As the problem of anti-Semitism rears its ugly head once more in British politics, I was moved to visit again the story of an amazing man whom I had the privilege of hearing tell his story at Yad Vashem. Jakub Weksler Waszkinel works there in the archives, but as a baby survived the Holocaust in Poland. This is his story, mainly in his own words.
‘I was born in Poland in 1943. I don’t know the exact date, but it was accepted that I celebrated it on the 25th March. However, my teacher seemed to think it should be the 28th February and asked me to speak to my mother and father. My father said that nobody knows – but how could that be? The fact was I didn’t look anything like my parents, which always made me feel uneasy. I had dark curly hair whereas my parent were Slavic in appearance and I would ask my father “why am I different?” His explanation was that a stork had dropped me down the chimney, they had cleaned me up but my hair remained black. Perplexed, I asked “why the chimney?” His reply was that it was winter and the doors and windows were closed.
I don’t remember anything specific about the war, but we lived near the station at Vilna (Hebrew for Vilnius, Lithuania) and the transports left from there for Poland. What I do remember is feeling very scared, full of fear, at the sound of planes – my mother said I was an anxious child and stuttered as a boy. At age five I encountered my first anti-Semitic event; I was returning home when two drunk men passed me and uttered the words ‘Jewish bastard’. They kept looking back and smiling, making fun of it. It panicked me, and when I got home I told my mother and asked her, ‘What is a Jew?’. She asked me who had called me that and I replied the neighbours. I repeated my question, but she just hugged and cried and said, “Remember, good smart people don’t talk that way and drunk people don’t even love their own children”. Unfortunately, this wasn’t an isolated incident, but mother always helped me calm down.
During bible classes I found out all about the Jews, presented as mostly horrible people because they had killed Christ. The bibles had paintings of stereotypical Jews and I began to be afraid of them. Even so I understood deep down that they had not murdered Jesus Christ. After all Jesus was a Jew and I thought this is your Jew – why mine – because he really loves me. Such a difference between school and home, where there was no mention of Jews.
Yet something still bothered me deep inside. My mother and father loved me very much, it was not just words but a sincere love. This love was demonstrated after I went to a party and heard an accordion being played. I was very excited and went home asking if I could have one, thinking it was a toy. However, we didn’t have any money, we were very poor. I whispered my wish and rubbed my father’s hands, calloused from hard work. Unbelievably they sold their cow to buy an accordion for me.
It was a strong, close relationship and I loved going to church and praying with them. At home I played make belief of being a priest and took a collection in matchsticks, before offering a blessing, ‘God bless you’. But my outward appearance still troubled me, I so desperately wanted to look like my father; and I believed that I did up until the age of ten, as they had shaved my head to prevent lice, but now I had hair again. I still pestered my mother for an explanation, and although in everything else she always told me the truth, I was met by silence and tears.
In exasperation I looked in the mirror and declared, “If I am a Jew see what I will do!” However, despite this assertion I didn’t want to be a Jew who had killed Jesus. Furthermore there were no Jews living around us, so I didn’t know what it was meant to be like – I just wanted to be an ordinary Polish child.
I didn’t encounter any problems at Middle school, I learnt the accordion and even bought a new one; I read poetry and forgot about being a priest. If I was asked what I wanted when I grew up I would answer that I wanted to get married and have children. Then in my last Religious Knowledge lesson the teacher priest asked us again and I heard the words coming out of my mouth, “I am going to be a priest”. This rather alarmed me as I despite going to church I felt I was a non-believer. Still, in the evening I told my parents that I was going to become a priest. My father’s reaction was puzzling. As a very religious man (I had seen him every night on his knees, praying) I thought that this would please him. Instead he asked me what I was going to do about all the young ladies and playing the accordion. He thought it was better that I become a doctor, but I reminded him that I didn’t like blood. Then what about an artist, he suggested, which was confusing as he had previously said the artistic life was bad. Basically do anything else rather than go to the seminary. My response was that, “I can go wherever I want. I can’t make promises to the wind.” So I went to the seminary to start my studies.
