WESTON – When documentary filmmaker Agnes Vertes of Weston was making a film about foreign diplomats in Budapest who risked their lives during World War II to save Jews, she attempted to interview Monsignor Gennaro Verolino, who during the war had been the assistant to the Papal Nuncio, or Pope’s representative to Budapest.
But the 98-year-old priest, who as a younger man helped to save thousands of Jews from death n including Vertes’ husband Michael—was not interested on sharing his story with Vertes.
”He is a very modest man and he said, ‘I didn’t do anything. I am very old, I am very tired, I am over 90, I don’t want to do this.’”
So Vertes showed him an old black and white photo of her husband as an eight-year-old as well as a recent photo of Vertes and her family -n her husband Michael today, their children and their grandchildren.
And she had her translator tell him:
”This little 8-year-old boy is my husband and I am eternally grateful to Monsignor, because without him we wouldn’t have had this family.”
”From then on he was eating out of my hands,” Vertes laughed.
Her interview with Verolino, just one man who helped save thousands of Jews from the Nazis, is featured in Vertes’ 2003 documentary ”Passport to Life.”
The film won the 2003 Telly Award, the 2003 Aurora Award and was a finalist in the New York Film Festival.
In January, it also won Vertes an invitation to Acerro, Italy—Verolino’s hometown— to honor the Monsignor for his deeds during the war.
”Passport to Life” n translated into Italian — was screened during the celebration and a panel, including local church representatives, historians, an Italian rabbi, and Vertes, led a discussion of the film and events during the war. Vertes was invited by the town’s mayor and bishop to be a guest of honor for the tribute.
”The people were all so nice and sincere,” Vertes said. ”It was a wonderful event.”
A hidden! child
Born in Budapest to a wealthy family, Agnes Vertes, born Agnes Katz, had a privileged life before the war. She had a nanny and the household had several servants. Her family owned an import-export business.
She was only four years old when the Germans occupied Hungary. But though she was very young, she has strong memories of her experiences as a hidden child during that terrifying time.
Hungary was an ally of Germany’s during much of the war, so full-scale deportations of the country’s Jews didn’t begin until Germany occupied the country in March of 1944.
”Then everything went fast-forward,” Vertes explained. ”The Germans took five or six years [to occupy] Poland. It took them a little more than three months in Hungary.”
Agnes and her two-year-old sister had already been taken to the countryside to stay with some relatives. When the Germans invaded Budapest, their father retrieved them from the country and with their wealth, were a! ble to purchase authentic-looking false papers for the family. Her par ents taught her and her sister Protestant songs and prayers and little
Agnes Katz became Agnes Kovacs.
Her parents left their children with a Protestant woman who raised other foster children.
The woman was poor — her home had dirt floors, no plumbing and no electricity n but Agnes was happy there the few months she was sheltered there. A bomb eventually destroyed the house, but Agnes and the others were in the home’s underground bunker and were not hurt. The woman was forced to give the children back to their parents who were hiding separately with friends.
The children, still disguised as Protestants, then stayed for several months in an orphanage, but were forced to flee when the Germans attacked and destroyed the home. Agnes and her sister and the other children were then left homeless, wandering the city day after day. But she says her worst memories are of when they were placed in another home run by the Red Cross that was completely overcr! owded with children. Everyone suffered from malnutrition and lice, and her sister contracted tuberculosis.
Finally after the end of the war, Agnes and her sister were reunited with their parents.
But in 1948 the Communists came to power and, because her father had been a successful businessman before the war n a capitalist n he was dubbed an enemy of the state and was unable to find employment.
By the mid-1950s, Agnes was also not allowed to attend the state high school, and knowing that she probably wouldn’t be accepted at the university either, she decided to leave.
At the age of 16, Agnes, her sister and some friends escaped over the border into Austria. Her parents and her younger brother, born after the war, followed shortly after and vthe family eventually settled in The Bronx, New York.
Agnes met her husband, Michael, also a Jewish refugee from Hungary, while attending Hunter College. He and his mother had been saved by a Swiss dipl! omat who provided them with protective passports, but they were given shelter in a house owned by the Vatican until they were moved by the Germans to the Budapest ghetto during the last two weeks of the war.
Vertes began talking about her experiences as a hidden child when she was interviewed for the Fortunoff Video Archives at Yale University. She eventually got involved with the Child Holocaust Survivors of Connecticut and now serves as its president.
The organization educates the public, particularly high school students and teachers about the plight of hidden children and other survivors during the war. It was while speaking to a group teachers that she decided to become a filmmaker.
”I was talking to them and I thought, ‘We’re not going to be here forever. This should be recorded,’” she said.
Her first film, ”One Out of Ten,” tells the story of eight people who were children during the Holocaust and their survival stories. That film won awards from several film festivals.
For h! er second film, ”Passport to Life,” she wanted to tell the story of six brave diplomats who saved Jews in Hungary during the war.
”I was fascinated by the story of a man who saved Jews in Budapest, Hungary and his name was Giorgio Perlasca,” Vertes said. ”Then, I realized there is a much bigger story here than just that one man. A lot of people know about Raoul Wallenberg, but there were others who were perhaps not as colorful and did not have such a tragic end, but saved even more Jews.”
She traveled to Rome, Stockholm, Spain, Bern, and Budapest to research and film the documentary, hiring interpreters and film crews wherever she went.
The documentary was funded by the UJA Federation of Westport, Weston, Wilton and Norwalk and by private donations.
In January, when she attended the ceremony for Monsignor Verolino, she got a chance to talk to the aging Bishop.
”I thanked him again for all that he had done for the Jewish people, and especia! lly for my husband,” Vertes said.
The Monsignor pointed up to t he sky toward the heavens and said, ”There is no need to thank me. All I did was what ‘Signor’ — G-d — would want me to do.”