Josef Wölfel was born in 1901 in Güns (Hungarian “Köszeg”), a city that came to Hungary after the end of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, two kilometres from today’s Austrian border. After completing voluntary military service with the Hungarian army from July 1919 to January 1920 he studied philosophy in Budapest and received his PhD in 1925. After a short teaching post, he studied Protestant Theology in Vienna and Tübingen (SS 1930), which he completed in 1930 with the First Theological Exam in Vienna. During his studies in Vienna, he was tutor for the children of the Hungarian ambassador.
This was followed by further training as an independent clergyman, in September 1930 as a clerical assistant in Vienna-Floridsdorf, from February 1932 in Vienna-Landstrasse and from July 1934 as a personal vicar in the local community. From October 1936 Wölfel was pastor of Fürstenfeld (Styria).
After the invasion of German troops on March 12, 1938 and the “annexation” of Austria to the “Reich”, the Austrian Church also asked its pastors for proof of Aryan identity. On April 6, 1938, the President of the Upper Church Council in Vienna, Robert Kauer, declared to the Ministry of Education that the majority of the few Protestant pastors of Jewish descent had the intention of leaving Austrian church service forever, “the intent of which the Church authorities believes it must promote in every respect.” (Unterköfler, 124).
Accordingly, on May 11, 1938, the highest church authority asked Wölfel for a corresponding declaration regarding his “Aryan descent”. He could not give this because he was considered a “first-degree hybrid” in the sense of the Nuremberg Laws. Instead, on June 13, 1938, he turned to the Church council with the request for “professional equality with full Aryans”. He gave the reason that his paternal ancestors – traceable from the 16th century – were “Aryans”. His mother, however, was a Jew by birth, and was baptisted before his parents married. She died when he was five years old.
Most of all, Wölfel cited his German nationalistic political views, which he had shown by belonging to the German minority movement in what was then nationalistic Hungary. After 1919 he could not stay in Hungary, but decided on Austria. “And so I should like to expressly request that a life that has so far been clear and unambiguous in its direction and in its decisions should not be judged in the opposite direction.”
Superintendent Heinzelmann did not want to follow the Wölfel’s argument and wrote on September 26, 1938 to the church council: “Since Pastor Dr. Wölfel in Fürstenfeld was not able to provide proof of his Aryan descent properly, he should be carefully informed that he would soon have to find a post outside the Austrian Protestant Church and should familiarize himself with the idea of giving up the pastorate in Fürstenfeld.
This was In contrast to his colleague Pastor Hermann Thür in Kapfenberg (another non-Aryan Jewish Christian, also a“ first-degree hybrid ”, who had given up all hope of remaining with his church and fled to England.
Josef Wölfel had better chances. On October 12, 1938, Superintendent Spanuth supported him in a letter to Superintendent Heinzelmann with two reasons:
1. In 1919, at the time of the Soviet Republic in Hungary, Wölfel had fought against communism with a weapon in his hand: “Therefore he couldn’t for one be equated with those who fought as Jews or half-Jews in the World War and for the party?”
2. The situation of the Fürstenfeld community would justify his remaining. The Church government seemed to have endorsed this assessment. In September 1940 he offered a sum of money in the event that Wölfel could no longer give religious instruction at state schools because of his lineage and that a representation would be necessary.
Wölfel therefore initially remained a pastor in Fürstenfeld until the end of January 1941. On January 31, 1941, he resigned from his post and was assigned to the pastor’s office in Vienna-Schwechat as a “itinerant pastor”, but was not dismissed from service. Until the end of the war he was employed as a reserve hospital priest in Vienna. After the end of the Nazi regime, Josef Wölfel was a pastor in Klosterneuburg from 1947 until his death. At the request of the presbytery, he had continued to care for the community beyond retirement age. He died in 1973 in Klosterneuburg. (Eberhard Röhm – my apologies for inaccuracies in style and translation!)
Prayer and reflection. My heart goes out again to this halachically Jewish, proudly patriotic German nationalist, who tried as hard as possible to remain in pastoral ministry in an Austria that was deeply antisemitic and supportive of the anti-Aryan laws of Nazi Germany. What a quandary! Just to stay alive, yet alone continue to practice in your chosen profession and follow your calling, was hard enough. His political views did not lead him to sympathise with Bonhoeffer, Niemöller and the Confessing Church, or perhaps he new that resistance would be futile, and quickly lead to discovery and death. How might you and I have responded? Would we have had the courage to resist evil? Would we have even believed that was the right thing to do? “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone!” (John 8:7)
* January 13, 1901 in Güns (today Köszeg / Hungary), † September 2, 1973 in Klostererneuburg (Austria); married. with Margarethe, née Jandl; two children. 1919–1920 voluntary military service; Studied philosophy in Budapest: 1925 doctorate in Dr. phil; then studied theology in Vienna and Tübingen: 1930 first theological exam in Vienna; from September 1930 spiritual assistant in Vienna-Floridsdorf, from February 1932 in Vienna-Landstrasse; October 1934 Ordination; 1936–1941 pastor in Fürstenfeld; 1941–1946 “flying pastor” for the parish office in Vienna-Schwechat; 1947-1973 pastor in Klosterneuburg.
Zwischen Kreuz und Hakenkreuz – Evangelische Pfarrgemeinde
Astrid Schweighofer: Religiöse Sucher in der Moderne. Konversionen vom Judentum zum Protestantismus in Wien um 1900, Arbeiten zur Kirchengeschichte, Band 126. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2015, XXIV, 493 S., Hardcover, € 99,95, ISBN 978-3-11-036767-6.