Meet the Monsignor Who Defied the Nazis and Helped Save 6,500 Lives
Book Pick: Recent read for young readers will interest their parents too.
The Irish Priest Who Resisted the Nazis
By Fiorella De Maria
Ignatius Press, 2022
196 pages, $12.95
To order: Hugh O’Flaherty (ignatius.com)
The Rome of 1943 was a terrifying place. German soldiers, many of whom were members of the feared Nazi SS, were everywhere.
And there were the Italian traitors, those willing to sell out their countrymen and women for a few dollars. Their invisible presence created high levels of paranoia.
Amid this sinister stew, Allied prisoners who had escaped from POW camps, Italian Jews who feared deportation to death camps, and Italian patriots fighting to win their country back were making a desperate attempt to find safe shelter in Rome.
Leading this desperate battle was Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty, who, with a few loyal colleagues, including a British butler and former British POW, created an escape line that was credited after the war with saving 6,500 lives.
In Hugh O’Flaherty: The Irish Priest Who Resisted the Nazis, author Fiorella De Maria writes about a man who was so admired that Hollywood eventually made a feature film called The Scarlet and the Black, based on a book of the same name. Gregory Peck played Msgr. O’Flaherty, a perfect choice, given Peck’s similar imposing size and deceptive easygoing manner.
Like St. Maximilian Kolbe: A Hero of the Holocaust, an earlier De Maria book, the author aims this tale at young readers. But also like his book on St. Maximilian, there is enough meat here for any adult who wants a primer on Msgr. O’Flaherty’s heroic life.
Hugh O’Flaherty entered the seminary in Ireland in 1918 at the age of 20. He learned humility early when he was made to attend a Latin class of 14-year-olds.
His family were Irish nationalists who wanted to rid their homeland of the British occupiers. Indeed, his father quit the police force so as not to impose the laws of the British occupiers on his fellow Irishmen. It was a lesson of being true to oneself that Msgr. O’Flaherty took to heart.
Initially, Msgr. O’Flaherty hated the British. At the seminary, he received a telegram informing him a good friend had been killed by the notorious Black and Tans, the name of the British police unit sent to Ireland.
“He was the fourth of Hugh’s [friends] to be killed by the thugs and jailbirds the British authorities employed to keep the Irish population under control,” De Maria writes.
But once in Rome, to complete his studies and to be ordained, his hostile feelings evaporated as the scourge of Nazism grew more powerful.
In 1943, the Italians deposed Mussolini. For a moment it seemed Italians were free of tyranny and war. But then the German army rolled in.
Msgr. O’Flaherty was tasked by the Vatican to visit prisoners, many of whom were British, in POW camps.
“Hugh groaned. It was impossible to explain to this nuncio that he had never regarded the British army as anything other than his enemy — every last single soldier was his enemy!”
He was sickened by what he found in the camps. Prisoners were covered in lice and starving, clothed in nothing more than rags. They feared arbitrary and brutal punishment.
He tried to help the prisoners spiritually and physically but came under the wrath of the German military authorities. He then began helping in other ways.
Eventually as prisoners escaped, they made their way to Rome and sought out Msgr. O’Flaherty for aid.
The Irish priest and his comrades found hundreds of safe houses around the city. Those who took in these escapees took a great risk. The Nazis would execute whole families to make an example of anyone who defied their rule.
Sometimes his decisions were beyond audacious. He found a perfect apartment that was spacious and comfortable. But one of his comrades noted the apartment was facing the Gestapo headquarters.
Msgr. O’Flaherty said: “That’s the beauty of it, me boy! They’ll not look under their noses.”
It’s impossible to exaggerate the tension that Msgr. O’Flaherty and his group dealt with. One day he was walking through Rome with two escaped British POWs on their way to a safe house. Suddenly, they were approached by two stern-looking SS men.
The Irish Churchman told the two POWs to keep their mouths shut. And then, quaking in fear, Msgr. O’Flaherty put on his most nonchalant air and asked the Germans whether he could be of assistance.
To his great relief, they were looking for directions to the Coliseum. But the encounter was a wake-up call, considering how close they came to arrest, torture and death.
“Just one mistake, one small loss of nerve would have been enough to cost the lives of the men in Hugh’s care,” writes De Maria. “He was living on the edge, and every day might bring disaster.”
They were helped by a large cadre of volunteers who distributed food and money to those aiding the hunted. Some were caught and executed, refusing to reveal anything at all about the escape line. But others under torture broke and told all.
In addition, Herbert Kappler, an SS man in charge of security services in Rome, became obsessed with killing Msgr. O’Flaherty.
Msgr. O’Flaherty was technically safe if he stayed within the boundaries of the Vatican. But Kappler still ordered two subordinates to kidnap the Irish priest on Vatican soil and then shoot him.
“He’s a slippery fish and you can’t afford to make a mistake,” he told the would-be killers. “I’d go as far as to say that he is one of the most dangerous and troublesome men in the whole of Rome.”
Kappler was no one to toy with. After partisans killed 30 German soldiers in Rome, Kappler selected 335 men and boys at random, brought them to the Ardeatine Caves outside the city, and killed them all.
The plot to kill Msgr. O’Flaherty failed — and by the grace of God, he lived out the war and eventually retired to a peaceful life in his beloved Ireland.
Immediately after the war, though, he helped Allied POWs get home and help families track down their missing sons. He also helped Jews resettle in the Holy Land.
De Maria writes: “True to his belief that God has no country, Hugh started his war work defending British prisoners who were being mistreated by their German and Italian captors and he was ending the war arguing passionately with Americans with their treatment of German prisoners. They were all human beings with a right to life, a right to respect and a right to return to their homes and families.”
In that spirit, Msgr. O’Flaherty took a step that many found incomprehensible. He went to visit the imprisoned Kappler — not to condemn, but to comfort.
One of the men who helped Msgr. O’Flaherty during the war was furious: “The man is a monster! A murderer! Think of all the time he tried to kidnap you! He would have killed you with his bare hands if he had had the chance!”
Msgr. O’Flaherty’s reply would have been shocking for anyone who didn’t know one of the greatest charisms of the Catholic Church is forgiveness.
“Well, thank God he never was given the chance or there would be absolutely no one left to help him now,” Msgr. O’Flaherty said.
His task was made less easy, as Kappler, who was given a life sentence committing war crimes, refused to take responsibility for his heinous actions, blaming it all on Hitler.
De Maria observed wisely that wasn’t the end of the story; Kappler was still facing a rough road.
“The spiritual journey from fanatical Nazi to faithful Catholic was going to be a long and painful one for Herbert Kappler, but he was not forced to make the journey alone.”
His old nemesis was always near as a spiritual father — who baptized him in 1959.