Kindertransport refugee and priest Francis Wahle dies, aged 94

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Kindertransport refugee and priest Francis Wahle dies, aged 94

Baptised as a child, the Catholic minister only discovered his Jewish ancestry when he was forced to flee the Nazis in Vienna

Father Francis Wahle. Pic; AJR
Father Francis Wahle. Pic; AJR

An Austrian priest who only discovered his Jewish roots on fleeing the Nazis died has died in London, aged 94.  

Born 12 August 1929, the Rev Francis Wahle was baptised and grew up as a Catholic.

All four of his grandparents were Jewish but he attended a Catholic school in Vienna’s Judenplaz. His father, Karl had converted in 1921 and his mother, Hedwig (nee Brunner), did so in 1940/41.

The Nazi’s Nuremberg laws deemed his family Jewish and so, forced to leave his school, at the age of 9, Francis and his 8-year old sister Anna escaped Austria on the Kindertransport via Holland, arriving at Britain’s Liverpool Street Station on 12 January 1939.

Francis and his sister Anne. Pic: AJR

The two were separated; 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.

He read economics at University College London followed by a chartered accountancy course before starting work with the John Lewis Partnership. Feeling a pull towards the priesthood, he was ordained in 1965, staying at the English College in Rome from 1959 to 1966.

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.

Young Francis. Pic: AJR

In 1945/46, Francis discovered that his parents had emerged from underground hiding from the Gestapo in Vienna. His father Karl became a Supreme Court Judge, a member of the Supreme Restitution Commission, and later First President of the Supreme Court.

Karl, together with both Francis and Anna had an audience with the then Pope, who thanked Karl for their service to God. Anna joined the Congregation of Our Lady of Zion, becoming Sister Hedwig at the end of the war. She later returned to Vienna and co-founded, then became director of the Information Centre for Christian and Jewish Understanding.

Michael Newman, chief executive officer of the Association of Jewish Refugees ,said: “The AJR is deeply saddened to hear about the passing of our much-loved member Rev. Francis Wahle. Born in Vienna in 1929, Francis was Jewish by birth but both parents had converted away from Judaism and he and his sister only found out their Jewish roots, when they were forced to leave their secular school after the Anschluss.

The King Meets AJR Kinder of AJR in London Central United Synagogue on 9 11 2023. Photos taken by Adam Soller

“The siblings escaped Nazi persecution via the Kindertransport and were looked after by the Catholic Committee for Refugees. In later life, Francis studied for seven years in Rome, before being ordained in 1965 and enjoyed a long and happy stint as Parish Priest for Enfield.

“The AJR is grateful to have had the opportunity to capture Francis’ testimony, both as part of our Refugee Voices archive and for our My Story collection. Capturing experiences like Francis’s helps preserve the record of the Holocaust and enables us all learn about his remarkable life and the contribution he made to his adopted home.

“We will miss his warmth and positive outlook and are honoured to continue to tell his story as part of our work.”

In November 2023, Francis met with King Charles III as part of the 85th anniversary Kindertransport commemorations. He died on 15 May at University College Hospital.

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