The Long Road Home

How Yaacov Weksler-Waszkinel reconciled his Polish upbringing with his Jewish roots


What makes a Jew? This was one of the questions at the heart of Israeli filmmaker Ronit Kerstner's documentary Torn, which screened as part of the 10th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival in partnership with UK Jewish Film last week.

A moving and thought-provoking study of a man struggling for recognition as a Jew, the film follows Romuald-Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel (now known as Yaacov Weksler-Waszkinel) - a Polish Catholic priest who, 12 years after his ordination, discovered that he was the son of Jews killed in the Holocaust - as he tries to settle in Israel under the Law of Return.

The statute doesn't recognise Jews practicing other religions, however, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs rejects his application for citizenship. Instead, he is granted temporary residency on a religious worker's visa. He tries to join Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu to study Hebrew and Judaism, but has a request that initially dumbfounds its leaders: he wants to be able to leave on Sundays to observe Mass at a nearby monastary.

A compromise is found allowing him to worship privately in his room. But one kibbutznik still wants to know: “Who are you, Yaacov? Are you a Jew? Are you a Christian?”

Although the question has haunted him for most of his life, sitting in a small screening room at the Everyman cinema in Hampstead it seems clear that the gentle 69 year old is a man at peace with himself, having reconciled his seemingly irreconcilable Christian and Jewish identities through the love of his adoptive and murdered parents.

“The only reason I cannot say no to my Polish parents is their love for me,” he says. “The only reason that, for the rest of my days, I am going to shout that I am Jewish, is my love for my Jewish parents. The rest is the Holocaust. My only fault is to be born at the wrong time, and to survive.”

Circumstance has made him a Jew who cannot deny Jesus, the Jew he believes plucked him to safety, but he doesn't feel torn. It is the world that wants to tear him apart, he insists, “because people like to have clear and strong divisions . . . I simply want to be both. My life has formed me in this way and I believe I can't be otherwise. Without my Jewish parents I would have no life. Without my Polish parents, my life would have perished.”

The latter were devout Catholics who showered him with love. He had no reason to think he wasn't their offspring, although he did sometimes wonder why he didn't share their Slavic features. So did other people. “I had black curly hair and on the street they called me 'Yid',” he says. “Children would say, 'Who are your parents?' It was a big problem.”

He asked his doting mother, Emilia, what a Jew was because he had never met one (and wouldn't until the anti-Zionist purges in 1968, the same year he found out about the Holocaust), but waited decades before asking her if he was one himself. “I was afraid,” he says candidly. “When I went to church all I heard was bad things about Jews, like Jews murdered Christ. And when I went to my religion lessons, the sister who was teaching us showed us pictures by Bosch with all kinds of frightening types that Hitler, apparently, had used to portray Jews. I didn't want to be somebody like that.”

He would often search for evidence of his father in his face in the mirror. One day he thought he'd spotted something. “I shouted, 'Mum, look, I am similar to Dad, aren't I?'” His mother didn't reply. “Because of that silence I said, 'If I am a Jew, you will see what I am going to do to myself.' When I looked in the mirror, I saw tears in my mother's eyes.”

It was a profound moment that years later, on 23rd February, 1978, when he finally confronted the ailing Emilia about his origins, she said was the reason why she'd kept the truth from him for so long. “She told me, 'What, do you think that we don't love you? How could we tell you if we knew that you could take your life?'” Yaacov understands: “I really believe that if I had been told earlier, today I would be in a psychiatric ward, because it was too strong an experience for me.”

Emilia could only tell him that he was born in the ghetto in Swieciany and that his father was a tailor; she didn't know his biological parents' names. These were revealed in 1992, when Klara Jaroszynska, a Polish nun who had helped Jews during the war, went to Israel and met survivors from Swieciany who knew that the town's only tailor was called Jacob Weksler (he died in the Stutthoff concentration camp). He then discovered that his mother was Batia, a Zionist, and that he had an older brother, Samuel – they both died at or on the transport to Sobibor. When he was shown a photograph of Batia, “I found the first person who I was similar to,” he says tearfully.

There were living relatives too – an uncle and an aunt - who'd escaped through Russia and were living in Israel. They knew nothing about him. When they met, his uncle wanted to know how, as a priest, Yaacov could “cope with carrying the hatred of 2000 years”? “I burst out crying,” he says, “because there is no answer to that. No words can express the hurt that Christianity has caused Jews for 2000 years. But one answer sprang into my head: 'But, darling Uncle, I am not 2000 years old, I am only 49, and I love you. And it's me who has found you, not you who has found me.'”

Returning to Poland, Yaacov became more and more aware of the antisemitism that was still being preached from pulpits by Catholic priests. He felt isolated and lonely, and as his retirement as a philosophy professor at the Catholic University of Lublin approached, he decided to move to Israel.

Today he is a permanent resident and works at Yad Vashem, who've named his Polish parents Righteous Gentiles.

"Yad Vashem is not my place of work it's my home,” he says, “because I am both an exhibit and a researcher. I belong in that time and everything that I find there is not about the fate of some nation or something, it is the fate of me and my parents.”

A shorter version of this story appeared in The Jewish Chronicle, 23rd March, 2012

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