Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

As the official representative of the Catholic Church in Hungary, Angelo Rotta (1872-1965) became a leading figure in the Catholic resistance to Nazism as he publicly and insistently condemned not only Hungarian Nazi leaders but also criticized Pope Pius XII for his refusal to openly protest the antisemitism and atrocities perpetrated by the Third Reich.

While serving as the apostolic nuncio of Hungary – the official diplomatic representative of the Holy See, a role equal in rank and function to an ambassador – Rotta was one of the few Vatican leaders to take action to save Jews during the Holocaust, as he mustered all the influence at his disposal to protect them from harm. In particular, he saved countless Jews by issuing false baptismal certificates and visas for Jews to leave for Eretz Yisrael; issued and distributed 15,000 Oltalomlevel (protective safe conduct certificates) to Jews; extended shelter to them under the umbrella of Vatican neutrality; and virtually single-handedly halted deportation trains and established and personally protected Jewish safe houses throughout Budapest.

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In recognition of his noble efforts and accomplishments in rescuing over 15,000 Jews during the Holocaust, Yad Vashem honored him as a “Righteous Among the Nations” in 1997, making him the only Vatican nuncio so honored. In its report, the Yad Vashem Commission was impressed not only by his actions, which speak for themselves, but also by his personal sacrifices and the depth of his emotional passion and dedication to saving the Jews of Hungary.

Rotta portrait.

Born in Milan, Italy, Rotta was ordained a priest on February 10, 1895, and went on to be named by Pope Pius XI first as archbishop of Thebes and Apostolic Internuncio to Central America (October 16, 1922) and then as Apostolic Delegate to Turkey (May 9, 1925), before Pope Pius XII appointed him on March 20, 1930, as Apostolic Nuncio to Hungary, a position he held for 15 years until the end of World War II.

When Miklós Horthy, who had served as regent of the Kingdom of Hungary since March 1920, found himself at the beginning of the Third Reich trapped between two great world powers, Germany and the Soviet Union, he decided to pursue a cautious alliance with Hitler because Germany was Hungary’s largest trading partner and because he believed that Hitler would be better able to help him to secure Hungarian lands lost during World War I. Indeed, in November 1938, Germany carved a piece of Czechoslovakia and returned it to Hungary, the first of many such Nazi territorial “gifts” to Horthy. Although he was hostile to the home-grown fascist ultra-nationalist movements that were growing ever stronger in Hungary, he yielded to Nazi demands that Hungary enact antisemitic laws, beginning in 1938-1939 with restrictions on the number of Jews in government, commerce and the professions.

Rotta commenced his rescue activities on behalf of Jews almost immediately after the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, by issuing forged baptismal certificates and visas for them to travel to Eretz Yisrael – a heretical act that subjected him to the risk of excommunication and expulsion from the beloved church to which he had dedicated his life.

When Polish refugees, including countless thousands of Jewish civilians, began streaming over the border into Hungary, they were arrested by Hungarian authorities and held in camps pending deportation back to Nazi-occupied Poland, where they would face certain death. Rotta commenced an active diplomatic campaign to prevent their deportation and he became a regular visitor to the camps as a demonstration of his support. In one 1942 incident, when he learned that a group of Jewish children at the camp was about to be returned to Poland, he quickly established an orphanage which, while allegedly for children of Catholic Polish officers, was in fact for Jewish children who, through Rotto’s efforts, had been given new, non-Jewish names by the local Hungarian civil authorities.

As the war progressed, the Hungarian government became more entrenched in its alliance with Germany to the point that by June 1941, it finally yielded to Hitler’s demands that the nation contribute meaningfully to the Axis war effort. Hungary declared war against the Soviet Union and, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the following December, against the United States as well. However, Horthy’s relationship with Hitler remained tense because of his obvious lack of enthusiasm for the Nazi agenda, which became even less fervent when, beginning in January 1943, the Soviet army, fresh from its victory in the Battle of Stalingrad, virtually demolished the Second Hungarian Army after only a few days’ fighting. Not surprisingly, Hitler blamed the Jews for somehow being responsible for the ignoble defeat and, when he demanded that Horthy severely punish the 800,000 Jews still surviving in Hungary, Horthy rounded up 10,000 Jews and assigned them to backbreaking labor battalions, a serious – but in the scheme of things, relatively mild – response to the Fuhrer’s demand.

By 1944, with the Axis losing the war and the Red Army at the Hungarian border, Horthy determined that it had become impractical to comply with Hitler’s increasingly manic demands and he commenced exploration of contacts with the Allies to arrange for a surrender. An enraged Fuhrer summoned Horthy to a conference in which he pressured the Hungarian regent to make greater contributions to the war effort and, in particular, to accelerate the murder of Hungarian Jews, and Horthy responded by ordering a significant increase in the deportation of Jews. The conference, however, was a ruse: as Horthy was returning home on March 19, 1944, the Wehrmacht invaded and occupied Hungary, and Hitler ordered Eichmann, who had arrived in Budapest, to direct the Nazi effort to round up Hungary’s Jews for deportation to Auschwitz. In a span of less than two months beginning May 15, 1944, over 434,000 Jews were deported on 147 trains, most of them to Auschwitz, where about 80 percent were gassed upon arrival.

