organization of archaeologist Giuseppina Cerulli Irelli’s talk on Herculaneum at the MFA that past March, brought up her name.[vi]
Brettman’s tenure as interim Program Director or Chairman for the Boston Society of the AIA was from 1975-1976, the Bicentennial Year, during which time Boston was celebrated on a national scale for its historic role in the United State's Declaration of Independence in 1776. She inherited programs scheduled the year before, including the popular “Works in Progress” series, set up new events, including an ambitious movie premiere gala at the New England Aquarium, and partnered with Hebrew College for a talk by Dan Barg on the synagogue of Ein Gedi and with the Harvard Semitic Museum for an Archaeology Movie Night (in this way merging mailing lists for the events). Other speakers that year (shared among regional AIA chapters) discussed Egyptology (Donald B. Radford), Tell Mardik (Paolo Matthiae & Giovanni Pettinato), a Minoan settlement (Gerald Cadogan), and Phoenicians in the Ancient Mediterranean (Anna Maria Bisi). The job of event planner came with many tough tasks and deadlines: on a skeleton budget, Brettman had to look around for co-sponsors and foundation grants, get the best deals possible on meeting spaces, refreshments, technology, and printed materials, personally wine, dine, transport, and house speakers (often at her own home on Beacon Street), communicate with the press, and, all the time, ask the AIA Boston Society directors to mobilize on their part and be more active in meeting the organization’s overall strategic goals. With the help of close friends like Florence Wolsky and Sandy Sheiber (both of whom would later serve as board members of the ICS), and a trickle of student interns, she managed to “fill all events to capacity”. It bothered her very much, however, that fellow AIA officers declined to lend a hand with logistics. Change was slow in arriving to what had been to that point a cozy club.
Inevitably, as plans faltered due to money concerns, the pressure mounted on Brettman to assume all responsibility for local AIA events. Feeling close to a nervous breakdown, she left the board of the AIA Boston Society in 1976, after learning that the woman she blamed for much of her difficulty, and for taking all credit for her work, Jane Ayer Scott of Harvard’s Sardis Expedition, had become the Society’s acting president during Steinberg’s sabbatical from MIT.[vii] For all her dislike of Scott, Brettman remained an AIA member, though she now sent a blank membership renewal form to the AIA office with the comment: “it’s about time the AIA gives me something.”[viii]
In reality, the AIA volunteer work had given her something long lasting. She later wrote that it was during this time, “revamping the AIA (Boston) Society’s outlook … to involve the community and stimulate public awareness of archaeology’s important role in revealing our past… that I realized my ever-present, suppressed desire… my life’s project to which I am now totally dedicated… creating an awareness of the need to preserve the historical vestiges of our past.” The feedback from AIA directors about her “terrific enthusiasm and diligence” and “incredible job with the fund-raiser” to fill the organization’s depleted coffers pointed the way to how to accomplish the big plans that followed – and who could be trusted to help with them.
IV. A Call to Action on the Catacombs of Rome
The stress Brettman underwent in 1976 should not be blamed on the AIA alone. Her father, to whom she had always been so close, died early that year, and Brettman inherited many of his personal belongings, including Dr. Shohet’s manuscript for a semi-autobiographical novel about his Maine childhood.[ix] Once liberated from the dreaded event as well as the apparently thankless task of event planning for the AIA, Brettman spent the next two years of 1977 and 1978 on prolonged trips abroad. Much of her attention centered on Italy, and especially on its material testimony of Judaism in the Greco-Roman era. Brettman had explored the catacombs of Beth She’arim in Israel decades before, but a real interest in funerary archaeology was sparked in 1977 by a chance encounter in Eastern Sicily with a rock fragment upon which Brettman thought she saw the menorah motif incised.[x] The previous year, in 1976, she had arranged through the Vatican to visit the Jewish catacombs in Rome (at that time under Vatican jurisdiction). Now she returned to study the Roman catacombs in detail, the Christian as well as the Jewish, intending to create a photographic record of “ecumenism through archaeology”.[xi] On the recommendation of a Vatican officer and future cardinal, Giuseppe Caprio, cousin to Brettman’s travel agent, Frank Gaeta, originally from the town of Lapio in Campania, she entered many sites, and saw, she believed, evidence of Jewish influence on Christian iconography in the ancient cemeteries of Rome.[xii]
During her stays in Rome, Brettman cultivated the contacts she had first made at the MFA and AIA – Italian archaeologists like Giuseppina Cerulli Irelli (Pompeii), Anna Maria BIsi (Urbino), and Baldassare Conticello (National Roman Museum and later the Superintendence of Pompeii); academics with American ties like Richard Krautheimer of the Herziana and the American Academy in Rome’s Henry A. Millon, as well as local Jewish contacts, especially Salvatore Fornari, Bruno and Nora Rossi, and Ferdinando Di Porto, while her Boston ties got her into a private audience with the reigning Pope, John Paul II.[xiii] Her pride and pleasure at this honor show that she was somewhat under the spell of the Roman Catholic Church’s history and prestige and was flattered by the small courtesies paid to her by Vatican officials of her acquaintance, who seemed so cooperative in granting permission to visit and photograph in archaeological sites uniquely situated under Holy See jurisdiction by the diplomatic arrangement with Italy in vigor since 1929. These princely connections carried weight in Boston, at that time one of the most Catholic cities in the US, and for this reason, Brettman linked her personal interests and identity as a Jew with Vatican concerns.[xiv] Jewish catacombs were the becoming a point of contention between the Union of Italian Jews (UCEI) and the Holy See. In 1978, the church secretary who had granted Brettman and many others permission to access the Jewish catacombs of Rome, Fr. Umberto M. Fasola, authorized the burying of the staircases into one of these sites in the Villa Torlonia out of safety concerns, as the property had not yet been fully transformed into a public park. The act, however, was seen by Vatican critics as a sort of protest against removing these sites from the Vatican’s control (Fasola had spoken of his own displeasure at the possibility). In the hands of some politicians of the Italian left who called for Italy’s “de-Vaticanification”, notably former Cultural Minister and Republican Party leader Giovanni Spadolini, the discussion risked spreading beyond the question of specific catacombs to other Jewish cultural treasures that the Vatican had in its possession (well before the Fascist-era treaty), including Hebrew manuscripts, ancient grave markers, and instruments for sacred rites.[xv]
In reality, the problem was that the Jewish catacombs had been added to the original Italy-Vatican treaty in 1929 as an afterthought, and the arrangement was not questioned for many decades during the war years, the country’s mid-20th century industrialization, and the early stages of the terrible “Years of Lead”. It had been grandfathered into the new Italian constitution in 1946 and, on a logistical level, concerned only the ancient underground cemeteries of Jews in Rome, not the catacombs of Jews in other regions of Italy, such as Sicily, Sardinia, and Basilicata (others in Apulia and Campania did not appear to have survived).
The stop-gap solution for Jewish catacombs in 1929 was justified at the time because the Vatican had restructured, just a few years before, in 1925, its department for the conservation of the underground cemeteries, the now-Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology (PCAS), first set up in a heady period of catacomb exploration by the papal government in 1852. This entity not only conducted multiple excavation campaigns each year in the Christian catacombs, but also remained ever-vigilant in preventing further demolition of newly discovered underground cemeteries emerging in rapid succession below the sea of cement then flooding Rome’s periphery. In this regard, the Italian government’s own track record was dismal. The year before the Concordat’s signing, in 1928, the last visible traces of a Jewish catacomb in the district of Monteverde Vecchio were covered over to create more housing stock. Another Jewish cemetery that had resurfaced in the early 20th century on the via Casilina received scant notice before it, too, was apparently filled in. The two Jewish catacomb sites that remained accessible were on private properties, one of which housed Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and his family from 1925 to 1943. To paraphrase Fr. Fasola, the Vatican’s commission knew about these sites, had seen them, studied them, and published some of the leading studies on their remains.[xvi] But it was not the PCAS’s stated role to conserve catacombs “with no signs of Christianity”. According to the decrees of 1929 and 1946, the Jewish sites had to wait in line, “in a holding pattern,” to be inspected, studied, and restored, like dozens of other subterranean cemeteries, many in an even more critical state. The handful of archaeologists at the Vatican commission, who oversaw a dozen or so professional “diggers” or fossori, mobilized in emergency situations – fortunately few and far between – such as the desecration of the Torlonia site, allegedly by allied troops occupying Mussolini’s house after the war, and spate of anti-Semitic graffiti in the Vigna Randanini catacomb while it could be accessed from a restaurant overhead. There is some documentation that the commission approached the Jewish community of Rome for funds to do new excavations in the 1960’s, but its proposal was met with resistance from those in the community who felt that the Vatican needed to dig into its own pockets for change: all they were seeing was general neglect and obstacles to public visits (Fasola, in return, pointed out that the few times he had arranged for general public visits to Jewish catacombs without needing to reserve in advance, very few visitors had shown up, making it difficult to justify the expense of a custodian). In any event, funding was already stretched tight to operate many Christian catacombs as pilgrimage sites and win over more support from those nearer to the Cupolone with new discoveries of the “sacred”, especially possible martyrs’ tombs. Who knew about the Jewish catacombs could put in a request to see them, but learning of their existence took some literary digging of its own: like many other catacombs on private property or otherwise inconvenient to access, these cemeteries, though documented and to some extent protected by the Vatican accord, were not labeled or promoted. The layers of red tape binding their existence still influenced, ever so discreetly, what was known and seen of the Jews in Ancient Rome.
The PCAS, for all these complications, was still the most respected authority in the twentieth century for information about the catacombs, Jewish and Christian. Even before assuming the direction of the commission in 1946, Fr. Antonio Ferrua, SJ, had published critical studies of Jewish epitaphs, and one of his first acts as secretary was to ascertain damage to the Villa Torlonia site. A protracted lawsuit about the property’s expropriation, however, along with personal confrontations with Torlonia's heirs, soon chased him out, to Ferrua's great and lasting frustration, though he persisted for the duration of his nearly seventy-year scholarly career in publishing important “addenda” to the corpus of Jewish inscriptions that he had come across during the compilation of multiple volumes of the catalogue of Christian inscriptions from Rome (ICUR).
Upon Ferrua’s retirement in 1971 his colleague, Fr. Umberto M. Fasola, B., ordered new plans be drafted of the catacombs under PCAS jurisdiction, starting with the Jewish sites. This gave him the opportunity to employ the Vatican resources at his disposal to thoroughly inspect and, in the case of the Villa Torlonia, extensively dig out blocked passages and entrances in order to document the site layouts to the fullest extent. The municipal government now welcomed the idea, as the protracted legal process to expropriate the Villa Torlonia was almost complete. Fasola is on record for allowing access by Jews and others to the Torlonia catacombs during and after his excavations from 1973 to 1974, and published not long thereafter, in 1976, a lengthy illustrated report on the areas subject to his inspection, as well as the new plans to make very clear the scope of his efforts and the intriguing results.
As noted, these efforts in Jewish catacomb preservation on the part of the Vatican were perceived by some Jews as too little too late – in other words, too much Jewish cultural patrimony had already gone missing in the centuries Jews were subject to oppression by the Church. To Fasola’s dismay, once Concordat talks became public, the press dwelled on what could have been “salvaged” instead of what had been saved. The lamentable “centuries of neglect” (the era of Papal Rome), were cited to influence political and public opinion to turn over these archaeological sites to the Jews of Italy. Some Jewish leaders, however, including the influential Chief Rabbi of Rome, Elio Toaff, and President of the city's Jewish Community, Pietro Blayer, were careful to state that much of the responsibility for a “disheartening situation” lay with Italy, not the actual custodians of Jewish sites.
Brettman was drawn into the situation personally after being identified as a potential American Jewish intermediary between the Vatican and international Jewish organizations, some approachable, others making a great deal of the fuss. Monsignor Jorge Mejia, Secretary to the Congregation for Religious Relations with the Jews, asked her to guide an American Jewish Congress Peace Mission led by Rabbi Harry Siegman through the Vatican Museum’s “Jewish Lapidary”, newly mounted in the "Christian Collection" after decades in the now-dismantled Lateran Museum. Mejia’s praise of Brettman’s talk as a “milestone on the road to ecumenism” seemed to fulfill in some way her father’s belief in “kinships” among all men, regardless of race and religion. The catacombs thus became, in her mind, “the expression of the common concerns of mankind, and by her own admission, she reacted as she always did, by feeling “impelled to talk about it.”[xvii] Even more, she gave into the impulse to “show and tell”, transforming her pictures into an exhibit aimed at showcasing “ecumenism through archaeology”.
V. The “Catacomb Issue”
At the same time, in the late 1970’s, on the other side of the Atlantic, the World Jewish Congress (WJC) was also talking about the catacombs. Jews in Italy for over a decade had been gathering evidence to make a compelling case for new safeguards to their cultural heritage, for the most part inaccessible with occasional reports of vandalism or theft.[xviii] At its annual meeting in November of 1977, in response to reports on the Jewish catacomb situation by Federico Steinhaus and other leaders of the Union of Jewish Communities in Italy (UCEI), the WJC resolved to create an international commission to collaborate with Italy’s Jews on preserving the Jewish catacombs of Italy.[xix] This move was expected to mobilize worldwide Jewish support for catacombs and new sources of funding for their study, conservation, and accessibility to Jews. Thus the Treaty talks became the open door through which to enter and really change policies regarding Jewish cultural heritage in Italy.
Informed of this development by her Jewish friend and AIA trustee, Lee Pomerance, who had his own strong opinions about the affair, Brettman campaigned hard to lead the WJC efforts, revealing:
“I also have very selfish reasons for wanting to be a part of (the WJC) committee – I’m intensely - my Italian friends call it “appassionata”- about the preservation and amplification of the symbolism and iconographies of this period and of all their implications, and after having immersed myself (when the conflict permitted) in it (after my first encounter through the kind arrangements of then-monsignor Caprio) I am totally addicted – it has become my whole life.”[xx]
A self-initiated “political, diplomatic, fact-finding trip” to Rome in November of 1978 included meetings with American and Italian archaeologist friends she had first met at the AIA, Vatican contacts including Caprio, Mejia, Mejia’s secretary, Fr. Leonardo Sandri, as well as the U.S. Embassy cultural attache’ and various scholars in residence in Rome. Though many interested parties were holding back until Concordat revisions were formally announced (though It was widely believed that the Jewish catacombs would, in fact, be removed from PCAS control), Brettman went ahead with plans for an “International Committee to Document and Preserve Early Judeo-Christian Art in the Catacombs”, acting, as she believed, as an intermediary between the Vatican and Jews, so that work on catacomb preservation could begin right away, while these sites were still in the hands of the PCAS.[xxi] In a number of “interesting discussions” with Caprio and Vatican Museum staff, Brettman gathered that there was even Vatican interest in forming a special museum dedicated to Jewish artifacts and other Jewish objects in its possession.[xxii] Her mind racing with plans, Brettman elaborated on what she thought were catacomb priorities in letter to Pomerance of July 26, 1979:
“1. Funds should be raised for the Torlonia catacombs, first… Fr. Fasola believes that there is no further excavation to be done there. 2. It would be important to work on the Vigna Randanini catacomb… Fr. Fasola has pointed out the sites where further excavation might be pursued. This catacomb also needs electrification… though, frankly, I’m not in a tremendous hurry for the electrification bit, cause then all the other “Powers” involved will want to throw them open immediately... Fr. Fasola has kept the entrance very inconspicuous and people have entered only with permission… The Jews must see the light with a little coaxing from us as to the great advantages of maintaining good relations with Fr. Fasola …. This, I believe, the Italian Jewish community (and WJC) is unaware of, and far be it for me to enlighten them and complicate matters further at this point. It’s something I keep in the back of my mind along with Cardinal Caprio’s suggestion that we use a Vatican palazzo for a type of joint museum (with Brettman’s photographs and various casts of antiquities). This came about when I mentioned the International Committee to him last November (1978), and (the information) is only for you to use when you think it may have some clout…”
Another Brettman letter of December 15, 1978 to Rabbi Ronald E. Sobel of Temple Emanu-El in New York City also is critical of local Jewish efforts in Rome:
“I hope The World Jewish Congress… can work within the existing framework… But at this point, one must tread a careful path as to the information that is released to them (especially as to plans for photographing, etc.). All could be lost without a certain discretion. I sincerely feel that with my contacts in Rome we might be able to circumvent the usual lengthy procedures and expedite this undertaking…. The Jewish community in Rome has never felt that it could handle the Jewish catacombs and has always been happy to have the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology devote whatever monies and care they could to this. … The removal of the Jewish catacombs completely from Fr. Fasola’s jurisdiction (must come) from outside influences and not the original indigenous Jewish community of Rome.”
In between the trips to Rome and New York on behalf of her Jewish catacomb project, Brettman fired off letters like these to people she considered to be trusted “allies” in efforts to raise awareness of Italy’s ancient Jewish heritage. In her own mind, someone – she suspected the prominent Jewish journalist Tullia Zevi, who she had first met in 1978 - had betrayed her plans to WJC organizers, bad mouthing her as a “Vatican pawn”.[xxiii] Brettman’s suspicions were heightened when a New York City-based organization under the umbrella of the WJC began acting in 1978 on “her idea”. This was the World Jewish Congress’ new Jewish Heritage Commission, led by executive director Doris Brickner, wife of prominent New York City Reform rabbi Balfour Brickner.[xxiv] Though billed as a project of “Religious Heritage and Ecumenical Scholarship”, the committee had Zionist sympathies and a less conciliatory approach to Vatican relations. It began an international press campaign to regain not only the ancient burial sites, but also the Jewish grave artifacts now in the Vatican’s possession.[xxv] The sense of urgency was augmented not only by the anticipation of new discoveries but also by accusations of continuing Vatican neglect and confiscation of Jewish materials.[xxvi] Brickner herself came fast on Brettman’s heels to Italy in 1978 to “smell around” the Vatican in the company of the WJC secretary, Dr. Gerhart M. Riegner, and journalists Henryk Gellar and Sam Waagenaar.[xxvii] As in Brettman’s own strategic plan, the catacombs were first on the agenda of the new Heritage Committee, and its leaders were annoyed at Brettman’s interference, uncertain as to whether she was “independently, or through another organization”.[xxviii] Two Jews at the Vatican were one too many.[xxix]
Specifically, the Jewish Heritage Committee’s “possible projects” in Italy were (as of 1978):
- Vigna Randanini – It may be possible to negotiate with the Vatican directly in the case of this catacomb. All that is necessary to open it to the public on a permanent basis is to provide lighting, a guard, and ample and safe parking facilities. If, prior to the signing of the Concordat, we offered to pay for these, the Vatican might accept. Carefully managed publicity would be helpful. A loose estimate for maintaining a guard, and the cost for purchasing a parking area near the second (now closed) entrance to the catacomb need to be further explored.
- Villa Torlonia – Since the entrance has recently been bulldozed and filed in, it is impossible to determine what is necessary in order to safeguard it and open it to the public. We will have to wait for the signing of the Concordat to acquire access to this catacomb.
- Other Jewish catacombs in Rome – Many have been lost or destroyed. There might yet be some to preserve. Only a scientific study would determine this.
- Catacombs at Venosa (privately owned, not under Vatican control) – It is in very serious condition and is being vandalized. There is some belief that it might be available to purchase. Budget would cover: a. The possible purchase of the hill from private owner b. Planned excavation in order to further excavate the highly decorated Jewish chambers which we now know exist here (as long as this is not yet public knowledge, we are at an advantage and are more likely to receive government permission to protect and develop it).[xxx]
The budget for the Rome sites was estimated at $100,000 (with a preliminary “technical study” for $10,000); the Venosa project between $40,000 - $50,000. Thanks to Tullia Zevi’s endorsement, the Heritage Commission took credit for the Italian government’s allocation of 50 million lire for “catacomb preservation in Venosa”, with the commission pledging another $6,000.[xxxi] It was critical that funding should immediately be put up by the committee for the pilot project in Venosa, for Italian Jewish activists insisted that the outcome of the Concordat revision and an autonomous gestation of Jewish cultural goods would hinge on global Jewish funding.[xxxii]
In Brettman’s view, Brickner had stolen her thunder. In her own words:
“When we first met, I trusted her to the extent of exposing all of my ideas to (Brickner), i.e. photographic exhibits, documentation, tours, important names, etc., which I understand she has adopted as her own. She canceled or requested that I cancel every appointment that I had made with scholars for the benefit of an International committee, as we saw it, and has stripped me of any possible effectiveness I might have had. When I timidly put forward a possible influence at the Vatican which could be effective in resolving the Roman Jewish catacomb situation, I was told that two Jews could not go to the Vatican at once… Again, I mistakenly deferred to her, and I truly believed, as I foresaw it then, that this whole imbroglio (with the press) could have been avoided if I could have gone then (to the meetings). The UCEI was totally disorganized then and the WJC had not yet stepped in to support it. Our international committee could have filled that void at that time, and also acted as a beneficially mediatory body between the PCAS so that there would be no political situation between them and the UCEI and also to ensure the symbiotic cooperation between these two bodies instead of the schismatic standoff that I’ve been trying to stabilize for nine months.”
