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‘Kingfishers Catch Fire’: Thoughts to Ponder Post-Kristallnacht

Kristallnacht, on November 10, marked the beginning of Hitler’s unchecked rampage of genocide throughout Europe, and the near decimation of its Jewry. The staggering nature of the death and devastation wrought by the Nazis, under Hitler’s crazed leadership, makes it is easier to look at the masses—the German and other armies and German and pro-German citizens who were culpable and at best, tacitly complicit. Rare, though, is the opportunity to explore the individual face of evil. A thought-provoking new work, by renowned Northern Irish playwright Robin Glendinning, focuses on the question of individual conscience and whether regret, repentance and forgiveness are possible for those who commit heinous crimes.

“Kingfishers Catch Fire”, directed by Kent Paul, made its premiere in September 2019 and played through Oct. 27 at the Irish Repertory. Mr. Glendinning created a brilliant script, which Mr. Paul has brilliantly mounted. This is a two-character work, superbly led by actor Sean Gormley (O’Flaherty) and credibly assisted by Haskell King (Kappler), all in the small, intimate space of the Irish Rep. This is an intense and often emotionally wrenching play, well worth reading and seeing, should it return to the stage,

It might have been a struggle to convey this play to a largely Orthodox audience replete with Shoah survivors and their children, but it turned out to be otherwise. The entire play consists of conversations and emotional confrontations between Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, a high-ranking priest posted at the Vatican, and Herbert Kappler, former head of the SS, SD and Gestapo in Rome, imprisoned in Italy for life; there are large questions here worth considering.

In just one of his acts as a Nazi commander (he also oversees the deportation of Austrian Jews), Kappler supervises the massacre at the Ardeantine Caves near Rome, in which 335 men and boys (with at least 75 Jews among them) are murdered in retaliation for the killing of 33 German soldiers. A Nazi murderer and an Irish priest who saves souls and works for the Vatican under the leadership of Pope Pius XII. What could muddy the waters about that scenario?

Well, so much for expectations. The true backstory is far more complex. Although Pius XII and the Church helped spirit high-ranking Nazis out of Europe through a Vatican pipeline to safety and new lives, O’Flaherty, known as “The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican,” helped to rescue approximately 6500 Allied soldiers and Jews in Rome. Often in broad daylight and sometimes in heavy disguise, from the steps of the Vatican and elsewhere, O’Flaherty organized a highly effective rescue network. Kappler learned about O’Flaherty, who then became a prime target. The Nazi commander had a white line painted in front of the Vatican’s steps. Were O’Flaherty to have crossed the line, the monsignor would have been arrested. Nevertheless, O’Flaherty’s rescue work continued. We hear about O’Flaherty’s leadership, but it is not enacted onstage.

Fast forward to the war’s end, and in a twist of fortune, O’Flaherty visits his would-be assassin Kappler, an avowed atheist, then in solitary confinement at Gaeta Prison in Italy. Kappler taunts and mocks O’Flaherty and the Vatican, pointing out the Pope’s inaction when truckloads of Jews crying out for help were paraded in front of his open window.

O’Flaherty, frustrated and disgusted by Kappler, leaves the cell but eventually and repeatedly returns. Over time, the enormity of Kappler’s own crimes wears him down until he unburdens himself to O’Flaherty, recounting graphically the Ardeantine massacre. He tries to mitigate his own murderous actions, claiming how he strove to reduce the number of those executed at the caves. Naturally, he sees his own evil as relatively less than that of his superiors.

Perhaps the tipping point for Kappler’s breakdown, as he describes the massacre, is after O’Flaherty gives Kappler a photo of the latter’s 14-year-old adopted son, and Kappler recalls a 14-year-old boy he has killed to fill the execution quota. In the closing scene, Kappler asks O’Flaherty to bless him.

Eventually, although again, this is not shown, Kappler converted to Catholicism. He grew deathly ill in prison. The audience does not see any of this or how he escaped back to Germany with the assistance of his second wife, a nurse, but died several months thereafter. There was certainly no happy ending, neither for Kappler, nor for those who sought his extradition.

Kappler’s theological exchanges with O’Flaherty, or the tortuous look at how Kappler’s own evil deeds contributed to his conversion, are not the core of this review. One might ask, though, can a monster like Kappler find forgiveness in the eyes of Hashem and those whose lives he destroyed? The play does not answer this question.

So, what is the takeaway here? We can’t know how Hashem ultimately deals with evildoers, and in this case, mass murderers, but we know that evil comes back to haunt the evildoer and that all

His creations are accountable for what they do. In this production, O’Flaherty, through his eyes as a righteous Gentile, flashes Kappler’s crimes, writ large, in front of him, and they surely leave their mark. The judgment remains for Hashem alone.

By Rachel S. Kovacs

 

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