To call Father Hugh O’Flaherty the Irish Oskar Schindler is no exaggeration. O’Flaherty took just as many risks and saved just as many lives.
John Spain on a new book about a Kerry priest who saved thousands of Jews in Rome during the Nazi occupation.
The name Oskar Schindler is known around the world. But the name Hugh O’Flaherty has been largely forgotten, even though the story of how the priest from Kerry saved the lives of so many Jewish people during the Second World War is equally dramatic.
The only monument in Ireland to the man once known as the Vatican Pimpernel is a grove of Italian trees planted in Killarney National Park in 1994 by his family and friends.
O’Flaherty has slipped from memory but The Vatican Pimpernel, a new book about his wartime exploits to be published next month, will remind us of what an amazing character he was. The story it tells is extraordinary. To call O’Flaherty the Irish Oskar Schindler is no exaggeration. O’Flaherty took just as many risks and saved just as many lives.
Early in the war, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, a Kerryman who had become a senior Vatican diplomat, was merely an observer of what was happening in Europe . Ordained in Ireland in 1925, he had been appointed to a position in Rome in 1936, where he had risen speedily through the ranks of the Vatican civil service. As the book says, he was a man of considerable ability, but subsequent events were to show that he was also a man who possessed truly great qualities of leadership, ingenuity, compassion and courage.
In June 1940, fascist dictator Mussolini announced that Italy was entering the war on the side of Germany and, from that point on, O’Flaherty’s position began to change from someone who was just an observer in Rome to someone who was drawn into the horror of what was going on.
He later told a friend that when the war started he used to listen in Rome to broadcasts from both sides. It was all propaganda, he said, with both sides making terrible charges against each other. He didn’t know what to believe “until they started rounding up the Jews in Rome. They treated them like beasts, making old men and women get down on their knees and scrub the roads. You know the sort of thing that happened after that; it got worse and worse, and I knew then which side I had to believe.”
This happened during the German occupation of Rome from 1942 to 1944. The personable O’Flaherty was well known in the city, as well as in the Vatican, and people who were in fear of their lives began to seek his help. Gradually, he set up and developed an escape organisation for Allied POWs, civilians and Jews. The work was dangerous.
Within the Vatican he was safe, but outside it he ran the risk of being caught and shot.
Under a 1929 Treaty between the Mussolini government and the Papacy, the Vatican was recognised as an independent sovereign state, and this also covered some church buildings in other parts of Rome, including several Basilicas, papal offices and the papal summer residence at Castelgandolfo.
A battle of nerves and wits began between the head of the Gestapo in Rome and O’Flaherty, who regularly ventured out in disguise (he was so good at it he became known as the Vatican Pimpernel), moving between the different church properties and building a network of contacts and safe locations across the city. At various times he dressed as a street sweeper, labourer, postman and even a nun, despite the fact that he was around six feet tall and well-built.
His helpers included priests and nuns, communists and some larger-than-life figures, including a Swiss count and the Irish ballad singer Delia Murphy, who was married to the Irish government’s diplomatic representative at the Vatican.
He also got a great deal of help from local people who lived in or near Rome and who sheltered the escaped POWs and Jewish people in their houses and apartments at great risk to themselves. This vast network which saved so many lives was organised by O’Flaherty with great energy and ingenuity.
Although the Italian fascists and the Nazis in Rome knew what was going on, they were too stretched on the ground to completely stamp it out.
But when they caught anyone involved their reaction was brutal. The head of the Gestapo in Rome, Lieut. Colonel Herbert Kappler, ordered that O’Flaherty be captured or killed if he was spotted outside the Vatican. But even though some of those who had been helped by his network were caught and tortured, no one betrayed him.
By the time the Allies arrived in Rome, Monsignor O’Flaherty had saved over 6,000 people and the story of how he did it and the many dramatic subterfuges that were used make an exciting read.
The story has been told before, in the 1983 film The Scarlet and the Black, with O’Flaherty played by Gregory Peck (although looking at the picture of O’Flaherty here, which was taken in the 1950s, you’d say that he should have been played by Karl Malden, who was his double).
The film was a success and O’Flaherty became famous for a while. He was awarded the highest honours by many Allied countries, including a CBE (UK), the Congressional Medal (US), and he was the first Irishman to be named Notary of the Holy Office. He retired to Cahirciveen in 1960.
Eight million people watched him in 1963 on the BBC’s This Is Your Life, with many of his wartime helpers and some of those he had saved turning up to pay tribute to him on the programmme. He died just a few months later.
Since then, he has been forgotten, although this superb book by school principal and former TD Brian Fleming will help to restore his memory. It is a fastidious history of those fascinating years in Rome, which also manages to be as exciting as a thriller.
One postscript to the story gives an indication of the humanity of Monsignor O’Flaherty. After the war, the Gestapo chief in Rome, Kappler, was sentenced to life in prison. His only visitor for many years was O’Flaherty, who was still working at the Vatican and who faithfully turned up every month to see the man who had spent the war years trying to kill him. The two men eventually became friends and in 1959 O’Flaherty baptised his former enemy.