Although approached by Brickner to help out, Brettman was sorely disappointed in the offer of a volunteer supporting role, and adamantly pursued her own platform “to overcome the insufferable pride and unrealistic attitude of the UCEI… before feelings between it and Fr. Fasola are polarized to a greater degree”.[xxxiii] She maintained that the Vatican should be an ally and not an adversary in the process, promoting her Vatican contacts (especially her "fairy godfather" Monsignor Caprio, appointed a cardinal in July of 1979 and entrusted with the office of cultural patrimony of the Holy See), her “free and unlimited access” to the catacombs, and vision of a secure future for the Jewish cemeteries with some promise of major financial support.[xxxiv] To this end, “and to beat Doris Brickner at her own game”, she handled over materials about the WJC committee in formation, including the names of its collaborators, to Mons. Mejia and Fr. Sandri, and sent multiple copies of the photographs of her personal encounter with Pope John Paul to Jewish leaders to emphasize her ecumenical connections to the powers on high.[xxxv] As a gesture, it made waves in America, but Zevi and other Jewish activists in Rome did not see it in a positive light.[xxxvi]
VI. The AIA Centennial in 1979.
What is notable is that starting in 1979, much correspondence on the Jewish catacomb issue is written on AIA stationary. Brettman had returned to the Boston Society that year (though Jane Scott, Brettman’s old nemesis, still remained at its helm) for the purpose of organizing a special event for the organization’s centennial meeting in Boston from December 27-30, 1979, an exhibit in the Boston Public Library of about 80 photographs that she had taken in the Jewish and Christian catacombs of Rome. It was timely move, and not just for the AIA celebrations, the coincidence with the major Jewish and Christian holidays of Hanukah and Christmas, and Brettman’s ambitious project to restore and excavate catacombs in Rome, for which she now sought endorsement from AIA officers.[xxxvii] In October of that year, Brettman literally had Pope John Paul II at her front door on Beacon Street as he celebrated Mass in the Boston Common to an estimated crowd of 400.000.[xxxviii] Boston still had profound Catholic loyalties, which seemed to open bigger doors than solidly Jewish connections. The Papal audience photograph appeared in her Beacon Street window, and a Polish flag waved from on high.
Brettman’s photography exhibit was its own entity, and its creator was sorely disappointed to learn it would not receive AIA financial support: in her view, lesser centennial “salutes” were being subsidized”.[xxxix] The assemblage of printed slides, text panels, and materials “from two museums and a greenhouse” went up rapidly in the Boston Room.[xl] Yet she did have a role in the AIA program planning when, at Prof. Krister Stendhal’s prompting, Prof. A. Thomas Kraabel asked her to sponsor a December 28 colloquium, “Diaspora Judaism Under the Roman Empire: Recent Archaeological Evidence”. It was possibly a type of peace offering, as the lineup of speakers included many academics on Brickner’s committee, including both Stendhal and Kraabel.[xli] More likely, it had do with funding Fr. Cesare Colafemmina’s trip to the Boston meeting to speak about his years of research in the Jewish catacombs at Venosa in Basilicata. Colafemmina had made a stunning discovery only a few years before in 1974 of an arcosolium tomb painted with Jewish motifs. The recent press and on-going discussion about tutelage, fueled by Colafemmina’s excited personality and personal feuding with local officials, had made Venosa a focal point in the WJC campaign to save Jewish heritage.[xlii] Brettman, agreed to play host to Colafemmina, but arranged for multiple speaking engagements while he was in town, including at Harvard University and Hebrew College, to which she could invite many of her friends and potential backers.[xliii] She was aware of all the Brickner connections, but decided it was a way to “save the larger cause” and get some credit for what she considered was her key role in securing permission for new excavations in the site. Colafemmina willingly consented to all but open endorsement of Brettman’s plans, and opened the AIA panel with a talk on the Jewish catacombs at Venosa.
Also for the sake of the “cause”, and to serve as a “springboard” for her efforts, Brettman gave slide lectures on the catacombs to a number of Boston and New York-area organizations.[xliv] More than anything, she kept planning the “opposing committee”. A number of MFA colleagues were willing, her lawyer and accountant were game, and prominent friends, including Cardinal Caprio, name dropped possible big-ticket donors, like David Rockefeller, Philip Weisman, and Edgar Bronfman Sr.
In the wake of the opening of Brettman’s show, the AIA symposium on Jewish archaeology in late December of 1979 had a last-minute addition, perhaps at Brickner’s bidding: another lecture and exhibition of images of the Jewish Catacombs of Italy by the New York-based artist Letizia Pitigliani, daughter of Fausto Pitigliani, the former president of the Jewish Community of Rome. Pitigliani would soon publish her own account of visiting these sites in 1978 in the May/June 1980 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) along with notice of the “leading efforts” of the WJC’s Heritage Committee to preserve catacombs in Rome, to which Brettman in a way, would respond by assisting Fr. Fasola in writing clarifications in English to "false accusations from a misinformed press", as Fasola's letter to the editor in BAR's September/October 1980 issue would conclude.
Brettman nonetheless had her time in the limelight in advance of the AIA meeting, with positive press by both Catholic and Jewish papers of her BPL show. On December 11, 1979, the night after the opening reception, a group of Brettman’s colleagues met at her house to create an “International Committee for the Preservation of the Jewish Catacombs of Italy”. A copy of the Goals of the Committee, drafted on Brettman’s business stationary for Ca’d’Oro, state:
- To preserve and document these historically important and socially significant vestiges of the common roots of Jews and Judeo (cancelled) Early Christians
- To emphasize the common symbols and shared motifs of Judaism and Early Christianity at the time of the Roman Empire which had antecedents in the more ancient past.
- To make people aware of the existence of these artifacts, which illuminate the history of these people.
- To present a touring exhibit to be used as an educational tool (Boston Public Library exhibit was so used by many local educational institutions).
- To further excavate and retrieve artifacts and inscriptions.
- To organize a permanent exhibition to display and explain these artifacts.
Following an “international launch to preserve the catacombs”, as announced in Brettman’s BPL slide lecture on January 6, 1980, the ICCI met again on January 22 to draw up formal articles for non-profit status, making 1980 the date of its foundation. The founding officers were intimate connections of Brettman: Cornelius C. Vermeule, III, MFA curator (President), James M. Gavin; former U.S. ambassador and the husband of a fellow MFA docent, Jean (Vice President); Brettman’s accountant, Melvin I. Shapiro (Treasurer); and Beacon Hill neighbor, attorney Sarah McCauley Sheldon (Secretary).[xlv] Other founding directors included Florence Z. Wolsky, Prof. David Gordon Mitten, fellow MFA docent Esther Rome, and the AIA's Leon Pomerance. On January 30, 1980, the ICCI revamped its mission statement. It would now:
“provide for the preservation, restoration, documentation, and maintenance of certain catacombs in Italy, which house funerary chambers, vaults, archival paintings and artifacts depicting the culture and customs of Jews and other religions during the period of the Roman Empire.”
