Torn: Catholic priest learns he’s a Jewish Holocaust survivor

That’s the compelling premise behind a new documentary shown recently in a New York film festival.

Details:

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.

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Comments

  1. So what? Being Catholic has nothing to do with one’s genetics. He grew up Catholic, received the sacraments, presumably believes in Jesus as Lord and Savior. I can see him being proud of his Jewish connection and wanting to somehow understand it, but if he believes in Jesus he’s Christian.

  2. Deacon Greg Kandra says:

    Context and history are significant in this story. I suspect being Catholic and discovering that you were, in fact, born Jewish has a stronger and more emotionally powerful resonance in Poland.

  3. Yes, but does that change one’s belief? The man believed in Jesus so strongly that he became a priest. That’s fairly significant if you ask me. To change one’s mind over circumstantial events seems rather superficial. If I discovered I was adopted and from a Jewish mother, it would not change my Christianity one bit. It may alter my perception of identity but religion would still be the same.

  4. I am so touched by the Jewish roots of our Catholicity I believe I would, in such circumstances, think that having personal and immediate Jewish roots would be a great treasure. And, the Holocaust would loom even larger in my life. But, in spite of all that, I’m with St. Paul. I could not deny Christ, “For to me life is Christ” (1 Phillippians 1:21a).

  5. A very good thought. My wife is jewish, so i can relate. I was thinking that this priest would make a very good candidate for Jews for Jesus.

  6. Hitler claims yet another victim.

    For whatever it’s worth, Jacob’s mother knew that being Jewish meant death, and sought out a Catholic family as being the more desirable alternative. His Catholic parents faced certain death if their adoption were ever discovered. Jacob’s adoption represented a new covenant in the purest and deepest sense of the term:

    Written in blood and establishing family. His mother and adoptive parents formed a family that transcended the limits of either of their faiths.

    He can seek to be laicized, become an Israeli citizen, and even adopt Judaism, but he can never go back. That’s not because of his ontological changes as both deacon and priest, but because his mother propelled him in a different direction. Ultimately, to honor his mother is to honor the decision she made at a moment in history when two families, one Catholic and one Jewish, united in a blood oath to save little Jacob’s life. Not only can’t he return from that; he shouldn’t. It isn’t so much a backward move linearly, but a descent.

  7. Agree Gerard

    One can only pray that Father find peace in his spiritual journey. May Christ – who never stopped being Jewish and I am convinced inhabits and inspires both faiths in way we really do not fully understand – provide him comfort and guidance.

  8. If my arithmetic is correct, Yaacov Weksler would have been an infant when he underwent what was effectively a forced conversion. A forced conversion. Can we please notice this? The fact that it was effected vicariously through his mother does not change this fact.

    If he now wants to return to his Jewish roots, that is perfectly understandable and, in my view, very salutary. For him to remain within the Catholic Church, and particularly in Poland of all places–to allow his gunpoint conversion to stand–would be to hand Hitler a posthumous victory.

    Having said that, I would suggest that the course that Mr. Weksler’s life takes henceforward is nobody’s business but his. Whatever course he chooses, one cannot but wish him well.

  9. Well said Gerald.

    I too have to wonder why, especially as a priest, he fails to see what Gerald so elequontly points out.

    On the other hand, his story if far from over. I suspect he may well come back stronger than ever. Until of if something similar happens to us, I guess it’s pretty easy to make arm chair judgements. That said, if I found out I today I was both adopted and Jewish, I would “think/hope” I would have profound gratitude, even more so of God’s Divine Providence to have put me into a Catholic Family.

    I also suspect there might be more to this story, as it obviously isn’t a decision he made lightly. I hope many pray for him.

  10. It strikes me as entirely natural that Fr. Waszkinel should fee a kinship with his Jewish roots after he learned of his birth and adoption, so it seems to me that the anti-Semitism he experienced in Poland and, most shockingly, in the Polish Church, are the underlying problem here. He did not abandon his priesthood or deny his Christianity when he learned of his background, it was the anti-Semitism of his surroundings which created the crisis.

    I also wonder why he could not be accepted at a monastery in Israel? Was there a good reason, or was their some technicality which could have been waived, but which they were unwilling to waive because of the Jewish aspect.

    In other words, this reads like the story of a man who was driven to his current position by the actions of “good Catholics.” If the “good Catholics” had been good Catholics, he would not have felt so badly torn.

  11. Poor man.

  12. Klaire said, “On the other hand, his story if far from over.”
    That is true. He may come back; I hope he does. Maybe what he is doing right now is something he has to do to make peace with the past. Would it have been so traumatic for him if his adoptive parents had told him the truth early on? Of course we don’t know the answer to that; but I think it’s important not to keep secrets from one’s children. It’s like what William Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

  13. Melody,

    I understand what you are saying about revealing his past to him, but then one must recall that he was being raised in Communist Poland. If there was one group more despised by the communists than the Catholics, it was the Jews. And, though his adoptive parents were heroic, the sad fact is that many Poles were pretty anti-Semitic. Revealing his status during the years if communist oppression might well have endangered him, and the adoptive parents as well.

    We also don’t know what Jacob’s mother asked of the adoptive parents. She may well have wanted him to be maximally protected.

    In reflecting on his living at a kibbutz to get in touch with his faith, I can’t help but think that this is a very different expression of Judaism than what his mother and father lived. It just reinforces that while he may reach back to get some semblance of the texture of what might have been, he can never know, will never know for certain.

    His is the experience of a Passover that is closer to the first than any modern Jew could possibly imagine. That’s the glory, and irony, of Father’s present condition. My prayers are with him.

  14. Nice story. Also saw that Lech Walesa unvieled a statue of Reagan in Poland on Monday saying “there would not be a free Poland without Ronald Reagan.” Walesa made his remarks during the unveiling of a statue in Warsaw of the late American president. Lech said it was “inconceivable that such changes would have come about without Reagan.” Lech who of course was in the front lines of action in Poland would certainly be a good judge of this fact.

  15. pagansister says:

    Both religions believe in a single God, presumably the same God. I can see that the Father would be conflicted. Proud Jewish roots with a mother who saved him by giving him up to a family that wasn’t considered filth by the Germans, and an upbringing that added Jesus into the belief in that God.

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