Steven Spielberg’s next film focuses on a little-known tragedy that ripped apart a Jewish family in Italy.

Based on The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, a 1997 book by David Kertzer, it is the shocking story of a Jewish boy taken from his family in pre-unification Italy, with the blessing of Pope Pius IX.

Even though it seems like something from Medieval times, this happened in modern times; Edgardo lived until 1940.

In the 1850s, Bologna was the second city of the Papal States, an area of central Italy ruled by the Pope. Although many Italians were pressing for change, the city remained under sway of Church leaders. Bologna’s small Jewish community of 200 faced intense anti-Semitism and kept a low profile. In order not to draw attention to themselves, they had neither a community rabbi nor a synagogue.

Momolo and Marianna Mortara lived in the center of the city and employed a series of local teenagers to help look after apartment and children. In 1853, the Mortaras’ housekeeper was 14 year old Anna Morisi. She’d moved into their home a few months after their son Edgardo was born. Morisi took a liking to the little Jewish baby: when Edgardo became ill at the age of one, the teenager told the local grocer that he was a handsome baby and she’d be sad to see him die. The grocer suggested that she baptize the child – maybe that would help cure him.

“Your son Edgardo has been baptized,” the chief Papal policeman declared, “and I have been ordered to take him with me.”

The young babysitter didn’t know how to baptize anyone, but she improvised, throwing a glass of water on him and saying some words that she soon forgot. “I figured that it wasn’t of any importance since I had done it without really knowing what I was doing,” she later recalled.

But years later, the babysitter casually mentioned to a friend what she’d done to a Jewish boy she’d once looked after. Word soon travelled to Church authorities, and the girl found herself summoned to the official Inquisitor and interrogated.

Edgardo Mortara (right) with his mother and brother, c. 1880

The reaction of the Church was swift. The night of Wednesday, June 23, 1858, Papal Police descended on the Mortaras’ apartment and demanded to see all their children. Terrified, the Mortaras woke up their sleeping kids. Soon, seven exhausted children were assembled before the police: twin 11-year-old girls Ernesta and Erminia, 10-year-old August, nine-year-old Arnoldo, six-year-old Edgardo, four-year-old Ercole, and baby Imelda.

“Your son Edgardo has been baptized,” the chief Papal policeman declared, “and I have been ordered to take him with me.”

Weeping, both of Edgardo’s parents fell to their knees before the officer, begging for his mercy. A Jewish neighbor rushed to see what the commotion was about. “I saw a distraught mother, bathed in tears, and a father who was tearing out his hair, while the children were down on their knees begging the policemen for mercy. It was a scene so moving I can’t begin to describe it.”

As the family’s screams echoed through the neighborhood, local Jewish residents and some members of the Papal guard went to the local Inquisitor to see if he would change his mind. After 24 grueling hours, the answer came: having been baptized, Edgardo Mortara was now a Christian, and as such could not possibly be left to be raised by Jews. The next day, June 24, 1858, the little boy was torn from his mother’s arms forever.

Edgardo was brought to Rome. His kidnapping was attracting much attention. Eager to deflect criticism, Church officials put out an official version of Edgardo’s journey: immediately after being removed from his parents, they declared, Edgardo became a devout Catholic, asking to stop in towns along the way so he could see their churches. In reality, Edgardo later recalled sobbing for his parents. (He was falsely told they’d be waiting for him in Rome.) When he asked for the mezuzah he normally wore on a chain around his neck, he was given a crucifix to wear instead.

Despite mounting international pressure against the kidnapping, the Pope regarded himself as Edgardo’s “new” father and refused to return the child.

In Rome, Edgardo was raised in the House of Catechumens, a home for new converts to Catholicism, including some Jews brought there against their will. In the mid-1800s, it was illegal for Jews to approach the building or communicate with those inside. One Jew was arrested for merely looking through a window. Edgardo’s parents journeyed to Rome and after many months of pleading they were able to see their son briefly. Edgardo told his mother that he continued to say the Shema prayer every night.

Pope Pius IX himself took a personal interest in Edgardo Mortara. Despite mounting international pressure against the kidnapping, the Pope regarded himself as Edgardo’s “new” father and refused to return the child, nor even have any contact again with his parents. By the time he was 13, after seven years of intense Catholic education, Edgardo took an additional name Pio, in honor of the Pope. When he came of age, turning 21 in 1873, Edgardo was ordained a Catholic priest.

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim’s ‘The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara,’ 1862

In 1878, Edgardo’s mother Marianna visited him, reestablishing contact after years of being forbidden to see her son. Marianna found Edgardo changed. He now ardently wished to convert Jews, especially his family, to Catholicism. When Marianna died in 1890, Italian newspapers ran sensational accounts of her supposed conversion to Catholicism at the insistence of her illustrious priest son. Rather than bask in these reports, Edgardo took pains to let the world know the truth: “I have always ardently desired that my mother embrace the Catholic faith, and I tried many times to get her to do so. However, that never happened, and although I stood beside her during her last illness, along with my brothers and sisters, she never showed any sign of converting.”

The family stayed in touch. Edgardo’s great nephew Gustavo Latis told The Times of Israel in 2014 that for over a century, a picture of Edgardo stood in his family home with the dedication under it: “My blessed, beloved mother! May God keep you happy to the affection of your beloved son Pio-Edgardo, who loves you very much. Venice 15/XI/81”.

Gustavo Latis holds a framed portrait of Edgardo (Rossella Tercatin/The Times of Israel)

Latis recalls Edgardo visiting his home, hanging his big black priest’s hat in their hall. His grandmother Imelda, Edgardo’s youngest sister, was “very attached to Judaism,” he recalls. “She always made sure that we would fast on Yom Kippur and celebrate Pesach, and she loved cooking Jewish dishes….” Despite her strong commitment to her Jewish faith, Imelda continued to stay in touch with her brother. But she was careful around her brother. Her grandson recalls, “Although the fraternal affection between them never ceased, my grandmother was very cautious around him. She feared his preaching, especially for us children.”

Many of Edgardo’s Jewish relatives died in the Holocaust. Living in Belgium during World War II, Edgardo himself would have found his conversion to Catholicism insufficient to save him and might have been deported, had he not died in 1940, months before Germany’s invasion of Belgium, at the age of 88.

Steven Spielberg is currently casting the movie around the world and thousands of parents are excited about the prospect of having their child selected. Learning about this horrific story can help us appreciate that this was a real person and perhaps reminds us not to take our children’s Jewish upbringing for granted.