Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican

Hugh O'Flaherty

"The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican"
"A Vatican Lifeline"
"Saving of Colonel Kappler"
"Vatican war hero may have been Nazi 'mole'"

The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican

Hugh O'Flaherty had only a standard, modest Irish antipathy towards the British until he was in seminary; then some of his boyhood friends were killed by the Black and Tans.

O'Flaherty earned his bachelor's degree in theology in one year at the Urban College of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, and was ordained in 1925. He served as vice rector of the college for the next two years, while earning doctorates in divinity, canon law and philosophy. After four years in the Vatican diplomatic service, he was appointed a notary of the Holy Office.

Although many people found him rough-edged, Msgr. O'Flaherty had a stunning success in Roman social high life; this would prove important during the Nazi occupation. He raised some eyebrows by becoming amateur golf champion of Italy-- diocesan priests of Rome were not allowed to play golf. Cardinal Ottaviani, however, liked and defended him.

Monsignor O'Flaherty got his start in smuggling and hiding refugees in the fall of 1942, when the Germans and Italians cracked down on prominent Jews and aristocratic anti-Fascists. Monsignor O'Flaherty had socialized with these people before the war; now he hid them in monasteries and convents, and in his own residence--the German College.

In the spring of 1943, his operation broadened to include escaped British POWs; and he acquired a most improbable partner, Sir Francis D'Arcy Godolphin Osborne, British Minister to the Vatican. The POWs would be safe in the Vatican, but as internees they would be unable to rejoin their fighting units. Sir D'Arcy's status prevented him from leaving the Vatican, so Msgr. O'Flaherty developed a network of apartments in Rome in which they could hide.

In September the Germans occupied Rome. The Italian game of "forgetting" to round up Jews was over.

According to Msgr. O'Flaherty's biographer, J.P. Gallagher, Vatican officials who had inclined to prudence and ordinary Italians who had been indifferent to the plight of the Jews were radicalized by the Gestapo. "Even the most conservative men in the Vatican were prepared now to give the trouble-shooting Monsignor quite a bit more rope."

Monsignor O'Flaherty hid Jews in monasteries and convents, at Castel Gandolfo, in his old college of the Propaganda Fide, in the German College and in his network of apartments. Every evening, he stood in the porch of St. Peter's, in plain view both of the German soldiers across the piazza and of the windows of the Pope's apartments. Escaped POWs and Jews would come to him there. He would smuggle them across the piazza and through the German Cemetary to the college. Sometimes he would disguise them in the robes of a monsignor or the uniform of a Swiss Guard.

"One Jew," Gallagher reports, "made his way to St. Peter's and, coming up to O'Flaherty at his usual post on the steps and drawing him deeper into the shadows, proceeded to unwind a solid gold chain that went twice around his waist. 'My wife and I expect to be arrested at any moment,' said the Jew. 'We have no way of escaping. When we are taken to Germany we shall die. But we have a small son; he is only seven and is too young to die in a Nazi gas chamber. Please take this chain and take the boy for us too. Each link of the chain will keep him alive for a month. Will you save him?'"

Monsignor O'Flaherty improved upon this plan: he accepted the chain, hid the boy and procured false papers for the parents. At the end of the war, he returned the boy and the chain.

Colonel Herbert Kappler, Rome's Gestapo chief, set several traps for Msgr. O'Flaherty. Once he escaped by a rolling-block charge through Gestapo men and in at the doors of St. Mary Major--extraterritorial property of the Church. Another time, he was at the palace of Prince Filippo Doria Pamphili, who provided funds for his operations. The SS surrounded the palace; Msgr. O'Flaherty escaped to the basement, then up a coal chute and away in the coal truck that had been making a delivery.

Finally Colonel Kappler complained to Berlin. Monsignor O'Flaherty received an invitation to a reception at the Hungarian Embassy, with an implicit safe-conduct. There Baron von Weiszacker, the German Ambassador, told him: "Nobody in Rome honors you more than I do for what you are doing. But it has gone too far for us all. Kappler is waiting in the hall, feeling rather frustrated.... I have told him that you will of course have safe-conduct back to the Vatican tonight. But...if you ever step outside Vatican territory again, on whatever pretext, you will be arrested at once.... Now will you please think about what I have said?"

O'Flaherty smiled down at von Weiszacker and replied: "Your Excellency is too considerate. I will certainly think about what you have said-- sometimes!"

