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Fr Francis Wahle: A priest who escaped the Nazis

Fr. Francis Wahle, who died May 14 at the age of 94, was one of nearly 10,000 Jewish children who escaped Nazi Europe through the mass evacuation known as the Kindertransport, which took them to Britain shortly before the outbreak of World War II.

Fr. Francis Wahle (1929-2024), a priest of England’s Westminster diocese. Courtesy of the Diocese of Westminster.

He was actually a cradle Catholic: his father had converted before he was born in August 1929, and the infant Francis was baptized in Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral. But with four Jewish grandparents, the Nuremberg laws deemed him Jewish. 


Before the German takeover of Austria in 1938, his family’s life had been comfortable. His father was a lawyer and judge. With the advent of Nazi rule, things changed with terrifying speed. His father had to resign his job under Nazi racial laws, and Francis’ Catholic school ordered him to leave. 

His parents tried to shield him from what was happening, but he saw Jews humiliated and beaten on the streets. His parents decided to send him and his younger sister Anne to safety in Britain, obtaining places for them on one of the Kindertransport trains. 

The scene at the Vienna West Station was one of barely controlled anguish as hundreds of parents waved goodbye to their children, many of whom would never see their parents again.

The young Francis and Anne Wahle. Courtesy of the Diocese of Westminster.  

Francis and Anne arrived in England in January 1939. He was nine, she was seven. To their dismay, they were separated. He was sent to a home run by a Catholic committee for refugees, and she was taken care of by nuns. 

He quickly learned English and was given free education, first at a Jesuit preparatory school, before moving on to Stonyhurst, the Jesuit private school in Lancashire, North West England. During vacations, he and two other refugee boys boarded with a Catholic woman in Blackpool whose motherly care was exemplary. 

Those first years of transition required adaptability and even courage on his part. You sensed in Fr. Francis a resilience and stoicism born of his experiences. His sister was able to visit him occasionally. 

They wondered what had happened to their parents. In 1945, they heard that their resourceful parents had survived by going underground. One of their ruses was to move from lodging house to lodging house, pretending they were lovers. Using false IDs, they would plead with landladies for accommodation. The Viennese, remarked Fr. Francis wryly, always had a strong streak of sentimentality. 

Travel was difficult after the war and he was not able to meet his mother until 1947, and his father even later. There was pain as well as joy in the reunion. He had left them as a nine-year-old and reunited with them as a young man. They were now nearly strangers to each other, and rebuilding their relationship took patience and tolerance on both sides. 

Francis Wahle with his parents. Courtesy of the Diocese of Westminster. 


But Francis was sure that if he and Anne had not been sent away, they would all have perished, because his parents would have been unable to hide in the way they did.

Francis took an economics degree at University College London and began a career in accountancy and management, but gave it up when he sensed a call to the priesthood. After studying in Rome, he was ordained a priest in 1965 and served parishes in the Westminster diocese. 

At one point, he was also a hospital chaplain. He was once asked by the nurse in charge of maternity to stop giving new mothers a card, which had a scriptural verse on one side and chaplaincy notices on the other. Puzzled, he asked why. 

She told him that sometimes the mothers laughed so much they burst their stitches. He looked again at the card. The verse chosen was Matthew 11:28, “Come to me all you who labor under a heavy burden.” 

After retirement, he began a new ministry of listening to Catholics alienated by hurtful experiences in the Church. They would meet in the restaurant below his flat in Baker Street, near the home of the fictional Sherlock Holmes. Some of them were reconciled as a result, but his main aim was the healing power of the listening itself.

Fr. Francis opposed any racism or xenophobia. Perhaps it was remarkable that he showed no resentment towards Austria, and that his faith as a Catholic was strong. The nation of his birth liked to portray itself as Hitler’s first victim, but over the decades that story has frayed. Plenty of Austrian Catholics welcomed the Nazis. For that matter, both Hitler and Himmler were brought up as Catholics. 

Fr. Francis saw the rise of Nazism as a warning from history. As regards the Church, he was a student in Rome during Vatican Council II and welcomed the reforms, which he felt had not gone far enough.

He was quick to speak up for Jews if he heard any disparagement of them. He once said: “I’m like a tree with two roots — my Christian roots, my religion; and my Jewish roots, my ancestors. I can make the Catholics less antisemitic and the Jews less afraid of Catholicism.” 

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Until recently, he would celebrate Mass once a month at a Mass center for German-speaking Catholics in southwest London. 

Publicly, he was a little reticent about his early life, perhaps not wanting to imply any resentment. Accordingly, he did not preach on his experiences to the German-speaking congregation. But young families would invite him to lunch afterward and pepper him with questions. 

His sister Anne followed a similar pattern. She joined the Sisters of Sion, who turned away from an earlier conversionist history to become champions of Jewish-Christian reconciliation. Known as Sister Hedwig, she dedicated her life to promoting Jewish-Christian understanding. She organized tours to Israel, established a library on Christian-Jewish topics, and worked to ensure that textbooks were free of antisemitism. She died in 2001.

Fr. Francis was a member of Britain’s Association of Jewish Refugees. He was selected to be filmed and interviewed for its “My Story” series. The interviews were turned into books, and his story was one of those presented to the Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen when survivors visited Austria in 2022. 

In November 2023, Fr. Francis also met King Charles III, who came to a commemoration of the Kindertransport at the Great Portland Street Synagogue in London.

Fr. Francis was one of those older people that the young found it easy to speak to, attracted by his openness and twinkling good humor. He always retained an intellectual curiosity and a zest for life. 

But he was disappointed by the return of war and ethnic hatred in our own times, and by the human incapacity to reform. He said that he did not have a message for younger generations. Humankind already knew what to do, he said, and still did not do it. 

His mind remained unclouded. In his final years, he was able to take himself on foot or by bus to the midday Mass at St. James’, Spanish Place, central London, until even that became impossible. 

He was not afraid of death, regarding it as life’s last great adventure. When he died in London’s University College Hospital, he was the oldest priest in Westminster diocese.

Fr. Terry Tastard is a priest of the Diocese of Westminster, England.

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