James Carroll admirably takes on a most difficult subject in this novel about postwar Rome: the Vatican's involvement with fleeing war criminals of the worst sort.
And he touches on an even more explosive issue: the complicity of Roman Catholic clergy in the Holocaust itself.
He brings to life a cast of fictional characters representing the many parties plotting and maneuvering in Rome - Americans civilian and military, British diplomats, Vatican Curia, Communist Partisans, escaping Nazis, Croatian fascists hiding out on Church property, the Haganah, fleeing Holocaust survivors, you name it.
A high-ranking U.S. relief official has come to Rome to help send one shipload (there will never be another) of Jewish refugees to the States, and to find pathways of escape for Jews in Budapest, whom the Nazis are now sending to Auschwitz in wholesale numbers. The book suggests how Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg was enabled to save 30,000 Hungarian Jews: the U.S. blackmailed Sweden, which had allowed German troops passage across the country and supplied Hitler with arms and iron ore. This would be officially ignored if it played ball on Wallenberg.
Warburg must sort through the Vatican's confusing and conflicting record towards the Jews. It helped some while cozying up to their persecutors, but even its help is called into question once Warburg learns many were made to undergo baptism in order to find refuge. Accept the Cross or die, except that this is 1942, not 1542.
Meanwhile, Marguerite D'Erasmo, a young Italian Red Cross official, herself a fugitive from the Nazis, witnesses an atrocity that changes her life irretrievably. She is drawn more closely to Jocko Lionni, an Italian survivor who coordinated the hiding of hundreds of other Jews.
Kevin Deane, a deputy to powerful Cardinal Francis Spellman, arrives in Rome as his patron maneuvers to rise in the Curia, with the Americans now holding Europe's pursestrings and U.S. Catholic clergy well-positioned as power brokers. Deane becomes sensitized to the Jews' plight. He slowly begins to understand the anti-Semitism woven into his church's position on them, and even into his own attitudes.
But Roberto Lehmann, another influential deputy - half Argentine, half German, serving a German cardinal - assumes a key position as Nazis seek to escape to Argentina with Vatican protection. The Vatican is interested in fighting Communism and reestablishing Catholic influence in Eastern Europe, and not at all interested in how much blood its new friends have on their hands, or the origin of their war loot. Some of the worst war criminals in Europe are believed to be hiding out in or around the Vatican.
OSS officer Peter Mates starts plotting America's moves in the postwar - what will become the Cold War. The Communists are becoming enemies and thus their enemies, the Nazis, potential allies.
Complicating everyone's game is the wild card of the Jewish underground, itself riven into factions between the left and right, the Haganah and the Irgun, which is variously helping refugess immigrate, legally or illegally, into Palestine; beginning to strike against the British who rule it in the cause of establishing a Jewish state; and hunting down war criminals to kill them, since the world apparently doesn't care much what they did.
Carroll sees this from a largely Catholic perspective, making it far more interesting. It takes a Catholic to to understand the cross currents within the church - the many political threads plus the tenets of religious conscience that motivate, or fail to motivate, its leaders.
Deane and Sister Thomas, a British nun with access to sensitive Vatican information, are first stricken with remorse and guilt for what has been done to the Jews, but later recoil from Jewish terrorist strikes against the King David Hotel in Jerusalem - British military HQ there - and the British Embassy in Rome. Killing escaping Nazis is one thing, but attacking one of the principal Allies who fought the war against them?
D'Erasmo, herself a Catholic, finds herself increasingly alienated from the church as she entangles herself in the lives of those she helps. She takes a fateful step away from it.
Warburg, a secular Jew, can't ignore how little Washington is willing to help people in the direst need. He is effectively an agency of one. His War Refugee Board can't even include the word "Jewish" in its title, although it's clear Jews are by far the primary people in need of its help - countless numbers orphaned, wounded, starving, destitute, homeless, unable to return to hometowns where their neighbors turned them in or seized their property. Warburg must do what he can - armtwisting, cajoling, dropping names, pulling rank, guilting - to gain even the smallest kinds of support.
Carroll deals squarely with something the Church undoubtedly would rather have history forget - church complicity in the Holocaust in Croatia.
This was not a question of turning a blind eye, remaining silent or being too cozy with persecutors, but one of priests leading death squads. Carroll focuses on one venue: the death camp for children at Sisak. The Church has never adequately addressed this exceedingly shameful episode in its history. Its obscurity has been sustained by various factors:
Yugoslavia's relatively small Jewish population meant crimes there - and not by the SS, but by the less notorious (but equally vicious) Croatian Ustashe - haven't gotten the same attention that the huge concentration camps in Poland or the treatment of enormous Jewish ghettos in Eastern Europe have. The beginning of the Cold War meant U.S. and British intelligence both saw ex-Nazis as potential allies against the Communists, knowledgeable about the new foe, and found Jews' calls for justice to be an annoying distraction.
Croatia's fanatically loyal Catholicism meant that the Vatican let it get away with genocide as it maneuvered against the Serb monarchist Chetniks and the Communist Partisans for postwar position.
And Communist ascension to Yugoslav power meant true information about atrocities there was tainted by the ultimate Communist goal of smashing Catholic influence throughout Eastern Europe. The Communists aren't who you go to for historical truth. Their own war crimes tribunals were kangaroo courts full of misinformation, in contrast to the Nuremberg tribunal's painstaking efforts to create a factual historical base in a public court of law.
Carroll has done his homework, deriving the background for his fictional characters from some of the slowly accumulating major works in a field not yet adequately researched, including John Loftus and Mark Aaron's "Unholy Trinity", Susan Zuccotti's "The Italians and the Holocaust", Ruth Gruber's "Haven", and David Wyman's "The Abandonment of the Jews".
His story takes note, via its omissions, of the gaps in the historical record: What Pope Pius XII's position on all this was - we see the maneuvering of key underlings, but he remains invisible - and how complicit the Curia and Croatia's Archbishop Stepinac were in bloodshed involving Franciscan priests under their authority.
He sets the scene well in the Eternal City, with a great feeling for its many historical buildings, particularly the religious ones. And I like the interior lives he develops for his Catholic characters - priests and nuns with real feelings, not perfect, subject to human passions - and the difficulty they or any person of conscience must have had in trying to parse the innocence vs. guilt, justice vs. revenge, necessity vs. complicity, in those troubled times.