Of 9,700 Roman Jews, 1,007 were shipped to Auschwitz. The rest were hidden, 5,000 of them by the official Church--3,000 in Castel Gandolfo, 200 or 400 (estimates vary) as "members" of the Palatine Guard and some 1,500 in monasteries, convents and colleges. The remaining 3,700 were hidden in private homes, including Msgr. O'Flaherty's network of apartments.

After the war, Colonel Kappler was sentenced to life in the Gaeta prison, between Rome and Naples. His only visitor was an Irish monsignor who came once a month. In 1959 Msgr. O'Flaherty baptized Herbert Kappler into the Catholic Church.

"Elsewhere in Italy," Pinchas Lapide says, "thanks in part to the lifting of the least 40,000 Italian Jews and others who had managed to flee to Italy were hidden and saved by humble priests, monks, farmers and laborers, dozens of whom lost their lives for sheltering them."

After the war O'Flarherty was named Notary of the Holy Office, the first Irishman to receive that honor. In 1960, he retired to Cahirciveen, County Kerry, where he died in 1963, and is buried in Cahersiveen.

Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican J.P. Gallagher, Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican New York: Coward-McCann), 1968, p.63. ISBN 000621892X


"A Vatican Lifeline"

"It was the most gigantic game of hide-and-seek you've ever seen," said William Simpson, but the stakes were enormous in 1944 as 75,000 escaped British and American prisoners of war took refuge in the farmhouses and flats of Italy while German troops scoured the country in search of them." Major William Simpson

Simpson, then a major in the British army, was one of those escaped prisoners, and he claims that it was the courage of an Irish priest working out of the Vatican and the pluck of the Italian people in general that got the escaped soldiers through the deadly eight-month-long game of cat and mouse.

Simpson pieces it all together in his fast-paced book "A Vatican Lifeline", which tells a little-known tale of the "remarkably courageous" and resourceful job done by thousands of everyday Italians to protect Allied soldiers trapped behind enemy lines during the final stages of World War II.

A Scottish Presbyterian, Simpson tells firsthand how Jewish refugees and escaped war prisoners alike were given refuge in the basements and attics of many Catholic seminaries and universities throughout Rome, through the assistance of Msgr. Hugh O'Flaherty of the Vatican diplomatic corps. Simpson has great respect for the Vatican, and particularly for the determined Irish monsignor who assisted thousands of soldiers, Jews and refugees of many other creeds and nationalities hidden throughout Rome and the Italian countryside. It was through Msgr. O'Flaherty's unofficial organization that the war refugees received food, clothing and money to reimburse their hosts -- what Simpson calls a "Vatican lifeline."

Simpson was among the thousands of soldiers captured in Africa during early stages of the war with Germany and was later transferred to prison camps in Italy.Simpson and his group, with the help of a village girl, made contact with Msgr. O'Flaherty in Rome, first receiving financial assistance through the pipeline the priest had established. Then, as the German's were about to snare his group, they fled to Rome with the hope of linking up with the monsignor. It was Simpson's attention to detail in reporting how funds were expended that prompted the monsignor to enlist him in a key role of distributing food and funds to the thousands of soldiers secretly billeted throughout Rome. German security troops were watching Msgr. O'Flaherty, suspecting his activities, and Simpson was among several people he drafted to continue his efforts. "He was a fantastic man," Simpson said of his Vatican benefactor. "He used to play games with the Germans," going out whenever he needed to, even though he was subject to arrest. He even treated Simpson to a tour of Rome with a running lecture on its history. Only after the monsignor received a stern warning from the Germans was the operation moved into the Vatican grounds. Then Simpson and others, with forged identity cards, had to pass the scrutiny of the Swiss Guards before gaining admission.

Originally, the operation was funded with 150,000 lire from a wealthy private donor. Eventually, the British extended a line of credit for Msgr. O'Flaherty's unsanctioned activities through the Vatican bank.


"Saving Colonel Kappler"

He was the kind of villain that we love to hate in the movies. But this was no movie: It was the city of Rome under Nazi rule during the Second World War. Our villain is Colonel Herman Kappler, commander of the SS forces occupying Rome. As villains go, he has an impressive resume: * Upon the occupation of Rome the Gestapo demanded a multimillion dollar ransom for the lives of the Roman Jews. With the help of Pope Pius XII, the chief rabbi of Rome raised the money within 24 hours, but the Nazis weren't satisfied, and under Kappler's supervision began to herd the Jews away in cattle trucks and wagons bound for the concentration camps.

