Cookie Consent

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Roundup, Part Two

       "Realizing that the broadcast had provided an opportunity to abandon the plot.  Wolff had flown to see Hitler and told him that the whole of Catholic Italy would defend the Vatican to protect the pope.
       Warming to his argument, Wolff went on to tell Hitler that to deal with mass civil unrest would require German troops to be withdrawn from the southern front where they were engaged trying to hold back the advancing Allies.
       The atmosphere in Hitler's office was captured in Wolff's account preserved in the Jesuit Curia library at the Borgo Santo Spirito in Rome:'Hitler, his hand trembling, stood at his office window staring out at the fir trees, the look on his face one when he received bad news.'  Wolff told him he had asked Bishop Alois Hudal to 'persuade' Pius to leave the Vatican voluntarily.  It emerged that Hudal actually went through the motions of exploring the idea with fellow Nazi sympathizers in the Vatican.  But no doubt awed by the responsibility stemming from their mere knowledge of the proposal, they refused to take it any further.  Only then had Hudal abandoned the idea.
       Wolff recalled how Hitler had finally turned from his office window and cancelled the plot, 'the madness in his eyes all too evident.'

       Hauptsturmfuhrer Theodor Dannecker arrived in Rome by train on the evening of October 8, 1943.  He was thirty years old, a slim, lantern-jawed bachelor and his height, six feet three inches tall, did nothing to compensate for his poorly coordinated body movements, which included a tic that continually flicked his head to one side.
       Early that year he had carried out deportations from Bulgaria, Greece, and Yugoslavia of over eleven thousand Jews to Aushwitz and Treblenka.  Previously he had performed similar operations in France, Poland, Belgium, and Holland.  In all, Dannecker had sent several hundred thousand Jews to their deaths.  Ironically his first girlfriend, Lisbeth Stern, had been Jewish.
       As usual Eichmann's office had arranged for him to travel alone in a reserved compartment to give him time to think how he would plan his latest mission.  On the train he had read the dispatches Kappler had sent:  his call for more troops to conduct the roundup and his concern about the Rome Resistance.  Dannecker understood why Eichmann had decided Kappler was not capable of conducting a successful Judenaktion.  Perhaps living in Rome had made him soft.  Dannecker had seen that happen before when a local police chief in Belgrade had refused to carry out executions.  Danneker, then a member of the SS Verfuegungstruppe, a specialist combat support force, had shot him.  After Eichmann selected him to head the Judenreferat, the Jewish department, Dannecker summed up his work in the words of his hobby.  'Over the years I have learnt which hook to use for which fish.'
       In his finely tailored SS uniform and polished boots he embodied someone to be feared and hated;  a brutal, mean, crude man.
        Following his usual custom of remaining unobtrusive on a mission Dannecker stayed in a small hotel on Via Po.  The accomodation had been arranged for him by one of the Judennaktion officers who had arrived in Rome earlier;  he had worked with Dannecker for a year and knew his habits.
       Dannecker had changed out of his uniform into a suit and eaten alone at a nearby restaurant;  the quality of the food was indifferent but it was still better than that offered in Berlin.  Afterward he had walked around Rome, studying the solid marble statues and the sarcophagi.  The city, he decided, was even more impressive than Paris.  Rome had its priests in black, white and purple robes and the Latin Mass which came from a church he passed.  And, of course, there were the Romans:  children sitting on the marble edges of fountains;  the young women, their hair often the color of flame;  old men and women sitting at their tables in pavement cafes.  How many of those he had seen were Jews?  How many would die under his orders?

       Pope Pius continued to receive reports from the network.
       In the monastery founded by Saint Francis of Assisi a synagogue had been opened in the basement where close to a hundred Jews in hiding could worship while the monks prayed above in the chapel.  The Vatican information office, where Sister Luke worked, had opened a special unit to deal with overseas Jews seeking news of their relatives.  By October 1943, the unit had answered twenty thousand inquiries in a month.  The pope had appointed his own liason with Delasem, the Capucine Father Bourg D're.  He had been given a 'start-up' sum of five million lire to provide food, clothing, and medicine for Jewish refugees arriving in Rome.
       The pope's response to every report contained the reminder that as well as saving Jews, every effort must be made to save the contents of synagogues and cultural centers, especially the libraries.  'For Jewish people their history is as important to be protected as ours,' Pius wrote.
       On that October morning Rosina Sorani sat at her desk sorting through Foa's mail when she heard footsteps coming up the stairs from the ground floor.  The tread was too heavy for Foa and he usually called up to have his coffee ready.  A stocky, barrel-chested, middle-aged man stood in the doorway.  He gave her a snaggletoothed smile and introduced himself as a photographer from the ERR who had come to inspect numerous texts in the library.  He handed her a typed sheet.
       Rosina looked at the paper and saw it listed the rarest works in the library:  books from the famous Soncino publishing house dating from the fifteenth century;  original texts from sixteenth-century Constantinople and Salonika;  manuscripts which were histories of the literary and intellectual life of Rome;  a record of how the kabala came to replace already existing philosophy;  a thirteenth-century mathematics text and an extremely rare Hebrew-Italian-Arabic vocabulary published in Naples in 1488.  Finally there were twenty-one Talmudic tracts.
       Rosina hesistated.  The precious texts were kept in a locked area at the back of the library and though she had a key to open it she wondered if she needed Foa's permission to admit a stranger.  The officer said she should accompany him to the library and reassure herself that he'd handle the manuscripts and books with proper care.  Foa had not arrived and she decided he would probably have no objection;  besides, in the past she had allowed Rabbi Zolli and one or two of the senior students at the rabinnical college to look at some of the books to research papers they were writing.  She led the way to the library, gave the officer a pair of white cotton gloves, and unlocked the door to the room where the books were kept.
       She saw he was an expert, in the way he opened a book, softly touching the paper and leafing through the pages, the way she had seen Rabbi Zolli do.  The man had the same attention to touch, running a gloved hand down a page, stopping at a special point of interest to him before moving on to another page.  At times he would smile at Rosina as she handed him a document, identifying it as a codex or a palimpsest.  He would stand there, sometimes moving a hand above the page as if he was giving it some sort of benediction.
       Much of what he asked to see was written in obscure alphabets.  She had asked him about one and he told her it was Armenian, a branch of the old Christian church.  But mostly he remained silent, his eyes fixed on a page, his eyes widening and brightening.  Occasionally he would breathe in, the way Rabbi Zolli did when he seemed to know where to look for a particular text.
       Finally he finished.  Rosina locked the door behind them and walked him back to her desk;  he turned to her and delivered a terrifying sentence.  'You will please inform your president that the library is under sequester and if any books are missing you will have to pay with your life.'
       He turned and walked down the stairs.
When Foa arrived later that morning she told him about the latest visit of the ERR official.
       He dictated four letters for her to type.  The first was to General Stahel;  the others were to the neo-Fascist city administration:  the minister of interior, the minister of education, and the director general of public safety.  Each had the same text:  an account of the ERR visits;  the sequestering of the library;  its unique value.  It concluded by asking that immediate and appropriate action be taken to protect the library.  After signing the letters Foa told Rosina to hand deliver them to the various addresses.  He would never receive a reply.

       Dannecker's hope that his mission would remain secret failed through a regulation General Stahel had introduced.  Like every hotel guest in Rome, Dannecker had to register.  As a serving officer he was only required to provide his name, rank, and unit on the form which was routinely collected and brought to the Stadtkommandant's headquarters at the Hotel Flora.  There it was checked against a list of names of expected military officers arriving in the city;  they were usually on leave or on their way to another posting.
       But Dannecker's name was not listed.  Its absence might had been ignored in some other headquarters, but Stahel from the outset of his appointment as Stadtkommandant had ordered that any oversight was to be tracked down and rectified.  One of his staff officers was ordered to call Berlin and was told Dannecker was in Rome on the order of Obersturmbannfuhrer Eichmann and his presence was to remain secret, a classification approved by Reichfuhrer Himmler.
       Stahel was furious.  For him no one could come to Rome on even a secret mission without him being told its purpose.  It had been infuriating to learn over the radio and newspapers of a plot to kidnap the pope of which he had known nothing beforehand and which had caused such an outcry.  But now to find that Eichmann--a man Stahel strongly disliked--had somehow enlisted Himmler's backing for some secret mission was too much;  Stahel's instinct told him it could only bring trouble for him.  He had called Kesselring at his headquarters in Frascati.  The commander-in-chief had been firm:  Dannecker's mission must remain Geheime Reichssache--a secret affair of the Reich."  The Pope's Jews by Gordon Thomas pgs162-165, 167-168,173-175, and175-176

No comments: