Polish Priest Discovers He is a Jewish Holocaust Survivor

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Imagine you are a Catholic priest in your 30s. Suddenly, at your mother’s deathbed, your world is turned completely upside-down. This was Polish Father Romuald Waszkinel experience when he learned that his real name is Yaacov (Jacob) Weksler and that his birth mother was a Jew. His Jewish Mother, Batia, had given him to Polish Catholic neighbors in order to save him from the Nazis and the Holocaust during World War II. His Polish Catholic mother, Emilia, raised him.

Torn is the apt title for a fascinating documentary featured in Manhattan’s The Other Israel Film Festival (http://www.otherisrael.org/films). Torn explores the dilemma faced by Fr. Weksler-Waszkinel, who lives in Lublin, Poland, as he tries to navigate his feelings of confusion and anxiety brought on by this identity crisis.

For years Fr. Waszkinel continues his work as a priest but is upset by anti-Semitic sentiments exhibited by many Catholics in Poland and in the Polish Catholic church. The Catholic Church preaches that anti-Semitism is a sin and Catholics know this, but he experiences anti-Semitism all around him. He compares this to “people smoking under a sign that says ‘No Smoking.’”

Nearing retirement in his mid-60s, Fr. Waszkinel feels compelled to move to Israel and immerse himself in the Jewish culture and faith of his birth mother. He hopes to live in one of the monasteries in Israel, but none will accept him.  Changing tactics, he attempts to enter a kibbutz (a communal farm or settlement in Israel) and asks to leave every Sunday to celebrate Mass. The kibbutz leaders refuse his request. Distressed, Fr. Waszkinel declares, “I can deny everything, but not Jesus!” He finally agrees to their conditions and moves to Israel to join the kibbutz.

Catholics will no doubt scratch their heads, thinking that to give up saying Mass is essentially to deny Jesus. I felt Torn about this myself until I talked to the director of the film, Ronit Kertsner.  She was empathetic to the Fr. Weksler-Waszkinel dilemma, as she too discovered in her 30s that her adoptive parents had not been truthful about her true identity.

Ronit muses, “Suddenly I had no idea who I was, which is ridiculous. Nothing had changed. I was married. I had two daughters and my life was fine, theoretically. Somehow I just got completely disconnected from my past. I guess this is what’s called an identity crisis. A psychologist told me that your identity is like a woven tapestry. Sometimes one strand gets torn, and the whole thing falls apart.”

When I asked Ronit why a Jewish audience would be drawn to a film about a Catholic priest who wants to live in Israel, she went straight to the details I had overlooked.

“It’s not just a Catholic priest who found out he is Jewish. His story is of the Holocaust. Part of why he became a priest was that he was raised as a Catholic as a result of his Jewish mother’s sacrifice. She was being sent to her death and the only way she could save him was to give him to a Catholic family. Father’s whole confusion, his whole ordeal is because of what happened during the Holocaust.

Torn is a very sensitive portrayal of Fr. Weksler-Waszkinel’s anguish at his mixed identity. He wants to have it both ways but clearly he cannot. I was impressed by the goodwill shown to him by both Catholics and Jews. After he says his last Mass in an Ursuline convent in Poland, the nuns serenade him with a guitar and music, wish him well and promise to pray for him. You can clearly see the sisters’ love for this priest and their regret at his decision.

When he arrives in Israel, the members of his new Jewish community make him feel welcome and are patient with his attempts at learning their language and customs.

Currently, Fr. Weksler-Waszkinel is working at a Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. He still has three years to come to a decision regarding Israeli citizenship. According to Ronit he has not yet officially left the priesthood.

Torn was shown at the Other Israeli Film Festival on November 15th and 16th. Details are available at http://www.otherisrael.org/films. Readers wanting to learn more about the Jewish faith might enjoy reading Catholic author Cheryl Dickow’s fascinating book, Our Jewish Roots: A Catholic Woman’s Guide to Fulfillment Today by Connecting with her Past.

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  • goral

    “He who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is not worthy of the Kingdom”

    • A son of Israel should never have been made a plow-boy for a foreign religion. He will rejoin The Chosen People at the head of the line. Thank G-D.

      • kimc

        God does not play favorites — He loves all his children.

  • Kathleen Woodman

    I can’t help but think of a lovely Catholic priest with Jewish roots, Fr. Arthur Klyber, now with the Lord. In the past, he used to send me hand-written postcards. He loved being a Catholic, yet was profoundly appreciative of his Jewish heritage. He wrote a number of books, and founded The Remnant of Israel, which now has a website here: http://remnantofisrael.net/ Fr. Klyber, please pray for Fr. Waszkinel.

  • This is nothing new, many children that was saved were never told of their Jewish roots,and too many from Poland!

  • Mary Lou Doron

    This whole article is such a reflection of the racism of the people groups mentioned…….Catholics, Protestants and even Jews!!! Who says you can’t be Jewish and believe in Jesus?? Jesus identifies as a Jew. Have none of you read Revelation 5:5 ?? And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behoned, the LION of the tribe of Judah, the ROOT OF DAVID, hath prevailed to open the book,a nd to loose the seven seals thereof.” Thank God for the love of Messiah in Yeshua……His Son, and that He loves all of our troubled people groups. We are a miserable lot………may Father Weksler Waszkinel find the people of God in Israel who will celebrate His faith in Yeshua and Messiah. And all the racist Catholics, other “Christian denominations” and Jews be left in their own little racist hole that they can crawl back into.

    • Martin

      Jews by definition don’t believe in Jesus as a messiah because he never fulfilled the very things that the Torah requires of a messiah. The Talmud speaks about Jesus but not as a messiah, but rather as a person living at the time. For a Jew to believe in Jesus as a messiah is not in keeping with Jewish tradition and the Torah, which Jews still keep today as a separate religion 2000 years after Jesus. Nothing has changed. It is not racist to maintain a religion that came before and exists after many foundings of other religions.

      • Mary Lou Doron

        we can agree to disagree…………I know many who are Jewish and do believe that Yeshua is the Messiah according to reading the Torah….the first 5 books, the Psalms and the Prophets. I do NOT accept that you have the right to define who is a Jew, Sir…….you nor the man made traditions or the interpretations of man.

        • Linda Olmert

          They can not be Jewish and believe in Jesus!

          • Mary Lou Doron

            I DO NOT ACCEPT that you have the right to define who is a Jew, or to speak for any or all Jews other than yourself. It is an opinion and a belief, and its obvious we do not agree on this.

    • Linda Olmert

      YOU CAN NOT BE JEWISH AND BELIEVE IN JESUS. PERIOD