WARBURG IN ROME by James Carroll

(Vatican City, Italy)

As a person who has enjoyed James Carroll’s work over the years whether he was presenting his history of the Church and Jews in CONSTANTINE’S SWORD; the difficulties of a father and son relationship during the Vietnam War in AN AMERICAN REQUIEM; or an exploration of the Pentagon and the expansion of American power in HOUSE OF WAR, I have grown to expect an absorbing read each time I pick up one of his books.  Carroll, who is an ordained Catholic priest who left the priesthood to become a writer, is also a novelist and his newest book, WARBURG IN ROME did not disappoint.  Carroll’s historical research and clerical background allowed him to explore numerous plots in his latest effort as he struggled with the role of the Catholic Church and its bureaucracy during and after World War II.   The story centers on David Warburg, a Yale University trained lawyer who worked in the Treasury Department and is assigned to head the War Refugee Board (WRB) in Rome in 1943.  We learn that the reason Secretary of the Treasury, Robert Morgenthau, Jr. appointed him was that he believed he was part of the Jewish Warburg banking family which would solve a number of political problems for the Roosevelt administration.  The fact is Warburg is from Burlington, VT which came as a surprise to many politicians and bureaucrats.  Since the appointment could not be withdrawn, the New England as opposed to the New York Warburg headed off to Rome to facilitate the removal of Jews from Nazi extermination camps.

The title WARBURG IN ROME is a misnomer as there are a number of characters who are as important to Carroll’s story as the new head of the WRB.  The story traces Warburg’s own personal voyage of faith and rediscovering his Jewish roots.  Driven by the world’s insensitivity to the plight of thousands of Jews who remained in European deportation camps following the war; with Palestine closed by the British, the United States closed by the State Department, Warburg’s journey progresses from casting his father’s tallit to opening his heart to a new found Judaism.  Warburg resigns from the WRB and begins working illicitly with the Jewish Defense Committee to break the “ratline” that Himmler had set up to assist Nazi higher ups attempted to flee Europe and reach Argentina.  Marguerite d’Erasmo in 1943 was the head of the Women’s and Children’s Committee for Italy.  After the Nazis seized Rome after Mussolini fell she worked in Red Cross refugee camps and hid records of Jews the remainder of the war to save them from extermination.  D’Erasmo personal voyage is as important as Warburg’s.  Her journey begins as a devout Catholic in Rome, morphing into a partisan fighter in Yugoslavia.  After witnessing the horrors of Croatian anti-Semitism and murder, she goes on to try and save women and children in a Nazi detention camp.  Failing to free these people from the grip of the Nazis she moves to Palestine and converts to Judaism.  Upon her return to Rome she gather’s intelligence to block Himmler’s escape route from Vienna, through Rome, on to Argentina using the Vatican as its conduit.  Other characters emerge that are part of the novel’s core; Father Kevin Deane, sent by Archbishop Spellman of New York to Rome to oversee aid to refugees.  Giacomo Lionni, a partisan fighter in the Balkans nicknamed, “Jocko” devotes his life to saving Jews. General Peter Masters, at the outset a friend of Warburg, works at cross purposes with the WRB as he represents American intelligence agencies that are cooperating with the Vatican, Nazis, and Croats against the Soviet Union as relations with Stalin continued to deteriorate.  There are a number of characters who are part of the Vatican bureaucracy, Monsignor Tardini, the Director of the Pontifical Relief Committee, Cardinal Maglione, the pro-Nazi Secretary of State for the Vatican, and of course, Pope Pius XII who hated communism and did not want a victory against Hitler to be turned into a defeat by Stalin.

 

Carroll’s novel spends a great deal of time exploring the role of the Vatican after World War II.  The church did hide and assist many Jews, but it also hid many Nazis and facilitated their escape from allied hands.  The church was vehemently anti-communist and was involved in trying to over turn the allied policy of “unconditional surrender,” and make a separate peace with Germany in order to restore a Catholic Danubian Federation under the Hapsburgs as a bulwark against communism.  After the federation failed, the church worked to restore members of the Ustashe, the Croat Nazis to power in a new Catholic Croatian state that would be anti-Tito.  What stands out in Carroll’s narrative and dialogue between characters is that the reader is witnessing history and in a sense what the author has created is a history of the refugee crisis, the flight of the Nazis, and Vatican machinations to create an anti-communist coalition during and after World War II wrapped up in a novel.  Carroll’s book is sound historically and reflects tremendous research and through his characters presents the dilemmas facing allied policymakers after World War II in coping with the remnants of the Holocaust and how to deal with an emerging world power in the Soviet Union.

(Heinrich Himmler, the mentor for Father Ricardo Lehmann)

Carroll does a splendid job exploring the contradictions and diverse viewpoints following the war.  For example, Warburg and Mates clash over the probable Irgun bombing of the British embassy in Rome following Prime Minister Atlee’s expansion of refugee camps for Jews on Cyprus, as Jews were denied entrance into Palestine.  Warburg is incensed that the WRB is shut down because of Mates’ OSS (precursor of the CIA) accused him of only working for Jews.  Mates offers the usual anti-Semitic rationale that Jews were most likely to be communist and a security risk as refugees, so they should not be allowed into the United States or Palestine.  Understanding Carroll’s storyline is like peeling an onion as layer after layer of the plot and the background of each character is laid bare.  We see Father Ricardo Lehmann, a German priest assigned to the Vatican whose mentor was Heinrich Himmler.  Following Himmler’s suicide Lehmann works to maintain the “road out” using Vatican documents that allowed Nazi war criminals to travel from Vienna to Buenos Aires, with an assist from the Croatian Catholic network of Franciscan monks.

(Father Maglione, Vatican Secretary of State who assisted Nazis fleeing Europe after World War II)

The story itself presents numerous moral decisions that characters must make, decisions that in real life have been explored by historians for decades to try and ascertain the true motivation of historical figures during and after the Holocaust.  Carroll makes a valiant attempt at doing so through his own characters as he has done in previous works of non-fiction.  As the story draws to a close, Father Deane realizes that because of Vatican machinations many church officials were “in bed with Nazis.”  Deane tries to deal with what he has witnessed and cries out, “ Pavelic, Lehmann, Strangl the Treblinka commandant, for the love of God!  Living in our religious houses.  Nazis in monasteries and convents.  Vichy collaborators protected.  The protectors promoted.  Gestapo killers with Vatican passports.  The church welcoming them in Argentina.” (353)  He prepares a report of Vatican culpability, and he knows it will go nowhere as he must submit it to Vatican authorities, raising moral questions he cannot deal with and comes to the conclusion that the church itself is not guilty, but church officials are.  The book provokes a great deal of thought on many levels and I wondered what Vatican policy might have been during this time period, if the current head of the Papacy, Pope Francis had been in office.  WARBURG IN ROME is an exceptional read.

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