A few weeks ago I saw The Scarlet and the Black, a 1983 film starring Gregory Peck as Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty. O’Flaherty was a Vatican scholar who mingled readily with Italian nobility, diplomats, and socialites. His charm and wit made him a regular at parties, concerts, operas and diplomatic receptions. He was bred in Killarney, earned a degree in theology in Rome, was ordained in 1925 and subsequently earned doctorates in divinity, canonical law and philosophy.
When the Nazis occupied Rome in 1943 a white line was painted across St. Mark’s Square. Defining the border that rendered immunity to the Vatican, and its resident clergy, it was monitored continually by the Nazis.
Initially, because of a faith-driven conviction that all men were capable of redemption, O’Flaherty was neutral toward Mussolini’s fascist regime and reluctant to defy the Germans. But the chief of Nazi police operations in Rome was S.S. Lieutenant Herbert Kappler, a ruthless anti-Semite who hunted down, tortured and killed partisans and Allied soldiers and rounded up and deported Jews after stealing their possessions. When the Monsignor witnesses the brutality, guile and deadly determination of the Nazis, he embarks on a mission to thwart Kappler. In a flagrant ruse, he obtains Kappler’s autograph which he then forges on an order to release Lt. Jack Manning of the U.S Army Corps and Lt. Harry Barnett of the British Army from imprisonment and torture. The Monsignor is aided by an Italian heroine, Mrs. Lombardi, by two clergymen, Father Vittorio and Father Morosini, an Italian Count and the Swiss Consul. O’Flaherty’s escapades obsessed Kappler, who developed a personal vendetta against him, going so far as to attempt to have him murdered by two of his men disguised as monks. O’Flaherty’s boxing skills daze the would-be kidnappers and he escapes to the Vatican.
O’Flaherty’s efforts were neither encouraged nor forbidden by the Pope. The Pontiff gave him a wide berth, only exhorting him to respect the neutrality of the Vatican.
As Kappler’s iron fist tightened around Rome, he put a price of 30,000 lire on Monsignor O’Flaherty, who, variously dressed as a nun, a coal peddler, a Nazi (in a purloined uniform), and a street cleaner continually left the safety of the Vatican to rescue and hide Jews, Allied prisoners and refugees. Each time he returned by remarkable cunning and daring to the Vatican.
After the Allies took Rome, Kappler was imprisoned and, as the credits roll, we are informed that the only visitor he ever had was Monsignor O’Flaherty who ultimately converted him to Catholicism.
How hokey, how Hollywood, I thought, but I decided to look up O’Flaherty. To my amazement and delight I found that all the foregoing was true. In fact O’Flaherty was called “The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican” for his many daring exploits and escapes.
O’Flaherty was a reluctant hero of the Allied cause. As a nationalist Irishman, he harbored suspicion and animosity toward the British. (Incidentally, it was this animosity which propelled many Irish pilots and captains to ferry refugees to Palestine in defiance of the British blockade of Palestine after World War II.) But witnessing the violence and deranged anti-Semitism of the Nazis, he was determined to defy them. He is said to have rescued over 6,500 Jews, Allied soldiers and partisans.
Before Kappler was arrested in 1944, he and his men killed 335 people hiding in the Ardeatine tunnels outside the city in retaliation for the killing of 33 German soldiers in a Resistance bombing. After his conversion Kappler remained in prison to serve out his life term. In 1977 his wife smuggled him out in a suitcase and took him back to Germany where he died a year later.
After the war Monsignor O’Flaherty visited Jerusalem to help many of the Jews he had rescued in their immigration to Israel. In 1960 he suffered a stroke and returned to Ireland where he died in 1963. Among his many accolades and honors was the United States Medal of Freedom. His memory is a blessing.
O’Flaherty’s principled defiance and courage makes a mockery of the leftist self-righteous poseurs who pretend to be dissidents yet take no risks in their daily slander of America and Israel. Father O’Flaherty recognized the difference between good and evil and between civilization and barbarism. The BDS groupies, the leftist academics, the media “calumnists” and the J Street crowd are nothing more than cowardly fools.