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Sunday 20 October 2019

Ireland's Oskar Schindler: Irish hero who helped save 6,500 lives in the Nazi era

The big read: Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty helped save lives in the Nazi era via the so-called Rome Escape Line. Sarah Mac Donald uncovers new facts and testimonies from the Vatican

Honour: Lieutenant General John CH Lee presenting the US Medal of Freedom to Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty in 1946
Honour: Lieutenant General John CH Lee presenting the US Medal of Freedom to Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty in 1946
Bravery: Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty at work in The Vatican
Iconic: General Mark Clark of the US 5th Army chats to Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty in St Peter's Square during the liberation of Rome
On screen: Gregory Peck as O'Flaherty in 1983 film The Scarlet and the Black
Major Sam Derry

Seventy-five years ago this year, the city of Rome was liberated from the grip of the Nazis. One of the most iconic images of that landmark victory shows the commander of the Allied troops, General Mark Clark of the US 5th Army, sitting in his jeep in St Peter's Square chatting to a tall dark-haired cleric.

The priest was Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty from Killarney, Co Kerry. Monsignor O'Flaherty is undoubtedly one of the humanitarian heroes of World War II. During the Nazi occupation of the Eternal City, he operated a clandestine escape line from his room in the Teutonic (German) College in the Vatican which was instrumental in saving the lives of 6,500 Allied prisoners of war, Jewish refugees and members of the Italian anti-fascist resistance.

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His heroic deeds led to comparisons with Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist credited with saving 1,200 Jews in the Holocaust. Yet despite his incredible bravery and willingness to risk his own life to save others, and even Gregory Peck's depiction of him in the film The Scarlet and the Black, the name Hugh O'Flaherty remains largely unknown to people at home and abroad.

After the fall of Mussolini in July 1943, Italian prime minister Pietro Badoglio signed an armistice with the Allies on September 8. The very next day, the Germans occupied Rome and the Italian capital would not be freed from their tyranny for another nine months. With the Germans in control, there were many who were vulnerable. They began to 'disappear'.

The German security apparatus, led by the Commander of the Gestapo in Rome, Colonel Herbert Kappler, established that Monsignor O'Flaherty was behind these disappearances. They were unclear whether his underground network was working with official Vatican backing or not. If it was the former, that would be a pretext to invade the Holy See which was officially neutral during the war.

O'Flaherty, a former Vatican diplomat, was at the time working for the Curia. Popular in Roman society, he had many contacts willing to assist him, despite the possible cost. Among these were priests, a number of whom were Irish, as well as nuns, diplomats and ordinary civilians.

Bravery: Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty at work in The Vatican
Bravery: Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty at work in The Vatican

They got documents forged and arranged safe houses, food and clothing. In frustration, O'Flaherty's nemesis, SS Obersturmbannführer Kappler, ordered a white line be drawn to delineate the boundary between Vatican City and Rome, and let it be known that if Monsignor O'Flaherty crossed the line he would be shot instantly.

The Prince

One memorable episode that The Scarlet and the Black depicts occurred in autumn 1943 when the Gestapo surrounded the 16th century Palazzo Doria Pamphilj on Rome's Via del Corso which Monsignor O'Flaherty was visiting.

Prince Filippo Doria Pamphilj belonged to one of Rome's ancient noble families. A noted anti-fascist, when Hitler came to Rome in 1938, the prince refused to fly the swastika above his 1,000-roomed palace and was promptly arrested. The Vatican got him pardoned. The prince was one of the main benefactors of the Rome Escape Line and provided money to cover costs such as feeding and clothing escapees, as well as sheltering them in safe houses, including convents, churches, monasteries and individual families.

Prince Filippo's palace was being watched by the Gestapo. The spies reported back to Kappler that the monsignor was there. Kappler was determined to capture O'Flaherty and put an end to his activities. It seemed like the priest's number was up. With the palace surrounded, there was no way out.

Iconic: General Mark Clark of the US 5th Army chats to Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty in St Peter's Square during the liberation of Rome
Iconic: General Mark Clark of the US 5th Army chats to Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty in St Peter's Square during the liberation of Rome

The Gestapo moved into the building, but the quick-thinking priest had already rushed to the basement where, as luck would have it, a delivery of coal was being made. The coal merchants, on hearing his dilemma, agreed to allow him to leave with them, but first he had to remove his priestly garments and cover his face and vest with soot to look like a coalman. He then walked out of the courtyard under the noses of the Gestapo.

According to Prince Filippo, Kappler searched the building for two hours and was furious not to have found the priest. O'Flaherty's use of disguise to evade capture on numerous occasions was the reason he became known as the 'Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican'.

The coal bunker

In Rome a couple of weeks ago, Prince Filippo Doria Pamphilj's granddaughter, Princess Gesine, held a private meeting with a delegation from the O'Flaherty family and other relatives of those who were involved in the Rome Escape Line. The sumptuous Palazzo is home to masterpieces by Raphael, Caravaggio, Titian and Velázquez, but it was the coal bunker that was the focus of interest. By escaping through the coal hole, O'Flaherty not only saved his own life but also that of the Prince Filippo.

Interrogation, torture and execution were routine under the Nazis. Kappler was involved in rounding up and transporting Italian Jews to Auschwitz as well as the massacre at the Ardeatine Caves on March 24, 1944. Some 335 Italians were executed there, including 75 Jews, as a reprisal for the Via Rasella bomb attack by partisans a day earlier which left 33 members of a German police regiment dead.

"It was 2.30pm when I left the apartment. Dad embraced me and mother kissed me with tears in her eyes. The distance to St Peter's was a short one. The big square usually had many people. There were police in uniform and some civilians who I knew were undercover Gestapo agents. I was afraid. Finally, I saw him. He was tall and lean and moved softly and swiftly. I quickly knelt at the Pieta. I looked around to make sure that no one was looking at me and I placed the letter from my father under the cushion.

"As I was leaving, I looked towards the altar and saw the monsignor kneeling in prayer where I had just knelt."

On screen: Gregory Peck as O'Flaherty in 1983 film The Scarlet and the Black
On screen: Gregory Peck as O'Flaherty in 1983 film The Scarlet and the Black

It reads like a spy novel, but this is Fernando Giustini's account of his first sighting at 13 years of age of Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty. He was delivering a top secret letter from his father, Antonio, a leader of the Italian anti-fascist partisans to the Irish priest. Fernando's son, Anthony Giustini, told me that his grandfather Antonio needed instructions from O'Flaherty and Major Sam Derry, who worked with O'Flaherty in the Escape Line, regarding two Jewish boys he had just moved from a hotel to a safe spot as well as two prisoners of war (POWs).

Scars of torture

His grandfather Antonio was captured that afternoon as Fernando was placing the letter under the kneeler at the Pieta. Fretting about his decision to send his son on such a dangerous errand, Antonio went out to look for Fernando and was picked up by the Gestapo. "My grandfather was 'Tony the Schoolmaster' who hid POWs with his band of anti-Nazis in Viterbo. When the number of POWs got too big, he would bring them into Rome to various places organised by Monsignor O'Flaherty and Major Sam Derry," Anthony explained.

After he was arrested, Antonio was tortured. Fortunately, "Monsignor O'Flaherty had given him a false identity as Antonio Lamma and he was able to convince the Germans and the Italian police that he was Antonio Lamma - a small fish and that he didn't know anything about a monsignor or a major in the Vatican but if they would just let him go, he might be able to figure something out for them."

They eventually let him go but with two Gestapo agents in tow, whom he was able to lose. He got back to where his family was hiding in Rome and three or four days later the Allies arrived. "The torture he endured was evidenced by the scars that he carried until his death," Anthony explained, adding: "There is an incredible amount to be told about what these brave men and women did in the time between September 1943 and June 1944. It is really important to understand the danger and jeopardy into which these people put themselves to save others."

It was typical of O'Flaherty's daring that much of his clandestine operation was conducted from within the Vatican's Teutonic College, located adjacent to St Peter's Basilica, and affiliated with the German church. This was also the part-time residence of English soldier Major Sam Derry who helped O'Flaherty run the Rome Escape Line.

When Archbishop Diarmuid Martin stayed at the Teutonic College in the 1970s, he met Sr Charlotte who had arrived at the college from Germany in 1937 and was there throughout World War II. She knew O'Flaherty extremely well, according to Archbishop Martin. She looked after those who were living in the college and the British soldiers hidden there, too.

"She told me that some of the German priests complained to her that these were soldiers planning to bomb their cities and that she should be ashamed of herself for helping them.

"It was difficult. She also told me about how [on Christmas Day 1943] she brought one soldier his meal and a branch of a Christmas tree and a little candle. I asked her what he said, 'He cried,' she recalled."

At the US Embassy to the Vatican a couple of weeks ago, Ambassador Callista Gingrich hosted a reception for the relatives of Hugh O'Flaherty, as well as the children of Sam Derry, and other members of the Rome Escape Line, including David Sands, grandson of the courageous Maltese widow Henrietta Chevalier.

Jerry O'Grady, chairman of the Hugh O'Flaherty Memorial Society, told the gathering that Monsignor Hugh was passionate about many things including golf, classical music and Kerry football. "In the spirit of all truly great humanitarians, Monsignor O'Flaherty fought against injustice no matter where he saw it and regardless of the risks."

At the exclusive Acquasanta Golf Club in Rome, one of those who remembers Hugh O'Flaherty is 75-year-old Roberto Bernardini. In 1961, he became a professional golfer and represented his country nine times at the Golf World Cup. He recalls acting as a caddy for Monsignor Hugh in the late 1950s. "I was eight or nine years old. He was kind and a really good player, particularly with a No 1 iron. It was very entertaining to watch him and the way he held a club… it was like a baseball grip."

But it wasn't only about golf for Hugh O'Flaherty. He used to say Mass for the caddies at a little chapel at the back of the golf course, which has since fallen into ruin. He also began to help migrants who were eking out an existence close to the golf course.

Documentary-maker Catherine O'Flaherty is a great-niece of the monsignor. Though she grew up hearing about her grand-uncle, she never met him because he died in October 1963, at just 65 years of age, from a stroke. "As a filmmaker I always wanted to tell his story and got the chance to do so when I produced the documentary Pimpernel sa Vatican for TG4."

In her opinion, the 75th anniversary of the Rome Escape Line is hugely significant, and the Irish people should be more aware of Hugh O'Flaherty's role in saving so many lives. "I think there should be some sort of celebration in Ireland on June 4, 2019" - the day Rome was liberated by the Allies.

Bravery honoured

After the war, O'Flaherty quietly returned to his post in the Curia, but not before his bravery was recognised with the US Medal of Freedom with Silver Palm and with a CBE from Britain. "He has yet to receive such an accolade from the Irish State. We could propose June 4 as Hugh O'Flaherty day," she suggests.

On June 4 in his hometown of Killarney, the 2019 Hugh O'Flaherty Humanitarian Award will be presented to the members of the Irish Defence Forces who have served on UN Peacekeeping Missions since 1958, during which time 86 of them have made the ultimate sacrifice in the cause of world peace. The ceremony will be attended by the Minister for Defence, the Defence Forces Chief of Staff and ambassadors and diplomats representing some of the 20 nationalities saved by the Rome Escape Line.

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