Firehouse Encounter Inspires Pope Francis

Assemblyman Anthony D’Urso honors Gene Tesoriero at the Vigilant firehouse on Oct. 30, 2017.

It all started at the Vigilant firehouse in Great Neck. Gene Tesoriero, known to his friends as “Geno,” was being honored. He had been a volunteer firefighter with the Vigilant Fire Company for an impressive 70 years.

“I absolutely adore the guy,” said Michael Weinstock, who spent 12 years as a Vigilant firefighter and looks up to Tesoriero as a friend and role model.

To make the day even more special, Weinstock invited Assemblyman Anthony D’Urso to honor Tesoriero with a proclamation. The assemblyman wholeheartedly accepted the invitation.

It was during Tesoriero’s big day at the firehouse that D’Urso first shared with Weinstock his tale of heroism, explaining how his family hid a large Jewish family from the Nazis when he was a little boy in Italy. The conversation continued over coffee at a local diner.

Awestruck and intrigued that the story had never come to light publicly, Weinstock volunteered to begin researching the details. Neither men imagined that their endeavor would get them an invitation to meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican in Rome.

Weinstock was hopeful that he could prove the D’Urso family’s story of heroism. Even though the two families had been separated following WWII, Weinstock was optimistic. After graduating from law school, he worked as an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn. He had experience locating people and tracking down evidence.

The assemblyman and his wife, Maria, were absolutely elated when Weinstock started coming to their house with clues. Eventually, he discovered a Holocaust diary, written by a survivor named Aldo Sinagallia, in the National Archives of Italy. The diary described the incredible risks and sacrifices the assemblyman’s father, Guiseppe D’Urso, undertook to hide his Jewish friends. 

Weinstock used Facebook to locate Sinagallia’s descendants. A reunion was quickly organized in Naples, Italy.

While the D’Urso family had been searching for their Jewish friends for the past 50 years, it never occurred to them that the Sinagallia family was doing the same exact thing. Both families had been doggedly searching for years.

At the reunion, which received widespread media attention in New York and Italy, everyone cried tears of joy—the D’Ursos, the Sinagallias, Weinstock and even the rabbi.

From left: Assemblyman Anthony D’Urso, former firefighter Michael Weinstock and Comptroller Tom DiNapoli meet with the Pope at the Vatican on Feb. 20.

The Vatican learned of the story, and Pope Francis was impressed. Invitations were extended. The Pope wanted to bless the D’Urso family for risking their lives to rescue their Jewish friends. He also wished to honor Michael Weinstock for his volunteer work, reuniting the two families. The event was organized by the Pave the Way Foundation, a small nonprofit group that promotes stories of love and friendship among people of different religious faiths.

At the Vatican, D’Urso spoke in Italian when he introduced Weinstock to Pope Francis.

“Michael is the young man who discovered the diary and reunited the two families,” D’Urso explained. “And before attending law school, Michael was a firefighter. He responded on the morning of 9/11.”

Pope Francis’s mouth dropped and his eyes opened as wide as possible.

“Really? You did both? This is amazing,” the Pope said to Weinstock.

Weinstock told the Great Neck Record he was “thoroughly embarrassed” by the kind words the Pontiff expressed and was eager to change the subject as quickly as possible. Weinstock laughed and tried to talk about the diary instead.

“The Pope was having none of it. The more I tried to deflect attention, the more Pope Francis laughed and told me how much he respects firefighters,” noted Weinstock. “Toward the end of the conversation, I was caught off guard. The Pope asked me to pray for him. Of course, I said ‘Yes,’ and I asked for a prayer. I asked the Pope to pray for my friend Jimmy Boyle, a retired FDNY [New York City Fire Department] firefighter who is recovering from surgery.”

Boyle was president of the FDNY union and later worked with Weinstock at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office. According to the former assistant district attorney, Boyle is now “on the mend.” The two spoke earlier in the week, when Boyle was at the YMCA doing his exercises.

Vigilant Fire Company volunteers Michael Weinstock (left) is with his buddy Jonathan Ielpi, who perished in 9/11.

The Great Neck Record also heard from an enthusiastic Lee Ielpi, former Vigilant Fire Company chief and president of the 9/11 Tribute Museum in Lower Manhattan, whose son Jonathan Ielpi, a former Vigilant firefighter with Weinstock who went on to become a FDNY firefighter, was killed on 9/11.

“I was thrilled to see photos of Michael with Pope Francis,” said Ielpi. “But, I can’t say I was entirely surprised. There’s a reason that Jonathan and Michael were such close friends. Michael is an exceptional young man with a passion for helping others, just like Jonathan. I am very proud of both of them.”

Ielpi went on to say, “Jonathan Ielpi, Michael Weinstock and Gene Tesoriero are all cut from the same cloth. That’s what makes the Vigilant Fire Company such a special place.”

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