Cookie Consent

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Crimes Against History

       "It was the sound of boots running toward the palazzo front door which had first warned Princess Pallavicini.  She was alone:  having sent her cook and maid south to her country home, together with her chauffeur and gardener.  She knew that if she was discovered forging documents they would be imprisoned--or even executed as collaborators.
       Already her friend, Princess Virginia Agnelli, the widow of Edoardo Agnelli, the Turin Fiat heir, was imprisoned in the San Gregorio Convent;  in spite of the Lateran Treaty, the building had been turned by the Fascists into a prison for the ladies of the Black Nobility.  Virginia had smuggled out a message to Nina that she was 'reasonably comfortable and I can use the chapel.' 
       The kicking of boots against the front door and shouts in German sent Nina racing to the back of the palace to jump out of a ground floor window.  Knowing the penalty of death faced her when her illegal wireless was discovered she ran through the streets to the only person and place she knew would provide sanctuary--Monsignor O'Flaherty in the German college.
        That night O'Flaherty found her a bedroom in the nun's quarters.  Hours later Radio Rome broadcast that she was to be arrested on sight for using an illegal radio and working for the enemy.  A substantial reward was announced for her capture.  O'Flaherty told Nina he had obtained permission for her to stay in the college for the forseeable future where she would continue to produce her documents until the Allies arrived.  Nina worked from a basement room and the special paper and equipment she had left behind in the palazzo was replaced by an old friend of O'Flaherty's, Count Guisseppe Dalla Torre, the editor of L'Osservatore Romano. 

