The Pope’s Left Hand

Author: Friedrich Christian Delius
Translator: Robert A. Cantrick

The hand, I thought, on the first Sunday in March of 2011 ‒ what is it about the hand? Open, slightly curved, relaxed, hanging from the black sleeve, the fingers loosely beside each other, white and soft, what does the pope’s hand do when it’s doing nothing? We spectators hear much about this man, whether we want to or not. His faces, his robes, the windows that serve as his stages are shown constantly; every Sunday you can hear him sing, speak, and give his blessing, every day thousands want to be filmed or photographed with him; he is quoted everywhere, his violet smile is sold on postcards, his power implored, sought, doubted; his role is loved, valued, or despised—but his hands, we know nothing about his hands, what is it about the hands?

No, I was not surprised to see him so near, a few meters to my right, almost beside me, in the last row of the sanctuary, the elderly gentleman who by general agreement is called the pope. He was dressed so as not to attract attention, not in the regalia that proclaims his authority, no gold shone, no lilac, no purple, his head, known the world over, was neither adorned with an imposing miter nor covered with a cap, he looked like a simple parson or bishop in civilian attire, with a black suit and starched white collar. To his right and left sat two priests ‒ whom you might have seen near him on TV ‒ in similarly neutral, plain attire. Gestures, looks, posture, everything studied. The only thing that   bothered me was that the three black-clad men were doing nothing and did not move forward, into the center, where they would have been more broadly visible.

Sitting in the same row with them, the aisle between us, my perspective was not the best. Since I did not want to make a spectacle of myself by gawking and tried to turn my head to the right as little as possible, I could peer over only discreetly, and I glimpsed the familiar face only fleetingly, in profile, between the faces of his escorts, six or seven meters away. That is why my eyes turned more toward his hands, the left one mainly, the one closer to me ‒ on his thigh, on his knee, on the backrest, supporting his head; the right one was completely visible only when the old gentleman moved that arm and reached forward a bit. The hands drew my gaze, and it was the presumed tiredness of the old yet still-powerful hands that I began to contemplate. And the inactivity, to which they were perhaps not accustomed ‒ for once not being used for one of the centuries-old rituals of his office and exalted position, not raised in greeting or to bless, not pressing other hands, inking signatures, turning pages, praying, holding wafers or liturgical vessels. The resting hands, the pausing hands, the hands of a so-called infallible, unemployed for these few minutes, they invited me, they provoked me to reflect, they enticed me to discover the secret, if in fact there was a secret, that made them hang so noticeably soft and limp from a stiff body. They asked me riddles.

They seduced me into palm reading from a distance, you would be right to reproach me for that. But what else is a respectable heretic to do if he is afflicted with neither the blindness of those who kneel nor the arrogance of the church hater? What else is there for an archeologist in early retirement, who occasionally hires himself out as a tour guide, if, by whatever convoluted combination of coincidences, he has the opportunity to observe a pope at close range? To savor the anecdotal moment quietly, not knowing whether the encounter will last half a minute, half an hour, or longer?


How are hands like that supposed to find the right pressure and proper grip in the cruder outside world, I sometimes thought when a weak handshake made me shudder or when I thought I saw others giving one ‒ as I did a year ago, when the man now staying in the background extended his hand to the Lutheran minister and the parish councils, perhaps giving them a small surge of pontifical pride that they can brag about to the ends of their lives in a more or less pleased tone of voice: I once shook hands with the pope!

I once shook hands with the pope, my uncle Helmut used to say. When he was a soldier, not twenty years old, in the middle of the war, he had the chance to see Pius XII. He wanted to become a doctor and did become one later on. In 1942, when he was a sergeant in the air force medical corps in Como in charge of caring for wounded soldiers, he was  sent to Rome on official business. Before his appointment at headquarters, he was  walking around the center of town, in uniform, of course, and entered Vatican City, St. Peter’s Square: a foreign country that was off limits for soldiers, but there were no barriers so he didn’t know this.  He got into a conversation with a German chaplain who asked if he’d like to be in an audience with the pope. They went into an office, the chaplain got him a document for admission that said ‒ though he was only a sergeant ‒Ufficiale.

