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Thursday, May 09, 2013

Kidnapping the Pope

       "O'Flaherty had put together the Vatican network with the speed and skill for which he was known.  He had first spoken to Irish priests working in the Vatican to check their Gaelic language skills.  Priests who spoke their native language had played an important role in those harsh years in Irish history in the 1920s when they had used it to help Republicans fight the English Black and Tans who were seen by Catholics as 'terrorists of the King.'  O'Flaherty said the priests he chose would use Gaelic to outwit the Germans.
       Among the first recruits was Father Sean Quinlan, whose family were neighbors of the O'Flahertys in County Kerry.  Another was Monsignor Thomas Ryan who said, 'It's going to be more fun than saying morning Mass.'  Father Owen Sneddon worked for Vatican Radio.  O'Flaherty already knew he frequently slipped in messages during his broadcasts for families of Allied prisoners.
       Within days a dozen other priests had been recruited and Sneddon--a lover of spy stories--suggested they should all have code names.  O'Flaherty became 'Golf;' Sneddon chose to be known by his father's name, 'Horace;' Quinlan 'Kerry;'  and Ryan 'Rinso.'  Others were assigned names which could have come from one of the prison camp stage reviews O'Flaherty had watched.  There was 'Eyerish,'  'Fanny,' 'Emma,' and 'Whitebows,'  a priest in the De La Salle teaching order.
       All were graduates of Ireland's Maynooth seminary, the largest in the Catholic world.  They would act as couriers between safe houses.  For the most part he had decided they would be convents.  But on Princess Pallavicini's suggestion he had agreed she should negotiate for apartments to rent whose occupants had fled.  They could be used to hide Allied soldiers who might find it 'a little uncomfortable being tucked away in a convent of nuns,' she had told him.
       One of his recruit's tasks would be to provide details of the network to rural priests who had parishes close to prisoner-of-war camps from where Allied prisoners had escaped and were heading for Rome.
       O'Flaherty had made several visits over the years to the ghetto, attracted by its history and lifestyle.  There was a poverty of centuries of difficult times but also a strong sense of spirituality that centered on the tempio magiore, the synagogue.  He had learned that their culture was as deeply rooted as that of Ireland's.  His latest visit had been to meet Settimio Sorani, an introduction effected by Father Weber who had said after O'Flaherty had been appointed by the pope to head the Vatican network it would be good if it worked with Delasem.
       Settimio had shown him evidence Delasem had received which confirmed the latest reports from nuncios of Nazi atrocities.  They included grainy photographs of roundups in Lithuania, Latvia, and the Ukraine.
       Through Rosina, O'Flaherty had met with Ugo Foa, Dante Almansi, Renzo Levi, and Israel Zolli.
       It was the first time he had been inside a synagogue and Foa had shown him around, taking him to the library and explaining its importance in Jewish history before leading him to his office where the others were waiting.  They greeted O'Flaherty warmly and listened intently when he told them of the pope's plans to help the Jews of Rome.  O'Flaherty noticed everyone except Zolli expressed their satisfaction after O'Flaherty finished outlining Pius's intentions.  The chief rabbi said if the Allies did not arrive there soon there would be a bloodbath.  According to Zolli, Almansi said to him, 'How can a mind as clear as yours make such a prediction which can only disrupt the lives of our people?  The Germans have not shown any sign yet of making a move against us!'  The chief rabbi had shrugged and took no further part in the conversation.

