Monday, February 20, 2012

Two stimulating articles on Pius

It is important to recognise the steady flow of academic work continued on Pope Pius XII where evidence has been weighed, and scholars have taken time to judge and evaluate the material.  Two such articles on Pius appeared recently.

Eamon Duffy is well known in the English-speaking world for his studies of late medieval and early Reformation English Church history.  His magisterial work The Stripping of the Altars (1992/2005) built on the thesis that Catholicism was very much alive and well in the years prior to Henry VIII's break with Rome in the 1530s and that much of it survived the turmoil of the Tudor successions throughout the mid-16th century until the last dismantlings occurred under the Elizabethan Settlement and then the encroachment of the Puritan movements. 

Duffy has also written a recent book on the papacy - Ten Popes that shook the world (2011) - which included a chapter on Pius XII.  I bought the book, found it fascinating for the portraits of many of the successors to Peter, but have to confess to feeling somewhat deflated with the chapter on Pius XII.  Duffy adds nothing new in what he writes, but he does try to steer a middle course between condemnation and canonisation without resiling from the hard questions, of which the one surrounding "the silence" is the hardest.  His conclusion is succinct and in keeping with the moderate stand he takes throughout.  I will let the reader make their own judgement.  A summary of the chapter appeared in Commonweal in November 2011


Eamon Duffy



A second article appeared in the most recent edition of Commonweal this week.  John Connelly is Associate Professor of History at University of California, Berkeley.  His book, From Enemy to Brother (2012) has just been published. It is a study of the evolution of Christian-Jewish relations between 1930 and 1965.  There is a very interesting presentation of the life and work of Father John Oesterreicher one of the pioneers in establishing positive relations between Catholics and Jews beginning in the 1930s.  The Commonweal article was compelling reading, and I recommend it.


Michael Connelly 

Saturday, February 18, 2012

From the National Catholic Reporter

Polish history throughout the 1930s through to the late 1940s was a bloody and violent narrative that saw over 3 million Polish Jews and an equal number of Polish non-Jews murdered.  To its shame the Catholic Church was a contributor to the widespread cultural acceptance of Judeophobia and even antisemitism.  But, to its credit, the Church also had the highest number of "Righteous among the Nations" who rescued and saved Jews.  The role of Pope Pius XII and the war in Poland is long and very complex, requiring ongoing serious study to disentangle the many layered webs.

In 2005 I visited Poland and Lithuania as part of Yad Vashem sponsored graduate field trip to places of Holocaust significance.  It was one of the most significant journeys I have taken.  One of the things I learned was of the growing number of young(ish) Poles who have come forward over the last ten or so years who have discovered Jewish ancestry and who need to know about that part of their identity that has existed only as a vague memory, if it has existed at all.

The Jagiellonian University in Krakow has one of the largest departments of Jewish studies in Europe with a growing graduate research program that aims at getting students who have discovered Jewish ancestry to uncover, discover and recover the Jewish history of Poland's towns, shtetls and cities.  As far as I am aware, the department's program in this area continues.

This provides an introduction to the article I read on the National Catholic Reporter entitled "Educators revive history of Poland's Jews".   It is very much a "good news" read, even if some of the comments are somewhat indicative of minds that could do with a little opening.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

An interesting essay on ADSS

Now that it is back to business and getting on with history over hysteria, I came across this article by Dutch historian and journalist Frans Hoppenbrouwers, project and content manager at Foundation/Stichting  Communicates.  The organisation was founded by Fr Jan Daniel Bakkers (1918-1982), a member of the Catholic congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, with the intention of offering whatever aid he could to the Church behind the Iron Curtain.  Today the foundation works to improve and foster communication between the Eastern and Western Church.

In two posts, Hoppenbrouwers writes a thought provoking essay on the sources that historians use to analyse Pius XII.  It is a good start and I hope he continues.  Looking at ADSS he comes to the conclusion that reading ADSS gives much detail into the operations of the Vatican during the war, but does not help get us any closer to answering the question of the "silence" of Pius XII.  Taking ADSS Volume 8.184 he argues this is probably the first document that explicitly speaks of a systematic killing of Jewish civilians.  I am inclined to agree. He follows this by referencing to the growing acknowledgement of the killing process using ADSS 8.298 and 301.

