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Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty: Rescuer of Jews, Allies, and … Nazis?

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This Irish priest with a love for golf became a vital part of the Rome Escape Line in WWII. Gregory Peck played him in 'The Scarlet and the Black.'

Monsignor Hugh Joseph O’Flaherty, Head Notary of the Holy Office (now known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), saved more than 6,500 Jews and Allied soldiers during World War II. His rescue efforts are recorded in the 1983 film The Scarlet and the Black, starring Gregory Peck and Christopher Plummer. For eight months, the affable Irish priest played a deadly game of cat and mouse with Nazi occupiers.

O’Flaherty was an unlikely man to have placed his life on the line for British troops. Born in County Cork, the first child of four to a Killarney policeman and his wife, Hugh grew up under British occupation. His father James resigned rather than continue enforcing British rule on his people; he became the caretaker of Killarney Golf Club, and Hugh developed a passion for golf, which was to prove important when he moved to Rome.

In 1920, four of Hugh’s classmates were killed by the Black and Tans, the special forces set up by Winston Churchill to assist the police during the Irish War of Independence. Hugh was taken in for questioning because he attended the funerals of two slain Irish nationalists.

Two years later, Hugh was sent to Rome to complete his seminary studies, and he was ordained in 1925. Fr. O’Flaherty conducted diplomatic missions for the Vatican in Egypt, Haiti, Santo Domingo, and Czechoslovakia. In 1934, he received the title of Monsignor.

During the early years of the war, Msgr. O’Flaherty dismissed accounts of German atrocities as Allied propaganda, saying, “I read the propaganda on both sides, and I don’t believe much of it. I don’t think there is anything to choose between Britain and Germany.”

Yet, as the Holy Office was assigned to handle wartime refugee issues, O’Flaherty toured POW camps in Italy, looking for those who had been reported missing in action, and reassuring their families through Radio Vatican. He arranged for winter clothing to be delivered, as well as 10,000 books; he also battled Italian bureaucracy to allow Red Cross packages. In 1943, when the dictator Benito Mussolini was dismissed by the King of Italy, thousands of Allied POWs were released, only to face recapture when Germany invaded Italy. Some of them made their way to Rome and begged O’Flaherty for help.

The priest also witnessed Nazis abusing Roman Jews and taking them away, and decided to take action. A colorful character, who frequently hobnobbed within Roman high society in Rome, O’Flaherty regularly golfed with Mussolini’s son-in-law, and with the former king of Spain.

His connections were vital for what would become his Rome Escape Line. He hid Jews, anti-fascist aristocrats, Allied POWs and shot-down airmen in monasteries, convents, his old college, his own residence and a network of safe apartments, hotels and warehouses throughout Rome.

Colonel Herbert Kappler, the head of the SS in Rome and organizer of the 24 March 1944 Ardeatine massacre of 335 Italians, began to hunt Monsignor O’Flaherty. The Nazi ordered two Gestapo men to drag O’Flaherty off neutral Vatican territory and kill him, but four Swiss guards came to the priest’s rescue and escorted the Germans to a group of Yugloslavian refugees, who gave the Nazis a sound beating.

One day, when O’Flaherty was visiting the anti-fascist Prince Filipo Doria Pamphili, the Nazis surrounded the palace. The priest escaped by disguising himself as a coal deliveryman.

Almost every evening, Monsignor O’Flaherty stood and prayed on the top steps of St. Peter’s Basilica, in full view of the SS troops patrolling the white boundary line painted by the Germans at the entrance to the square. People in need came to him, and the Nazis could not do a thing about it.

One evening, a Jewish couple approached him on the steps of St. Peter’s. They expected to be deported any day, and were resigned to their fate. They asked only that O’Flaherty save their seven-year-old son, and offered the priest a long solid gold chain in payment. O’Flaherty took the chain, hid the boy safely, and obtained forged identity papers for the couple that allowed them to survive the occupation. At the end of the war, O’Flaherty reunited the parents with their son—and their gold chain. He had kept it in a desk-drawer in his room the entire time. When appalled colleagues asked him why he was being so careless with something so valuable, O’Flaherty shrugged: “Nobody here will steal it.”

Everything O’Flaherty did seemed to have a certain style to it. Once, a man he had hidden in Urban College developed appendicitis. O’Flaherty borrowed a car from an important Vatican official and drove the man to Santo Spirito Hospital, where it was arranged that the nuns would quietly add the man to the surgery list. He was operated on by a German military surgeon, recovered in a ward full of German officers, and was taken back to the College by O’Flaherty.

– “A Cheeky Priest,” Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty

O’Flaherty even took pity on his mortal enemies. A German soldier was brought to the Irish Legation by an Italian who had found him lying in the streets. The German said that he was a priest and had been fasting, hoping that God would grant him an opportunity to celebrate Mass.

After testing the German on his knowledge of Catholicism, O’Flaherty brought him to a chapel. “As I watched him slowly mount the steps to God’s altar, I wondered about the foolishness of war and the sacrifices of life,” wrote Delia Murphy, wife of the Irish ambassador.

At the end of the war, O’Flaherty’s work continued – on behalf of the Axis POWs. He visited Italians and Germans in POW camps run by Americans, and sent word back to their families. He even testified on behalf of two double agents in his organization, saying, “They did wrong, but there is good in every man.”

While golfing near Ciampino one day in 1946, the monsignor stumbled on a half-starved group of Central European refugees squatting in a ruined village. Naturally O’Flaherty couldn’t just pass by. He provided food and clothing, helped the men find work, fixed up the buildings, taught the refugees about the Church, baptized them, and virtually adopted the whole village. For the next 12 years, he would visit every Sunday and say Mass.

– “The Work Continues,” Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty

Colonel Kappler was sentenced to life imprisonment for his war crimes. Over the next decade, only one person visited the Nazi in prison, almost every month. That would be Monsignor Hugh O’ Flaherty.

In March 1959, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty baptized Colonel Herbert Kappler into the Catholic Church.

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