Although all four of Father Francis Wahle’s grandparents were Jewish, he was baptized and grew up as a devout Catholic in a ‘well assimilated’ family. Born in Vienna in 1929, he attended a Catholic school in Judenplaz. His Viennese father, Karl, had already converted in 1921; his Viennese mother, Hedwig (nee Brunner), did so in 1940/41.
Being politically aware, Hedwig originally planned that Francis, aged 9, and his sister Anna aged 8, would go to Italy, but they ultimately escaped on the Kindertransport via Holland, arriving at Britain’s Liverpool Street Station on 12 January 1939. While Anna spent a ‘very miserable’ time with Ursula nuns in London, Francis was first taken to a Catholic home for German-speaking refugee children, then to Bankton House, in Sussex. Becoming a boarder at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire proved a ‘fresh start’, and he ‘studied to compensate’ for his loss.
Francis Wahle read Economics at University College London (UCL), followed by a Chartered Accountancy course leading to a career with the John Lewis Partnership. It was during the latter period that he inclined towards the priesthood. ‘Why aren’t you a priest?’ he was asked. Aged 30, he had his doubts, but after a week in silent retreat, he ‘knew it was the right thing’ and was ordained in 1965, staying at the English College in Rome from 1959-66. His pastoral work at Westminster Cathedral, London, included serving as Westminster Hospital Chaplain; he then took charge of part of Enfield Parish, and later moved to Queensway until his retirement aged 75.
Although a relative, Elise Wahle, had died in January 1940, Francis received news in 1945/6 that his ‘U-boot’ [sic, ‘U-boat’] parents had emerged from hiding from the Gestapo in Vienna. Karl Wahle duly became a Supreme Court Judge, a member of the Supreme Restitution Commission, and later First President of the Supreme Court.*
Both of Karl’s children were deeply committed to the Church. All three together had an audience with the then Pope, who thanked Karl for their service to God. Anna had joined the Congregation of Our Lady of Zion, becoming Sister Hedwig after WWII; she later returned to Vienna and co-founded, then became Director of the Information Centre for Christian and Jewish Understanding in Vienna.
Father Francis remains profoundly grateful to God for having escaped death, and survived to be of service to others.
*For Anna Wahle’s account of the family under the Nazi occupation, see the Homepage of the Austrian Government at www.nationalfonds.org under "Lebensgeschichtliche Erinnerungen u. lebensgeschichtliche Zeugnisse von AntragstellerInnen". It includes a talk Father Francis gave on 11 October 2011, about his father Karl.
Bankton House; Elise Wahle; Gonzagagasse; Pick family; Stonyhurst College.