I did not call this blog Forgotten History since his story is quite well known in some parts of the world,nevertheless it is a story that needs be re-told especially nowadays where we need to hear about heroes.
Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, CBE (28 February 1898 – 30 October 1963) was an Irish Roman Catholic priest and senior official of the Roman Curia, and significant figure in Catholic resistance to Nazism. During World War II, he was responsible for saving 6,500 Allied soldiers and Jews. His ability to evade the traps set by the German Gestapo and Sicherheitsdienst, earned O’Flaherty the nickname “The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican”. He was the first Irishman named Notary of the Holy Office.
This ingenious priest was the mastermind of an underground movement to house and save over 6,500 jews and allied soldiers. He was so audacious that the nazi germans painted a large circle around the vatican saying that if O’flaherty crossed that line he would be killed. This did not hold him back. Instead he would disguise himself as a nun, a street cleaner, a beggar, etc. in order to get into travel incognito throughout Rome to help refugees. He was so daring that he even dressed up as a German general in order to go into a German prison and give last communion to a fellow priest who was to be exectuted.
The stunts and risks that he took were amazing. For example, they housed many Jews and refugees in a house next door to the gestapo offices. They seemed always to be one step ahead of them. However, what is most unique about this man’s story is what he did after the war. Herbert Kappler, the head of the Nazi occupation force, who was determined to kill O’flaherty recieved a sentence of life in prison. For the next months and years that followed rarely did anyone ever visit Kappler, no one that is except for O’Flaherty who monthly visited his old nemesis. A few years later, O’Flaherty baptized Kappler into the catholic faith. This is an amazing story of someone who followed the teachings of Jesus of loving his neighbor as himself even when that neighbor used to be an enemy.
Shortly after O’Flaherty’s birth in Lisrobin, Kiskeam, County Cork, his parents, James and Margaret, moved to Killarney.The family lived on the golf course where James O’Flaherty worked as a steward.By his late teens, young O’Flaherty had a scratch handicap and a scholarship to a teacher training college.
However, in 1918 he enrolled at Mungret College, a Jesuit college in County Limerick dedicated to preparing young men for missionary priesthood.
Normally, students ranged from 14 to 18 years of age. At the time when O’Flaherty came in, he was a little older than most of the students, about 20.The college allowed for some older people to come in if they had been accepted by a bishop who would pay for them.
O’Flaherty’s sponsor was the Bishop of Cape Town, Cornelius O’Reilly, in whose diocese he would be posted after ordination,a big step for a young man who had never stepped foot outside of Munster. At the time when O’Flaherty was in Mungret, the Irish War for Independence was ongoing.He was posted to Rome in 1922 to finish his studies and was ordained on 20 December 1925. He would never join his diocese. Instead, he stayed to work for the Holy See, serving as a Vatican diplomat in Egypt, Haiti, Santo Domingo, and Czechoslovakia. In 1934, he was appointed Monsignor.
In the early years of World War II, O’Flaherty toured prisoner of war (POW) camps in Italy and tried to find out about prisoners who had been reported missing in action. If he found them alive, he tried to reassure their families through Radio Vatican.
Monsignor O’Flaherty got his start in smuggling and hiding refugees in the fall of 1942, when the Germans and Italians cracked down on prominent Jews and aristocratic anti-Fascists. Monsignor O’Flaherty had socialized with these people before the war; now he hid them in monasteries and convents, and in his own residence–the German College.
In the spring of 1943, his operation broadened to include escaped British POWs; and he acquired a most improbable partner, Sir Francis D’Arcy Godolphin Osborne, British Minister to the Vatican. The POWs would be safe in the Vatican, but as internees they would be unable to rejoin their fighting units. Sir D’Arcy’s status prevented him from leaving the Vatican, so Msgr. O’Flaherty developed a network of apartments in Rome in which they could hide.
In September the Germans occupied Rome. The Italian game of “forgetting” to round up Jews was over.
According to Msgr. O’Flaherty’s biographer, J.P. Gallagher, Vatican officials who had inclined to prudence and ordinary Italians who had been indifferent to the plight of the Jews were radicalized by the Gestapo. “Even the most conservative men in the Vatican were prepared now to give the trouble-shooting Monsignor quite a bit more rope.”
