On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Rome on June 4, 1944, the Hugh O’Flaherty Memorial Society (HOFMS) organized a meeting in the Eternal City to commemorate the memory of the Irish priest who saved thousands of Jews during the Second World War.
Born in Kiskeam in 1898 and ordained a priest in Rome in 1925, Hugh O’Flaherty served as vice-rector of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith before joining the Vatican diplomatic services, then the Holy Office in 1938.
“It all started when, commissioned by his superiors, O’Flaherty began to visit English-speaking prisoners held in German jails. He always brought them books, cigarettes, chocolate, and had a word of comfort for each one,” explains Kieran Troy, member of the HOFMS.
Between the armistice of September 8, 1943 and the liberation of June 4, 1944, Monsignor O’Flaherty and his collaborators managed to save thousands of Jewish prisoners of war, providing them with false identity papers, and hiding them in convents and Roman monasteries.
To achieve his ends, the Irish priest had formed a network whose members each had a code name. Faced with a tenacity worthy of a son of St. Patrick, the Gestapo, led by Obersturmbannführer Herbert Kappler, often had to admit defeat, as the time when Monsignor O’Flaherty, disguised as a coalman, managed to thwart the SS checkpoints to recover a sum of money at Doria Pamphili Palace. On several occasions the Gestapo tried to assassinate him, but in vain.
At the time of the liberation of Rome, the prelate intervened to protect the family of Lieutenant-Colonel Kappler, who would be taken prisoner and tried. After the war and until his death in 1963, the prelate went regularly to Italy in order to visit Herbert Kappler, sentenced to life imprisonment. And this was the ultimate conquest for Monsignor O’Flaherty: the conversion of the former SS officer to Catholicism and his baptism in 1959, which he received from the hands of the man he was pursuing in Rome a few years earlier.