Which was why they put him in the front row. About thirty people were present, they all fell down on their knees before the pope and kissed his ring Helmut, as a Protestant, got  up, clicked his heels, and saluted. Pius asked him his name, rank, where he was from; he knew the area in the north of Hesse where Helmut was from, talked about a hospital in Kassel that he visited often as nuncio. Then the great pope said to the little sergeant, “You’re fortunate to have such a leader,” shook his hand, and asked if he’d like to have a gift. So he got flustered, the young man; what could he, a Protestant, a German, a soldier, want to have from the pope personally? “A picture, maybe?” he asked. “Yes, a picture of you would be really nice,” Helmut said(of course, he didn’t really mean it, he admitted when he told me about it), and at the end of the audience he was handed a postcard with a photo of Pius XII.

What brings the supreme leader of a church to say to a nineteen-year-old German sergeant who just happens by that the biggest criminal of the twentieth century is a “fortunate” thing? A man regarded by the whole world in 1942 ‒ except in the German Reich ‒ as a dictator, anti-Semite, warmonger, and murderer? I’ve often asked myself that, and my uncle ‒ who said that even back then he avoided the Nazis as much as possible ‒ asked it many times as well. Because it looked as though the so-called führer might put an end to Bolshevism? But to praise him willingly, unreservedly, and half publicly, that was going a bit far. It bothered my uncle, and it has bothered me ever since I saw that photo and heard the story, but as I learned from Flavia, it accords well with what historians independent of the Vatican have discovered about the forties. Sometimes I think maybe that’s why I was drawn to Italy and to my profession, maybe that’s why I became a history sleuth, a surface scratcher, a potsherd prospector ‒ because so important a pope made this comment to my favorite uncle, the good-natured doctor; because I wanted to find out how something like that was possible beneath the innocent blue sky of Rome. (But those are personal speculations and out of place in this report.)

To get back to facts: Now, on the church pew, I did not want to think yet again about that dreadful statement about the führer but about the handshake, what might the handshake of Pius have been like? That’s something I never asked my uncle, and now it was too late, now I could only guess. The Pius handshake, I speculated, might well have been firmer than that of his successor sitting here. Guesses, conjectures, preconceived ideas, I know, but they kept flying through my head, faster than shooting stars, no sooner thought than gone, and though I could hear the voice of the psalm reader, I was unable to spare any attention for his words and sentences. Because the left papal hand made an unmistakable movement for the first time: the fingers stretched and then curled into a fist several times in succession and finally relaxed, as though the emphatic movement had gotten rid of a cramp or relieved an unpleasant stiffness in the joints, some minor discomfort.

Peering to my right, well into the lively rhythm of my brain cells as they alternated between my uncle’s hand and that of Pius, I sensed that I had less control than ever over the blizzard of my thoughts, that they were drifting away, into the darker side of history. I tried to slow them down, but in fractions of a second they veered toward war, occupation, Wehrmacht, SS, raids, the deportation of Roman Jews; they swept past the murder of hostages, past well-known and less well-known crimes, headed straight for the reports of terror, toward those gruesome images, both photographic and vividly described in words, that, once you’ve seen them, are not so easy to get out of your mind.

At the next-to-last moment, too late, that is, I tried to focus on the psalm reader’s voice, but from his words “Pull me out of the net that they laid privily for me” I could not quickly create imagery powerful enough to slow the eighteen wheeler bearing down on me. At the very last moment, too late, that is, I tried to mobilize the women, to summon the beautiful women from the Galleria Borghese to block out the Nazi filth, the German terror buried deep in the rubble of Roman memory, as if Apollo’s hand restraining the fleeing Daphne, an alluringly lascivious Danaë, or any one of the Venuses could drive from my mind the awful images of the men in their trucks standing before the Vatican.

When is a person ever master of his racing thoughts? I was not, in these tenths of a second, and neither the psalms nor the women had the power to stop the men storming into my mind as I watched from the safe distance of a daydream. At the edge of St. Peter’s Square, where the broad oval of columns opens onto the Avenue of Conciliation—of reconciliation, of the Lateran Accords—there they stand on a rainy October day in 1943, four or five trucks with grey-green or black tarpaulins in front of a low iron fence marking the international border; they stand there, hoods and front wheels toward the church and the dome, exhausts toward the Tiber, toward the Mausoleum of Hadrian, not drawn up in military formation at regulation intervals and right angles but irregularly. At the steering wheels, in the front seats, young men in SS uniforms, youths playing the tough guy, boneheads able to play at being the elite, well-educated accessories to terror and murder. There they sit, behind the windshields, and look at the fountain with the obelisk, at the facade, at the world-famous dome, the colonnades, they let the motors idle, a one-cigarette break, they marvel, they stare, they smoke.

