Karel Weirich: the courageous journalist who saved hundreds of Jews during WWII

07-11-2015

Karel Weirich is perhaps an unfamiliar name to most Czechs and to most of the world. Yet this modest man contributed in large part to keeping the world informed about the plight of Bohemia and Moravia under Nazi occupation. And he also helped to save the lives of hundreds of Jews living in Italy during WWII. The exact number is not known.

Photo: Karmelitánské nakladatelstvíPhoto: Karmelitánské nakladatelství Weirich has been compared in some ways to the Englishman Sir Nicholas Winton, who helped 669, mostly Jewish children, flee the clutches of the Nazi regime and almost certain death before the outbreak of WWII.

Weirich was born in Italy to Czech parents. His father was a well known sculptor. Karel though chose a different path and became a journalist. He became the Czechoslovak correspondent for the Czechoslovak national news agency ČTK, reporting about the Vatican from 1935. At the same time, however, Weirich chose to hold onto his job in the Vatican bureaucracy and also his post as reporter on Czechoslovak affairs for the Vatican newspaper L’ Osservatore Romano.

Those connections came to be crucial after the Nazi occupation of the remainder of Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939. Thanks to his journalistic and diplomatic connections, Weirich was a link that helped keep the Vatican informed of what was really happening as the Nazi Protectorate began to show its true face, for example, with the clampdown on Czech university education and shooting and deportation of students.

It was a sort of undercover diplomatic work so that news about what happening in a country occupied by Hitler got through to the Vatican and those close to the Pope.

Weirich only lost his ČTK job in November 1941, because he refused to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler. One of the key contacts was ČTK’s Paris correspondent up till the fall of France who sent the latest news via a Czech employee of the Wagon- Lits rail company.

Weirich has recently come into the spotlight thanks to the Czech edition of a book by a young Italian historian, Alberto Tronchin, entitled Spravedlivý Riskuje or A Just Risk. The story is taken up by Pavel Mareš of the Karmelitánské publishing house.

“The situation in the Protectorate up to the arrival of Reinhard Heydrich was not at all ideal, but the resistance could ensure that a flow of information was possible. That was shown by the news of the Prague and Brno clampdown on students. It was a sort of undercover diplomatic work so that news about what happening in a country occupied by Hitler got through to the Vatican and those close to the Pope.“

One of Weirich’s Vatican close contacts later rose to the very summit of the Catholic Church to become Pope Paul VI. Pavel Mareš again.

“We can pick out the name of Giovanni Montini, the future Pope Paul VI. He was the pope from 1963 to 1978. But during the war Montini was the connection for Weirich so that the pope could be informed that certain refugees needed help.“

Pavel Mareš, photo: Zdeňka KuchyňováPavel Mareš, photo: Zdeňka Kuchyňová Anti-Jewish laws were already being put into effect in the Protectorate. Ironically perhaps as one of Hitler’s main allies, Italy though provided one of the most promising routes and havens for Czech and Slovak Jews seeking to flee their homeland. Italian dictator Mussolini was slow copy and put into effect the Nazi’s anti-Jewish laws, the country having historically had a small Jewish population and little of the strong latent anti-Semitism of Germany. Emigration out of Germany and German ruled territory was still possible until September 1941. Weirich highlighted the situation of Czech refugees from Nazism in Italy because their situation was a lot worse than those of many other refugees.

Czechoslovakia no longer had any official links with Italy because it was a virtual Nazi puppet state and the refugees therefore had no official channel for advice or support and were totally dependent on voluntary help. Moreover, things began to get worse with Mussolini moving to intern some foreign Jews in camps. As a papal emissary, Weirich though had access to them.

Some of the aid to those in camps was provided for by the Saint Wenceslas Fund that Weirich helped found in the second half of 1940 to offer aid to those Czech and Slovak Jews being interned in Italy. Funds were channelled from the Czechoslovak Red Cross in London with the help known about by the exiled Czechoslovak government. Some of the help were cash donations to those in the worst need which sometimes covered medical supplies and treatment. Some of the help was simply using Weirich’s and the Vatican’s network to help track down relatives of the interned who had gone missing across Europe. And, perhaps more crucially, some of the help involved the provision of false papers and identity papers that could get some of the Jews out of trouble.

He was sentenced to death but the Pope asked the Nazis if it was possible to convert the sentence into 18 months of forced labour in a concentration camp.

Author and historian Alberto Tronchin takes up the story and describes how documents reveal how Weirich’s help to the Jews evolved over time:

“There is a big difference between the period before September 8, 1943, and the period afterwards. Because before September 8 he helped the Jews especially by giving them money and medicines and after September 8, after the fall of the Fascist government in Italy, he tried also to give them a place to stay because it was possible for them to be taken to the camps in Poland, Auschwitz or Birkenau.”

Evidently this stepped up and more high profile aid brought Weirich under even closer scrutiny of the Gestapo. Tronchin again:

“Weirich tried to give to the Jews false documents, false identity cards, and new identities. For these activities on April 1, 1944, the Gestapo seized him and he was brought to the Regina Coeli prison in Rome. He was sentenced to death but the Pope asked the Nazis if it was possible to convert the sentence into 18 months of forced labour in a concentration camp. So, Weirich stayed for one year and two months in the camp of Kolbermoor in Bavaria. In May, 1945, the camp was finally freed by the Allied troops.”

Alberto Tronchin, photo: Vojtěch BergerAlberto Tronchin, photo: Vojtěch Berger Weirich took up his work as a journalist for the ČTK news agency in Italy after the war. In 1948, after the Communists took over power in Czechoslovakia, he was called back to Prague. Fearing the worst, he refused to go and remained in Italy. He died in 1981 with the story of his heroic actions during the war largely unknown and ignored by the wider public.

Alberto Tronchin, a history student living near Treviso in Italy, came by chance to meet one of Weirich’s relatives living in the city. That was his introduction to the hoard of documents that Weirich had miraculously stored about his activities before and during WWII and that formed the basis of the recently published book.

07-11-2015