‘The Lost Catacomb’ by Shifra Hochberg, Enigma Press, USA, 2014
Machinations, mischief and skullduggery in the Vatican, both in modern times and in the past, constitute the main theme of this interesting first novel by Shifra Hochberg.By now it is common knowledge that the leaders of the Catholic church were somehow involved in helping Nazis escape from Europe after their defeat in WWII, but why and exactly how this was done remains something of a mystery. In this book Shifra Hochberg attempts to give an explanation for this. There is ample documentation of the policy of discrimination against the Jewish communities of Italy by the Fascist regime, and their eventual arrest and deportation to concentration camps by the Nazis and their henchmen.Similarly, there are some who believe that the treasures of the Temple, which were carried off by the victorious Roman legionnaires after the sack of Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E., as depicted on the Arch of Titus in Rome, are still to be found secreted somewhere in the possession of the Vatican.These ideas, together with several others, form the essence of this novel, as its main protagonist, a beautiful young American archaeologist, endeavors together with her Italian associate to unravel the secrets of a newly discovered catacomb near the Vatican in Rome.The contents of the catacomb provide clues to a clandestine love affair between an unnamed Pope and a young Jewish woman in pre-medieval Italy, as well as evidence of Jewish religious practices at the time.But the plot keeps on thickening, with ever stranger and more hair-raising discoveries at every turn. The time-line shifts from the modern era to the period of the Second World War, and even further back to ancient times, with the author providing sufficient background information to stimulate the reader’s imagination and accept these leaps of faith. Christianity’s rejection of Judaism and antagonism towards the Jews lies behind many of the twists and turns in the history of humankind during the last two thousand years, and this fact, too, constitute a salient thread throughout the book. What is particularly impressive is the intimate knowledge the author seems to have of the hierarchical structure of the Vatican and the way it is run, as well as with aspects of the archaeology, art and history of Rome. The characters, both good and evil, come alive, and the reader is treated to a roller-coaster ride of suspense mingled with murder and mayhem as the secrets of the past are unraveled before our eyes.Many strands combine to bring this novel to a melodramatic conclusion worthy of any Hollywood action movie, and although some suspension of disbelief is required, the reader finds him- or her-self unable to stop reading this tale of one woman’s quest for the truth. If in the process of uncovering the secrets of the past our protagonist also happens to find true love, this only adds another interesting dimension to what is already an action-packed novel.