       The pope sent his congratulations to O'Flaherty when he learned the Vatican network had begun to work closely with Delasem and the Pallotine fathers to help the refugees.  Pius arranged for Settimio Sorani to use church buildings to set up secret offices in towns and cities across Italy which operated with the support of archbishops in Genoa, Turin, Florence, and Milan.  He ordered diocese bank accounts to be used to distribute money Delasem received from Jewish relief organizations in the United States to provide documents and clothes for the fugitive Jews.  Clearly identified Vatican trucks supplied food to convents and monasteries where the refugees sheltered.
       Delasem had started to send small groups of Jews across the border into Switzerland.  Some of the priests who had volunteered to act as guides were Pallotine fathers, and carried Vatican-stamped papers to show the Swiss border guards they were escorting home pilgrims from Rome.  Jewish men were dressed with robes provided by religious orders.  The women wore nun's habits and the children were listed as orphans from a Catholic home.  If the guards suspected anything an envelope of money settled matters.  Sorani had already arranged for members of the Swiss branch of Delasem to be waiting at the nearest border town to organize new lives in a neutral country for the refugees.  Pius had sent several nuns and priests to Switzerland to assist with the resettlement.
       Many of those waiting to make the journey there were moved from one religious house to another.  Gisela Birach would remember that 'nuns were kind, but they expected us to follow their work ethics.  We had to wash and wax the corridor floors and our men would work in the fields.  In some convents they had long periods of silence during which we had to remain in our rooms and not talk.'
       Ester Braunstein worked in a convent kitchen.  'I was in charge of peeling potatoes and everyone was counted.  Hunger defined our existence.  While the sisters shared with us, there was never enough to meet our hunger.  Unless you have chewed potato peel or radish leaves you don't know what hunger is.'

Since the fuhrer ranted in July 1943 that he intended to go into the Vatican and 'clean out that gang of swine,' he had remained obsessed with kidnapping the pope and bringing him to Germany.  It was fuelled by his belief that Pius had been responsible for persuading King Victor Emmanuel III and Badoglio to abandon the Axis and join the Allies.
       Hitler also believed the abduction would enable him to persuade Britain and the United States they were fighting the wrong war;  that together they should join Germany and defeat the Soviet Union.
       By September 13, Hitler's plot to kidnap the pope had reached the stage he decided it should be implemented.  He had summoned to his headquarters--the Wolfsschanze, the Wolf's Lair near Rastenburg in East Prussia--General Karl Friedrich Otto Wolff.  The steel-eyed and handsome forty-three-year-old had served as Himmler's chief of staff before becoming the SS liason officer to Hitler.  His anti-Semetic credentials were gilt-edged and he had played his part in ensuring that the SS dealt efficiently with the Jews.  A month ago Hitler had bestowed on Wolff a unique title--general of the Waffen SS, and police leader of all Italy.  Within the paranoid inner circle at the Wolf's Lair Hitler trusted Wolff completely.
       But there was another side to the smiling, courteous, heel-clicking, and confident-sounding Wolff.  He knew the war was lost.  He had seen it on the faces of Hitler's top military advisers:  Field Marshal Alfred Jodl and General Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel.  Even bombastic Luftwaffe minister, Hermann Goering, could not quite conceal that defeat was only a matter of time.  His air force could do little to stop the Allies from bombing Germany day and night and the Red Army was racing westward and threatening to communize all of Europe. 
       But none of this was to be discussed on that Monday morning in Hitler's office.  He had stood behind his desk, palms pressed down on its top, and told Wolff why he had sent for him.  The general would later write in his diary the conversation which followed:
                                    Wolff, I have a special mission for you.  It will be your duty not to discuss it 
                                     with anyone before I give you permission to do so.  I want you and your troops
                                      to occupy Vatican City as soon as possible, secure its files and art treasures,
                                      and bring the pope to Germany.  I do not want him to fall into the hands of
                                     the Allies, or to be under their political pressure and influence.  When is the
                                     earliest you think you will be able to fulfill this mission?
       Wolff sat stunned into silence as his mind raced.  He had renounced his Protestant faith upon joining the SS and his knowledge about Catholicism had been confined to listening to the ravings of Himmler.  But what he did know was that the pope was the most powerful religious leader in the world.  Wolff realized the kidnapping would guarantee he would be condemned for posterity.  But to even give so much as a hint of refusal to Hitler would be fatal.
       Wolff's response was calm.  He could fulfill the mission--but he needed time to prepare it.  Hitler asked how long Wolff needed.  Wolff said four to six weeks.
       The fuhrer's eyes stared into Wolff's face.  'Too long,' he rasped.
       Wolff's voice grew in confidence.  He would need additional SS and police units transferred to Rome.  Specialists in identifying precious art treasures.  Translators in Latin and Greek to authenticate the documents in the Secret Archives of the Vatican.
       Hitler had stopped Wolff with a wave of his hand.  He could have whatever he wanted but the mission must be completed in a month.
       Wolff stood up, clicked his heels, saluted, and left the office.
       By the time he reached his headquarters on Lake Garda in the Alps Wolff saw what he must do.
       Until now he would have carried out any order for Hitler;  if he had been told to devise a plan to murder Stalin in Moscow or kill Churchill in London, he would have done so.  That was his strength:  The impossible was possible he had learned at military school.  But kidnapping the pope and looting the Vatican was madness beyond anything he had envisaged.
       From that conclusion he began to see how he could use the mission to win the gratitude of the pope and save his own life when the Allies won the war.  It would mean delaying and sabotaging the kidnapping plan.  To do so would have to involve the German ambassador to the Holy See, Baron Ernst von Weizsacker.