* Kappler's SS routinely tortured and executed suspected members of the resistance.

* When a bomb planted by the militant communist underground killed 32 German soldiers in Rome, Kappler responded by randomly selecting 320 mostly civilian prisoners for slaughter -- a 10-to-1 reprisal -- including political prisoners, petty thieves and prostitutes. They were bound, marched through the streets of Rome, herded onto trucks and mowed down by machine gun fire in the Ardeatine Caves. The entrances to the caves were blown up, sealing the dead and wounded behind hundreds of tons of rock.

For all his brutality, Kappler had not been able to capture the man who was behind the massive underground network that aided escaped Allied POWs and Jews in Rome. Kappler knew who the man was, but there was a problem: He was a Vatican priest. As long as he remained on neutral Vatican territory, Kappler couldn't touch him.

But this tough Irish priest was not the neutral territory type: Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty was a tall, broad-shouldered, accomplished amateur boxer who didn't run away from a fight. Through his wit and impressive golf game he had won over many of Rome's elite and was unlikely to sit out the war and allow his contacts to go unused. So Kappler had O'Flaherty watched, and finally, on one brilliant sunny winter morning, had him cornered.

The Nazi SS had the palazzo of Prince Filipo Doria Pamphili surrounded. O'Flaherty was inside. Colonel Kappler stepped out of his black limousine to personally apprehend the troublesome priest. O'Flaherty raced down a narrow stone staircase into the cellar -- no way out, nowhere to hide. The Germans were in the building now -- he could hear them yelling upstairs. They'd pull the place apart looking for him and would burst into the cellar in moments.

Too much was at stake for too many people for him to surrender to Kappler now -- especially for Prince Filipo and the others upstairs who were compromised by O'Flaherty's presence. If he could somehow escape, the Nazis wouldn't be able to prove he had been there and would be forced to let the matter drop.

As he edged along the passageway that led to the cellar beneath the courtyard, he noticed a strange sound, like rocks rolling down a stone mountain face. As he moved closer to the sound, he saw light -- daylight! The prince's winter coal supply was sliding into a coal bin through an open trapdoor in the courtyard.

He scrambled up the pile of shifting coal and stuck his head out of the trapdoor. Two Italian coalmen were between him and the courtyard gates where the SS troops were keeping watch for him. The coal truck was parked outside the gates.

O'Flaherty took off his black monsignor's robe and hat put them into an empty coal sack. He tore his collarless shirt to his waist and rubbed coal dust all over himself from head to toe. With the cooperation of one of the coalmen who had no love for the Nazis, O'Flaherty strolled right past the two lines of SS troops, who disdainfully gave him a broad berth so they wouldn't get their uniforms dirty.

When he was out of the soldiers' sight, he took his priestly robe and hat out of the coal sack slung over his shoulder, tucked them under his arm, and rushed to the nearest church, where he cleaned up and set off for the safety of the Vatican. After several hours, he called Prince Filipo who said that everyone was safe and that Kappler was furious.

A few months earlier, this Catholic priest from neutral Ireland working in the neutral Vatican city-state during the Second World War would never have imagined being in such a predicament. He had grown up an IRA sympathizer who detested the British. As a result, in the early years of the war, he dismissed accounts of German atrocities as Allied propaganda. "I read the propaganda on both sides," he would say, "and I don't believe much of it. I don't think there is anything to choose between Britain and Germany."

And so O'Flaherty's efforts to aid escaping Allied POWs could just as easily have been made on behalf of escaping Nazi POWs if he had been in the midst of an Allied occupation. Initially he was simply helping souls in need.

But the sight of the Nazis carting away Roman Jews in 1943 made it impossible for O'Flaherty to remain neutral.

The Nazis' treatment of the Roman Jews transformed O'Flaherty, who in turn transformed his fledgling, informal network of contacts into a massive partisan effort to save as many Allied soldiers and Roman Jews as possible. He came to understand that the Nazis had to be defeated. As a result, this Irishman who detested the British saved more Allied lives than any other single person in World War II -- more British than any other nationality. His efforts earned him the nickname, "the Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican," and he was decorated, ironically, a Commander of the British Empire.

Kappler and O'Flaherty played a life-and-death cat-and-mouse game in which O'Flaherty always managed to stay one step ahead of his archnemesis. In frustration, Kappler even attempted to have the Irish priest forcibly dragged off the neutral Vatican territory and assassinated. O'Flaherty's network got wind of the plan and arranged instead for the two Gestapo assassins to receive a good beating at the hands of four Swiss guards.