That’s how eyewitnesses reported it, eyewitnesses who knew what freight was behind these young men in the backs of their trucks: people, packed together, wedged in standing, ordered from their beds, their homes by shouting, armed Germans, fifteen minutes’ time, throw a few articles of clothing, something to eat into a suitcase, onto the cargo bed in pouring rain, herded in, ever more tightly packed, women, men, infants, children, old people, many in nightshirts, a coat thrown over, shivering, dumb with fear, screaming in fear, sobbing, moaning, shut up in darkness under the heavy black canvas. That is how they were driven through the city, this way and that, standing, swaying, with no apparent destination, into the unknown, and finally, a stop.

A stop, we gather from reports and documents, because the young men in black uniforms wanted to relax for a moment after carrying out the first part of their orders: search houses, drive out occupants, load onto trucks, let none escape. That’s called a raid, they rehearsed it, they executed it as directed, no incidents to report. All they have left to do is deliver their freight to the barracks, up the Tiber a way, but that part of the orders can wait. They don’t know their way around Rome, so you make detours and can say you got lost because there are so many bends in the Tiber, because of the narrow streets. Driving is fun when you’re lord of the land and have carried out your mission, the hardest part of the mission, and can allow yourself a few detours, a little tour of the city, past the gigantic, imposing, white marble monument. On the Via dei Fori Imperiali you play the victorious commander and wave to the Forum, to Caesar, Augustus, to the triumphal arches. You have to say you drove around the Colosseum and saw the Mausoleum of Hadrian and St. Peter’s up close.

The men behind the windshields are stationed north of here and arrived only yesterday for this mission, they have never before been to the city that people call eternal, and may never return. For six weeks the Wehrmacht has occupied Rome, the Greater German Reich has been waging war on the Italians, whom they regard as traitors because they are not as stupidly obedient as the Germans. No one knows how it will end, the Americans are already in Naples, so you have to make good use of every minute in bella Italia, in eternal Rome. They’re on duty but also want to be tourists, at least for five minutes or three, for one cigarette, in front of the greatest church in the world and the most beautiful dome in the world, a symbol, the center, a landmark, even for SS men passing through. They don’t have cameras with them, or maybe they do, they store the sight in their memories so that at home they have something to tell their brides, their mothers, their buddies, and maybe even the priest, something real heroes can brag about: I saw St. Peter’s dome, and I almost saw the pope, too.

On the hard bench in the church, in a completely different epoch, I realized again that I could not simply block out this scene, which takes many thousands of times longer to describe, feeling my way, than it took to glide through the nerve tissue of my harried brain. A secret that I dragged around with me, a piece of the puzzle from the great puzzle of Rome that I do not want to force upon the foreigners I guide. A tour guide with a dark vision will lose first his customers, then any prospect of getting the permit from the Comune di Roma, promised a year ago, still not issued.

I have to accept the fact that I cannot get this snapshot on the fringe of St. Peter’s Square out of my mind, even when masses of tourists and pilgrims are milling about there, and not just because of the young men but because of their prisoners. On that October morning they quickly saw where they were. There would have been rips or small holes in the canvas, a tiny opening is enough, a Roman doesn’t need a dome to know where he is: St. Peter’s Square. That’s a hope, almost a rescue, and so the tightly wedged people call out for the pope, they cry for help, summon all the strength of their combined voices. At least one of the priests who usually walks by here, or church people hurrying by in small groups, by ones and twos, someone will alert the pope ‒ they hope.

Penned up and persecuted by Christians for centuries, that doesn’t matter now, now only he can become their savior, their neighbor, their shield, as they have believed ever since Mussolini, since Hitler. They are among the oldest Romans, their ancestors settled here, right on the Tiber, even before the first Christians. They cry for help, they have been betrayed, three weeks ago they were required to pool all their gold, fifty kilograms, to be safe from deportation, that’s what the Germans, Kappler, the top SS man, promised. They scream, but their cries can barely be heard above the idling engines, they do not make it even to the middle of the square, let alone up to the pope’s study, not even if the window is open. Even if by chance he is standing right there, at best he will see the trucks close to his border, not an unusual sight in occupied Rome, might shake his head at the disrespectful Germans, and turn back to his work.

Here the apparition broke off, the short St. Peter’s Square sequence that has haunted me so often, among other things because of the dull cynicism or naïveté of the young accessories to murder. (Maybe, I think as I write this report, I can’t rid myself of these young men because I see them as unusually perverse tourists—warriors as ur-tourists). I confess I did not like the fact that the point on the square, approximately where the trucks must have stood, where the Avenue of Conciliation comes in, has since been given the name Pius XII. Anyway ‒ I tried to persuade myself ‒ these images, stronger than my power to switch them off, had nothing to do with the man on the marble bench. But that was not true. Maybe my defenses were so weak precisely on his account, because the hands whose pressure I was contemplating at that moment, were on the verge of rewarding that predecessor ‒ the one who referred to Hitler as “good fortune”‒ with beatification. These German hands, of all things, were trying to offset the contested story of that pope’s “silence” and his uncontested assistance to Nazi criminals by appealing to the aid he incontestably gave to victims of Nazi persecution. The impending beatification bothered me for the additional reason that the television despot’s network, in preparation for this sacred act, had made the life of Pius into a kitschy drama at the expense of the murdered Jews. And because, once again, only the Jewish community protested, again to St. Peter’s Square, again completely alone, and again unheard.

The question was already lurking: Why had the insane idea of Augustine, a father of the church, that all Jews are responsible forever for the death of Jesus, continued to have an influence through the centuries, establishing for them a kind of original sin with the penalty of eternal oppression? By that logic, Flavia once said to me in her impish way, he should have demonized all Romans and condemned them to eternal persecution on account of Pontius Pilate. I mean, he was the one responsible for it. As I studied the intelligent German in the plain suit on my right, the next question surged forward: how does an intelligent German manage to venerate a saint who, like no bishop before him, by justifying pogroms and hatred toward people of other faiths ultimately may very well have set the example for Hitler, Himmler, Kappler, and Co.? Or should one not construct such mental bridges from one mass of sin to the next, from Augustine to his disciple Luther, to the Wannsee Conference, to orders and the cruelty of obeying orders, to mindless functioning, to the Jew-hatred inculcated in young men in black uniforms?

I tried with all my might to wipe from my mind the Nazi story, which always causes those of us who were born later to run the risk of beating the little drum of time-worn accusations. Mind you, normally I’m for taking every opportunity to address this question. Time and again I stand before my customers and say, You cannot understand Italy if you do not know about the wounds inflicted here in just the twenty months between 1943 and 1945: one hundred sixty-five murders a day, not counting partisans, soldiers, and forced laborers killed. You cannot comprehend Rome if you do not feel the orders, the shots from our uniformed fathers, uncles, and grandfathers that remain lodged in the psyches ‒ even of conciliatory Italians. That is why it always bristles, this history reflex, when German-speaking people ‒ on the beach, having a cappuccino in a café, posing for cameras ‒ do not behave themselves, when they imperiously flaunt their blondness, become patronizing. Even if they cautiously and considerately address uncomfortable issues or venture to criticize some evil that Italians themselves criticize, then it breaks out, this reflex, sometimes silently, sometimes quietly, sometimes more loudly: You and your Hitler! Shut up!

The two taunting syllables of this name cannot be erased from the memories of the peoples of the world. This curse is the price we have to pay for the hatred and obedience of our fathers and grandfathers—that has become clear to me in my twenty-seven years in Italy and twenty-four years with Flavia—a comparatively small price to pay for so much hatred and obedience. It is precisely in Rome that this cannot be forgotten, where one of those murderers, a smiling old man, is still running around in the spring of 2011, as I explain to my listeners when we’re standing on the appropriate spot. The second-highest SS man in Rome ‒ a torture specialist who was involved in the deportation of the Jews and later in the revenge killing of three hundred thirty-five Romans and then was able to hide in Argentina with the aid of the Vatican ‒ he takes a walk with a police escort almost every day around the Villa Doria Pamphili, to the supermarket, to church, a retiree almost a hundred years old, under house arrest, and is applauded by the Italian fascists, who hail him on their Internet sites and almost succeeded in obtaining his services as a judge for the “Miss Destra” contest. The man himself is unimportant, I always point out, even though so much history is concentrated in his hands. You just ought to know that a few ghosts are still running around, very much alive under this paradise-blue sky, and that more people’s minds than we may realize are still under occupation by uniformed ghosts.

From Die Linke Hand des Papstes.  Rowohlt, 2013.