The ‘Vatican Pimpernel’

Hugh O'Flaherty Killarney, Ireland 1898 - 1963

Oskar Schindler is rightly revered for his work in saving over 1,000 Jews from death in the Nazis’ Final Solution, yet he wasn’t alone in his efforts. From those sheltering one or two, to men like Nicholas Winston who transported 600 Jewish children to Britain at the outbreak of the war, there were numerous instances of people across Europe defying the most horrific crime in human history.

And that includes the brave efforts of an unassuming Irish priest called Hugh O’Flaherty, who helped not only Jews but also prisoners of war and others in Rome escape imprisonment and death following the German invasion. Though his work to save so many means he can mentioned in the same breath as Schindler and Winston, it was his clever use of disguises that earned him a more appropriate nickname, the Vatican Pimpernel.

Hailing from Killarney in Ireland, Hugh O’Flaherty arrived in Rome in 1922, and after working as a diplomat for the Vatican around the world, was granted the title of monsignor in 1934. During the early years of the war he took an interest in prisoner of war camps, whose occupants were freed following the fall of Benito Mussolini in 1943. When the subsequent German occupation threatened them with reimprisonment, many fled to Rome to seek the Irishman who had shown concern for their plight

Much like the dashing rogue in Orczy’s novel, The Scarlet Pimpernel, O’Flaherty would evade the German patrols by dressing up in disguises such as a postman or street sweeper to meet escapees, and would even get them in on the act, smuggling Jews disguised as nuns and monks into the Vatican. The neutrality of the Vatican meant thousands of Allied prisoners of war and partisan fighters running from German forces could be hidden away safely, while religious houses and homes of willing civilians were also used. So many Jews were hidden in one church that they held their own religious ceremonies there, while one house that was used to hide the runaways was right under the Gestapo’s nose, located just next door to its Rome headquarters.

From his residence in the German College by St Peter’s Basilica, O’Flaherty established a network that included other priests and willing escapees, all doing their part to oppose the occupying forces in the Holy City along the Rome Escape Line. He even gained help from the British ambassador Sir Francis D’Arcy Osborne, both financially and from his butler John May who was adept at acquiring goods from the Black Market to help feed the refugees. Food and money were distributed around the city by those who braved the steely eyes of patrolling units.

Despite his discreet activities, O’Flaherty could not shake the attention of the SS commander Herbert Kappler. After surviving an assassination attempt, O’Flaherty was told by Kappler that he would be arrested if he left the Vatican, even drawing a white line on the boundary of the Vatican and Rome to fortify his point. Yet even with a bounty on is head, the priest continued to venture out to meet those in need.

The feat of Rome’s citizens was shown once Allied troops arrived in the city in June 1944. Over 8,000 Jews had been hidden by the church and other residents, while nearly 4,000 escapees were being protected by O’Flaherty’s network alone. As a measure of O’Flaherty’s humanity, he demanded that German prisoners were treated well by the Allied forces, and would even visit his foe Kappler in prison. He personally baptised Kappler following the war.

As well as the decorations he was presented with for his efforts, a statue of the monsignor stands in his home town of Killarney, while films and books have been made about his deeds. But O’Flaherty’s real legacy is a simple one: to show compassion and helping those in need, no matter country or creed.

We will remember them

Hugh O'Flaherty Killarney, Ireland 1898 - 1963
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