David Warburg, newly minted director of the US War Refugee Board, arrives in Rome at war’s end, determined to bring aid to the destitute European Jews streaming into the city. Marguerite d’Erasmo, a French-Italian Red Cross worker with a shadowed past, is initially Warburg’s guide—while a charismatic young American Catholic priest, Monsignor Kevin Deane, seems equally committed to aiding Italian Jews.
But the city is a labyrinth of desperate fugitives: runaway Nazis, Jewish resisters, and criminal Church figures. Marguerite, caught between justice and revenge, is forced to play a double game. At the center of the maze, Warburg discovers one of history’s great scandals: the Vatican ratline, a clandestine escape route maintained by Church officials and providing scores of Nazi war criminals with secret passage to South America.
Turning to American intelligence officials, he learns that the dark secret is not as secret as he thought—and that even those he trusts may betray him—in this “complex and compelling novel of the Vatican and morality during World War II” (Library Journal). Warburg in Rome has “the breathtaking pace of a thriller and the gravitas of a genuine moral center—as if John LeCarré and Graham Greene collaborated” (Mary Gordon).
“A high-stakes battle between good and evil [and] a plot full of twists and turns.” —The Boston Globe
“A suspenseful historical drama set in Rome at the end of WWII and centering on Vatican complicity in the flight of Nazi fugitives to Argentina.” —Publishers Weekly
“Recommend this utterly engaging thriller to fans of Joseph Kanon’s The Good German and James R. Benn’s Death’s Door.” —Booklist, starred review
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DAVID WARBURG HAD received the notice the evening before, an order to appear, setting this early appointment. He'd come downtown just as the sun was turning the dark city pink. From the window of his office on the third floor of the second most stately building on Pennsylvania Avenue, he'd watched the morning ease fully into its own. The Washington Monument took the light, a garment. At five minutes before the hour, he set out.
The broad, polished corridors would be bustling soon with Treasury Department functionaries, but not yet. He strode to the central marble staircase, a gleaming gyre below the soaring translucent dome. One hand in his trouser pocket, his jacket back, one hand riding the railing, he skipped down two steps at a time, coming to the grand second floor, which was dominated by the diplomatic reception room and, adjoining that, the secretary of the treasury's suite of offices. Cool it, he told himself. Swinging left toward the ornate double door, he slowed his pace.
Last night, Janet had been certain that this meeting with the secretary himself promised something, as she put it, "really good." But Warburg was wary. It had irritated her that he'd declined to match her high spirits at the news of this summons. In the past, pointer in hand, he'd briefed Mr. Morgenthau on debt security legislation and congressional vote counts, but he'd never been formally introduced to him. This summons had come without explanation, which was enough to spark Janet's wishfulness — another steppingstone toward the day they would get married.
Warburg couldn't acknowledge it to her, or to anyone, but he was appalled to find himself a seat-of-government paper pusher as the war built toward an inevitably savage climax. The latest report was that German troops were marshaling on Hungary's border, Budapest another morsel soon to be devoured in a Nazi rampage that was not impeded by the Red Army offensive on the Dnieper. Warburg was that rare, able- bodied man of twenty-eight not in uniform. Dancing at midnight on the Shoreham terrace thrilled Janet, but it embarrassed him to be seen there, even with such a beauty. She was happy just to rest her cheek against the lapel of his suit coat, as they softly swayed to the orchestra's mellow rhythm. He felt tenderly toward her, but tenderness was a flimsy bridge across the yawning gulf that had opened between them, whether she knew of it or not.
On his office wall, where Janet did not see it, Warburg had posted a floor-to-ceiling map of Europe, with yellow pins denoting General Mark Clark's stymied army in southern Italy, still the only Anglo-American force on the continent. There were also pins to the north and east, red ones, marking the Soviet offensive lines. Green pins, concentrated between the Danube and Vistula Rivers, marked places reported or rumored to be the Germans' forced labor, transit, and prison camps. Warburg had been tracking the Nazi killing sites for months, though it had nothing to do with his official work.
The war, darling, he'd say as they were dancing, by the time it's over, Europe will be a charnel house. Did you hear me? No, of course she didn't, because he'd said it to himself. It was not Janet's fault that he'd become obsessed with the slaughter lands to the east, nor was it her fault that he found it impossible to speak with her of his obsession. And, later, the face powder on his lapel would not come out.
