A Priest Embraces His Hidden Jewish Roots

One night last week, as thousands of Montrealers gathered in a west-end synagogue to commemorate the Holocaust, an enigmatic and dark-featured man in a priest’s collar sat quietly in the audience. He looked like one of the many dignitaries in attendance, there to pay homage to the millions who perished. But at one point in the ceremony, a request came from the stage: Would all the Holocaust survivors in the audience please stand up? Amazingly, the priest rose, and started to cry.

Father Romuald-Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel is a living embodiment of an apparent contradiction: He is a Catholic priest and, as he discovered as an adult, also a Jew. “I cried and cried,” he recalled of the emotional gathering last week. “I thought of all the people who were exterminated. Of my mother, my father, my brother, and all my ancestors. I am alone.” Father Weksler-Waszkinel, a professor at Lublin Catholic University in Poland, is in Canada this week to promote Christian-Jewish dialogue at the invitation of the Canadian Jewish Congress. He also came to visit an elderly Canadian woman in Toronto in the hopes of finding clues to his long-hidden past.

But mostly he came to tell his remarkable story of survival, at a time when the world’s gaze turns back to the end of a horrible conflict 60 years ago. Born Jewish, Father Weksler-Waszkinel survived the war by being hidden in a Catholic home. He only learned the startling truth many decades later. He was born in 1943 in the Jewish ghetto of the small town of Swieciany, then part of Poland and now in Lithuania. His parents, Jakub and Batia Weksler, knew their baby risked death at the hands of the Nazis. Desperate, Batia managed to make contact with a Gentile couple, Piotr and Emilia Waszkinel, and begged them to take her infant son.

To accept was to risk death. So Batia Weksler made an appeal that would prove prophetic: “You are a Christian, and Jesus was Jewish,” she told the fearful Emilia. “Save my child, a Jewish child, and in the name of Jesus that you believe in, he will grow up and become a priest.” The Catholic couple sheltered the little boy and raised him as their own. And one day, as if driven by blind destiny, their son announced he would enter the priesthood. He couldn’t understand why his parents weren’t happy. His father scoffed, his mother cried into her handkerchief.

He stuck with it, even while doubts about his identity gnawed at him. As a little boy, town drunks taunted him by calling him a Jewish bastard. He searched in vain for a resemblance to his parents and their Slav features. He himself was afraid of the truth. The church had taught that the Jews killed Jesus: “It’s not possible I was one of the killers,” he thought. It wasn’t until he had already been a priest for 12 years that Father Weksler-Waszkinel confronted his mother, who was ailing. They met for supper one night. “I took her hands, and covered them in kisses. I said, ‘Mother, you must tell me. It’s just one part of the story of your life, but it’s my entire life. It’s my roots.’ ” Sobbing, his mother confided the truth. “You had wonderful parents,” she told the 35-year-old, “and they were killed. I saved your life.”

Stunned, he felt the need to confide in someone, and wrote to another Polish priest. Karol Wojtyla had been Father Weksler-Waszkinel’s professor in Lublin. Now he was Pope John Paul II. The pontiff responded: “My Beloved Brother. I pray so that you can rediscover your roots.” The priest combined the names of his two families. Eventually, he travelled to Israel and met his father’s brother. He was shown a photo of his mother, in whom he finally saw the light of self-recognition. His uncle embraced him as a long lost relative, but also confronted him: How could he choose to embody 2,000 years of hatred toward Jews? “I’m not 2,000 years old,” he replied, “I’m just 49. I can only change the attitudes of others. To really belong to Jesus means to love Jews. You can’t be observant and anti-Semitic at the same time. I believe my destiny is to purify the house I live in.”

While in Israel, he also brought up a name that his father had often mentioned to him: Niusia, a young Jewish girl from his hometown. In another stroke of fate, one of his hosts knew her, and she lived in Toronto. On Friday, Father Weksler-Waszkinel disembarked from a bus in Toronto and an 80-year-old woman recognized him immediately. She had never seen Father Weksler-Waszkinel, but instinctively knew it was him. Niusia Nodel grew up across the street from Father Weksler-Waszkinel’s Jewish family. She also remembers his Catholic parents, and the kind Polish woman who took him in. “She was very brave. Because she was in danger for doing what she did.”

“As a mother, I know what it is to raise a child,” said Mrs. Nodel, who also survived the war in hiding and saw her family wiped out. “I held back tears for his mother, who wasn’t alive to see him grow up.” Now Father Weksler-Waszkinel struggles to reconcile his two faiths. He wears a Star of David overlaid with a cross, which he glued together himself. Since arriving in Montreal, he finds that everywhere he looks, he sees people who resemble him. “When I’m with Jews, I feel I’m with my family. It’s irrational. I live in Poland, where I’m a bit like an orphan.”

Lublin, whose population was one-third Jewish during the war, doesn’t have a single Jewish family left, he says. Mainly, the 62-year-old priest says he is in Canada because he wants to bear witness to history, and his personal tale that he describes as “miraculous.” “I am here as a Catholic priest who is Jewish, and who discovered his roots. And now that I discovered them, I love them.”