SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: The Lost Catacomb by Shifra Hochberg

the lost catacomb

An intoxicating blend of Vatican thriller and heart-rending love story, The Lost Catacomb is a stunning debut novel set against the backdrop of the Holocaust in Italy. At its center is Nicola Page, a beautiful young art historian who flies to Rome to assess a newly discovered catacomb of enigmatic provenance. Its magnificent frescoes hold the clues to a centuries-old murder and the existence of a fabled treasure from the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Assisted by a handsome Italian archaeologist, Nicola is quickly drawn into a tangled web of intrigue and peril, masterminded by a powerful priest who is determined to destroy those who would reveal the dark secrets of the past. And as Nicola uncovers layer after layer of this deadly past, she is brought face to face with shocking facts about her own family history—facts that will forever change the course of her life.

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Rome, 253 AD

As she entered the wide courtyard, the four men rose to greet her, bowing slightly as they introduced themselves, one by one. “Please,” she began graciously, “you may be seated. You are most welcome to my home. Most welcome indeed.

“And what, if may I ask, brings you to our fair city of Ostia all the way from imperial Rome? A journey of this nature must undoubtedly have some pressing purpose.” She sat down on a nearby divan and smoothed the folds of her tunica, waiting for them to reply.

“My lady,” the eldest member of the delegation now began, “your proficiency as a rhetorician and your fame as—if we may say so—a theologian have reached our humble ears, even in Rome. And we are in urgent need of your assistance and your skills.”

He paused, noting that her cheeks had flushed becomingly and that she had placed her goblet of wine, with trembling hands, on a nearby table.

“I am most grateful for—indeed humbled by—your courtesy and compliments,” she answered. “Do go on. You may be quite direct with me. I am generally unused to flattery, and I assure you, none is necessary. If there is anything within my power, some service that I can render, you may rest assured, I’ll do it with all my heart.”

“Thank you, my lady,” he replied. “I will delay no longer. As you are no doubt aware, the Church has heavily taxed the Jewish communities of Rome and Ostia for centuries. We have long been considered aliens, not citizens of Rome, despite the long tenure of our residence in the imperial city and our numerous contributions to its culture and economic stability. We have bowed ceaselessly to the excessive demands of the Bishops of Rome, who have treated us differently than other populations residing in the Empire. And we have paid the price for refusal to change our religious faith, repeatedly.”

“All this we could continue to live with, without complaint, seeing that we have managed to flourish and grow, despite the cruel terms of our situation. But now, the new Pope, influenced by a powerful group of bishops, has proclaimed yet another edict, a heavy tax that will bring the eleven synagogai of Rome and Ostia to ruin. Sheer and utter ruin.

“We beg you to come with us to the papal court, my lady. You are so well schooled in logic and rhetoric that you may be our only hope of convincing him to rescind it. We have tried to send local representatives from Rome itself to the court, but they’ve been turned away, time and time again. We hope that your youth and your reputed beauty—please, my lady, it is only the truth—will somehow gain you an audience with the Pope. This achieved, we are sure you will be able to convince him, somehow, to reconsider this rash and unwarranted step.”

She looked around the room, examining their worried countenances one by one, and then gestured to Severinus, who had stood all the while, silently attentive, in a corner of the atrium.

“Summon my maidservant,” she said quietly, as she removed her sandals. “Tell her to bring my cloak, my leather shoes, and a pouch of gold coins. She will accompany me to Rome, as my chaperone. We will be away for a several days, perhaps longer.”

She handed him the ring of keys at her waist. “I am leaving you in charge of my household, Severinus,” she whispered softly. “I know it will be in good hands.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

shifra hochbergShifra Hochberg received her Ph.D. in English Literature from New York University and has published 21 academic essays, mainly in the field of nineteenth-century fiction and feminist literary theory. In the course of writing The Lost Catacomb, she traveled to Italy more than a dozen times, making on-site visits to all locations in the novel and meeting with families of Italian Holocaust survivors. She was also privileged to visit a special collection of Jewish catacomb artifacts at the Vatican that are generally not open to the public.

Visit her website at: www.thelostcatacomb.com

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