My annual Pesach visit to Israel was what it always is: family togetherness with my daughters and their families, as well as the adventure of discovering a land and a people so near and yet so far.
Being Jewish doesn’t make you Israeli and being Israeli doesn’t make you Jewish, but nothing is totally foreign or confusing about either. That is true until you meet a 75-year-old man who moved to Israel and encountered confusion like you wouldn’t believe.
Jacob Weksler is a Holocaust archivist and a work colleague of my daughter Emmanuelle at Yad Vashem. For most of his life, he was Romuald Waszkinel, and for 50 years of his life, he was a Roman Catholic priest in Poland.
Many Holocaust stories never get old because they can’t be forgotten and, in many instances like Weksler’s, the stories evolve as circumstances change.
Weksler never knew the exact date of his birth (he thinks it was late February), but he knows it took place near Vilnius in 1943, at a time when Jewish women didn’t have the freedom to bring Jewish babies into the world. His mother hid through her late pregnancy, and soon after Jacob’s birth, he was wrapped in a blanket and given to a Christian family by the name of Waszkinel.
Growing up, Jacob had no idea of his heritage, but a first inkling occurred when he was five years old and he was randomly berated and taunted one day for being a “dirty Jew.” When he came home and told his mother, he recalled how she was uncomfortable with the conversation and how quickly she changed the subject.
Looking Jewish may have been part of it. He also recalls his parents kept his hair very short so the curls would not show, but he was too young to put all the pieces together.
He says his Polish parents were loving and kind, as was his younger sister. The first big family issue with his father was when Jacob told him he wanted to become a priest. Although they were a church-going family, even in Communist Poland, his father couldn’t understand for the life of him why Jacob didn’t want to be a doctor, get married and have a family.
As a young priest, Weksler noticed once again that whenever the issue of Jews came up, his mother was strikingly ill at ease. He was old enough and wise enough to wonder why, and to ask questions, which were consistently dealt with awkwardly.
In 1978, when he was 35, his mother told him of his roots and of the circumstances that made her his mother and him a Catholic. Of course, his parents never knew his Jewish name: all he was told was the name of the little town near Vilnius where he was handed over in a blanket. He was also told his father was the best tailor in the town and useful to the Nazis, so they kept him alive for a while.
Father Waszkinel went to his birthplace to find answers and, with the knowledge that his father was a tailor, he was able to discover his name and his family heritage. While immediate family members were victims of Nazi genocide, he discovered he had cousins on his mother’s side living in Israel. He was anxious to meet them, and he made sure he did.
Jacob Weksler was still Father Waszkinel when he went to work in Israel as a priest, but because he had become quite open about being born Jewish, church life got complicated and nasty. Pope John Paul II — yes, the Polish pope — had been a teacher of his, and the Jewish-born priest wrote him seeking help and guidance. The pope responded that he would pray for him.
In 2016, after 50 years in the priesthood, Father Waszkinel left the church and decided to stay in Israel as a Jew. After a long immigration ordeal, Israel granted him permanent residency and just recently the right to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
In the Jerusalem coffee shop where we met, it was easy to appreciate the twinkle in his eye when he said his Jewishness was actually saved by the church and its rules against priests marrying.
A Polish wife and children, he explained, would have likely kept him pretty Polish and very Catholic.