There is perhaps no conflict with as many unsung heroes as the Second World War, where the sheer enormity of the evil being perpetrated across Europe brought much opportunity for righteous response. From well-known heroes such as Oskar Schindler and Corrie ten Boom to lesser known, but equally noble resistors such as Nicholas Winton and Raoul Wallenberg, men and women responded to the wickedness committed beneath the symbol of the twisted Nazi cross to save the lives of their imperiled neighbors.
Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty was one such man. His story has been largely forgotten in recent decades, although his life has been memorialized in both book and film, and one poet wrote admiringly of him:
“Not all houses here are painted black, not yet, there are those that walk a Righteous track and won’t forget that blood runs red but Hope is Scarlet,
The Vatican veils a modest man, the Spectrum’s Saviour, Come to fight the Final Plan with a flash of colour. Blood runs red but Hope is Scarlet.”
Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, the Irish priest also known as the Vatican Pimpernel, is credited along with his colleagues for saving the lives of more than 6,500 people in Rome, smuggling Allied prisoners of war as well as endangered Jewish citizens to safety via an intricate escape organization.
O’Flaherty, ironically, was not a man people would suspect for the role he eventually filled. He was known as a patron of Rome’s high life, a well-respected Vatican diplomat who had served in Haiti, San Domingo, Czechoslovakia and Egypt, and a regular attendee of all the most expensive and prestigious parties. Obsessed with golf, he was known to shoot rounds with Mussolini’s son-in-law and Alfonso, the former king of Spain.
However, when the Second World War broke out, things began to change quickly. In the fall of 1942, the Italians (under pressure and with assistance from their German allies) began sweeping arrests of Jews and high-ranking dissenters to Mussolini’s fascist regime. O’Flaherty, a man in possession of diplomatic immunity due to the 1929 Lateran Treaty between Mussolini and the Vatican granting the Vatican independence, realized immediately that his duty was to help the persecuted to the greatest extent possible. O’Flaherty began sending Jews and other refugees to convents, monasteries, and churches for safety, and when he began to run out of space, he hid people in both the residences of his wealthy friends and the Vatican itself.
The following year, everything changed. Italy’s fascist army crumbled under the pounding of Allied forces, and on September 8, 1943, Italy surrendered to the Allies and thousands of former Allied prisoners of war poured out of unguarded Italian concentration camps. The victory, however, was short-lived. Days later, Nazi troops marched into Italy to retake the country and protect their flank from the Allies. Suddenly, thousands of American and British POW’s were back in hostile territory. The dreaded SS and Gestapo entered Rome, led by men such as Colonel Herbert Kappler, who began deporting Jews to Auschwitz, and Pietro Koch, a sadist famous for devising the most cruel torture methods.
O’Flaherty’s small organization now began to balloon in size, and former POW’s all over Italy heard the word that the Vatican Pimpernel could help them. O’Flaherty ignored the German-imposed curfew, Fascist patrols, and even the severe disapproval of Vatican officials to hide refugees everywhere from private apartments to abandoned warehouses. O’Flaherty always refused payment—a Jewish couple once gave him a solid gold chain in payment for hiding them. The priest hid them, obtained false documents, and managed to keep them hidden for the duration of the war. At war’s end, O’Flaherty gave them their gold chain back—he had tossed it in his desk drawer and left it there! When asked by one incredulous colleague how he could be so nonchalant with something of such worth, O’Flaherty replied, “Nobody here will steal it.”
The SS under Colonel Herbert Kappler soon took notice of O’Flaherty—not only because it became apparent that he was smuggling and concealing refugees, but because of his sheer audacity. Nearly every single evening, O’Flaherty stood at the top of the steps of St. Peter’s, saying his prayers and waiting for anyone who might seek refuge with him—in full view of the Nazi soldiers patrolling the Vatican City border, marked by a white painted line. Kappler ordered O’Flaherty captured—but the Irishman responded by going about his work in a series of clever disguises, escaping time and time again in spite of many close calls.
At war’s end, thousands of Allied prisoners of war as well as Jewish and anti-fascist Italians owed their lives to O’Flaherty and his organization. For the most part, he refused to talk about what he had done, and thus we do not know precisely how many people his organization saved. Pietro Koch, the Torturer of Rome, was killed by Italian partisans attempting to flee the city. Col. Kappler was sentenced to life in prison—and every single month, he had one persistent visitor: Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, who in 1959 baptized Kappler in prison.
O’Flaherty story gives us much to admire and much to emulate: Humility, courage, graciousness, and selflessness. He was willing to risk everything, time and time again, because he knew and held dear a a very important truth: There is nothing quite so valuable as a human person.