        Days after he had met Hitler, General Wolff flew to Rome in a Luftwaffe transport.  During the flight he had devised a plan to show Hitler how he would kidnap the pope.
       It called for two thousand Waffen SS soldiers to arrive in Rome and seal off the Vatican.  A squad would then occupy Vatican Radio and take it off the air.  Other squads would enter the Apostolic Palace and arrest the pope and his entourage.  They would be taken to Rome's airport and flown to Munich.  In the meantime another unit of experts would assess the Vatican's paintings and sculptures.  Truckloads of books and documents would be removed from the Secret Archives.  Together with the treasures they would be sent to Germany.
       Wolff knew the plan would satisfy, even excite Hitler, but was determined it would never happen.  The Waffen SS was already committed on all fronts and to find experts to evaluate the Vatican treasures would take considerable time to locate.  By then the Allies could be close to Rome, forcing the Germans to withdraw and leaving the Vatican safe.  To the Catholics he would be a hero and the Jews would see how sabotaging the plot helped to save the lives of those in Rome. 
       Wolff would give Hitler sufficient details to convince him preparations were underway and sent a coded message to that effect from the German embassy.  Then he went to the Villa Napoleon to see Weizsacker.
       He had already studied the ambassador's file.  He came from a prominent Wurttemberg family who included Ribbentrop in its circle.  The foreign minister had found a place in his office for Weizsacker and guided his career up through the ministry.  Wolff also knew of the ambassador's growing relationship with Admiral Canaris.  Since Hitler's rages that he was surrounded by traitors, Wolff had come to wonder if they included the head of the Abwehr.  If so, could Weizsacker have been sent to Rome to become involved in his machinations?  Was that why Hitler wanted the pope kidnapped--to use him as a weapon against his enemies?  Wolff later admitted those were the questions which still preoccupy him as he walked into Weizsacker's office.
       The ambassador and Kessel, his deputy, were waiting and Wolff sensed their tension.  Weizsacker wasted no time in explaining why.  He had seen a copy of Kappler's Judenaktion order and asked if that was why Wolff was in Rome.  If so, he should be aware that the pope was bound to protest and that could be the prelude to a popular uprising led by the Resistance, one possibly supported by the Allied escaped prisoners of war hiding in the city.
       Wolff had not hesitated:  He told the two diplomats of Hitler's order to kidnap the pope--and of his own intention to stop it.
       Weizsacker had thanked him.  Wolff explained he must continue with its preparation so as not to arouse Hitler's suspicion.
       Weizsacker pressed, 'But what if you fail?'
       Wolff replied, 'Then we are all finished.'  The Pope's Jews by Gordon Thomas pgs. 129-30, 146-48, and 150-51.

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