The Nazis advised Horthy that he could only remain in office if he appointed a new government that would fully cooperate with Hitler and, believing that he had no choice, he acquiesced by appointing Dome Sztójay, his ambassador to Germany, as prime minister. Sztójay’s government wasted no time in taking an active role in the Holocaust, including establishing the legality of the violently antisemitic Arrow Cross, led by the notorious Ferenc Szàlasi, who had been repeatedly imprisoned by Horthy.

Rotta did not take these dire developments sitting down. He launched a relentless and unremitting protest against Horthy and other fascist Hungarian leaders to prevent the deportation of 100,000 Hungarian Jews to the Nazi death camps. In a May 15, 1944, letter to the Sztójay government, he wrote:

The Hungarian government is prepared to deport 100,000 people . . . the whole world knows what deportations mean in practice. The apostolic nunciature considers it to be its duty to protest against such measures . . . it once again appeals to the Hungarian government not to continue this war against the Jews beyond the limits prescribed by the law of nature and the commandmnents of G-d, and to avoid any proceedings against which the Holy See and the conscience of the whole Christian world would be compelled to protest . . . The mere fact that human beings are being persecuted because of the race to which they belong is itself a violation of natural law. If G-d gave them life, no one is entitled to take it from them if they have committed no crime, or to rob them of the means they need to live . . .

Rotta successfully petitioned the Vatican to permit him to issue protective passes, and he received permission to issue the Oltalomlevel, albeit only to Jewish converts to Christianity; nonetheless, he unilaterally decided to exceed the Pope’s authorization and he proceeded to distribute more than 15,000 of the documents to unconverted Jews. In one notable case, he was approached by Sandor Ujvari, a Red Cross official, who requested signed blank pre-signed protective passes to be distributed to Jewish deportees in the death marches; Rotta not only provided the requested documents, thus preventing the transfer of Jews from Hungary to Nazi territory, but he blessed Ujvari and urged him to continue his work, which he characterized as “pleasing to G-d.”

Rotta was also able to save a significant number of Jews who “appeared Aryan” by giving them false birth certificates attesting to the pure Aryan blood of each of their great-grandparents. He encouraged Hungarian church leaders to assist their “Jewish brothers” and organized and led a small undercover network of priests and other church supporters to hide Jews wherever possible, including in convents, monasteries, and, where possible, private homes.

The 2015 commemorative Israel sheet honoring Baranski commissioned by the Wallenberg Foundation.

One of Rotta’s most important volunteers was Catholic seminarian Tibor Baranski, whom he dispatched to the Hungarian “Death March” to the Austrian border to distribute letters of immunity to as many Jews as possible. As a young man studying to be a priest, Baranski decided to meet the to thank him for his work on behalf of saving Jews and, during the course of the meeting, he convinced Rotta to give him papers that would allow some Jewish friends to flee Hungary. Very impressed with the young man, Rotta recruited him to help rescue Jews, and Baranski went on to play a leading role in saving more than 3,000 Jews. He, too, received Yad Vashem recognition as a Righteous Among the Nations (1979) and he was appointed by President Carter to the Holocaust Memorial Council in 1980.

 

Original Oltalomlevel issued and signed by Rotta.

Exhibited here is a rare original Oltalomlevel issued to a Jew, Gábor Leichter (b. 1876) of Pusztafokoru, Szolnok, Hungary, by the diplomatic mission of the Vatican in Budapest on November 9, 1944, declaring that the State of the Vatican has extended its protection to him. It is marked with the inked stamp of the diplomatic mission of the Vatican in Budapest, Hungary, and originally hand signed by Rotta.

Unlike Pius XII, Rotta engaged in outspoken diplomacy, as he vociferously protested Hungary’s mistreatment of the Jews and sent protest letters calling for the end of the Jewish deportations. He influenced the Pope to send a telegram to Horthy to stop the trains deporting Jews out of Hungary, and Rotta is credited with the ultimate decision of the Hungarian government to order a temporary halt to the deportation trains in June 1944.

Much of the Jewish world’s view of Pope Pius XII was shaped by British journalist and author John Cornwell who, in Hitler’s Pope (1999), examined the actions of Pius XII during the Holocaust and concluded that he had assisted in the legitimization of the Third Reich, beginning with his 1933 Concordat between the Vatican and Hitler; that he had failed to use his “bully pulpit” to speak out against Nazi atrocities because he cared more about centralizing the power of the Papacy; and that he was an antisemite lacking any concern for the fate of Europe’s Jews. This view was consistent with the official position of Yad Vashem that the Vatican had maintained neutrality during the war in the face of great evil and had taken no initiatives to save Jews.

However, as the result of new research, including the opening of the Pope’s archives, many respected Jewish and other historians now argue that, although he certainly had his faults, Pius XII was not the monster that he had been portrayed to be. Even Yad Vashem now credits him with having conducted a “considerable number of secret rescue activities,” although it continues to maintain its previous position that he failed to intervene in the deportation of Jews and did not publicly protest against the Holocaust. In any event, Tibor Baranski, Rotta’s associate and Yad Vashem “Righteous Among the Nations” honoree, personally saw at least two handwritten letters from Pius XII instructing Rotta to do his very best to protect Jews, but to refrain from making statements that might provoke the Nazis.

Toward the end of 1944, virtually all of Hungary, except for Budapest, had been rendered “Judenrein.” With the Red Army surrounding Budapest and slowly making progress into the city, hordes of Hungarian Nazis led by the Arrow Cross commenced a reign of terror in which they murdered thousands of Jews in the streets of the capital city. Rotta sent an emergency dispatch to the Vatican urging the Pope to intervene openly and forcefully with the Hungarian government so as to leave no doubt of the Vatican’s fervent opposition to Hungary’s Nazi Arrow Cross junta and its violently antisemitic leader, Ferenc Szàlasi. He quickly established an “International Ghetto” consisting of several dozen modern apartment buildings and, when the Hungarian Government established the “Big Ghetto” on November 15, 1944, to hold 69,000 Jews, 30,000 Jews carrying Rotta’s protective documents were able to seek sanctuary in Rotta’s International Ghetto.

Four days later, at Rotta’s instigation, the Vatican joined the four World War II neutral powers – Sweden, Spain, Portugal and Switzerland – in a mass collective protest to the Hungarian government in which they called for suspension of the deportations of the Jews and to which they affixed their emblems, thereby extending protection to some 30,000 Jews. The legal validity of the letters of protection under international law was questionable, at best, and it was only through Rotta’s continuing herculean efforts that Hungary’s Nazi leaders continued to recognize both the validity of the Oltalmolevels and the extraterritoriality of the safe houses.

As the result of Rotta’s and the Vatican’s intervention, Horthy ordered a halt to the deportations and the death marches on July 6, 1944, but, with the Hungarian government in a near state of anarchy, the deportations nonetheless continued and the Arrow Cross escalated its violence by raiding the International Ghetto and murdering Jews. When Horthy announced in October 1944 that Hungary had declared an armistice with the Allies and withdrawn from the Axis, the Nazis forced his resignation and arrested him. After his liberation at the end of the war, he was arrested by the U.S. Army and imprisoned at Nuremberg. Possibly because he cooperated with the International Military Tribunal by providing information for its case against various Nazi leaders, he was not indicted for war crimes and he became one of the very few Axis heads of state to survive the war.

As the Soviets encircled Budapest and commenced bombing the city, the Hungarian government ordered all accredited diplomats to leave the city, but Rotta refused to flee, insisting that he would remain to the last day to afford whatever assistance he could to the Jewish survivors of Budapest. He stayed behind during the entire terrifying siege of Budapest and, when the Vatican embassy took a direct hit during a Russian air raid in January 1945 and was almost entirely destroyed, he and his staff survived by sheltering in the catacombs beneath the embassy, where they remained until Budapest was liberated by the Russians seven weeks later on February 12, 1945.

Rotta’s interventions not only resulted in saving Jewish lives on his own account, but he also facilitated and promoted the ability of others, including particularly Raoul Wallenberg and Carl Lutz, to perform their heroic work. Perhaps his greatest legacy may be seen through the numbers: while only 260,000 (31 percent) of a pre-war Hungarian Jewish population estimated at 825,000 survived the Holocaust, a remarkable 120,000 (80 percent) of the 150,000 Jews who had been in Budapest when the Nazis arrived in March 1944 survived to liberation, due in no small part to Rotta’s efforts.

After their capture of Budapest, the Russians, seeking to eliminate all credible witnesses to their illegitimate activities, expelled Rotta, who returned to Italy. Pius XII considered returning him to Hungary, but ultimately decided against it because of the Soviet occupiers’ antipathy to religion and the personal risk to Rotta. Rotta lived as a pensioner in the Vatican for the rest of his life but, because he had exceeded the Pope’s permission in his actions to protect Jews, he was spurned by the Pope and by most of his former diplomatic colleagues. After Pius XII’s death in 1958, his successor, Pope John XXIII, offered to appoint Rotta as a cardinal, but he modestly declined.

Budapest plaque honoring Rotta’s honor.

On April 6, 1992, the Hungarian government dedicated a commemorative plaque in Budapest to Rotta as follows:

ANGELO ROTTA
(1872 – 1965)

Archbishop apostle nuncio from 1930 until autumn 1945, he represented the saints in the Hungarian Kingdom, lovingly caring for his motherland during the difficult and turbulent war years, he kindly helped the refugees who fled to our country, and he was remembered by the Hungarian government and the Hungarian Catholic Priesthood.

Rotta had never discussed his activities in Budapest with his friends and close acquaintances and it was not until 31 years after his death, when he was honored by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Amongst the Nations in 1997, that they learned about his extraordinary heroism and gained additional insight into the humility of this great man.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at sauljsing@gmail.com.