Right out of law school, Warburg had been conscripted like most men, though the draft, in his case, was not into the Army. When, in the spring of '42, the law school dean, a former New Dealer named Harold Gardner, had taken the job of general counsel at the Treasury Department, he had taken a handful of newly minted lawyers with him, including Warburg. "Don't be ridiculous," the dean had said to Warburg, swatting away his initial demurral. Warburg had already filed enlistment papers, effective at the term's end, itching to join the fight. But Gardner was insistent: "Washington is where your country needs you, David." Warburg still refused, but Gardner chided him: as a lawyer in uniform, Warburg would never see service overseas in any case. He'd be a JAG mandarin, bringing acne-faced AWOLs to court-martial, at Fort McClellan in Alabama or someplace worse. In fact, Gardner had promised to see to it.
And so Warburg had joined the fray in Washington, becoming one of the samurai bureaucrats in the thick of the vast legislative reinvention of federal finances made necessary by the explosion of war spending. The rolling congressional authorizations for the war bond program was Warburg's particular portfolio. As it turned out, he'd already been central to the raising of more than half a billion dollars in war funding, which helped keep inflation down and the war economy booming. Not bad service, that. But alas, judging by the markers on Warburg's wall map, Hitler wasn't as yet much hindered.
At the treasury secretary's reception area, a primly dressed woman promptly showed Warburg into the ornate inner office. Harold Gardner was there, sitting with Morgenthau in matched leather wing chairs in an alcove where one large Palladian window overlooked the White House. There was a clear view of the President's mansion because only the faintest pale lime of early buds tempered the stark black-and-white branches of the late-winter trees. A third man was seated on an adjacent sofa.
The three men came to their feet at Warburg's arrival. Henry Morgenthau Jr., a slim figure whose tanned baldness struck an elegant fashion note, was nearly as tall as Warburg. Yet Gardner was the first to stretch out his hand, putting his responsibility for this meeting on display. He let his affection for Warburg show, saying as he turned to Morgenthau, "David was the best we had in New Haven." But before the secretary could reply, or even grasp Warburg's hand, his desk buzzer sounded, and he went to the telephone.
"Friendly greetings to you, Felix," Morgenthau said grandly into the mouthpiece. Gardner and the other man resumed their seats, but Warburg remained standing, as if holding a hat.
"Thanks for calling back," Morgenthau said. "Too early? Of course not. I've been at my desk for an hour. Same as you." Morgenthau listened, then laughed. "How is Frieda?" He paused, then added, "Give her our love." There would be a performance aspect to this conversation. "The reason I called — I have one of your young relations here with me right now." Pause. "That's right. I'm about to brief him on the job I'm giving him. A very important job, and I wanted you to be the first to know. Yes. In Rome, once liberation comes ..."
Listening, Warburg thought, Whoa, what's this? He exchanged a quick glance with Gardner, catching his all but imperceptible nod. Rome? Gardner had insisted more than once that Warburg was indispensable on Pennsylvania Avenue, with three new bills a month coming off his desk. "The Appropriations Committee," Gardner had barked repeatedly, "is clay on your potter's wheel. Can't do without you."
"... the War Refugee Board," Morgenthau was saying. "My War Refugee Board. Once Mark Clark captures it, Rome will be the nerve center and the escape hatch both. And your young man will run things."
Warburg took this in with apparent calm, but it was shocking news. The absolute opposite, he realized at once, of what Janet was hoping for.
War refugees. Everyone in Treasury was aware of Morgenthau's having badgered Roosevelt into long-overdue action on refugee relief, such as it was. "Refugee" was a generic euphemism, since those in the know — certainly including Warburg, whose gaze drifted to his wall map dozens of times a day — understood full well that the urgency applied to Hitler's particular target. Jews.
For months, Morgenthau had been sounding death camp alarms inside the government, finally forcing Roosevelt's hand by threatening to go public with the still secret cables coming in from Geneva. Elsewhere in Washington, and even in certain hallways at Treasury, the War Refugee Board was seen as the product of a Jew's special pleading for Jews.
