In Rome during World War II, Kerry man Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty organised an escape for the Allied POWs and civilians.
By the time the Allies entered Rome in June 1944 he and his colleagues had saved over 6,500 lives.
Hugh O’Flaherty (pictured) was born in 1898.
His father was employed as the steward of Killarney Golf Club.
Their home was close to the golf course and it was little wonder that Hugh, by the time he was eighteen, was a first class golfer.
Indeed, a promising career as a professional beckoned, but so did a vocation to the priesthood
Italy was a dangerous place during the Second World War. Thousands of prisoners of war were incarcerated in camps and with a population of over forty thousand Jews, arrests, deportments and torture were the order of the day.
One man, an Irish priest, stood firmly against these Nazis atrocities and helped thousands of Jews to escape.
Hugh O’Flaherty ended up by chance in the Vatican whose neutrality he decided should not mean standing idly by while fellow human beings were being persecuted.
He informed the Pope of the strong urge within him to help those in trouble. Pope Pius stressed the Vatican’s official neutrality and so sent him on a humanitarian visit to the newly constructed camps for British POWs.
Here, he talked with the prisoners, found them warm clothing and food and on returning to Rome relayed their messages to the Vatican Radio Station which would then broadcast their greetings and good wishes, thereby informing their families that they were still alive.
His skills in diplomacy were enhanced by his warm personality.
He wore round rimmed spectacles giving him an air of cheerful absentmindedness but this belied a determined man with nerves of steel.
In Rome he found a city harassed by daily raids and arrests of anti-government sympathisers.
These included businessmen, rabbis and intellectuals. Many of these people had been his friends and acquaintances and they were now seeking his help.
He didn’t hesitate to put himself in danger. The Pope looked the other way as he found monasteries and convents within the city in which to hide them- he even used a part of his own residence.
Slowly he built a network of safe houses and enlisted co-conspirators throughout the city.
Another branch of his network was Rome’s trolley drivers.
He would oblige them by saying a very early Sunday Mass so as not to interfere with their working day.
In return he found them very helpful when he needed to transport refugees around the city.
On those undercover missions he often disguised himself as a street cleaner or a postman and on one occasion he dressed as a nun to avoid detection.
He would often don the uniform of a Swiss Guard to make his way undetected from one end of St. Peter’s square to the other.
Consequently the bravest and most daring of Monsignor O’Flaherty’s activities went on directly under German surveillance, most specifically under the watchful eye of Colonel Herbert Kappler, one of whose actions on arriving in Italy was to round up and deport over a thousand Jews to Auschwitz. On one occasion in March 1944, 330 men were massacred.
He became aware of Monsignor O’Flaherty’s activities and tried to have him killed.
Capture meant certain death.
That same month the house in Rome he was visiting was raided by the Nazis looking for him. Mgr. Hugh, with only seconds to spare, slipped into the cellar.
Luckily, coal was being delivered at that moment, so he persuaded one of the coalmen to let him take his place. He stuffed his priest’s clothes into a coal bag, covered his face in soot and walked past the German soldiers.
Two months later Rome was liberated. Escapees and refugees all joined the throngs in St. Peter’s Square in celebration. 4,000 people emerged from network of Monsignor O’Flaherty’s safe houses.
Kappler was captured and given life imprisonment for his war crimes. Incredibly his only visitor was Monsignor O’Flaherty who also helped his wife and childen to escape to Switzerland. In 1949 Kappler was baptised a Catholic in prison by Fr Hugh.
There is a film from book, The Scarlet Pimpernel’ by J.P. Gallagher, called ‘The Scarlet and the Black’ starring Gregory Peck as Fr Hugh- well worth a look. Also website: hughoflaherty.com
He saved the lives of thousands of innocent men, women and children, most of them Jews. Accordingly the state of Israel has conferred on this Irish ‘Oscar Schindler’ its highest honour of ‘Righteous among Nations.’
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