The Priestly Pimpernel
literallyunderthe noseof the NaziSS,Monsignor
rescuedthousandsof Jewsand AlliedPOWs.
f the inmates confined to Italy's
Gaetaprison, none was as notorious as Herbert Kappler. Prior to
his incarcerationin 1945, Kappler had
beenthe most t-earedman in Italy - commander of SS tbrces in occupied Rome,
with the po\r'erto kill people at whim.
On October 16. 1943, Kappler issued
orders for the Jews of Rome to be rounded up for deportation to the death camps.
Five months lateq in retaliation for a guerrilla bombing that killed 33 members of
the SS, Kappler ordered the summary execution of more than 300 Italian civilians,
whom he picked at random. The victims,
with their handsbound behind them, were
quietly marched to the outskirts of Rome,
whence they were transportedin trucks to
the Ardeatine Caves at Domatilla. There
they were unloadedin batches,placed into
the caves,and sprayedwith machine-gun
For several hours, Kappler personally
supervisedthe butchery. When the last of
the victims had been thrust into the caves,
the Nazi officer ordered his underlings to
detonatechargesthat had been placed at
the cave entrances,thereby entombing the
dead- and the still-living - behind several hundredtons ofrock.
Among the victims of this atrocity.
which came to be known as the Massacre
at the Ardeatine Caves,were five members
of an underground network organized bv
Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty. Throughout
Rome and its suburbs, members of this
network operatedsafehousesfor refugees
and escaped Allied prisoners of war.
O'Flaherty had begun this work in 1942.
when he began to offer sanctuaryin the
Vaticanto prominent Jewsand anti-Fascist
aristocrats, many of whom he had gotten
to know prior to the war. By the spring of
1943,the monsignorhad expandedhis efforts to include escapedBritish POWs a risky undertaking made all the more remarkableby the fact that O'Flaherty, an ardent Irish nationalist, had little love for the
THENEW AMERICAN . MARCH 22, 2004
Prior to the German occupation of Rome
in SeptemberI943,Italian Jewswere relatively safe. "Mussolini passedanti-Semitic laws to pleasehis senior [Axis] partner, but he originally tempered them
according to limits set bv his own am-
SS drew a white line marking the limits of
the Vatican's jurisdiction. Eventually,
O'Flaherty was warned that crossing the
white line would mean immediate arrest.
Both Colonel Kappler and Ludwig Koch,
the inventive sadistwho presidedover SS
toffure sessionsat the ReginaCoeli prison,
madeit abundantlyclear that interrogation,
torture and execution awaited the monsignor if he fell into their hands.
"Monsignor O'FlahertY hid Jews in
Another operation, run b1
Padre Ruffino Niccacci, con- monasteriesand convents,at Castel Gancealed300 Jewishfugitives in dolto. in his old collegeof the Propaganda
College and in his netbiguous prejudice toward Jews and by religious shrinesin Assisi, where they u'ere Fide. in the German
recounts an official
what the Italian public and officials would given forged
in Ireland, where
reasonablytolerate," point out social his1898. "Every
torians Samuel P. and Pearl
porch of St.
"Italian Jews were highly
plain view of both the German
soldiersacrossthe prazzaand of the winian gentiles.They had extensivepersonal
dows of the Pope's apartments.Escaped
and public contacts with the latter, to AnAudacious
and Jewswould come to him there."
whom they readily turned when they need- Monsignor O'Flaherty's Vatican-based PO\\"s
'"One Jew made his way to St. Peter's
network was hardly unique.
at his usual
Thousandsof Italian Jews were able to guished O'Flaherty from his colleagues and. coming up to O'Flaherty
flee to safety in Switzerland.But the sur- was
popvival of most of the country's Jewish
ulation was due to
Pimpemel of the Vatican."My wife and I
opposition to the Final Solution, compas- sanctuary.
Driven by strategicexpediency,the Ger- e\pect to be arrestedat arrymoment,"'oWe
sion, and active couragesavedmany Italmonsignor.
ian Jewswho would otherwisehavefallen mans grudgingly respectedthe Vatican's
When we are
victim to it." In the notorious "Black Sab- sovereignty.Upon occupying Rome. the have no u a1' of escaping.
bath" raid mounted immediately after Lt.
