It. Never. Fails. If I find out about something important and life-changing, the kind of thing about which one says, “Why have I never heard about this before!?!”…I will immediately hear about it two more times in quick succession. It. Never. Fails.
That’s what happened recently about The Scarlet and the Black. I stumbled across it on the Roku quite by chance and then twice more online. It was weird! The third time it happened, I said to myself, “Well obviously, this is what I’m meant to write about this week.” So here goes.
The Scarlet and The Black
Have you ever heard of The Scarlet and the Black? It is the true story of Catholic Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty and the lives he saved in World War II. It is the story of two men, one obsessed with destroying the other one. But ultimately, it is a profound story of forgiveness.
Born in 1898 in County Cork, Hugh’s path took an unusual turn when he was appointed not to a local diocese but by the Vatican to be a diplomat. Over time, Monsignor O’Flaherty would represent the Vatican in Egypt, Santo Domingo, Haiti and the old Czechoslovakia. It was there that he cut his eye teeth on how to disappear people to protect them from certain death.
When the army for the Third Reich goosestepped into the Eternal City, into Rome, the Monsignor was the right man in the right place at the right time. From his room in Collegio Teutonico, Monsignor O’Flaherty managed a network of patriots who protected, fed, clothed, housed and forged fake papers for everyone needing sanctuary from the Nazis. It didn’t matter who you were: Jew, Arab, downed Allied pilot…if you needed his help, you had it. Those who threatened to expose the network, O’Flaherty threatened with excommunication!
Meanwhile, Obersturmbannführer Herbert Kappler, the head of the SS Sicherheitsdienst and Gestapo in Rome was doing everything he could to break the network. He arrested, he tortured and he murdered. Realizing the Monsignor was the mastermind hiding all the people Kappler couldn’t find, Kappler had a wide white line painted around the Vatican. Inside, was “safe.” After all, the Third Reich respected Vatican neutrality. But should O’Flaherty take one step over that white line, he would be instantly captured or shot.
If Kappler meant that as a deterrent, he didn’t understand the Irish mind. To that old lover of freedom, O’Flaherty, the white line was merely a dare, a challenge. He became the master of various disguises…nuns, coal men, street sweepers…he impersonated them all to slip out of the Vatican, line or no line! I guess there’s a lot to be said for the luck o’ the Irish.
In total, Monsignor O’Flaherty aka The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican aka the Irish Schindler saved well over 6,000 lives during World War II but unfortunately has not yet been honored as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations” at Yad Vashem, more’s the pity.
But the story does not end there.
When his old nemesis, Kappler, was imprisoned for life for his crimes, O’Flaherty visited him in prison every month, year in and year out. It took fourteen years of monthly discussions about philosophy and theology, but O’Flaherty finally had the pleasure of baptizing Herbert Kappler into the Catholic faith. The man who had once sought to kill him was now his brother in the Lord.
That is magnificence forgiveness.
Recommended Viewing: The Scarlet and the Black starring Gregory Peck, Christopher Plummer and Sir John Gielgud (shot on location in Rome in1983)
The Railway Man
There are times when it comes in very handy to be a “geek.” During WWII, British Officer Eric Lomax was captured by the Japanese and forced to work building a railway. There he used his extensive knowledge of international railways and railway history to figure out where he was: Burma.
Then he took his geekiness a step further and that’s when being a geek got him in trouble. He built a radio receiver so he and his fellow POWs could hear British news of the war. It boosted their morale no end but it also got him in deep, deep trouble.
Lomax’s receiver was discovered but, according to the movie, his captor accused him of using it was a transceiver, able to transmit out as well as receive transmissions. He was tortured horribly, scarring him physically and emotionally for life. He described his hatred for the Japanese as a hard armor wrapped around him. He wrote, “It was as if the sins my captors had sown in me were being harvested in my family. I also had intense hatred for the Japanese, and was always looking for ways and means to do them down. In my mind I often thought of my hateful interrogator [Mr. Nagase]. I wanted to drown him, cage him and beat him – as he had done to me.”
Interpreter Takashi Nagase of Kurashiki, Japan was one of the men involved in the interrogation and torture of Lomax. After the war, his guilt was so extreme, his internal scars so deep, like Eric, he could not adjust to civilian life. He tried to atone for his deeds by financing a Buddhist temple on what we know as the River Kwai and doing charitable works as penance.
For years Lomax sought the whereabouts of Mr. Nagase with murder in his heart. Finally, he found him. They met but surprisingly it was, to quote Casablanca, the “beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Eric Lomax wrote:
The meeting took place in 1998 in Kanburi, Thailand. When we met Nagase greeted me with a formal bow. I took his hand and said in Japanese, “Good Morning Mr Nagase, how are you?” He was trembling and crying, and he said over and over again: “I am so sorry, so very sorry.” I had come with no sympathy for this man, and yet Nagase, through his complete humility, turned this around. In the days that followed we spent a lot of time together, talking and laughing. It transpired that we had much in common. We promised to keep in touch and have remained friends ever since.
They became lifelong friends and pen pals and are pictured together above.
Recommended Viewing: The Railway Man starring Colin Firth, Hiroyuki Sanada and Nicole Kidman
The Forgiveness Project
In researching this article, I ran across something interesting: The Forgiveness Project. I assumed the site was inspiring tales of the wounded who’ve chosen to forgive those who’ve hurt them. It is and it isn’t.
It also includes amazing stories of people who did terrible things, accidentally or on purpose, and are learning to forgive themselves.
I’ve been an outspoken critic of “brush it under the rug” style forgiveness and especially rushing into forgiveness. But I’m beginning to take a second look at it. If Eric Lomax and Hugh O’Flaherty can forgive those who so purposefully tortured and terrorized them, perhaps we can forgive the narcissists who emotionally tortured us. Just something to think about.