| 5.4°C Dublin

How Ireland's Oscar Schindler saved thousands from Nazi death camps

In Rome during the Second World War, a plain white line was painted along the streets that ran by the Vatican. In 1944 during the early days of the German occupation it marked the point where the Holy See's authority ended and Nazi rule began.

It had been painted on the instructions of Herbert Kappler, the head of the Gestapo in Rome, who ruled the city with fear.

Kappler's street painting was an attempt to remind Romans who was in charge -- but it was also directed at one man, his rival Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty.

The two men were engaged in a a deadly game of hide and seek as the charismatic Kerry priest was running an escape operation for Allied servicemen and Jewish civilians from the confines of his Vatican office.



REVENGE

After O'Flaherty hid the escapees it was Kappler's job to find them.

The monsignor succeeded in evading capture and his story and his intriguing relationship with Herbert Kappler is detailed in a new book, Hide and Seek.

O'Flaherty's views were formed as a young student in Limerick, when he saw atrocities being carried out by Black and Tans.

Based in Rome during WWII, he began to visit Allied prisoners being held in harsh conditions in Italian jails. Keen to make sure that their relatives knew they were alive, O'Flaherty made sure their names were read out on Vatican Radio.

In 1943, he began to offer shelter to Allied servicemen who turned up at the Vatican looking for sanctuary. It was the start of what become known as the 'Rome Escape Line'.

By 1944, Herbert Kappler had established a ruthless regime in Rome and such was the German's desire to stop his Irish rival that he tried to kidnap and kill the monsignor and even placed a bounty of 30,000 lire on his head.

An ambitious high-flyer, Kappler was highly thought of by Adolf Hitler.

It is with the events of March 1944, however, that the Gestapo chief will forever be associated. After the Resistance killed 33 German soldiers in a bomb attack, Hitler was enraged and demanded a revenge attack to "make the world tremble".

Kappler and his men killed 335 people in the Ardeatine Caves, a labyrinth of tunnels outside the city. It was one of the worst atrocities committed on Italian soil during the Second World War.

Kappler was sentenced to life imprisonment with no parole for his role in the massacre and he was told he would never be freed.

His prison sentence was not the end of the story. Within months Italy's most famous prisoner wrote to his old rival.



PALS

He invited Monsignor O'Flaherty to visit him and, within days, the Kerry priest arrived to meet and talk with his former foe. Their meetings became regular and, according to O'Flaherty's friends, they discussed religion and literature.

The classical singer Veronica Dunne, who knew the monsignor, remembers O'Flaherty meeting Kappler. She says the Kerry priest enjoyed the visits. "He took a great liking to him. He used to joke, 'Here I am, this man who had 30,000 lire over my head and now we are sort of pals'."

It seems the feeling was mutual as Kappler would describe O'Flaherty as "a fatherly friend". Kappler, who had been raised as Protestant, was considering becoming a Catholic and he was influenced by his former rival.

Kappler was urged to delay his conversion until the end of the trial. Kappler waited until he was sentenced and then called on the monsignor to visit him. The two men prayed together and then O'Flaherty received Kappler into the Catholic church.

O'Flaherty died in Kerry in 1963 and is buried in Cahersiveen.

Herbert Kappler remained in prison in Italy until 1977 when he was smuggled out by his wife and taken back to Germany. He died in 1978.

Stephen Walker is BBC Northern Ireland's political reporter. His book Hide And Seek is published by HarperCollins


Privacy