During the society’s organizational phase, Brettman still held out hope that a public platform for her efforts would lead to collaboration with the World Jewish Congress, and preferred to keep the term “Jewish” out of the name of her organization, shortening its name to the "International Committee for the Catacombs of Italy (ICCI)", so as not to “decrease/limit the interest and prospective funding for the committee”.[xlvi] She then threw herself into a renewed frenzy of preparations to take her photography show on the road to the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology in Michigan, the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, and finally, she hoped, to Italy in 1982.[xlvii] Some local press and communication from farther afield had sparked her imagination to “have photographs submitted by museums and archaeologists in Israel juxtaposed to those from the Vatican!”[xlviii] The first task of the ICCI was to investigate how to obtain funds and logistical support for casts of artifacts in the Vatican Museums and other collections and the publication of an illustrated catalogue authored by Brettman to compliment her “visual essay”, now with a proper name for its “Jungian undercurrents”, “Vaults of Memory”.[xlix] Within a month of the BPL exhibit’s closing, Brettman was on another plane to Rome.
The meetup in Boston of members of both catacomb committees, Brettman’s and that of the WJC, did not lead to further collaboration, for the personal antipathy between organizers too strong to overcome (neither woman would, indeed, “serve” the other).[l] The Concordat signing was years away, but the race for donations had begun, and would continue for the next decade. In a push for a NEH government grant for future showings of her photography collection, Brettman contacted major media outlets to proclaim the “commonality” of her approach.[li] The AlA, on its part, after the 1979 symposium, sponsored a series of lectures at regional chapter meetings on the Jewish catacombs by one of its officers and major benefactors, Norma Kershaw, also a founding director of the Jewish Heritage Commission.[lii] Brettman’s reaction to the AIA/WJC mobilization is not known, although she was aware of it, and continued to speak disparagingly about the Heritage Committee’s lack of real knowledge about the catacombs and their potential to stimulate dialogue among faiths.
Conversely, for a time after the AIA symposium and lecture tour, Colafemmina and Brettman worked together to find institutional support for Colafemmina’s documentation of Jews in Southern Italy beyond the catacomb sphere.[liii] Colafemmina had other sites in mind, especially a medieval cemetery at Oria in Puglia, since the “old” catacombs of Venosa, as he told Brettman, were about to be pulverized.[liv] In a short time, however, Colafemmina obtained Israeli institutional support and an Italian university stipend, and does not appear to have continued his correspondence with Brettman after 1981.
The ICCI – renamed in 1983, at Fr. Umberto Fasola’s insistence, the International Catacomb Society - would take over Brettman’s life (and Beacon Street apartment). She continued her membership to the AIA, sending gift subscriptions to Rome contacts including Fr. Umberto M. Fasola, Mario Santa Maria, and Anna Maria Bisi. She sought AIA support once again when the Vaults of Memory exhibit returned to the BPL in 1987, and well into the 1990’s, the ICS and AIA collaborated intermittently on other Boston-area archaeological events.[lv]
Brettman remained steadfast in her praise of the “support, cooperation, and encouragement of Fr. Fasola and his faculty at the Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archaeology", ordering hundreds of slides from its archives of the Jewish and Christian catacombs of Rome. Applying considerable pressure on Rome and Vatican connections, her exhibit did finally make it to Rome in 1985.[lvi] Monies flowed in from grants and private donations to enhance the exhibit, produce an illustrated catalog, and ultimately publish a larger study of the art of Jewish and Christian catacombs of Rome, which Brettman left incomplete at her death in 1991.[lvii]
For all the success of her initiatives, Brettman remained bitter about Tullia Zevi’s “propaganda” against her, which had alienated many Jewish friends.[lviii] For Zevi, far more than Brickner, led the charge for “improved care of the Jewish catacombs”. The WJC efforts, in fact, did not gain the hoped-for fundraising momentum after the short-lived Venosa dig in 1981. It seems to have quietly dissolved, and Zevi had to make another push for Jewish catacomb funding from American Jews in 1985 with a new “Italian American Jewish Foundation of America”.[lix] This, also, did not attract enough sponsorship, certainly not from Brettman, who persevered on her own with a didactic agenda and large manuscript on all the catacombs – Jewish and Christian - to complete. In turn, no representatives of Rome's Jewish community were present at the inauguration of "Le Volte della Memoria", Brettman's Italian show, at the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome in November of 1985. Nor, for that matter, was Fasola, still much preoccupied with the formalities of turning over the Jewish catacombs to Italy. The presence of several high-ranking Catholic prelates, however, including Cardinals Caprio and Mahoney of Los Angeles, led to reporting on the show the conservative Italian daily, Il Tempo, but apparently no mention in other major Italian news outlets. Brettman had never intended for her work to be so political and polarizing, but it was treated as such by others with some knowledge of or stake in the affair.
Two years passed after the Concordat signing in 1984 before a Jewish catacomb in Rome was ready, in 1986, to meet its new master: the second site was consigned in 1988. Now that the issue had been settled, it was hoped that “forceful decisions” could be made.[lx] Or, as one newspaper article put it more bluntly: “the Jewish catacombs will soon be available for public viewing – that is, if world Jewry can foot the bill”.[lxi]
To this end, the UCEI supported the formation of a new Jewish Heritage Committee under the aegis of the World Monuments Fund, with the architectural historian Samuel Gruber as Director and Ronald E. Lauder as Chair (Doris Brickner is included as well on the directors’ board). On September 17, 1989, at a fundraiser in NYC hosted by media magnate S. I. Newhouse to honor Tullia Zevi, announcement was made of the committee’s sponsorship of a new “technical preservation study” of the Jewish catacombs of Rome, cited as a necessary step before the Italian Jews could assume greater control of their heritage and open the catacombs on a regular basis.[lxii] The work was to include a microclimate study, stability analysis, and wall painting survey.[lxiii] In a letter Gruber wrote to Brettman in October of 1990, he reports that these studies had been carried out in the Villa Torlonia cemetery in collaboration with the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma and UCEI.[lxiv]
In 1989, the same year that the new Heritage Committee was announced, a major exhibition, “Gardens and Ghettos – the Art of Jewish Life in Italy” opened at the Jewish Museum in New York City. A number of real Roman-era artifacts were included in the display, which Brettman had not been able obtain on loan for showings of “Vaults”. Her communication with Vatican contacts at the time shows this Jewish Museum exclusive bothered her greatly - once again, she thought it others taking credit for "her idea" - and it is unlikely that she ever saw the New York show in person. Fortunately, she had a distraction from feelings of betrayal. As she wrote to Sam Gruber, she was now “intensely involved” in the preservation of a Jewish cultural monument much closer to home, a synagogue on Beacon Hill that members of her mother’s family had once attended.[lxv]
Her final years brought sickness and suffering, including the loss of many in her closest circle of friends and supporters, but she refused to allow her catacomb project to die before she did. It had a meaning to her that she still hoped to impart to others. On her deathbed, in June of 1991, Brettman dictated a short testament that bequeathed the bulk of her estate – valued at nearly two million dollars - to the International Catacomb Society for the completion of her book and for other educational programs. She could not let it go, the mission, the memories. To a friend just a few months before, she had written: “many people have asked me to write “the story behind the story” claiming that it will be a real best seller… Perhaps someday when we have time for a conversation you will hear the whole, unbelievable story.”[lxvi] In its present form, many parts of the story are now missing, but what we are able to record, we believe.