Colonel Kappler's deportationorder,Nazi
officials expectedto seizemore than 8,000
Jews - only to fall far short of that goal
because "seven thousand found hiding
Much of the
the Oliners was exercisedwithin the Vatican. In The Altruistic Personality, theu
study of those who rescuedJewsin NazioccupiedEurope, the Oliners recall:
From this union spran,qa
factory for fabricating identity and food-ration cards
and a network for distributing them to Jewsin hidin-e.
The Benedetto operation
ultimately helped 1,500
foreign Jewsand 2,500 Italian Jews.
tTlhe Catholic Church concealed
hundredsof Jews in the Vatican complex and several thousand more in
Roman monasteries and convents
during this emergency.Other rescue
rings relied heavily on clerical involvement. After Germany occupied
the Italian sector of France, the irrepressible Father Marie-Benoit
changedhis name to Benedetto and
resumedhis activities in Rome, where
he joined forces with the Jewishrelief
agency for refugees, DELASEM.
THE NEW AMERICAN ' MARCH 22, 2004
taken to Germany we shall die. But we
have a small son; he is only sevenand is
too young to die in a Nazi gas chamber.
Pleasetake this chain and take the boy for
us, too. Each link of the chain will keep
him alive for a month. Will you savehim?"
O'Flaherty, "but I
have a better plan. I will put the boy somewhere safe and I will look after the chain
for you. I will not use it unlessI have to. I
will get you and your wife new [identity]
papers,Italian papers,and you can continue to live openly in Rome." Within a short
time the monsignor had obtained the
forged documents and secretedthe young
child in a safehouse.At the war's end, he
reunited the child with his parents, who
had survived the war. He also returned the
gold chain, intact, to its owner.
Often disguising his chargesin clerical
robes or the uniform of Swiss Guards,
O'Flaherty would smugglethem to relative
safety within his network of apartments.
On more than one occasion the SS or its
subordinatesin the Fascistpolicemanaged
to infiltrate his organization, and some of
O'Flaherty's helpers ended up in the
Gestapo'shands,where they were tortured
and, occasionally,killed. But Kappler wasn't contentto snaga few minorplayers;he
desperately wanted to get his hands on
also,but usethe door immediately behind where O'Flaherty stands now.
Seizehim, hustle him down the steps
and acrossthe line. When you get him
away and into a side street, free him
- for a moment. I don't want to see
him alive again and we certainly
don't want any formal trials. He will
have been "shot while escaping."
One morning in March 1944, Kappler attempted to grab the monsignor in a blatant Fortunately,Kappler's plan becameknown
powerplay. Striding up to the white line at to John May, an Englishman who providthe boundary of St. Peter's,the SS officer ed key services (including document
explained his plan to the two Gestapo forgery) to the O'Flaherty underground.
thugs in plain clothes accompanying him. When the Gestapoagentsshowed up acAs recounted by Gallagher, Kappler cording to plan, they were quietly intersputtered:
cepted by a pair of burly Swiss Guards,
who led the thugs out of the chapel. The
That is him - Monsignor Hugh
SS men had expectedto rejoin the group
O'Flaheq'a mad Irish priest, but
of German paratroopers who kept station
dangerous.too dangerousto live, He
just beyond the white line. However, the
has given us more trouble than any
other man in Rome and it must stop.
to another exit, where they found a much
He knows he rvill be arrestedif we
different welcoming committee - a group
catch him outside Vatican territorv
of Serbianexpatriates.As Gallagher wryly
and we have so far failed to
records,"it was a very batteredand bruised
lure him acrossthat line, or
pair who reported yet another failure to
spot him when he has slipped
Kappler later that morning."
away into the city, which he
O'Flaherty's closestcall came during a
does whenever he feels like
visit to the Pallazo Doria, where he was
it! Since we can't take him
visiting with Prince Filipo Doria Pamphili
frontally, we shall try from
to request funding for his underground.
the rear. Listen carefully. He
The prince provided the monsignor with a
doesnot know you....Tomorgift of 300,000 lire and promised to take
ros'you will attendservicein
up "a little collection among our friends St. Peter's....As they start to
your friends." "There's nothing to worry
come out you will come out
about," he assuredO'Flaherty. "We won't
After recovering from his surprise,the
alerted him to the fact that
man heaved his sack as requested,
the prince had chosen
day to take in his winter then crouched down to speak with the
'A new assistantI have, eh?" he
supply of coal - offering priest.
the monsignor a providen- commented,a conspiratorial grin spreading acrosshis face.