As I mentioned above, I hope Hoppenbrouwers continues writing on the subject.  There is a need for greater depth in establishing context around the subject.  Referencing John Morley's excellent work is indicative of serious intent, but there are subsequent works that have built on Morley such as Michael Phayer, Susan Zuccotti, Jose Maria Sanchez, Kevin Spicer, Deborah Dwork and others.  Whether or not one agrees with their theses the fact remains that they have argued with the available material and helped deepen our knowledge.

I think the articles are worth reading.

Sources to the Pope Pius XII controversy - posted 10.09.2011

Sources to the Pope Pius XII controversy Part 2 - posted 11.09.2011

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A response to a reader.

One of the risks one takes in presenting a personal take on things in the digital and online age, is the ability for others to respond in ways that are not necessarily governed by what is generally regarded as "netiquette".  The immediacy of the internet and email communication coupled with a facade of anonymity make it easy to vent, be less than even tempered, and just plain rude.  I have been fortunate that most of the people who have responded to my blog either through comments left online or in private emails and contacts, have been positive, offering constructive criticism and pointers for further research. 

Regretfully, there have been several who believe anyone who disagrees with their worldview is, ipso facto, opposed to them, not interested in academic discussion or sharing of resources, but deserving of contempt, thinly veiled personal insults and patronising comments to let someone like me know, that in the scale of things, my thoughts are not as high as theirs.

My skin is getting thicker!

One of the more persistent writers who uses colourful adjectives and phrases, that have had me on an American-English dictionary website to figure out at least one of them, has also done me a service by pointing out several mistakes in my last two posts on Heinz Wisla.  For that I am grateful.  I will not publish that person's comments in full because of some of the less than kind remarks, but I will address the questions.

1. Who was  Father Weller the German priest Wisla met in Rome?

While there is no 100% certainty, my reader says it could be probably be the Pallotine priest, Father Anton Weber who was well known among German circles in Rome throughout the war.

2. How did Wisla's story get into the Palestine Post in 1944 given that Wisla is not mentioned?

This question posed by my reader is a fair one.  The simple answer is, as far as I can judge, that after he arrived in Palestine in February 1944, Wisla submitted his story to the paper by any number of means, and the paper published it.  Why it was published anonymously is another puzzle.  More than that I cannot say.

3.  Why was Wisla's account of the audience not picked up before or challenged?

Again this is a fair question.  I suspect the answer lies somewhere between the story getting lost over the years and a possible suspicion on the part of historians that something was not quite "right" with it.  Given that the Hebrew/German edition was published in Tel Aviv in 1966 when Holocaust history was still in its infancy and the furour cased by The Deputy had made any discussion of Pius XII as a possible rescuer of Jews in many Jewish and non-Jewish academic circles very difficult, it may well have been the case that Wisla's story was simply not believed. 


4. Checking facts.

My reader pointed out two major errors in recording details about William Doino and John Bierman. 

Despite having written about William Doino's work before I incorrectly titled him as "rabbi".  Doino is a Catholic.

I then made an even more silly mistake when I wrote that John Bierman was a fellow traveller with Wisla on the Pentcho and his book, Odessey, was a memoir.  I stand corrected on both counts.  John Bierman (1929-2006) was a British journalist with a number of significant historical works to his credit.  His account of the voyage of the Pentcho is not a memoir but a history.  I have made the appropriate adjustments to the entries on the blog. And for that I thank my reader.

Finally.  There is a position held in some circles that because a person takes a position on a subject, that position is to be held forever.  I read John Cornwall's Hitler's Pope in 1999 and I wrote a review for the journal, Patterns of Prejudice where I suspect I made some comments along the lines that Cornwall has opened up the debate well and truly.  I cannot recall my exact words as I no longer have a copy of the review, but I would be the first to say that my opinion of Cornwall's work is not positive because of the poor quality history it is.  I would be surprised to find anyone who has not changed their opinion or attitude towards a particular subject in the light of new information.  On this point my reader and I will, I suppose, agree to disagree.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Heinz "Howard" Wisla and Pope Pius XII : historical faction. Part Two

Doino summarised Wisla’s sojourn in Rome:



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.


Heinz Wisla
1920-2004

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 - www.lbi.org  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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