R.I.P. Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty February 28,1898-October 30,1963.
There was a tv movie made about Monsignor O’Flaherty starring Gregory Peck called The Scarlet And The Black.
An Irish priest played hide-n-seek with the Gestapo.
The Catholic Church is sometimes criticized for not doing enough to save Jews from the Holocaust. The question is a complex one but one thing not up for dispute is that numerous Catholic clergymen all over Europe risked their lives to help the victims of Nazi persecution. One such priest was the Irishman Hugh O’Flaherty (1898-1963).
O’Flaherty originally intended to be a missionary but he ended up first as a Vatican diplomat to Egypt, Haiti, Santo Domingo and Czechoslovakia, then a papal chamberlain at the Vatican in the mid-1930s. An avid golfer, he played regularly with Mussolini’s son-in-law, former Spanish King Alfonso XIII, and other high society figures.
After World War II broke out, many Allied soldiers, especially British ones from North Africa, ended up in POW camps in Italy. O’Flaherty had reason to resent the British, as their Black and Tan soldiers killed several of his childhood friends during the Irish War of Independence. He, however, put aside his ill feelings and started touring POW camps to find Allied soldiers reported as missing in action and bring news to their families through the Vatican’s radio station.
In July 1943, Mussolini was ousted from power shortly after the Allied landings in Sicily. Many Allied POWs who were released or managed to escape from prison had no way of getting too friendly territory and traveled to Rome to seek O’Flaherty’s help. The situation for these men, as well as Rome’s 10,000 Jews, quickly became worse when Germany established military control over Italy. Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Kappler, a Nazi hardliner, became the head of German police and security services in Rome. He started rounding up Jews, resistance members and other “enemies of the state,” and was directly responsible for the infamous Ardeatine Massacre.
By this time, Monsignor O’Flaherty had built up a circle of operatives working on hiding Jews and POWs in crowded flats, Catholic convents and farms outside the city, with one particular hideout being right next to the Roman SS headquarters. The “Rome Escape Line” comprised of New Zealand priests, Free French agents, communists, escaped POWs, Count Sarsfield Salazar of Switzerland and others. A British major named Sam Derry, who had several previous prison camp and train escapes under his belt, was in charge of security within the conspiracy and made sure POWs in hiding never got too chatty due to an overindulgence of alcohol.
A Malta-born British widow called Chetta Chevalier was another key figure, who stayed in Rome after her son was imprisoned for being a British citizen. She offered her flat as a store- and safehouse and, with help from her daughter, always made sure its inhabitants felt at home, even getting them Christmas presents – all this despite several Gestapo raids.
British Ambassador to the Holy See D’Arcy Osborne was sympathetic to O’Flaherty’s cause and even supported it with funds but could not associate with the priest directly. Instead, he had his butler John May act as the in-between man. May was a genius at locating anything on the black market, from food and false IDs to uniforms, and also controlled who gained personal access to The Monsignor.
In time, Kappler became fully aware of O’Flaherty’s activities but was always one step behind the priest, who used a variety of disguises to move around the city. This habit of his earned him the nickname the ‘Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican,” referring to a popular novel hero who used disguises to save French aristocrats from the guillotine in Revolutionary France.
Kappler stepped up his game and ordered several assassinations against the priest, but all failed. O’Flaherty was once tipped off by none other than the German ambassador and afterward started meeting his contacts on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica, inside the Vatican, where German soldiers weren’t allowed.
Kappler had a white line painted on the ground at the opening of St. Peter’s Square, the official boundary between the Vatican and Italy, and instructed his men to shoot O’Flaherty on sight if he’s ever caught on the wrong side. The order was to no avail: the Irish priest continued eluding the Nazis. When the Allies finally reached Rome, his group was taking care of 3,925 escaped POWs, 185 of them Americans, and an unknown number of Jews.
After the war, Kappler was sentenced to life without parole. Surprisingly, O’Flaherty visited him regularly in prison and the two, talking about literature and religion, grew to be a peculiar pair of friends. Kappler, born and raised a protestant, even converted to Catholicism and was baptized by the man who was first his elusive prey, then his friend: the Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican.
You can learn more about the brave individuals of Rome who risked their lives to aid the victims of Fascism on our Italian Campaign Tours. It’s still not too late to join us this fall on the tour scheduled for October 13-23, 2018.