The bitter rivalry between this German Nazi and this Irish priest sets the stage for O'Flaherty's most remarkable rescue.

After the war, Colonel Kappler was tried and convicted for war crimes. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for his part in the slaughter of the 320 at the Ardeatine Caves.

Over 50 years later, our popular imagination still strains to contrive a villain more detestable than a Nazi war criminal who sent Jews to concentration camps and tortured and murdered innocent civilians.

Only one person ever visited Kappler in prison. For years, almost every month, a tall, broad-shouldered figure of a man would call on the former Nazi. It was the Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican, Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty, on a different kind of rescue mission, reaching out to a soul in need.

More than most of us, this tough Irishman had the courage to fight evil and to seek justice at tremendous personal risk. But he also knew that we are called to love our enemies and that even villains need mercy.

Forgiveness is not saying the offense never happened. It did. Forgiveness is not saying that everything's okay. It isn't. Forgiveness is not saying we no longer feel the pain of the offense. We do. For Father O'Flaherty, forgiveness was saying "I still feel the pain, but I am willing to let go of your involvement in my pain."

In fact, Father O'Flaherty in March 1959, Herman Kappler, former SS colonel, Nazi war criminal, sought forgiveness and salvation in the waters of baptism poured by the hand of Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty.


"Vatican war hero may have been Nazi 'mole'"

From Richard Owen in Rome
The Times July 3, 2000 EUROPE

"An Irish priest in the Vatican during the Second World War who was hailed as a hero for saving the lives of Jews and Allied prisoners may have been a Nazi informer, according to CIA archives.

"The Nazis had a Deep Throat inside the Vatican," La Repubblica said yesterday. It was not clear, however, whether Mgr Hugh O'Flaherty, whose life-saving exploits were made into a film starring Gregory Peck, gave information to the SS "wittingly or unwittingly", the newspaper said.

It was possible Mgr O'Flaherty tried to mislead the Germans, the report added, since the SS document, from newly opened CIA archives, naming him as a source gives inaccurate information about proposed Allied landings in Italy.

The 1983 film The Scarlet and the Black, which also starred John Gielgud as Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) showed how Mgr O'Flaherty earned the title "the Oscar Schindler of Killarney" by hiding 4,000 Jews and escaped Allied prisoners. Killarney is proposing to erect a bronze statue of O'Flaherty to honour him.

The doubts over his activities come amid continuing controversy over the Vatican's relationship with Nazi Germany. The proposed beatification of Pius XII is bitterly opposed by Jewish groups who say he ignored Nazi atrocities and helped Hitler to win power.

Pius XII's supporters insist that he condemned Nazism and, like Mgr O'Flaherty, saved Jewish lives. Jewish activists also oppose beatification of Pius IX, a 19th-century pontiff accused of forcibly converting a Jewish boy to Christianity because he had been baptised by the family maid.

The reference to O'Flaherty, the representative in the war-time Vatican of the American Red Cross, is contained in documents released by the CIA at College Park in Maryland. La Repubblica said: "Thanks to the Enigma decoding machine, the British Secret Services knew that the SS had an informer - willing or unwilling - inside the Vatican".

It quoted an SS commander as reporting to Berlin in October 1943 that Mgr O'Flaherty had warned a secure source that Anglo-American forces were preparing a landing in Italy, either at Civitavecchia or in Sardinia, and that the Russians opposed a similar landing in the Balkans.

In the event the Allies, who landed first in Sicily, invaded the mainland not at Civitavecchia, on the coast north of Rome, but at Salerno and later Anzio, south of Rome.

The documents also appear to implicate Cardinal Ildebrando Schuster, Archbishop of Milan, by suggesting that he was involved in the transfer of "large sums of money" from Milan to Rome by Nazi agents at the war's end. Reports said, however, that the cardinal may not have been aware of who held the bank accounts and that the transfers came at a time when he was offering his "good offices" as a channel of negotiation between the Germans and advancing Allies.

Timothy Naftali, Professor of History at the University of Virginia, who is analysing the 400,000 documents, said they also contained embarrassments for the Allies. Last week it emerged that British intelligence was aware of the planned deportation of more than 100,000 Jews from Rome in October 1943 but failed to act. "The British were looking for military secrets, not humanitarian issues," Professor Naftali told Il Giornale."

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