Monday, February 6, 2012

Heinz "Howard" Wisla and Pope Pius XII : historical faction

A “news flash” from Robert Moynihan’s Inside the Vatican in 2006 alerted the world to the recovery of a news article that had appeared in the Palestine Post, predecessor of the Jerusalem Post, from 28 April 1944, where an anonymous Jewish refugee wrote of his audience with Pope Pius XII in the autumn of 1941 and the words he claimed the pope spoke to him. The refugee alleged the pope, upon discovering that the young man was Jewish, listened to his plea for help, promised to do what he could and then sent him on his way with the words: “And now, my Jewish friend, go with the protection of the Lord, and never forget, you must always be proud to be a Jew!” What made the words even more astounding was the context; an audience granted to German soldiers and the pope making it certain that everyone nearby was left in no uncertainty of the identity of the young refugee.

On 9 January 2012, Robert Moynihan introduced a fuller explanation of the 2006 story that had been compiled by William Doino, who like Moynihan is well known for his efforts to demonstrate Pius XII as a “righteous Gentile”. Indeed, Moynihan’s introduction is worth noting.

Last month, this magazine made the case that the almost irrational campaign against Pius was continuing, even in the face of massive evidence against it. This month we offer one clear, compelling example of Pius XII at work to embrace and care for Jews. The example we give has been partially known ever since Inside the Vatican published a newsflash about it in 2006, with commentary by William Doino, a highly-regarded Pius specialist (see pp. 17-18). That story received wide attention, much praise, some criticism, and, appropriately, requests for additional evidence. Now, after considerably more research, we present the full story behind the original newsflash. It is now a testimony with ample documentation, which we believe every fair-minded reader will find extraordinary. If ever a story deserved to be heard, bearing upon Pius XII’s conduct and character, and his true attitude toward the Jewish people, this is it.

I read the article with interest. I had seen the news stories surrounding the 2006 “news flash” but found it hard to give credit to it because of the serious lack of evidence and corroborating testimony. The story went “viral” within several hours and has, I suspect, now entered the arsenal of those who believe Pius XII was a major rescuer of Jews.

Inside the Vatican promised to clarify the story. I read Doino’s article remained somewhat sceptical and decided that I needed to do my own research. Doino named the Jewish refugee as Heinz (Howard) Wisla and gave the links to the manuscript he wrote. What follows is my interpretation of the evidence Doino posits. My conclusions are somewhat different to Doino’s.

Howard Wisla (1920-2004) wrote an amazing account of his war year experiences in a manuscript entitled Long Journey Home in 1966. It was published in Israel in Hebrew. Efforts to secure publication elsewhere were not successful.

After his death on 5 September 2004 the manuscript was eventually deposited in the collection of the Leo Baeck Institute in New York City and is freely available on the Institute’s website -  I downloaded and read the manuscript. For further information I consulted the database from Yad Vashem as well as other survivor testimonies, histories of the organised Jewish emigrations from German-Occupied Europe and some accounts of efforts to get out of Europe entirely. I also contacted the museum staff at the former Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp to verify aspects of Wisla’s story.

Heinz Wisla was a Jew born in Berlin on 7 January 1920. His father, Adolf (3 March 1885 – probably March 1943), was a veteran of the Great War and, according to the testimony of his son, highly decorated. He lived with his mother Bertha (nee Mendel, 19 April 1895 – probably March 1943) and brother, Gerhard (26 August 1923 – probably March 1943).

For reasons that are not clear, Heinz was arrested and sent to KL Sachsenhausen, outside Berlin on 7 March 1940 and given the prisoner number 20736 and placed in Barracks block 45. In his memoir Wisla says he was sent to Sachsenhausen around January 1940. While it is not unlikely that the trauma of his time in the KL was such that he lost track of time, his family would have been acutely aware of how long he had been incarcerated. I find it hard that this time frame does not square with the records kept in the Camp Museum which have him at Sachsenhausen from 7 March to 10 April 1940. There are two other discrepancies. Wisla wrote his number was 17072 and his Barracks block was 40. These are not critical problems, but it does raise some questions as to his recall on this and other aspects of his story. He claims he was released because his father had “connections” from his army days, but was told to ensure he left Germany as soon as he could.

Joining other young German Jews, Wisla left his homeland, travelled to Slovakia via Austria and, in May 1940, boarded the Italian tramp steamer, Pentcho that sailed, not without mishap and near disasters, down the Danube towards the Black Sea and then into the Mediterranean before coming to grief on an uninhabited island near Mytilene in the Italian occupied Dodocanese. Rescued by the Italians, Wisla and the other refugees were taken to Rhodes where they were incarcerated in a camp in November 1940. The refugees began sending messages for help to the Red Cross, the Chief Rabbi in Istanbul, the Joint in the USA and the Pope.

Throughout all this he remained in letter contact with his family in Berlin. He says that his parents and brother worked in the Siemens factory as forced laborourers until their deportation in the Spring of 1943. From comments made in the text it seems probable that Adolf, Bertha and Gerhard Wisla were sent to KL Auschwitz-Birkenau as part of the fabrikaktion ordered by Goebbels in his attempt to make Berlin Judenrein. Yad Vashem records that Bertha Wisla was deported on 1 March and her husband and son followed on 3 March. It is presumed they were gassed shortly after arrival.

In his memoir Wisla wrote that in March 1941 his father told his to contact a “rich South African” cousin, Herman, who had arrived in New York. Heinz sent a message via local Rhodes Jews to New York. Herman arranged a Cuban visa for Heinz and telegrammed to that effect in June 1941. The Cuban consul-general in Rome was notified and sent a telegram to Rhodes advising Heinz to travel to Rome, present his German passport and collect his visa. The visa would allow travel from Rome to Lisbon and then to Havana. The Italian authorities granted permission for Wisla to leave Rhodes in the summer of 1941 and he arrived in Rome soon after. Wisla wrote that he promised his fellow refugees he would do all he could to get them moved from Rhodes.

(Part 2 will follow)

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