Monsignor O’Flaherty hid Jews in monasteries and convents, at Castel Gandolfo, in his old college of the Propaganda Fide, in the German College and in his network of apartments. Every evening, he stood in the porch of St. Peter’s, in plain view both of the German soldiers across the piazza and of the windows of the Pope’s apartments. Escaped POWs and Jews would come to him there. He would smuggle them across the piazza and through the German Cemetary to the college. Sometimes he would disguise them in the robes of a monsignor or the uniform of a Swiss Guard.
One Jew,made his way to St. Peter’s and, coming up to O’Flaherty at his usual post on the steps and drawing him deeper into the shadows, proceeded to unwind a solid gold chain that went twice around his waist. ‘My wife and I expect to be arrested at any moment,’ said the Jew. ‘We have no way of escaping. When we are taken to Germany we shall die. But we have a small son; he is only seven and is too young to die in a Nazi gas chamber. Please take this chain and take the boy for us too. Each link of the chain will keep him alive for a month. Will you save him?'”
Monsignor O’Flaherty improved upon this plan: he accepted the chain, hid the boy and procured false papers for the parents. At the end of the war, he returned the boy and the chain.
When Mussolini was removed from power by the King in 1943, thousands of Allied POWs were released; however, when Germany imposed an occupation over Italy, they were in danger of recapture. Some of them, remembering visits by O’Flaherty, reached Rome and asked him for help. Others went to the Irish embassy to the Holy See, the only English-speaking embassy to remain open in Rome during the war. Delia Murphy, who was the wife of the ambassador and in her day a well-known ballad singer, was one of those who helped O’Flaherty.
O’Flaherty did not wait for permission from his superiors. He recruited the help of other priests (including two young New Zealanders, Fathers Owen Snedden and John Flanagan), two agents working for the Free French, François de Vial and Yves Debroise, and even communists and a Swiss count.
One of his aides was British Major Sam Derry, a POW escapee.
Derry along with British officers and escaped POWs Lieutenants Furman and Simpson, and Captain Byrnes, a Canadian, were responsible for the security and operational organisation. O’Flaherty also kept contact with Sir D’Arcy Osborne, British ambassador to the Holy See and his butler John May (whom O’Flaherty described as “a genius … the most magnificent scrounger”).
O’Flaherty and his allies concealed 4,000 escapees, mainly Allied soldiers and Jews, in flats, farms and convents. One of the first hideouts was beside the local SS headquarters. O’Flaherty and Derry coordinated all this. When outside the Vatican, O’Flaherty wore various disguises. The German occupiers tried to stop him and eventually they found out that the leader of the network was a priest. SS attempts to assassinate him failed. They learned his identity, but could not arrest him inside the Vatican. When the German ambassador revealed this to O’Flaherty, he began to meet his contacts on the stairs of the St. Peter’s Basilica.
Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Kappler, the head of the SS Sicherheitsdienst and Gestapo in Rome learned of O’Flaherty’s actions; he ordered a white line painted on the pavement at the opening of St. Peter’s Square (signifying the border between Vatican City and Italy), stating that the priest would be killed if he crossed it. Ludwig Koch, head of the Fascist police in Rome, often spoke of his intention to torture O’Flaherty before executing him if he ever fell into his hands.
Finally Colonel Kappler complained to Berlin. Monsignor O’Flaherty received an invitation to a reception at the Hungarian Embassy, with an implicit safe-conduct. There Baron von Weiszacker, the German Ambassador, told him:
“Nobody in Rome honors you more than I do for what you are doing. But it has gone too far for us all. Kappler is waiting in the hall, feeling rather frustrated.I have told him that you will of course have safe-conduct back to the Vatican tonight. But…if you ever step outside Vatican territory again, on whatever pretext, you will be arrested at once. Now will you please think about what I have said?”
