Heroism of Irish priest who helped 6,500 to safety and visited Nazi tormentor in jail

Story of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, who died 60 years ago today, is a moral atlas of borders and boundaries. His is a courageous voice from beyond time and hope

These days, when you enter the Imperial War Museum in London, they search your bags. “We’ll all have to get used to it,” a security guard told me. “With the world the way it is.” On your way up through the building, an elegantly proportioned former royal hospital, you pass the entrance to the space where the permanent second World War exhibit is housed. Glancing through the door you see a swastika.

There is a gallery dedicated to remembering the Holocaust. Sometimes you see people in tears as they’re leaving.

Researching in the museum’s archives this week, I came across a memoir I hadn’t encountered before, by a soldier called D’Arcy Mander of 4 Battalion, The Green Howards. In 1943, he was taken prisoner in Tobruk and imprisoned in northern Italy. Like so many of the Allied combatants who escaped fascist concentration camps in that part of the world and made their way to Rome, he was helped by Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty.

The story of Hugh's wartime heroism is enthralling. Born in Kiskeam, north Cork, raised in Kerry, where to this day he is deeply loved and honoured, he came of age around the demonology that had been left by the Black and Tans. Yet his journey saw him live by his own code of ethical engagement, even in the shadow of death and at the risk of being ostracised by the Vatican neutralists who sought an accommodation with Nazism.

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He walked his own walk. He didn’t do what he was told. In siding with the Allied prisoners to whom he was appointed to minister in the camps, and in hiding some of Rome’s Jews from those who would destroy them, Hugh emerged as that rarest of things, a person who wouldn’t be pressured by anyone, be they friend or enemy. Numbers are uncertain given the secrecy in which his work had to be conducted, but it has been estimated that he helped 6,500 people to safety.

Back home in neutral Ireland, his doings were met with stern disapproval in governmental circles, but Hugh continued regardless. He was no liberation theologian – his unpublished letters reveal an obedient and somewhat conservative priest – but stubbornness was his passport through the moral swamp. It’s possible to read his story as a tributary of the ancient folk tale of the traveller who meets the devil on the road and decides to play cards with him for his own salvation. More remarkable is that Hugh went further. He wanted to save the devil too.

Herbert Kappler, leader of Rome's Gestapo, tortured the innocent, sent Jewish children to the death camps, led the mass murder of 335 people in one night as revenge for a bomb attack by Roman partisans. After the Allied victory, he was jailed in Modena prison. Despised by everyone, deservedly, he was shunned and forgotten. But one man would visit him. Hugh O'Flaherty.

Hugh's story is a kind of moral atlas of borders and boundaries, how the Nazis painted a white line around Vatican City to keep him inside, how he would taunt them by meeting his contacts in St Peter's Square itself, in plain view of the German snipers. At any moment, Kappler could have had him shot. Hugh's priesthood would not have saved him; at least two Rome-based priests were murdered by the Nazis. That Kappler opted to spare his nemesis is in its own way fascinating. Perhaps Hugh O'Flaherty was this depraved tormentor's very last and very frail link with a conscience. Far likelier, Kappler was a coward, afraid of a murder quite so public, of a man who stood starkly in the open.

Hugh, for his own part, risked provoking even the invasion of his beloved Vatican City, the cultural and architectural mothership of his creed, for justice. His quiet brand of courage founded on faith survived everything. In a world where people obeyed orders, he decided not to do so. When he needed to step out from his tribe, he did. Flawed, deeply human, from very different backgrounds and often disagreeing faiths, the wonderful women and men who ran Hugh's escape line combined to create something that none of them could do alone.

All of it makes for a powerful story. But what transforms it into a tale with lasting ramifications beyond the archival facts is the nexus of ambiguities and contemporary resonances that shadow it. Perhaps Hugh’s battle to rescue even a deservingly hated foe was a struggle to preserve his own humanity. That this amazing figure was in many ways an ordinary man, rather modest and quiet, an intensely reluctant hero, is cause for thought.

Hugh O’Flaherty was officially commended for his bravery by Britain and the United States but spoke only very rarely and somewhat dismissively about his experiences. He died in Caherciveen, Co Kerry, 60 years ago today, on October 30th, 1963. Kappler escaped from an Italian military hospital in August 1977, aided by his wife, and died in Germany a year later, aged 70.

My Father’s House, my novel inspired by the extraordinary personal courage of Hugh and his fellow activists, is first and last a work of fiction. The primary duty of any novel is to be involving and beautiful, not to give lectures. Fiction turns to dust when it sermonises. Anyhow, Hugh’s example is greater and stranger than any of its retellings, with a mystery at its heart that no one will ever quite nail down, though many have tried. My own sense is that he didn’t fully understand it himself, didn’t think about it too much, just stood up when he had to. This week, in an archive in London, happening across the words of one of the thousands he saved was so touching. A voice from beyond time and hope.

My Father’s House by Joseph O’Connor is published by Vintage and is shortlisted for Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards