Home > Archives > 01/02 - 2005 > «I did my duty, thanks be to God»
from issue no. 01/02 - 2005

«I did my duty, thanks be to God»

The nunciature in Budapest in 1944 snatched tens of thousands of Jews away from the Nazis. Monsignor Gennaro Verolino was there. This is his first interview

by Giovanni Cubeddu

Monsignor Gennaro Verolino is already 98 years old. It’s enthralling to listen to the account of an eye-witness to the years when the Nazis were pursuing the final solution. With the disarming limpidity of his kindly look, Monsignor Gennaro, a whole life passed in the Secretariat of State, from minutes-writer to nuncio, recounts today a story in which he was the actor without ever seeking the stage, solely through carrying out his duty as a Christian.
Monsignor Verolino in a photo of the period

Monsignor Verolino in a photo of the period

In 1944 Hungary – which, despite severe racial legislation, had up until then offered a relatively secure refuge to the Jews escaping from Poland and Slovakia – was little by little occupied by German troops and became one of the countries where the murderous Nazi persecution raged most fiercely. Gennaro Verolino was there, secretary of the nunciature directed by Monsignor Angelo Rotta, and, along with the diplomats of the then neutral countries, worked to rescue as many Jews as possible from the journey that would have taken them to die in Auschwitz or in Austria. In those months of Nazi occupation, the nunciature drew up and distributed to Jews between 25 and 30 thousand “letters of protection”, with which it was possible to evade deportation.
Last October the government of Stockholm conferred on Monsignor Verolino the “Per Anger” award, named after the brave Swedish ambassador resident in Budapest in those years.
Monsignor Verolino opened up his Rome house and his memories to us on 26 January, the day before the “day of remembrace”, on the sixtieth anniversary of the entry of the Red Army troops into Auschwitz.
What relations did the nunciature have with the Hungarian Jewish community?
GENNARO VEROLINO: There weren’t particularly special relations. But when it came to helping them, when there was need, the nunciature intervened to save the Jews. We sent notes of protest to the government against the persecutions and gave out certificates with which they managed to save themselves, letters of protection, that is, in which we simply stated that the bearer was under the protection of the nunciature. Thanks to those documents the Jews were able to avoid being loaded on the convoys “officially” bound for Germany, where, according to the Nazis, the Jews went to “work”. But how was it possible to believe them, when old people of eighty years and small children were being taken away! It wasn’t true but the Nazis wanted to hoodwink the people. Often we managed to prevent those poor people leaving. Sometimes we even sent lorries to bring back to Budapest some who were already on their way to deportation.
You went to the Nazi officials to ask that the letters of protection from the nunciature would all be recognized as being valid …
VEROLINO: Yes; sometimes they created difficulties, and then I went to talk to them, but most of all I asked help of the local Hungarian authorities. Acting in this way we saved some more. The Hungarian government was more accessible, it was easier to get listened to. Certainly, in practical matters, they too had difficulties with the Nazis, but it was the only way to do anything …
Did anyone ever speak to you of Auschwitz?
VEROLINO: The nunciature did what it could to get back those destined there, precisely because we feared the worst for those poor people… The guards who escorted the deportees spoke, talked… Naturally, the police and the Hungarian gendarmes didn’t confide in us directly, but somehow we came to know just through the mediation of men of good will.
In what way did the Jews get in contact with you to ask for help?
VEROLINO: They came to the nunciature, the doors were open to all, nobody was turned away. Whoever it was. We didn’t even ask what religion a person was. They asked for that protection, and the protection was given.
Maybe there were also some who came to spy on the activity of the nunciature…
VEROLINO: Huum, there was no need for it…
In a note Monsignor Montini asked you how many letters of protection you had written.
VEROLINO: It’s difficult to say because we didn’t count them, but I’d say between 25 and 30 thousand. All produced by the nunciature, in less than a year.
How did they reach those for whom they were destined?
VEROLINO: They came to the nunciature to get them. At that point we were doing nothing else apart from that, the “letters”. All the other work was set aside, we thought only about writing the text of the letters of protection: the name of the person was written and underneath the protection of the nunciature, then the signature of the nuncio followed, and that sufficed. Immense lines formed in front of the nunciature, longer than those in front of the food stores. The queue for the certificates was longer.
Many Jews were directly lodged by you.
VEROLINO: They lived with us in the nunciature, they didn’t even go out, for fear of the Nazis. All our offices and the rooms were made available, and the Jews lived with us all the time.
And how did they come to lodge with you?
VEROLINO: They knocked at the door, they asked protection, especially of the nuncio, and we helped them.
Tens of thousands of letters just for the Hungarian Jews…
VEROLINO: For all the Jews who came. On the form the personal data were written, and nothing else. There was a group of Jewish volunteers – some of them were guests at the nunciature – who, working in turns, helped type the text, and the nuncio signed papers all day long.
You had, however, to insist that the Hungarian episcopal hierarchy become more active…
VEROLINO: The Hungarian bishops also tried to save those poor people. I don’t recall that Monsignor Rotta publicly censured the Hungarian bishops. The Hungarian Church was in agreement with the nunciature, the bishops tried to do the best they could.
Did the Hungarian bishops also send Jews to you in the nunciature to get the certificates?
VEROLINO: We didn’t ask anything. Whoever wanted a certificate of protection received it. We simply asked for the personal data necessary to draw up the form.
It’s known that many Jews were baptized in Hungary.
VEROLINO: Yes, there were many, also because there were many converted even before the war. And then, during the persecution, many hoped to get better treatment. But the nunciature tried to save everyone, without distinction of religion, baptized or not.
In Budapest there were very many Jews who got baptized, from early on, already many years before.
But others got baptized during the war…
VEROLINO: Obviously. When the persecution began, some believed that it would be easier to save themselves by becoming Christian. In reality that wasn’t true, because the Nazi laws took racial origin into account.
Were people also baptized who asked for it only to save their lives?
VEROLINO: Only when it had to do with sincere conversions, did we baptize them.
They were difficult decisions.
VEROLINO: In those predicaments how can one know? We are dealing with human matters, one tried to get at the truth, sometimes one succeeded, sometimes not.
When the Jews were closed in the ghetto of Budapest, you attempted to save the children…
VEROLINO: On that occasion also we sent notes of protest to the government and tried to put these Jewish children in religious houses. And in general the Hungarian government respected the places where the Church had found refuge for those people.
Did it ever happen that one of these children was baptized? Do you recall if anyone complained about such things?
VEROLINO: There wasn’t that problem then. Our principle was to save people respecting the religion of each one. The protection we gave was exclusively civil, it was protection from the Nazis, who wanted to take them away. The children protected by the nunciature in the institutes were for the most part with their parents, furnished with a letter of protection.
At the time, the government set up a Central Jewish Committee. Nuncio Rotta wrote in his notes that this Committee «endeavors to sacrifice first of all» baptized Jews «to satisfy the demands of the government».
VEROLINO: Baptized Jews sometimes suffered more than the others.
I don’t remember what that Committee did. I’m sorry I can’t reply to everything.
Were baptized Jews also sent to Auschwitz…
VEROLINO: But of course! The Nazis made no distinction of religion, they said that “it’s the race, the lineage that we’re fighting, not the religion”.
Did you have threats to the nunciature from the Nazis?
VEROLINO: Not directly, I know that what we did was discussed a lot, the press also talked about it. But thanks be to God, nothing happened.
Did you ever fear for your life?
VEROLINO: To tell the truth the problem never occurred to me. I tried to do my duty and, thanks be to God, I never found myself in danger. Ah, yes, I did it with pleasure, because it was a right thing, and if I had to start over I’d do the same.
The thanks expressed at the time by Jewish organizations for the work of Pius XII and of the Holy See are well known. Have you ever wondered why criticism of Pope Pacelli came afterwards?
VEROLINO: Human things go that way. First there is approval and then disapproval. I don’t know what to say to you. One would have to ask those who criticize. Certainly the Church and our nunciature tried to do their duty and I believe they did it well.
When were you ordained a priest?
VEROLINO: In 1928.
In 2003 you celebrated the seventy-fifth anniversary of your priesthood…
VEROLINO: They’re a great many years, I was very young, I was just twenty-two and a few days when I was ordained.
Why did you choose the seminary?
PERSECUTION. A Jewish couple from the ghetto in Budapest shows the yellow star imposed on  them by the government in April 1944