"There's no time to waste," O'Flaherty
After rushing to the coal
room, O'Flaherty scram- warned his new friend. "I want you to stay
bled up a small, shifting here a minute or two, no more. As soon as
mound of coal and careful- I've gone through the gatesyou can come
ly openeda trapdoor to the out and get on with the delivery." "Right,
courtyard. There he found Father,"replied the coal man, warning him
a coal sackladen with dust. not to let his co-workerMarco seehis face.
of his clerical vestments. "He's so dumb he might give you away."
let you down."
Grasping the heavy coal sack, O'FlaAt that very moment, the prince's sec- the monsignor smearedcoal dust over his
retary burst into the room and gestured face, hair and chest to disguise himself. hertl' strode quickly but calmly acrossthe
fiantically toward a window: "Oh, yes, From the shadows of his hiding place. courtl'ard, toward a naffow gap in the SS
there is something to worry about - look through the open trapdoor, the monsignor lines through which the actual coal workhere." The street below was clogged with tersely whispered to one of the coal work- ers had passed.Eagerto avoid soiling their
SS troops. Kappler himself could be seen ers, "Stay exactly as you are and listen.... unitbrms, the SS men gave the filthy
emerging from his black saloon car, his I'm a priest. The Gestapo are after me. priest-cmr-coalworkera wide berth, never
Leave that sack on the side there and come uondering why a supposed coal man
face amask of arrogant triumPh.
n ould be carrying a sack of coal out. The
Fildown here a moment!"
"l'mafraid this is
is no point in resisting.
There is no way to escape this time." "Don't
you believe it!" replied
O'Flaherty, grabbing the
"We'd better find some
other place to meet next
time. I mustn't compromise you. If the Germans
don't find me here they
can't prove I was here.
I'll think of a new rendezvous.... God bless
downstairs, where the
prince's staff was trying
to delay the SS officers
angrily banging on the
door. Urging the servants
to stall for just a minute
bombed down a narrow,
steep stone staircase to
the Pallazo's cellar. As
SS men began to tear
apart the building looking for him, the monsignor castabout desper(and
ately for a hiding place or
a means of escape. A
sound akin to a landslide oftheVatican" andSScommander
THENEW AMERICAN . MARCH 22, 2OO4
priest marched through the Pallazo gates
to the coal truck, then around the corner
and into the nearestchurch. After bathing
and changingback into his clerical robes,
O'Flaherty headed back to St. Peter's,
where (after a brief but necessarydelay) he
placed a caII to Prince Filipo.
must tell me how you
did it!" the prince told O'Flaherty. "I'm
afraid Colonel Kappler is a very angry
man. He spent two hours here, and he did
say that if I happened to seeyou I was to
say that one of thesedays he will be entertaining 1lou" - at a Gestapotorture facility.
Shortly after this nalrow escape,O'Flaherty was invited - with a promise of safe
conduct - to a reception at the Hungarian Embassy, where the German ambassador gave him a pointed warning on behalf of Berlin. "Nobody in Rome honors
you more than I do," insisted Baron von
Weiszacker."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-conductback to
the Vatican tonight. But - if you ever step
outsideVatican territory again,on whatever pretext, you will be arrestedat once."
some of his associates.A large, athletic
man, the monsignor had been a standoutas
a boxer. (On one occasion,the monsignor
eluded capture through the simple expedient of lowering his shoulderand bowling
over severalSS men.) He was also an ardent golfer - a pastime not looked on
with favor by his clerical superiors,but one
that allowed him to cultivate the ties with
Italian aristocracythat eventually facilitated his lifesaving work.
Growing up in Killarney, County Kerry,
O'Flaherry becamea devotedIrish nationalist. When severalof his boyhood friends
were shot by the "Black and J4ns" - 4
British occupation force recruited largely
from the prison population - O'Flaherty
developeda passionatehatredfor England.
Like many millions of decentpeople at the
beginning of World War II, the monsignor
initially supported neutrality and hoped a
mediatedsolution could be reached.But he
also recognizedNational Socialism for the
unalloyed evil that it was, and risked his
life on countlessoccasionsto rescueits
him to a waiting car. The priest was driven
to the Coliseum, where Kappler awaited
"I know about you;' said the SS commander. "People have told me you can't
pass a beggar without giving him money,
that you will help anyone, Americans,
British, Jews,Arabs, all the same.They say
you believe in brotherly love."
"It's why I became a priest," replied
O'Flaherty. "What do you want?"
"The American army is closing on
Rome now," Kappler observed."It won't
take them long to get here. As you know,
my wife and family are here. There is no
German transport to take them back home.
If the partisanscapture them, they will kill
them. I want you get them to safety. You
For a moment, O'Flaherty's charity apparently failed him. "You have sent thousandsof families to their deaths,but now
you want me to saveyours! No! It is the reward of your eviM will not do it!" Defying Kappler's wrath, O'Flaherty strode
"It's all a lie!" bellowed Kappler at the
departing monsignor. "Your God, love,
After the war, O'Flaherty was castigated mercy - all lies!You're no different than
by detractors who accusedhim of being a anyoneelse!"
Though inclined to ignore the German glory-seeking opportunist, or - in the
But, as Kappler would learn following
warning, O'Flaherty heededthe pleas of words of one detractor - a 'Jumped-up his capture, O'Flaherty was different.
his colleagues,who insisted that he was Irish peasant.""None of thesepeople be- Questioningthe SS commanderabout intoo valuableto run suchrisks. According- lieved in his motives becausethey had no filtration routes to and from Rome, an A1ly, the monsignor delegatedthe legwork to experience,nothing that could enablethem lied interrogatoraskedhim: "Who got your
others - such as the redoubtable John to comprehend them," explains biograph- family to Switzerland? Tell us and it will
May and Major William Simpson, an es- er J.P. Gallagher. "Though trained to be- go easier for you at your tial."
caped British POW. But O'Flaherty was lieve, and to preach that charity is the
The stunned Kappler suddenly realized
very much in chargeof the daily operations greatestof all virtues, none of his critics that O'Flaherty, his fit of indignation
of his underground.By war's end, thou- could even begin to understandO'Flaher- notwithstanding, had carried out the resands of escapedAllied prisoners, and ty's simple - yes, if you l7ke,peasantquest to savehis family - just as he carmost of Italy's Jewish population, were interpretation of the doctrine, 'Thou shalt ried out a similar request on behalf of the
still alive - thanks in no small measureto love thy neighbor as thyself.'Yet this was family of SS torturer Ludwig Koch.
the intrepid work of the "scarlet Pimper- what shone through all O'Flaherty's
Nor was that the monsignor's final act
nel of the Vatican."
of charity toward his would-be assassin.
"He was a fantastic man," enthuses
O'Flaherty's most remarkableapplicaFor more than a decadeof his lonely, igSimpson,himself a ScottishPresbyterian, tion of that Christian commandment came nominious imprisonment at Gaeta,Kapabout Monsignor O'Flaherty. "He used to in his personaldealingswith Colonel Kap- pler receivedonly one visitor: Monsignor
play gameswith the Germans....It was the pler - the butcher of the Ardeatine Caves, Hugh O'Flaherty. For more than14 years,
most gigantic game of hide-and-seek the despisedSS commanderwho had re- the monsignor patiently taught the Nazi
you've ever seen" - sns that lasted for peatedly soughthis life.
about Jesusof Nazareth - a humble Jeweight months and involved scoresof thouLate in the war, with theAmerican army ish Man whom believers worship as God
sandsof POWs and Jewishrefugees.
closing in on Rome, accordingto one ac- Incarnate.In March 1959- 15 yearsafter
Despite the grim, deadly seriousnessof count, Kappler finally succeededin cap- Kappler had first tried to kill O'Flaherty his work, O'Flaherty was unfailingly opti- turing O'Flaherty.An SS man disguisedin the Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican bapmistic - almost to the point of insou- priestly robes snuck into the monsignor's tized his onetime arch-nemesisinto the
ciance, at least from the perspective of room, put a pistol to his head,and hustled Catholic Church. I
THENEWAMERICAN. MARCH22, 2OO4