In Warburg's own shuttling between Treasury and Capitol Hill, the WRB was not much discussed, and overseas operations of every kind were beyond his purview. Hell, overseas operations were beyond Morgenthau's purview, but that had not stopped him. Picking up on the secretary's spirit, Warburg had made a point to get his name added to the special cable circulation list, the weekly Geneva reports with their growing drumbeat of transfers, deportations, and disappearances. Green pins, to Warburg. Jewish pins.
And now what was he hearing? He himself to be appointed to the work? Rome? Warburg could not —
"David," Morgenthau said abruptly, but into the phone. "David Warburg," in answer to the other party's question. Morgenthau's tanned face had gone white, the skin at his mouth so taut it barely moved when he repeated, "Yes, David."
All at once Warburg realized with whom Morgenthau was speaking — Felix! — and what was happening. A feeling of alarm made him momentarily lightheaded. He had to stifle the impulse to interrupt, to explain. It was an old feeling. Glancing again at Gardner, he saw the pleased expression on his mentor's face begin slowly to darken as he, too, realized from the change in Morgenthau's demeanor and voice that something was wrong.
"Really? No, I'm quite sure. David Warburg. Yale Law School ... highly regarded. Our man on the Hill ... about thirty, I would say ... I see, but ... Well, let me look into it. Yes. Right away. No chance, you say? All right, Felix. I apologize for the confusion. I'll clear it up ... Of course. Thank you."
When Morgenthau placed the receiver in its cradle, he pressed down on it for a long moment as if to cancel what he had just heard. Then he looked up at Warburg. "He's never heard of you. Felix Warburg has never heard of you."
Warburg knew how important it was to meet Morgenthau's gaze, to return it steadily. He said, "I've heard of him, of course."
"'David is not one of our names,' he said." Morgenthau looked at the man on the sofa. "Do we do that, Rabbi? Establish a roster from which family names are taken? Jacob? Moses? Moritz?"
"I would think 'David' is a good name," the man said.
Morgenthau looked back at Warburg. "I approved your appointment thinking you were of the Warburgs."
"I am, Sir." He smiled pleasantly. An old trick. The way to be at ease is to be at ease. "But the Burlington Warburgs," he said, "not the New York Warburgs. My father was a butcher. Not a banker." A line Warburg had used before. In fact, he'd used it with Janet's parents.
"Did you know this, Harold?" Morgenthau asked Gardner.
"No, Sir. I just assumed ..." Gardner met Warburg's eyes, and his expression said, You let me assume.
"Burlington?" Morgenthau asked. "Burlington, Vermont?"
"How'd you get to Yale Law School?"
"Middlebury College. Basketball scholarship. It wasn't until I got to New Haven that I even knew about the New York Warburgs." Quite pointedly, Warburg refused to meet Gardner's eyes. Was the imagined elite family connection why the law school dean had made him his favorite? Of course. Nor had Warburg been so naive as to have been ignorant of that. Warburg, like Oppenheim or Lehman or Loeb — the exception Jews. Rich. But David Warburg had not established those rules. "I never pretended to be what I am not," he said. Again Warburg's easy smile, a stance that cloaked what his seniors might take as rebuke.
"I'm not suggesting anything like that, young man," Morgenthau said. "But damn. We need Warburg's money. It seems crass, I know. But there it is. We need his influence with the community. I'm in a box here, you know that, don't you? The President gave me the Refugee Board — and no independent funding. I can't sign a canteen chit without State and War cosigning. Damn!"
"But are you a Jew?" the man on the sofa asked Warburg.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Are you a Jew?"
Unaccountably, Warburg thought of the prayer shawl his father had offered him when he was sixteen, white wool with black stripes. His father had called it a tallit, said it had been his own grandfather's, and that it was time for David to have it, for his bar mitzvah.
"Were you bar mitzvahed?" David had asked his father.
"Yes. I wore it." He had held the shawl out to his son.
But David had stepped back, saying, "Have you been to temple since?"
His father had shaken his head no, all at once mute with what could only be read as shame.
"Well, I can't do that," David had said — the fierce integrity of youth.
His father forced his shoulders into a shrug, unable to hide his disappointment. "No matter, I suppose," he said, and again indicated the cloth. "Maybe the stripes are black as a sign of mourning." He then turned and walked away. His father never mentioned the tallit again.
Now Warburg shifted to look down at the man on the sofa, saying nothing.
