Saturday, September 27, 2014

Warburg in Rome: part 2


"Warburg in Rome" — I've read on in this James Carroll novel, much of it, so far, at any rate (I'm halfway through) set in or near the Vatican during and just after World War II. The novel does not lack for verisimilitude, far from. You never doubt that Carroll knows this terrain intimately, from the architecture of Vatican buildings and offices on through the protocols that govern all orders of the Catholic hierarchy. Carroll knows it historically, as well, including the efforts by some in that hierarchy, when Germany had clearly lost the war,  to create a Catholic state to serve as  a buffer against the atheistic Stalin, and to provide Nazi higher-ups with a way out, passports and safe haven, until the Reich might rise again.


This book can be read as a thriller, or better yet, a rousing and informative historical fiction. Though I've been going slowly it is nothing less than a page-turner.

The question at the heart of it is this: what about the Jews? What did the Vatican do about them? What, for that matter, did the Roosevelt administration do or fail to do?

I'm going to quote at length from a key scene, a scene of terrific intensity. The Wehrmacht has lost Italy and is retreating. The idea, by Partisans; by the main character, David Warburg, a Jew of sorts who is discovering that aspect of his being;, and his ally within the Vatican, a righteous gentile, as he might have been termed later; is to rescue a cohort of Jews who will otherwise be shipped from Italy to death camps to the north.

The rescue operations fails. Though not SS, the Germans soldiers, dregs of the Wehrmacht though they might be, kill the Jews.

None are alive when the would-be rescuers arrive. Nor, for that matter, are their German guards.

Here's the scene:

Lionni is a Jew. This is how he reacts when he finds a priest administering last rites to murdered Jews:

A priest. In the rain and mud he was kneeling in prayer, performing last rites. "Stop!" Lionni screamed again.

The priest had barely come to his feet when Lionni crashed into him, knocking him back almost making him fall. As it was, the priest dropped the small black case he was carrying, and vials spilled to the ground — the sacramental oils, holy water.

"How dare you! How dare you" Lionni screamed. "Get your filthy prayers away from here! Get out! Get out!"

The priest backed away, terrified of the lunatic who'd attacked him. The priest clutched a crucifix in one hand and held his biretta down on his head with the other. One of the Partisans appeared and stepped between the priest and Lionni. "What's wrong with you" the man asked Lionni. "Prayers for the dead. What's wrong with that?

"Not *these* dead! Not *Christian* prayers! Leave them be." Lionni lunged at the priest. The Partisan, a much bigger fellow, held him back. "If you want to pray," Lionni shouted, "pray for the Germans. Go to the corpses in uniform. Kiss your cursed cross to *their* lips. *They* are yours. They are the ones who did this! *They* are Christs! Not the Jews. Don't you dare go near the Jews!"

Marguerite [a Red Cross worker learning fast] was stunned. Only moments before he [Lionni] was comforting her. Now he was mad.

Lionni struggled to get free, apparently to attack the priest. The Partisan threw him roughly back. Lionni accidentally stepped on one of the sacramental vials, and when he saw what it was, he stomped on it again, and on the case, the candles, the sacred cloths. He jammed his heel down on the second vial, crushing it all. He stomped and stomped, kicking up rainwater in a frenzy of curses and sobs. Then he slowly sank to his knees, to all fours, banging the soggy earth with his fists, splashing the mud so that it bounced up into his face. "Cristo*!" he muttered. "Cristo*! Cristo*!"

Marguerite stooped to him, cloaked his shoulders with her arm. In Lionni, this hatred was ancient, but it was entirely new to Marguerite. Christ! Diabolical Christ! Christ had done this! That once unthinkable recognition was new to her. . . "

It is profound to me that James Carroll, a Catholic, can understand and voice this level of outrage at anti-Semitism...(It is also paradoxial to me that having done so he remains a Catholic.)

I'll file a final report on the book when I'm done.

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