Illustrations: Exploring Estelle
Acknowledgements: The author thanks the following for their insights into the life and legacy of Estelle S. Brettman: Jennifer Berry and Pamela Worstell, Norma S. Kershaw, Giuseppina Cerulli Irelli, Marisa De' Spagnolis, David Renka, Fernando Di Porto, Fabio Filippello, Sister Maria Francesca Antongiovanni, Rick and Roberta Zonghi, and Janet and Barbie Shapero.
[i] The Shohet family’s connection to the Etz Chaim congregation are detailed on the Maine Jewish Museum website: http://mainejewishmuseum.org/.
[ii] Brettman (ESB) worked as an endocrinologist and bacteriologist, before getting into the antique jewelry business, also designing unique pieces with her husband.
[iii] ESB for years was a donor to George Hanfmann’s Sardis Expedition.
[iv] ESB administered a craft sales program for the Boston Aid to the Blind. In an undated letter to AIA trustee Lee Pomerance, ESB feels that she “subconsciously stimulated the “cross-cultural” programs of the Education Department of the MFA”.
[v] Letter of Jane Ayer Scott, AIA Boston Society Secretary to ESB, October 20, 1976.
[vi] ESB to Lee Pomerance, undated letter draft, ca. 1979.
[vii] Letter of Arthur Steinberg to ESB, October 22, 1976, counsels “if every (AIA) program is going to make us more and more upset because of their (the Boston committee’s) callousness and poor manners, then you must resign for your own peace of mind… You have to consider whether or not you can stand working with the people who are currently running the AIA in Boston.”
[viii] Undated draft of a letter by ESB: “I think that it’s time that the AIA recognize my efforts in some measure. I have sometimes bestowed gifts, funding, etc. on lesser efforts, and considering I spent one year in 1976 building (the AIA Boston Society).”
[ix] Gabriel Shohet previously had written plays entitled The Maramoes (1917) and Moses: A Dramatization (1919), as listed in the General Catalogue of Officers, Graduates, and Former Students of Colby College, Centennial Edition, Waterville Maine: 1920, p. 196. A copy of his novel, “Kinships” has been digitized by the ICS at: https://www.catacombsociety.org/kinships-by-gabriel-h-shohet/.
[x] In the necropolis of Palazzuolo Acreide, in Eastern Sicily. Brettman’s own account of this event is in “Odyssey Sotterranea – A Search for Shared Universal Symbols": https://www.catacombsociety.org/odyssey-sotterranea-a-search-for-shared-universal-symbols/.
[xi] ESB to Monsignor Jorge Mejia, January 8, 1979. Brettman also photographed in sites of the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma, including the House of Livia and Hall of Isis on the Palatine. She writes to Krister Stendhal, Dean of Harvard Divinity School, on October 12, 1978, that she had interest from Cambridge-based Polaroid corporation to collaborate with her on documentation of catacomb paintings, but adds it could not be public knowledge, as Polaroid did not want to jeopardize its Vatican contracts by publicizing its support of her work.
[xii] ESB was convinced that she had found menorot scratched or engraved on grave markers in the Catacombs of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter in Rome. Other catacombs she visited between 1977-1979 included those of Domitilla, Callisto, San Sebastiano, Priscilla, Vigna Randanini, and Vibia.
[xiii] From a Christmas 1979 parish letter of Fr. Joseph Own Stack, OMI: “(On July 2, 1979) thirty members of the Cardinal’s “family” attended a private audience with His Holiness, John Paul II. His Holiness spent one hour with us.” Brettman was in attendance at the event by invitation of Caprio’s cousin and her travel agent, Frank Gaeta.
[xiv] For all of ESB’s appreciation of Roman Catholic traditions and ritual, she self-identified as a “Jewess”, continuing to observe throughout her life the observances of Conservative Judaism.
[xv] Some international Jewish press outlets were especially indignant that the access to the Villa Torlonia catacombs was cut off just as Concordat negotiations commenced in the late 1970’s.
[xvi] U. M. Fasola, letter to the editor, Biblical Archaeology Review, 6.5 (September/October 1980).
[xvii] Letter of ESB to Salvatore Fornari, quoting the recommendation letter for her by Arthur Steinberg of September 19, 1978.
[xviii] By the early 1970’s, Jews were questioning openly the Vatican’s role as custodian of the ancient Jewish cemeteries in Rome: World Jewry, 15 (1972), p. 18. The Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture in New York City had awarded the Dutch Jewish journalist Henryk Z. Gellar a fellowship in 1971-72 and again in 1978-79 for the project, “The Jewish Cultural Treasures of Italy; The History of the Jewish Catacombs in Italy”. The International Survey of Jewish Monuments (ISJM) project also began in the 1970’s to address the general threat of deterioration of Jewish monuments throughout Europe: Archaeological News, VI, 4 (1977), p, 110. In Rome, Venosa, and elsewhere, unauthorized access and vandalism – including anti-Semitic graffiti – were periodic.
[xix] Also on the agenda was the “recent decision of the Vatican to relinquish control of the Jewish catacombs in and around Rome, which date back to the first century C. E”, as reported in the Israel Digest of the World Zionist Organization, American Section, 1977, and The Catacombs of Rome, in Jewish Affairs, 1979, pp. 31-32.
[xx] In a letter to Carol M. Meyers, another Jewish Heritage Committee member, of March 17, 1979, ESB repeats her intention to spend a lot of time in Italy in coming years. She did, in fact, lease an apartment from archaeologist friend Giuseppina Cerulli Irelli at via Trinita’ dei Pellegrini, 1 from 1980-1984.
[xxi] Letter of Lee Pomerance to ESB of July 7, 1978, cautions her that “before we learn that the concordat has been signed, that there is a viable committee in Italy with whom we can deal, we could be putting in a great deal of effort prematurely until we know more about these situations. For this information, I would rely on Sam (Waagenaar) to inform us.” He reiterates this in stronger terms on July 30, 1979: “I have positively and absolutely decided to do nothing on this Catacomb matter until the concordat has been signed and the Italian government has legally delivered the property to the Jewish community or to the Roman Jewish community.”
[xxii] ESB letter to Carol M. Meyers of March 17, 1979.
[xxiii] ESB to Mons. Jorge Mejia, January 8, 1979: “after my conversation with Tullia Zevi, at her request, through you, and with Mr. Steinhaus in Merano (also at Tullia Zevi’s prompting) the pieces fell into place…. It was also my reason for “casually” mentioning to use you that Fausto Zevi was related to Tullia Zevi’s husband.” Steinhaus, according to consultant Sam Waagenaar, was “charged by the UCEI to keep an eye on the catacomb business.” In a handwritten draft of a letter to Lee Pomerance, ESB says that Tullia Zevi had asked her if she (Brettman) would work for the WJC project in Rome, and Brettman had replied saying it wouldn’t be a true committee in terms of its structure… I felt the larger goal was the important one.”
[xxiv] Brettman had described Doris Brickner in 1978 as “a lady who has little contact with art and archaeology (except for amassing artifacts) and no knowledge whatsoever of the catacombs, but hopes she has wheedled an office and expenses from the World Jewish Congress. She feels she will excavate and preserve the Torlonia Catacombs (she doesn’t’ know of all the others that exist) and then she’ll go on to restore all the decaying synagogues of middle Europe and everywhere else. This all is aimed only at enhancing her own prestige. She has no conceptions of the broader implications of the project… She is a Jewish “Jane Scott”. Lee Pomerance is more optimistic than I about “controlling” her.” In a December 15, 1978 letter to Rabbi Sobel of NYC, Brettman confides that it was likely (Tullia) Zevi who told Brickner of ESB’s “fact finding” mission to Rome. Brickner herself reveals the agenda in a letter to Brettman of November 29, 1978: (the WJC Heritage Commission) “has been in touch with all the principal Italians who are concerned with the catacombs … what you may not know is that both the Pope and the Prime Minister have also been approached.”
[xxv] Phrased in promotional pamphlets as “scholarly surveys and documentation of objects of Jewish interest in museums, archives, and warehouses never before reviewed.” Brettman pointed out to Rabbi Sobel in a letter of December 15, 1978, that Jewish objects were also now in secular museums in Rome and elsewhere: “if one really wanted to cry “rape” justifiably, one should think about the dispersal of the marvelous mosaics from the Hammam Lif synagogue… now in the Brooklyn Museum”
[xxvi] L. Palmieri Billig, “Italian Jews Hope to Save Archaeological Treasures”, Jewish News, April 6, 1979: the sticking points were the Jewish funerary goods on display in Vatican collections and churches and what was seen as a deliberate obscurity of Jewish sites while some Christian catacombs were open on a consistent basis.
[xxvii] Lee Pomerance letter to ESB of October 11, 1978. Brickner also visited the Jewish catacombs of Venosa, defaced with swastikas and other modern graffiti: reported by Palmieri-Billig, “The Catacombs”.
[xxviii] Letter of Brickner to ESB of November 29, 1978, after a tip-off from Rome about Brettman’s “many meetings there”.
[xxix] Sam Waagenaar, in a letter to Brickner of July 24, 1978, notes that the UCEI spokesman for the Jewish catacomb situation in Italy, Federico Steinhaus, wanted the WJC Heritage Commission to have as its goal the preservation also of the catacombs of Venosa, which Waagenaar thought already “a lost cause”.
[xxx] In an undated Jewish Commission memo, “new chambers with Jewish wall paintings have been discovered in this past year (at Venosa) and more are believed to exist.”
[xxxi] Doris Brickner memo, undated.
[xxxii] L. Palmieri Billig, Church-State Concordat Affects Jewish Community, JTA, March 6, 1984.
[xxxiii] ESB letter to Lee Pomerance of July 26, 1979. Pomerance, for a time, seems to have mediated between the two, since Brickman wanted ESB to introduce her to Boston-area Jewish leaders, like Sachaar at Brandeis, and the MFA’s Cornelius Vermeule.
[xxxiv] ESB to Lee Pomerance of July 26, 1979, names as a “potential benefactor” Jewish businessman and philanthropist Harry Starr, connected to the Lucius N. Littauer Foundation, which would make several major grants to Brettman’s society in the 1980’s.
[xxxv] ESB to Mons. Mejia, January 8, 1979, enclosing a letter from Sam Waagenaar to Doris Brickner: “the enclosed copy of a letter to Mrs. Brickner… I’m relying on your discretion to keep the contents of this letter totally to yourself… in fact, if you could destroy this, I would appreciate it.” Regarding the photographs showing her with the Pope, she writes to Lee Pomerance: “perhaps if Seymour Kurtz sees them, he can pass them on to proper authorities at the WJC like (Philip) Klutznick.”
[xxxvi] Incredibly, ESB, in letters to Jewish religious leaders like Rabbi Sobel, spared no words in calling the “rival committee” of the WJC “self-seeking, personally ambitious, insensitive, and dilettantish”, words which would have surely reached the ears of committee members. As a result of such cat fighting, Pomerance, in a letter to Brickner of July 30, 1979, all but washes his hands off the issue of dueling committees, noting that “I personally want to avoid the embarrassment of soliciting support of important scholars only to find after a delay of one or more years that we have not been dealing with the proper officials, either governmental or at the Jewish community level. I believe that your inclusion of the catacomb project in the structure of the Heritage Commission will dilute the interest of those who are seriously interested in the catacomb project.”
[xxxvii] Arthur Steinberg, former president of the AIA Boston Chapter, wrote a recommendation for ESB dated September 19, 1978, which Brettman used to get access to sites in Rome. Fasola, however, wrote back to Steinberg to ask for an unreserved opinion on Brettman’s intentions for the catacombs.
[xxxviii] Letter of ESB to Pomence of September 9th, 1979: “the Pope’s Mass will take place directly across the street from us (a strange twist of fate, no?) and the bustle of FBI agents inquiring about each neighbor surreptitiously plus night and day activities to frenetically complete the monstrous Fellini-like pagoda altar and beautify the Boston Common and Public Garden resemble the preparations for Nero’s circuses… Think of all the money we could make by selling seats on our two balconies or inside our home.”
[xxxix] Draft of ESB letter of December 18, 1979 regarding AIA event planning for the annual meeting in Boston.
[xl] Letter of ESB to ICCI Vice President James M. Gavin of April 30, 1981. The museums were the MFA and Harvard Semitic Museum.
[xli] ESB in draft of letter to Pomerance noted that Stendhal was a friend of Brickner’s husband, Rabbi Balfour Brickner, along with proposed speakers Kraabel, on “The Jewish Communities of Western Asia Minor”, Eric M. Meyers, on “Galilean Synagogues and the Eastern Diaspora”, and Dean L. Moe, “The Synagogues of Stobi, Yugoslavia”. (from Advisor Committee directory). Kraabel presided over the colloquium, with Jacob Neusner as respondent.
[xlii] C. Carletti, Nuove importanti scoperte nelle catacombe di Venosa, L’Osservatore Romano, 5-6 marzo, 1979, p. 3 & L. Palmieri-Bilig, “The Catacombs of Rome”. Most of Colafemmina’s study of Venosa in the 1970’s was autonomous, as he was still a priest, and he no doubt played the crisis card to win more institutional support and funding.