"This may work whether or not you are a Warburg," the man explained. "It won't work if you're not a Jew."
Silence thickened the air. What was this? The WRB postings abroad were staffed from Treasury, three from the legal office alone. Istanbul. Lisbon. Algiers. Warburg doubted that any of them were Jews. There simply weren't that many Jews in the department. Why would Rome be different? Why, for that matter, was Warburg being brought into this now at all? Weeks earlier, when the President had first approved the rescue project, Warburg had asked to be a part of it, but Harold Gardner had said it was out of the question. Warburg, with his credibility on the Hill ... his potter's wheel.
Morgenthau left his desk to return to the alcove and sit. He gestured for Warburg to sit beside the third man. "Forgive me. The phone rang before introductions were complete. Warburg, this is Rabbi Wise. Rabbi, Warburg. David Warburg. One of our names, if not theirs." He laughed, dispelling the tension.
But the rabbi's name was what registered with Warburg. Stephen Wise was the head of the American Jewish Congress, famous as the leader of the "Stop Hitler Now!" rallies that had helped Morgenthau push Roosevelt off the dime. Warburg joined him on the sofa, extending his hand. "It's an honor, Rabbi. We all appreciate what you've been doing. I read Gerhart Riegner's cables." World Jewish Congress cables that Wise had steadily funneled from Geneva to Washington. Indeed, Warburg had copied out lines from one of the Riegner cables and placed it under the glass on his desk. Without prompting, he could have recited it there and then: "Never did I feel so strongly the sense of abandonment, powerlessness and loneliness as when I sent messages of disaster and horror to the free world and no one believed me."
"So are you?" Rabbi Wise was not deflected.
Warburg answered, "I'm too tall to be a Jew. Jews are no good at basketball — so I was told growing up. At Middlebury they forgave me my name because I had a deadeye set shot. I told you my father was a butcher. But he did not keep kosher. He was called Abe, but he was not a temple-goer. I was not bar mitzvahed, because neither of my parents was observant and I didn't see the point. My parents did not insist. So what does that make me?" Warburg asked. "Once I'd have said it makes me plain American, but what would Hitler say? Hitler, of course, makes the difference." Warburg let his gaze drift to Gardner. "I didn't know it for certain until I got to Yale, but yes, I am a Jew."
"Temple-going doesn't matter," Morgenthau said. "Hell, I raise Christmas trees on my farm in Dutchess County. I wouldn't know a Seder from a sedan. No offense, Rabbi." Morgenthau, too, looked at Gardner. "I like your young man."CHAPTER 2
IT WAS WELL after midnight when the tall, dark-haired woman used the cast-iron key to unlock the stout wooden door of the Villa Arezzo on the Aventine Hill. She had found the old key in one of her father's boxes. The click of the lock made her wince. She pushed the door inward, but slowly, hoping to dampen the creak of the hinges. Since before her father's time, the palazzo had been the Rome headquarters of the Croce Rossa, the Red Cross, and as a child she had played here, although never in the thick of night. Now, for a long time, she stood in the once grand foyer, not moving. Her own breaths seemed loud in her ear, but otherwise, no sound. No one here.
Marguerite d'Erasmo was the twenty-four-year-old daughter of a French mother and an Italian father. He had been the director general of the Croce Rossa. He had died before the war broke out, but he was still revered here, and it had been the most natural thing in the world for his daughter to don the blue uniform, and she'd been wearing it since the war began. By 1943, last year, she was head of the Women's and Children's Committee for all of Italy.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Warburg in Rome"
Copyright © 2014 James Carroll.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsPrelude
1. The Name 1
2. The Files 9
Part I: War
1. A Mighty Endeavor 17
2. Master of Ceremonies 41
3. Handkerchief 71
4. Intercedite Pro Nobis 97
5. A Jew’s Fantasy 127
6. Cleopatra’s Needle 163
Part II: Post War
7. Road Out 191
8. Reds 223
9. Obbedienza 253
10. Nakam Means Revenge 283
11. Ratline 311
12. Vieni! Come! 343
Author’s Note 363
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book was a very tough one to get through. Almost all of the characters were dark and twisted and not at all likeable. I found myself not picking it up for days at a time. I am glad that I kept reading because the author did redeem himself finally. To bad it took so long.