Rome ‘Escape Line’ heroine dies aged 93
ONE of the last remaining links with Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty’s remarkable efforts to secure the safe passage of thousands of people across Rome’s ‘Escape Line’ during WWII has died at the age of 93 at her home in Aldershot, England.
Gemma Sands (nee Chevalier) was just
17 when she played a vital role in helping Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty to smuggle people past the Nazi authorities in occupied Rome.
Despite the grave and very real risk to her life, Gemma, her mother, and some of her seven siblings, helped keep Allied escapees safe from the grasp of the Nazis during the turbulent era when Rome was closed off from the outside world. Gemma was said to have been inspired by the bravery of her widowed mother, Henrietta.
The connection between Gemma and Monsignor O’Flaherty lasted until after the war when, having met English soldier Kenneth Sands who was serving with the post-war military administration in Rome, the couple were married by the Monsignor and subsequently moved to Aldershot in 1946.
Gemma was later awarded the British Empire Medal and a certificate thanking her for all that she had done by Field Marshall Alexander, head of Allied forces in the Mediterranean.
“It is hard to imagine how much courage it took for a 17-year-old girl to do what she did in the Nazi-occupied city of Rome, where escapees and those that were helping them were being mercilessly hunted down by the Gestapo,” said Jerry O’Grady, Chair of the Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty Memorial Society.
An emotional and historic event occurred in 2016 when, during a memorial society tour of Rome, representatives of the Chevalier, Derry and O’Flaherty families gathered outside the ‘Via Imperia’ apartment building – the place where Henrietta Chevalier and her eight children lived and successfully hid many Allied escapees between 1943 and 1944.
“On behalf of the Memorial Society, I extend my sincere and heartfelt condolences to the Sands family and we commend the selfless deeds of Gemma which will never be forgotten,” Jerry said.
Gemma died peacefully in the presence of her family in Aldershot on October 1.
Gemma on her wedding day (pictured with flowers) with her husband Kenneth. Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, who married them is pictured on the far left.