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This week a statue and memorial was unveiled in Killarney, County Kerry to Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, the Irish priest who, during his time at the Vatican during the Second World War, saved the lives of thousands of Jews and others by helping them to escape from Rome’s Nazi occupiers. It is an extraordinary story, captured in a movie starring Gregory Peck as the heroic Monsignor but perhaps best described in a gripping book by BBC journalist, Stephen Walker, which I had the honour of reviewing for the Irish Mail on Sunday in 2011. It is a story still not sufficiently highlighted in the Irish Republic, perhaps because of  the country’s somewhat disengaged relationship with the Second World War.

Review in Irish Sunday Mail :

Hide and Seek – The Irish Priest in the Vatican who defied the Nazi Command.

A dramatic true story of rivalry and survival during WWII

Stephen Walker (Harper Collins)

It is said of the Nazis that so large has been their effect on modern life that there is barely a week, or even a day, goes by that you won’t see a reference to them in the media, TV, politics or drama. All aspects of their horrendous legacy have been explored and thus it makes it all the more surprising that relatively little known is about this story, of how an Irish priest in Rome outwitted the occupying Germans to save the lives of local Jews and assist to freedom thousands of Allied escapees. This is despite the fact that a movie has actually been made of the story, but one that is not shown particularly regularly. It is also surprising that more is not made of the story in Ireland, given our singularly disappointing record in terms of resisting the Nazis and, specifically, saving the lives of persecuted Jews. Ireland was neutral in World War II, which may be permissible and understandable given the context, but then disgracefully our Department of Justice refused sanctuary to European Jews, even though the full horrors of the Nazi’s cruelty was well known. Worse still, Ireland subsequently became a rat-run for fleeing Nazi collaborators after the war, often with the assistance of right-wing Catholic clerics. What a contrast to the priest depicted here.

So the heroics of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty do something to redeem the name of his countrymen in this historical period, and as an example of humanity and sacrifice his gesture is outstanding, not to mention one of exemplary Christian behaviour. Masterminding his operation from within the Holy See, technically a sanctuary and off limits to the strutting Nazis, O’Flaherty used a series of safe houses and church buildings within Rome to find shelter for up to 4000 Jews and 4000 Allied escapees. Much of his heroics involved a game of wits with the local presiding Nazi Herbert Kappler – hence the book’s somewhat strange title – an officer who is almost your stereotypical Nazi and an enthusiastic one to boot. This game of wits became a contest of personal intrigue between the two men, which is laid out expertly here, and written with the quality of a thriller, set against the redeeming shadows of the famous Vatican.

The story begins with Italy’s exit from the war in 1943, which resulted in thousands of Allied troops getting out of prison camps, only to be stuck in the country as it was swiftly occupied by the Germans. It was then that the tall Kerry-born priest, based in the Vatican, emerged on the scene. With the help of the British Ambassador to the Holy See, O’Flaherty began to hide the many Allied soldiers who had found their way to Rome in safe houses. Escapees were dressed up as clerics and spirited past the ever watchful Nazi guards, and some were even hurriedly concealed under the skirts of compliant nuns. By 1944, O’Flaherty’s escape route was sheltering about 3,000 people, including local Jews, in more than 200 places around Rome.

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Obviously, much of the story’s impact lies in the unusualness of the setting, with the incongruous splendour of St Peter’s Square unwittingly hosting this game of espionage. But this is no TV costume drama, and many of the ordinary Italians were betrayed, tortured and killed. Kappler even developed a plan to kidnap O’Flaherty while he was at Mass, hustle him over the border separating the Holy See from Italy, and have him shot ‘while trying to escape’. Kappler’s terror also resulted in one of the worst atrocities of the war in Italy, when 335 people were executed in the ArdeatineCaves outside Rome as a reprisal for an attack by the Italian Resistance. It is an atrocity which still resonates in Italy today.

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Gregory Peck (above) as Monsignor O’Flaherty

In 1946, the Nazi colonel was put on trial for war crimes, including the caves massacre, and was sentenced to life imprisonment. However, amazingly, O’Flaherty continued his relationship with Kappler, and visited his former rival in prison and in 1959, after much soul-searching, Kappler became a Catholic, and was received into the church by none other than the priest whom he had tried so hard to outfox and then kill. With such a conclusion, the story is an extraordinary saga of personal redemption and moral salvation, as well as historical fascination. But it is also an inspiring story of sacrifice and humanity by just one Irishman, abroad, at a time when, for whatever reason, his compatriots back home were happily been neutral, and displaying some of the same indifference to foreign matters, and foreign suffering, that they show today.

More info:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-24713270

http://clericalwhispers.blogspot.ie/2010/10/four-humanitarians-nominated-for.html

Interestingly, Eric Priebke, responsible for the 1944 massacre in the Ardeatine Caves, only died this month, October 2013 – an extraordinary longevity and an mostly unrepentant one, it seems. I understand that Stephen Walker had been in correspondence with him.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/10372921/Erich-Priebke.html

Below: Monsignor O’Flaherty, in his robes

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