Irish Priest Hugh O’Flaherty honoured for saving thousands of Jews during the Holocaust
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Irish Priest Hugh O’Flaherty honoured for saving thousands of Jews during the Holocaust

THE VATICAN has paid tribute to a Kerry priest, who saved the lives of thousands of Jewish civilians and allied Prisoners of War during World War Two.

A plaque dedicated to the moral courage of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty CBE was unveiled outside the Teutonic College in the Vatican on Sunday, May 8. The college was O’Flaherty’s home during the war.

Born in Co. Cork in 1898, he later moved to Killarney with his parents, to live on a golf course where his father worked as a steward.

In 1918 he enrolled at the Mungret Jesuit college in Co. Limerick. He was posted to Rome in 1922 to finish his studies and was ordained in 1925.

Mgr O’Flaherty stayed in Rome working for the Holy See before taking up positions across the world including Egypt, Haiti, and Czechoslovakia.

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When World War Two broke out he returned to Italy and spent time visiting Italian POW camps. When Mussolini was removed from power in 1943, thousands of allied POWs were released and many of them sought out O’Flaherty in the Vatican for assistance.

Statue of Mgr O’Flaherty in his hometown of Killarney. Statue of Mgr O’Flaherty in his hometown of Killarney.

Shortly after the Germans occupied Italy.

O’Flaherty, along with the help of young New Zealanders, Fathers Owen Snedden and John Flanagan, started to conceal those fleeing from the Nazis, mostly Allied soldiers and Jewish refugees, in flats, farms and convents inside the Vatican and across the city of Rome. It is thought his actions contributed to saving over 6,500 people.

The Germans, although aware of his activities, were unable to arrest him inside the Vatican. He became known as the Vatican’s Scarlet Pimpernel for his ability to evade Nazi capture.

When leaving the safety of the Vatican he used a series of disguises and fake IDs to avoid detection.

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Furious at his behaviour, Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Kappler, the head of Gestapo in Rome had a white partition line painted across the opening of St. Peter's Square signifying the border between Vatican City and Italy. He made it clear that should Mgr O’Flaherty cross the line he would have him arrested immediately.

Despite these threats, when the Allies took Rome in 1944, Mgr O’Flaherty demanded that the German POWs were to be treated properly. After the war he began to visit Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Kappler regularly in prison. In 1959 Kappler converted to Catholicism, it was Mgr O'Flaherty who baptised him.

During a mass in 1960 Mgr O’Flaherty suffered a stroke, his health worsened and he returned to Ireland to live with his sister until his death in 1963. He is buried in the cemetery of the Daniel O'Connell Memorial Church in Cahersiveen.

His bravery throughout the war was recognised by the allied forces and he received a number of awards for his bravery including a CBE and the US Medal of Freedom, he was also the first Irishman named Notary of the Holy Office.

In 2013 a memorial to him was unveiled in his hometown of Killarney.