Having immediately taken to Rome and its people, Heinz soon found allies for his mission. A kindly German priest arranged for Heinz to meet Pius XII at one of his special audiences, allowing for a direct appeal to the Pope for the imprisoned shipwrecked refugees, back at Rhodes. When the dramatic moment came, Wisla was part of a large gathering, including many German soldiers passing by, and the last to approach the pontiff. Noticing how shy and anxious the young man was, the Pope immediately put Heinz at ease. The exchange that followed brought forth Pius XII’s compassion, and full awareness of what it meant to be Jewish at that time, in a world overcome by hatred. The language used by the Pope is important, for it speaks directly to Pius XII’s love for his fellow human beings —God’s children, as he saw them — without distinction of race, color or creed.
Despite some serious research for information on the “kindly German priest” that Wisla named as Father Weller, I have not found anything. This is not to say that Father Weller did not exist, just that I could not find him.
When the audience began Wisla estimated there were thirty people present, including the German soldiers. What follows stretches credulity. Again, I quote Doino:
“Then Pope Pius XII said: ‘You have done well, my Jewish friend, to come to me and tell me what has happened down there in the Italian islands. I have heard about it before. Will you come back, my son, in a few days with a written report and give it to my Secretary of State who is dealing with this particular refugee problem? But now to you, my young friend. You are Jewish. I know what that means in these times we live in. I do hope that you will always be proud to be a Jew!
“And then the Pope raised his voice so that everybody in the room could hear it even more clearly: ‘My son, whether you are worthier than others, only the Lord knows, but believe me, you are at least as worthy as any other human being on our earth before the Lord. And now, my Jewish friend, go with the protection of the Lord Almighty, and never forget: Be always proud to be a Jew.”
There are questions to be asked.
1. In a gathering of the size Wisla claimed why has there been no other record of this statement of the pope? Surely someone other than Wisla heard the pope and commented somewhere.
2. Why have none of the Vatican officials who would have been present at the audience left no record of the event? Such an outburst on the part of the pope would have created some sensation however small.
3. Why did the editors of Actes et Documents not mention something as significant as this in their compilation of the material made available to them?I find it hard to imagine that something as dramatic as what Wisla alleged Pius said to him was not recorded somewhere.
4. The pope allegedly made reference to the situation Jews found themselves in the autumn of 1941. At that time it is certain that Pius had a reasonable grasp of the atrocities being committed “in the East” (E.g. ADSS 8.184) For Pius to have made such a public statement seems contrary to everything he had said or avoided saying since the beginning of the war.
5. Wisla’s account is the only account. There is no corroborative evidence. Doino mentions the book by John Bierman, who recounts the story of the audience in Odyssey (1984). Where did Bierman come across the story? I can only presume from Wisla himself, but there is no specific acknowledgement of Wisla apart from a general word of thanks to survivors on pp 253-54.
However, Odyssey contains a much briefer account of Wisla's story. And again, there are more problems. Bierman has Wisla departing Rhodes around March 1941, which does not fit Wisla's story which puts the date around July. Wisla said he had a Cuban visa, Bierman said it was Portuguese. It does place considerable strain on the reliability of Wisla's story that there are a growing number of questions raised about matters that should have been relatively straight forward. Naturally, Bierman could have made mistakes, but having read his account of the Pentcho, Bierman does appears to be more reliable.
Next there is the time frame from Wisla's arrival in Rome. Wisla says he was in Rome until at least July 1942, which is considerably longer than Bierman's account which says Wisla wrote to the Rhodes internees shortly after his audience with the Pope which occured in the autumn of 1941.
From pages 157-158.
One internee who did leave Rhodes at about this time was an Austrian [sic] named Heinz Wisla. Having aquired a Portuguese visa he was allowed to leave for Lisbon via Rome. Before he left, the governing committee drew up a petition which he promised he would try to present to the Pope. In a letter to Rhodes from Lisbon some weeks later, Wisla reported that he had taken the petition to the Vatican, where he was granted an audience with Pius XII. Waiting ahead of him to receive the pontifical blessing was a large group of German soldiers. "I was scared stiff, but they didn't realise who or what I was", Wisla wrote, "and after the pope had blessed them I was able to present the petition. He promised to do what he could."
The language is at odds with Wisla's description given in Chapter 9 of his memoir. If the events occurred as recorded in Long Journey Home why did Wisla truncate his experience for Bierman? Did Bierman edit Wisla's story? It would seem very odd for Bierman to have left out something as extraordinary as the words Wisla alleged the pope to have said.
After the audience Wisla claimed to have passed on his request for the Jews on Rhodes to the Secretariat of State. There is nothing to prove whether he did or not, but the interned Jews on Rhodes were transferred via a Red Cross ship to Ferramonti in southern Italy. There are mentions of the internment camp in ADSS 8 throughout 1941-1942, but nothing to suggest that Pius XII was responsible for Rhodes internees getting to Italy, although the Pentcho survivors are referred to. (ADSS 8.348)
From this point on Wisla’s narrative becomes a mix of “Boys’ Own” and “Indiana Jones”. There are many questions raised throughout the rest of the text that takes us beyond the scope of my concerns here.
I have taken just a few of the more “interesting” events that calls into question Wisla’s reliability as a witness and writer.
1. He claimed to have met a Rudolf von Hencke, a black marketer who had been a SS guard in KL Buchenwald, had been revolted at the brutality of the treatment meted out to the Jews in the camp and managed to use his father’s connections to get a job as with the German Foreign Affairs ministry in Milan. If the story were not strange to the point of bizarre, the man’s name is all the more curious because it is the name of one of the “martyrs” of the NSDAP, ie supporters who were killed before January 1933.
2. May 1942 – Wisla claimed to have stayed inside the Vatican for several days where he spoke with, among others, an elderly Belgian Cardinal, several “Catholic ministers” from Connecticut visiting the pope. Interestingly, he writes of the excellent cuisine.
3. June 1942 – In the Vatican “boarding house” for foreigners Wisla claims to have met Ladislaw Jelenco, a Czech, who claimed to be a spy with the British. He asked Wisla for help spying on German troop movements in North Africa. He agrees and spends time in elegant Roman brothels gathering information from German officers. They met either in Piazza di Spagna or the Vatican.
4. July 1942 – Wisla’s cover is “blown”. Jelenco promises to help him get out of Italy. While he waits he stays in the Vatican where he chats with priests about the horrors the Germans are committing “in the East”. The story of his exit from Italy borders on the farcical – it is unbelievable! The Italians were not stupid. Wisla flies to Spain where the adventures continued. As with much of the story after 1941 there is no way of confirming the narrative.
5. September 1942 – contact with his family in Berlin ends with letters marked "addressee unknown". On this point there is verification with the records on the Yad Vashem data base. From here onwards Wisla includes specific dates in his narrative. Why was this not done for other entries?
At the outset, when this story “broke” I wanted to ensure that I read it carefully, researched the claims made in order to come to a fair and valid, evidence based conclusion. The only conclusion I can come to after reading Heinz Wisla’s account is that up to the summer of 1941 his story is credible and verifiable from multiple sources. After his arrival in Rome, the story becomes increasingly strange and has no corroborative evidence. Wisla made statements that if true, are unique in Holocaust history and unique in the historical record concerning Pius XII. It is regrettable that journalists such as Robert Moynihan and William Doino did not subject the manuscript to historical examination. Instead they allowed themselves to be convinced of Wisla’s story because of their well-known and publicly stated goal to see Pius XII declared one of the great rescuers of the Jews during the Holocaust. It will not happen based on the memoir of Heinz Wisla.