PERSECUTION. A Jewish couple from the ghetto in Budapest shows the yellow star imposed on them by the government in April 1944

VEROLINO: I had an uncle, the brother of my mother, who was a priest, an excellent priest. Perhaps his example inspired me. As a youngster I was in the diocesan seminary of Acerra, in the province of Naples, and then in Posillipo, in the regional seminary of Campania, for the last two years of middle school, for high school and then for studies in philosophy and theology.
How did you come to the Secretariat of State?
VEROLINO: I was ordained very young and couldn’t yet exercise all the functions of a priest, therefore so as not to waste time I went to Rome to study canon and civil law at the Apollinare. Since my professors were at the Secretariat of State, they remembered their student and called me.
Do you remember your first experience at the Secretariat of State? Who did you have your first contacts with?
VEROLINO: With Monsignor Montini, then with Cardinal Ottaviani.
Do you remember what they said to you?
VEROLINO: Montini was very kind and very good, as also was Ottaviani.
You saw many popes during your lifetime. Which one do you remember best, or consider closest to you?
VEROLINO: What can I say, all of them seemed very good and persons of great virtue and intellectual preparation. To say that this or that one was better, is very difficult…
To remain with the historical topic, what memory do you have of Pius XII?
VEROLINO: Very good. I went to visit him a few times, while I was still a young secretary, and he always received me with great respect and great goodness.
A personal question. After so many years of priesthood, how do you say your prayers?
VEROLINO: I say mass as one must say it. One prays according to the liturgy approved by the Church. In general I continue to say mass in Latin.
And to which saint are you most devoted?
VEROLINO: Saint Gennaro, my protector… ah, yes, a great saint, bishop and martyr…

Cardinal Sodano wrote a personal note to thank Monsignor Verolino once again. In Nazareth there is a school run by Franciscan friars where the 749 little students wrote a letter of thanks to Monsignor Gennaro, who donated to them the entire sum of money from the prize awarded to him last October by the Swedish government.
At the award ceremony, two Hungarian Jews who had survived thanks to him, were also present (one was Giorgy, the lad who accompanied him during the journeys with the lorry to pull those already destined for the annihilation camps off the train). When they came forward, with tears of gratitude, Monsignor didn’t say anything, but made the sign of the cross and patted them.

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