       From her office window in the synagogue Rosina {Sorani} watched the approaching freight cars.  She knew why they were there and did not know what to do.  Apart from the caretaker she was the only person in the building.
        Rosina had hardly slept in the small apartment Settimio had found them.  They discussed late into the night what Father Weber had told her brother after she helped to burn the documents Settimio had brought from his office.
        The priest had assured him he would take care of the remaining refugees in Delasem's care, mostly women and children.  Settimio had given him a list of their names and addresses.  He had begun to worry about the Germans finding it.  She had tried to reassure him, though she herself had become increasingly uneasy:  First Almansi and now Foa and Rabbi Zolli had disappeared.  There had still been no reply as she had continued to call the numbers of the president and the chief rabbi into the early hours.  She knew there was no point in calling Almansi.  He had said he would never answer the phone in his hiding place, instead he would call the synagogue and leave a message where he could be found at a different place every evening in the city 'in order to deal with matters relavant to carrying out my duties.'
        The freight cars were now parked outside the synagogue and she recognized the three officers from the ERR who had descended from the car and were leading the overalled men into the synagogue.
         The younger of the officers, who had spoken to her in Hebrew the first time he came into the synagogue, politely asked her to lead them to the library.  Rosina had said it was locked.  The officer who had threatened her ordered her to open it.  Rosina said she did not have the key.  He motioned to one of the soldiers to follow him and moments later there was the sound of the library door being forced open.  The looting of the library was about to start.
       A crowd had begun to form in the street below.  Among them was Umberto di Veroli, who had come out from his shop opposite the synagogue to see what was happening.  The soldiers had formed a line to hold back people.
       As the removal men emerged with books the ERR men supervised their storage in the freight cars.  Sheets of corrugated paper were placed between the books to protect them.  Slowly and carefully the piles of irreplaceable literature filled each car to its roof.  A total of 26,568 volumes were ready for their long train journey to Germany.  It was early evening when the work was finished.
        The Hebrew-speaking officer thanked Rosina for her 'patience and understanding.'  She told him it was not appropriate to thank her for what had been done.  He gave her a Heil Hitler salute and joined the others in the car.  As the freight cars trundled back up the road Umberto di Veroli handed her a sheet of paper on which he had written the stenciled numbers on the freight cars;  saying he hoped that one day they could help to trace the stolen library.  Close to tears he called it a crime against history.
        Four years would pass until in October 1947 an officer in the monuments, fine arts, and archives section of the Allied military government in West Germany was assigned to discover the fate of the books.  Major Seymour J. Pomerenze, a former archivist at the National Archives in Washington, found they had been shipped to the ERR Institute der NSDP fuer Erforschung der Judenfrage in the small village of Hungen.  From there Pomeranze traced them to the Rothschild Library in Frankfurt and they were shipped back to Rome.  Like so many books they had survived being sacrificed as a burnt offering to racial hatred in Nazi Germany.
       On that Wednesday evening when the freight cars had departed, Foa arrived at the synagogue with its caretaker.  Rosina was waiting for them and together they went to the Treasury, the repository of the gold articles used in religious sermons.  They carried them down to the synagogue's mikvah, the ritual bath.  While Rosina stood guard at the entrance the men began to place the precious pieces in the tank of holy water which supplied the bath.  That night back in his hiding place, Foa wrote, 'With the help of God they are saved and kept intact.'  But the fate of many of those who used them was drawing closer.
       Sister Pascalina had taken upon herself the task of keeping track of the number of Jews who had been rescued by the Vatican since October 1942, when Italy's leading Fascist newspaper, Regime Fascista, had reminded its readers that 'we should not forget that in the long run the pope is a greater enemy of National Socialism than Churchill or Roosevelt.  It is incomprehensible that the Catholic clergy should today support so many protests against the elimination of the Jews.'
        Pascalina's own record keeping would include details of a secret letter the pope wrote to the Catholic bishops of Europe in 1942 after the Wannsee Conference.  Headed Opere et caritate (by work and charity), it asked them to 'save the Jews and other victims of persecution.'  Pius requested his letter remain secret 'for the same reason the International Red Cross and the World Council of Churches had avoided making any public statement which would increase the suffering of Jews.'
        Pascalina's records also showed that in the late summer of 1943 over two thousand Jews in Hungary were given documents by the Vatican which identified them as baptized Catholics.  The cardinal of Genoa had been told to have his priests issue baptism certificates to eight hundred Jews hidden in the city.  In every city, town, and village where Jews were hidden, Pius had sanctioned priests to provide the certificates and, in some cases, make Jews citizens of the Vatican.  All told, there were over four thousand Jews hidden in convents and monasteries across Italy.
       In Rome the number of Jewish families being sheltered had increased since Father Weber had brought those on the Delasem list to convents.  Many arrived in the ambulance driven by Monsignor Patrick Carroll-Abbing.  The vehicle now bore Vatican license plates to protect it from being stopped by German police.
        Nevertheless, a different problem had arisen one October morning when Father Patrick arrived at the convent of Our Lady of Sion and found a group of Jewish families he had earlier brought to the convent in an uproar.  The mother superior had told them their menfolk could not stay in the convent because the order's rule forbid it.  Father Patrick asked the nun to keep the men until he returned.  He had driven to the Vatican and explained the situation to Father Leiber.  He had immediately telephoned the mother superior to say she was absolved from the order's rule as the Holy Father had decreed that 'given the grave situation, nuns are allowed to give hospitality in their convent to Jewish men as well as their families.'  By the end of the day over a hundred and fifty mother superiors had been contacted and given the same ruling.
        By the second week of October O'Flaherty's organization had found secure hiding places for close to five hundred Allied soldiers.  The number would have been greater but for the number of escapees caught on the streets by the Koch or Black Panther gangs who were incarcerated in an old palace near the Pantheon.
        Derry told O'Flaherty it was time the escapees in hiding were reminded they 'are under British military discipline and not to damn well go wandering through the streets like tourists.  They need to understand that feeding, clothing, and finding them hiding places is a dangerous game.'
       O'Flaherty suggested that Derry should visit the safe houses.
       His ID card in his suit pocket and escorted by Father Owen Sneddon--the New Zealand priest who had chosen 'Horace' as his code name--Derry's tour of the safe houses gave him an insight into the courage of Romans risking their lives to help escapees.  Before he left each safe house Derry firmly impressed on the soldiers they were in a position of great responsibility to ensure their helpers were not caught.
       After once more installing his family in the apartment his wife's gynecologist had loaned them, Zolli had gone to see Father Borsarelli, the abbot of the Sacred Heart monastery in Rome.  The priest had become a confidant of the chief rabbi after Zolli visited the monastery to see its small but important collection of religious paintings.  After several visits Zolli had eventually told Borsarelli of his spiritual journey through prayer and meditation which had brought him from devout Judaism to wishing to convert to Catholicism.
        Now, the abbot had asked hism to wait while he went to make a telephone call.  When he returned he told Zolli they would go and collect his wife and children and take them to the Vatican where they could stay with the full blessing of the pope.  The abbot told Zolli that among the pope's favorite saints was Saint Neri, 'who had always prayed for the Hebrews and so intense was his desire to see the Jews united to Christ that at the sight of one of them still outside the fold, he would weep.'
      It was dusk when the monastery's old car drove into the Vatican.  Inside its walls the chief rabbi and his family would become the latest of three hundred Jews who had so far been given sanctuary.  The Pope's Jews, by Gordon Thomas pgs.185-86, and 195-199.

No comments: