October 10, 1999

For a Priest and for Poland, a Tangled Identity

LUBLIN, Poland -- Past the ditches where thousands were executed by the Nazis, the crematory described as having "a daily yield of about 1,000 bodies," the gas chamber being visited by a group of Israeli schoolchildren, the priest walks in silence. He is a figure of medium height, dark-haired, swarthy. The Israeli children, some wrapped in the national flag, watch the priest closely. Some look defiant, even angry. Others seem intrigued, as if this Roman Catholic churchman was somehow familiar.

The Polish priest is not quite at ease, here in the former Nazi concentration camp of Majdanek, surrounded by Israelis. It is tempting to speak. But his story is complicated, and perhaps they would not believe him. "Seeing these young Israelis," he said at last, "I would like to go up to them and say, 'I suffer in the same way that you are suffering.' "

Piotr Janowski/Agencja Gazeta, for The New York Times
Romuald-Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel at the Nazis' Majdanek camp, where his mother, a Jew, may have died.

His name is Romuald-Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel. He is a priest and a teacher at Lublin's Catholic University. He is also -- as he discovered late in life -- a Jew. He now believes that his mother, whom he never knew, was murdered at Majdanek in 1943. He calls the ashes near the crematory "the tomb of my mother."

It took decades to reach this point, years of intermittent doubt and confrontation. Like many born to central Europe's doomed generations, Father Weksler-Waszkinel was caught in the long, unyielding vise of two dictatorships: Nazism and Communism. He was left with fragments and lies. Now, a decade after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the priest is satisfied that he has pieced the fragments into a semblance of the truth. His life -- like the lost Jewish presence in many Polish towns -- has crept out from the shadows of Communism.

"Communism hid many things," said Henryk Lewandowski, a member of Children of the Holocaust, a group founded in Warsaw in 1990 after Communist rule had ended and the anti-Semitism that it sometimes promoted had eased. "We know of dozens of people who have discovered in recent years they were really Jews."

But the priest's position is scarcely comfortable. Jews are all but gone from Poland, three million of them murdered by the Nazis during World War II. But three million Catholic Poles were also killed. This terrible equation has helped spawn seemingly unresolvable issues: of competitive victimhood, of the degree of Polish complicity in the Nazis' killing, of whether Poland's true identity is that of a Catholic or a multi-ethnic state.

So Father Weksler-Waszkinel sometimes finds himself trying to bridge the unbridgeable. "We are now a free country, and we have to clear out all the garbage," he said. "Too many people still believe a reference to a Jewish stereotype as an enemy of Poland pays politically. Too few find any place for Polish war guilt."

What seems clear is that the priest's life amounts to a modern Polish parable, one that speaks of the mottled truths of Poland, truths that belie the polarizing slogans. He was the son of good Polish Catholics. Their name was Waszkinel. His father, Piotr, was a metalworker; his mother, Emilia, doted on him. These were the long unquestioned facts of his upbringing.

The family lived, after the war, in Paslek, a town in eastern Poland. True, a couple of drunks did yell "Jewish orphan" at him once. True, he would search in the mirror sometimes for some resemblance to his parents. But these were mere ripples on a generally untroubled sea. "Once I asked my Polish mother, 'What is a Jew?' " Father Weksler-Waszkinel said. "She replied: 'Good and wise people will not call you that. And there is no need for you to listen to bad people.' "

Piotr Janowski/Agencja Gazeta, for The New York Times
With Janina Waszkinel, a sister from the only family he knew, the Rev. Romuald-Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel visited the grave of their mother, Emilia Waszkinel, in Lublin. His birth mother begged the family to save him.

The boy liked parties, girls, the accordion; so when, at age 17, he told Piotr and Emilia of his desire to become a priest, they were incredulous. His Polish father implored him to change his mind. At the seminary, the first weeks were a time of doubt. Piotr came to visit him, took him into the chapel, and wept profusely, in a way Father Weksler-Waszkinel had never seen. A few weeks later, Piotr was dead from a heart attack.

The future priest's faith wavered; he felt guilt and intense grief at the death of the man he had always known as his father. But then a redoubled conviction took hold: "If my father was afraid I would be a bad priest, it was up to me to prove I could be a good one. My decision became irrevocable." But other difficulties arose. When, in 1966, Father Weksler-Waszkinel was about to be ordained, the rector told him there were serious suspicions that he had not been baptized. He was outraged, calling the questioning "an insult to my parents," and in the end, the objections were withdrawn. "I was increasingly torn," the priest said. "The church always used to teach that the Jews murdered Jesus. I did not want to be one of the murderers. It was terrible to think I could be a Jew."

But as he read more, and came to see these teachings as a perversion, the fears ebbed. He told Emilia -- the woman he now calls "my Polish mother" -- that he sensed a secret. He noted that when he read to her about the Jews -- Emilia was illiterate -- she often had tears in her eyes. "Why are you crying? Am I a Jew?" the priest asked her in 1968, shortly after he moved to Lublin and began studying at the Catholic University. "Don't I love you enough?" Emilia replied.

Though not really an answer, this said enough. And so Father Weksler-Waszkinel understood without knowing. As he relates this, he has tears in his eyes, still shaken, it seems, by the long deception that was also his salvation.

Finally, in 1978, when Emilia was briefly hospitalized because of what was suspected to be cancer, the priest confronted her. "I kissed her hands," he said. "I told her that the time had come for her to tell me." Emilia, at last, did not hesitate. She told the priest that his true parents had been wonderful people who loved him. She told him they had been Jews and they had been murdered. She said she had only wanted to save him from a similar death. Part of the story then emerged. He had been born in 1943 -- the exact date is unknown -- to a Jewish couple in the town of Stare Swieciany, then Polish, but now known as Svencionys in Lithuania. He had an older brother. His father was a well-known tailor. His mother, trapped in the ghetto, made contact with Emilia and begged her to take the infant and save him.

Emilia hesitated. But then the priest's Jewish mother said something decisive and eerily prescient that his Polish mother would never forget: "You are a devout Catholic. You believe in Jesus, who was a Jew. So try to save this Jewish baby for the Jew in whom you believe. And one day he will grow up to be a priest."

Hearing this, Father Weksler-Waszkinel was tremulous, for he had fulfilled the prophecy of his mother, a woman he had never known. "You must love your mother for she was very wise," Emilia told him. "Those words she spoke were the words that saved your life because they convinced us to take you in."

But what were his true parents' names? How were they killed? What of his older brother? Emila said she knew nothing. She had deliberately forgotten the names because she was afraid that, under torture, she might reveal them.

The priest decided to tell nobody -- except Pope John Paul II. An enormously supportive letter came back from the recently elected Polish pontiff, addressed to "My Beloved Brother." It said the priest's pain was part of the pain of the cross, a sign of love. It urged him to persevere. But knowing he was a Jew, did Father Weksler-Waszkinel consider abandoning the priesthood? "No, I never had a doubt," he said. "I knew that Jesus saved me. He found me in the ghetto. He was my most wonderful Jew."

The remaining details of his family came out many years later, through the help of a nun named Sister Klara Jaroszynksa. The priest had heard her confession and urged her to be afraid of nothing for he had "been saved at five minutes to midnight and nothing can happen to somebody who has God." The nun, it turned out, had saved many Jews during the war, and hearing the reference to salvation at "five minutes to midnight," she understood. She confronted him a day later and said simply, "You are a Jew."

Letters followed to people the nun knew in Israel. But it was only in 1992, three years after the fall of Communism, that she was able to travel there and organize a meeting of survivors from Stare Swieciany. When a tailor was mentioned, survivors immediately recognized him as Jakub Weksler, who had been known to everyone as "Jankel." His wife -- the priest's mother -- was called Batia.

Father Weksler-Waszkinel immediately traveled to Israel. "All my life," he said with a laugh, "I had been looking for people who looked like me, and suddenly everybody did." At the airport, he was met by Svi Weksler, his father's brother, who had lost his wife and two daughters in World War II but escaped to Russia and survived Soviet camps.

It was an overwhelming reunion. The priest learned how his father had almost certainly been shot in 1943 when the ghetto was liquidated, and his mother and older brother, Samuel, taken to Vilnius. From there, they were probably transported to Majdanek in the fall of 1943, where they were killed by the Nazis. Samuel was 4 years old.

"My uncle, who died recently, could not understand that I remained a priest," Father Weksler-Waszkinel said. "It angered him. He told me I had made myself the representative of 2,000 years of hatred toward Jews." The priest paused, before adding: "But I know that while there are people calling themselves Christians capable of putting a mother and a child in a gas chamber, there is also a Polish Catholic woman who could risk her life to save me."

From inside his shirt, the priest abruptly drew out an emblem on a chain that has become the symbol of his life: a Star of David with a cross in the middle of it. "I am the Star of David with the cross inserted," he said. "That is my life as I see it. The cross is love. Without love, it is the Roman gallows. Jesus is not responsible for the wrongs perpetrated in his name, and I would like to resemble him, if only a little."

The Pope has embraced this extraordinary identity. When the priest wrote a second letter after finding out the story about his true parents, the Pope's reply came backed addressed to "Romuald-Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel." A long name for a double life.

In his small Lublin apartment, the priest has a photograph of his Jewish mother -- given to him in Israel -- next to one of his Polish mother, who died in 1989. Beside a crucifix is a prayer in Hebrew. His predicament makes him laugh. "You know, I can be a Jew in Poland, but as a priest, I cannot be a Jew in Israel," he said. But beneath the mirth, pain lingers. He wonders still about a brother of his mother who left for America early in the century. He worries because he recently found a pamphlet called "The Myth of the Holocaust" at a Lublin newsstand.

"It is good to see all the Israeli students at Majdanek," he said. "But I wish they went around in the company of Polish kids. In Israel, wrong things are said about Poland. And here, the stupidities about Jews persist. I am in the middle, and I know that what is needed is contact, understanding and love."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company