In the city of Rome, close to the Vatican, a street sign commemorates the efforts of a religious priest who worked quietly but successfully with Pope Pius XII to save both Jews and Italians from imprisonment and death during World War II.The little-known street bears the name of a little-known, German-born priest, Father Pancratius Pfeiffer, who was superior general of the Society of the Divine Savior during the Nazi occupation of Rome.

Father Pfeiffer befriended occupying troops housed adjacent to the Salvatorian motherhouse on Rome's Via della Conciliazione -- including Herbert Kappler, the SS commandant who was eventually tried and sentenced to death, and the German ambassador to Rome. These contacts proved beneficial when the pope tapped Father Pfeiffer to help get Jews and Italians released from Rome's two Nazi prisons. He was given carte blanche to work in the pope's name as a liaison between the Vatican and the German military command.

After each of the major arrests, Father Pfeiffer visited the prisons with a list of names that the pope wanted released. The Catholic officers were ready to acquiesce to their fellow countryman's request. Word of his influence spread, and family members began to line up outside the Salvatorian motherhouse early in the morning. Requests also went to the pope and his secretary of state, who forwarded them on to Father Pfeiffer.

Dangerous work

It is not possible to know exactly how many lives Father Pfeiffer saved during the nine-month German occupation, for he left very few notes due to the danger involved. When warned of possible reprisals from anti-Fascists after the war, he said: "It is not my job to attach political speculation to it. A person in my position does a good thing because it is right, not because he is reckoning gratitude or ingratitude."

One of Father Pfeiffer's more spectacular successes was the release of Giuliano Vassalli, a prominent member of the Italian resistance. When Father Pfeiffer arrived at the prison, Vassalli was led to a room where he met Father Pfeiffer and Kappler, thinking his parents had obtained permission for him to go to confession before his execution. He later described Father Pfeiffer as having "a fine glowing expression on his face which was at the same time both strong and peaceful."

"If you are not to be stood up against a wall and shot, as you deserve, you owe it to the pope," Kappler told Vassalli, who then realized he was being released to Father Pfeiffer and the Salvatorian motherhouse. Vassalli survived to become a justice minister and constitutional court judge in Italy.

One final victory came when Kappler asked Father Pfeiffer if he was happy that the Germans were about to evacuate the city. Father Pfeiffer replied that when friends leave, they usually give a gift. With that, the priest handed the general a blank sheet of paper, which Kappler signed -- a sheet to which the priest knew he could attach names of prisoners he wished to save.

Saintly obscurity

Father Pfeiffer also was instrumental in getting the Germans to declare Rome an "open city" in order to prevent its destruction by the Allies. Several other Italian cities owe their safety to Father Pfeiffer -- including Ascoli, in whose cathedral today is a mosaic of Pope Pius XII commissioning Father Pfeiffer to undertake the task of saving the city.

In May 1945, while returning on foot to his motherhouse, Father Pfeiffer was struck and killed by a military vehicle. Before he died, he exonerated the driver: "Please tell him it was my fault." He died on his patron's feast day, May 12, at age 72.

Salvatorian Father Robert Nugent writes from Pennsylvania.