[xliii] The Circolo Italiano di Boston sponsored Colafemmina’s talk, “Gli Ebrei nell’Italia Meridionale, sec. III –IX” on January 3, 1980.
[xliv] Letter of ESB to Pomence of September 9th, 1979: “I was told (at my lecture) that I had them ‘sitting on the edge of their seats’ (at Hebrew College). I have also been scheduled for one on November 4 for the Friends of the Harvard Semitic Museum… I’m really frightened to death, but I felt it might be good for the “cause.” The next will be for Adult Education Group at the Association for Conservative Synagogues and the last at the Boston Public Library on January 6, in conjunction with my photography exhibit.”
[xlv] ESB notes in letter to Salvatore Fornari of December 21, 1979, that one board member “heavily funds excavations in Israel,” and soon-to-be named directors led “foundations committed to Jewish causes”. She hoped that a prestigious board would over-shadow Brickner’s and convince both the Vatican and UCEI to throw their support behind her, instead.
[xlvi] Minutes of the ICCI meeting of January 30, 1980, p. 3.
[xlvii] Letter of ESB to General Gavin of April 30, 1981, noting that Henry Millon, former director of the American Academy in Rome, was then Professor-in-Charge of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery. Fornari, had repeatedly urged ESB to consider displaying her photographs in Rome (letter of January 18, 1980).
[xlviii] Letter of ESB to General Gavin of April 30, 1981.
[xlix] New York editor and publisher Carl Rieser proposes this title to ESB in a letter of February 1, 1980, adding: “in some extraordinary way, your decent into the catacombs had a mythic quality and you touched upon the common source of Judeo-Christian consciousness.”
[l] In a letter of ICCI secretary Sarah (Sally) Sheldon to ESB of April 1, 1980, there is a note that Brickner was trying to arrange a meeting in Boston that May. WJC president, Philip M. Klutznick, declined to get involved with Brettman’s project, referring her to Prof. Israel Singer (letter of Klutznick to ESB of January 7, 1980).
[li] Rieser to ESB, February 1, 1980: “It is enormously important for the show (Vaults of Memory) not to be sponsored by a Jewish or Christian group or institution. By a joint effort, perhaps, but not by one or the other faith as this will tend to blunt the commonality of the message and meaning.”
[lii] Giuseppina Cerulli Irelli to ESB in letter of July 13, 1980, noting that Kershaw made no mention of ESB.
[liii] ESB had written to the National Geographic Society on Colafemmina’s behalf on February 26, 1981, and insisted, in a follow up letter, that there was no “cross purpose” with the WJC, as “her committee” wanted to collaborate on different research projects that did not involve the catacombs.
[liv] Letter of ESB to Giuseppina Cerulli Irelli of February 14, 1981, in which she laments the “strong personal ambitions and power plays” that obstruct preservation efforts.
[lv] ICS Events archive: https://www.catacombsociety.org/events/.
[lvi] In a letter of ESB to ICCI Vice President James M. Gavin of April 30, 1981, ESB projects the Rome exhibit for 1982, during a “Ghetto Festival”, preferably at the exhibit hall of Santa Marta at the Collegio Romano. She claims many times in letters that “many members of the Jewish community of Rome and Curator of the Jewish Museum of Rome”, and that her friend, Fornari, had been “pressing her” to bring the exhibit there for the “Ghetto Festival”.
[lvii] An edited version of ESB’s monograph, Vaults of Memory: The Roman Jewish Catacombs and their Context in the Ancient Mediterranean World can be accessed at: https://www.catacombsociety.org/international-catacomb-society-publications/vaults-of-memory-manuscript/vaults-of-memory-the-roman-jewish-catacombs-and-their-context-in-the-ancient-mediterranean-world/.
[lviii] In a letter of July 28, 1980, ESB wrote to Fornari of her disappointment that he had been “taken in by Tullia Zevi’s propaganda (please keep this to yourself only). I’m sure that you’re perceptive enough to know that I’m too much of a ‘son of a gun’ (as you so aptly put it at one of our first meetings) to ever allow myself to be “exploited by anyone, either Tullia Zevi, the Vatican, or the World Jewish Congress. I hope you are the same. They tell me that I was always a rebel, even as a child.” Nora Rossi cautions ESB to not put Fornari in the middle of the situation “as he finds himself in a very embarrassing position being, as he is, between you and the Roman Jewish community. He does not want to antagonize the rabbi (Elio Toaff) and his collaborators (Tullia Zevi, among others).”
[lix] Richard F. Shepard, “Italy’s Jews Excavate Their Ancient History,” New York Times, November 1985. Also in American diplomat Max M. Kampelman, Papers, Minnesota Historical Society, Manuscripts Collection, 154.I.8.12F, box 67, “Italian Project: Regarding Jewish catacombs, 1984-1985”.
[lx] ISJM Newsletter report on the Jewish Catacombs of Rome, IX.1 (1986), p. 6.
[lxi] E. Neumann, Funds Sought to Open Jewish Catacombs, The Jewish Week, November 10, 1989, p. 67. Zevi’s proposal called for new excavations and the creation of a Jewish Museum in Rome to display catacomb finds.
[lxii] World Monuments Fund newsletter, Winter 1989/1990.
[lxiii] Neumann, Funds Sought, 1989, p. 67: the estimated costs were $50,000 in a first phase. Gruber presented the results of the initial phase in November, 1990, at the WMF conference, “The Future of Jewish Monuments”.
[lxiv] Letter of Samuel Gruber to ESB of October 8, 1990.
[lxv] ESB to Samuel Gruber, September 29, 1990.
[lxvi] In an undated (1990?) letter to Benjamin Herzberg, an administrator at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, ESB continues her diatribe against Tullia Zevi: “She (Zevi) wants (the organization) to be strictly ‘Jewish’. She doesn’t realize that by showing early Christian deviations from Jewish concepts through pleasing imagery we relay an easily digestible message of where Christian ideologies and beliefs came from. Also, her ideas for the Jewish catacombs would totally destroy the frescoes. For a number of years, I have had conferences with proposing original ideas to many experts (including those who have been involved with preserving the Christian catacombs and I have been told that “It’s the only way the Jewish catacombs can be saved… Just recently, an associate of the man who was head of the PCAS (Fasola) told me that he had been devastated at the statement Zevi was in charge of the Jewish catacombs… In fact, Zevi has borrowed some of my concepts. Alas, Pomerance said, plagerizing my ideas…. (but) she is powerful and has blocked a great deal of funding and support. In fact, about 7 years ago, I almost gave the project up, but the wonderful Philosemite who was head of the Pontifical Commission for Relations with the Jews (Mons. Mejia) said that he could not allow me to since I had committed so much to the cause of ecumenism. It has been a heartache with many sleepless nights, though, and many people have asked me to write “the story behind the story” claiming that it will be a real best seller. You see – you really very accurately hit the nail on the head of the matter in your last missive. Perhaps someday when we have time for a conversation you will hear the whole, unbelievable story.”