Summary: an outstanding historical thriller of Europeans united against the Nazis
Philippe Sands once wrote a very fine book on the origins of the international law on crimes against humanity and genocide, East-West Street. This does not in my mind absolve him of writing The Ratline: a pointless, rambling wastrel of a book, undertaken, it seems at the behest of the son of a Nazi, who believed his father was, nevertheless, a good man.
The Ratline in question in the book’s title was a bit of a Godot character. It never really shows up. The Nazi in question could not stump up the cash to pay the venal and corrupt Vatican officials who were offering Nazis a way of escape from the allies’ dragnet to South America and Southern Africa.
Despite his high profile role in the Vatican Hugh O’Flaherty doesn’t show up in Sands’ Ratline either. Not that this committed anti-Nazi Irishman would have had anything to do with it. But he is an altogether more interesting character, with a much more interesting story to tell of a single night than Sands found to tell in the years he covers before, during and after the war in The Ratline.
O’Flaherty was the head of one of the key Italian resistance networks of the Second World War, run vastly more effectively and altruistically out of the Vatican than the later Ratline. With his pan-European group of Irish, Italian, Dutch and British friends he kept thousands of Jews and escaped prisoners safe as the Gestapo grip on the city tightened.
My Father’s House is a wonderful historical thriller that, by focussing on a single mission by the group introduces us to its various personalities. These take turns narrating the events of the mission. This is an elegant and compelling way to explain to the readers their previous lives before the horrors of the Nazi occupation forced heroism upon them. One scene, in which the British ambassador to Rome, a member of O’Flaherty’s group, encounters O’Flaherty and his deputy, British officer Sam Derry, in the Vatican gardens is particularly chilling. Derry is rehearsing the false names and addresses he will give up under torture if captured.
It is a wholly gripping and deeply moving story of love and friendship in the face of adversity, and asserts a position for O’Flaherty’s alongside Casement as one of the great Irish humanitarians of the Twentieth Century.