Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 799

Father Riccardo Fontana

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Father Riccardo Fontana, an idealistic young Jesuit priest who opposes the Catholic church’s concordat with Adolf Hitler and who tries unsuccessfully to persuade the pope to speak out against the Nazi atrocities against the Jews. Joining a group destined for Auschwitz, he becomes, in effect, the pope’s representative, or “deputy,” accepting for himself the morally correct role he believes the pope has abdicated.

Kurt Gerstein

Kurt Gerstein, an officer in the SS and member of the Protestant Confessing church. Gerstein is a devout Christian who attempts to destroy the Nazi system from within. As an SS officer, he has evidence that the Jews are being gassed in the concentration camps and, knowing the Nazis’ fear of the moral authority of the church, believes that intervention by the pope could stop the persecution.

Pope Pius XII

Pope Pius XII, Eugenio Pacelli (ew-JEH-nee-oh pah-CHEHL-lee), who is portrayed with grand gestures and aristocratic coolness. He is a symbol of the church as an institution. He does not protest the arrest of the Jews except in empty, diplomatic language and wishes the church to be an impartial mediator for Adolf Hitler and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The symbolic washing of hands reinforces his refusal to speak out against the mass killings.

The Doctor

The Doctor, an inhuman figure with a charming, likable manner. He sorts the Auschwitz prisoners into the ones who will work and the ones who will die immediately. His role is that of absolute evil, confronting Riccardo with doubts about the existence of God.

Count Fontana

Count Fontana, a high-ranking lay adviser to the pope. As Riccardo’s father, he makes the personal confrontation between his son and the pope possible. He is valuable to the Vatican as a financier and business manager and shows himself to be a man of kindness and feeling who well understands the dynamics and politics of the Vatican.

Cesare Orsenigo

Cesare Orsenigo (cheh-ZAH-reh ohr-SEH-nee-goh), the apostolic nuncio in Berlin and Riccardo’s superior. The nuncio is sixty-nine years old and a man of great self-discipline with a candid and tolerant expression. His role is to articulate the position of the church—that Western civilization must be protected from Russian communism, even if that means dealing with Hitler.

Baron von Rutta

Baron von Rutta, a distinguished aristocrat and member of the Reichs Armaments Cartel. This character, along with Müller-Saale of the Krupp works, articulates the position of the German industrialists, whose main concern is using the Jews as forced labor to make profits.

The Abbot

The Abbot, the father general of a religious order. He wants the pope to speak out for the Jews but is committed to his vow of obedience if the pope does not do so. A man of conscience, the Abbot has saved hundreds of lives by protecting individuals who are attempting to escape.

The Cardinal

The Cardinal, a suave, somewhat ruthless diplomat in the service of the pope. A man with remarkable intelligence who rose out of poverty, he considers himself a realist in supporting the church position that Hitler can be used to block communism.

Professor August Hirt

Professor August Hirt, a Strassburg University anatomist who attempts to prove Nazi racial theories by examining the skulls of concentration camp victims.


Helga, a waitress and later a secretary. She is a young, attractive blonde who enjoys flirting but is oblivious to politics and the evil around her. She falls under the spell of the Doctor and accompanies him to Auschwitz, where she becomes his mistress.

Air Force Lieutenant von Rutta

Air Force Lieutenant von Rutta, the baron’s son, a young man of about twenty years who has just won the Knight’s Cross. An innocent and...

(The entire section contains 921 words.)

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