O’Flaherty smiled down at von Weiszacker and replied: “Your Excellency is too considerate. I will certainly think about what you have said– sometimes
Several others, including priests, nuns and lay people, worked in secret with O’Flaherty, and even hid refugees in their own private homes around Rome. Among these were the Augustinian Maltese Fathers Egidio Galea, Aurelio Borg and Ugolino Gatt and Brother Robert Pace of the Brothers of Christian Schools. Another person who contributed significantly to this operation was the Malta-born widow Henrietta (Chetta) Chevalierwho hid some refugees in her house with her children, and was lucky to escape detection.Jewish religious services were conducted in the Basilica di San Clemente, which was under Irish diplomatic protection, under a painting of Tobias.
When the Allies arrived in Rome in June 1944, 6,425 of the escapees were still alive. O’Flaherty demanded that German prisoners be treated properly as well. He took a plane to South Africa to meet Italian POWs and to Jerusalem to visit Jewish refugees. Of the 9,700 Jews in Rome, 1,007 had been shipped to Auschwitz. The rest were hidden, 5,000 of them by the official Church − 3,000 in Castel Gandolfo, 200 or 400 (estimates vary) as “members” of the Palatine Guard and some 1,500 in monasteries, convents and colleges. The remaining 3,700 were hidden in private homes.
At the time of the liberation of Rome, O’Flaherty’s and Derry’s organisation was caring for 3,925 escapees and men who had succeeded in evading arrest. Of these 1,695 were British, 896 South African, 429 Russian, 425 Greek and 185 American. The remainder were from 20 different nations. This does not include Jews and sundry other men and women who were in O’Flaherty’s personal care
After the war O’Flaherty received a number of awards, including Commander of the Order of the British Empire and the US Medal of Freedom with Silver Palm.
He was also honoured by Canada and Australia. He refused to use the lifetime pension that Italy had given him. In the 1950s, the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy, in the form proposed by the now-canonised Mary Faustina Kowalska, was under a ban from the Vatican. It was O’Flaherty who, as Notary, signed the document that notified Catholics of the ban.
O’Flaherty regularly visited his old nemesis Colonel Herbert Kappler (the former SS chief in Rome) in prison, month after month, being Kappler’s only visitor. In 1959, Kappler converted to Catholicism and was baptised by O’Flaherty.
In 1960, O’Flaherty suffered a serious stroke during Mass and was forced to return to Ireland. Shortly before his first stroke in 1960, he was due to be confirmed as the Papal Nuncio to Tanzania. He moved to Cahersiveen to live with his sister, at whose home he died on 30 October 1963, aged 65. He was buried in the cemetery of the Daniel O’Connell Memorial Church in Cahersiveen.
There is a monument in Killarney town and a grove of trees dedicated to his memory in the Killarney National Park.
O’Flaherty was portrayed by Gregory Peck in the 1983 television film, The Scarlet and the Black, which follows the exploits of O’Flaherty from the German occupation of Rome to its liberation by the Allies
Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Kappler was head of The Gestapo in Rome during the occupation.
Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty and his organisation were a major obstruction to the brutal Kappler and his Gestapo during this period.
Kappler was responsible for many cruel deeds in Rome as well as the massacre at The Ardeatine Caves, which were personally supervised by Kappler.
Despite this O’Flaherty assisted in helping members of Kapplers family in escaping from Rome at Liberation.
At his trial in 1948, after six hours, the head of the five-judge military tribunal gravely pronounced the stiffest sentence he could give under Italian law: “life imprisonment, including four years’ solitary confinement, for “repeated and premeditated murder.”
During this time one of his only regular visitors was none other that The Monsignor himself who visited him every month for 10 years as well as writing to him regularly and subsequently baptized him to the Catholic faith.
In 1977 he escaped from a Rome Prison hidden in a laundry basket, and was spirited away to Germany, by his recently wedded wife, whom he had married in Prison in 1972. He died of cancer in 1978, never having been returned to Prison.
Whether you are Christian,Jewish,Muslim,Budhist or Atheist ,one most admire Father Hugh O’Flaherty for his ability to forgive this cruel man.
Fr O’Flaherty a hero in the purest sense of the word.
30-10-2013:The Hugh O’Flaherty statue on Mission Road, Killarney on Wednesday. Picture by Don MacMonagle