In October of that year I received a message that my father wanted to see me. I asked could it wait until the Christmas holidays, but no, he wanted to see me immediately. When he came I could tell he was very sad. After lunch we went to the chapel and he fell on his knees and started crying. I had never seen him like this before. When we came out I asked him why? Surely I wasn’t doing anything bad. A few days later I received a telephone call to say that my father had died.
This was a complete shock, and I felt responsible. At the funeral my mother reassured me that I hadn’t killed him, but that I could choose not to go back to the seminary. I did return and spoke to the Rector, “What shall I do?” He said I was in shock and to come back after a month, when I decided to remain there, “I won’t stop and I will be a good priest”.
It takes six years to become a Catholic Priest with a lot of studying the Bible. I had never had a bible at home and in it I saw the beautiful world of Judaism; the prophets were poetic and the New Testament confirmed that the Jews didn’t murder Jesus, symbiotic of my suffering, suffering of victim not perpetrator. When it came to make my vows as a deacon I needed to present my qualifications to become a priest and there were some doubts as to whether I had been baptised. The Jewish fear came back and I recalled the childhood name-calling. Maybe my parents may have known but they didn’t tell me, it was just rumour and gossip. So I had a conditional baptism and my Godmother, who is still alive wrote me a letter and came in 1966 when I was priested
Still the ugliness continued. My first year in the parish was good until someone reminded me of who I really was. The local train driver asked whether I knew what they were saying about me? Are you a Jew?
Then I went away to study at university – John Paul II was my ethics tutor. Nobody talked about the Holocaust in Poland, and parts of the country were still very anti-Semitic. On All Saints Day in 1968 I went to a cemetery where there was a Tomb of Fallen Soldiers. Nobody really went there as it was gloomy and dark. As I light a candle and was praying, I looked up to sky and noticed the dates 1941-1945 on the soldier’s helmet. I went back to the university to find out the history of those dates; the history of Poland during the war. It was the first time that I heard about the extermination of the Jews. It led me to think, was my mother raped? Maybe my mother isn’t my mother?
In 1975 she came to live with me, but she didn’t want to talk about the war, just said it was a bad time, but I needed to know and I gave my mother a book about the Jews. She started to cry and I asked her quite forcibly, “Am I a Jew?” Her response was, “Do I not love you?” I knew she loved me very much but I realised there was something there. It took three uneasy years before she felt able to tell me the truth.
I know the date and time of my second birth, the 23rd February 1978 at 7pm after dinner. She decided the time had come, that I must know. “You had beautiful parents who loved you very much, but they were Jews. I saved you from death. What their names were I don’t know”.
“What does that mean, that I am a Jew?” I asked. We cried a lot.
“You are important,” she said eventually, “Not your name. You had a very smart mother. I went into the Ghetto and spoke with her, but said I couldn’t take you because as a boy you had been circumcised, . Your birth mother’s response was that she knew I was a believer in Jesus, and he was a Jew, and if I saved her Jewish son, when he grows up he will be a priest!”… By then I had been 12 years a priest. She went on that in 1941 over a period of 3-4 days the Russians had murdered almost the entire Jewish population. The only ones that were left were those who were useful and my father had been a cobbler, a good shoemaker, a profession helpful to the Germans, which is why they were still there in 1943.
What was I to do with this information? I wrote to the Pope, John Paul II, the same man who had taught me at university, and asked for prayer. He responded, ‘Dear brother’, such wonderful words. The next fourteen years were very difficult as I began to find out more about my Jewish heritage. Then in 1992 a local nun came to visit Israel and when she looked at my native town immediately identified the names of my parents and was even able to find a photograph of them. I discovered my father’s name and that I had a brother, Samuel, and I apparently have my mother’s eyes.
In July of that year I myself came to Israel. I had been in contact with my father’s brother and his family (who were very religious) and had written to them enclosing a picture of me in my collar. However, when I came down the steps of the plane there was no one in sight. Then I spotted my ‘grandfather’ with his cane. He recognised me because he said I walked like my father. Their first words were, “So you’re a priest, eh!” and wanted me to explain about the persecution of the Jews over the last 2000 years. My response was that I was not 2000 years old! How many times have I been baptised? It doesn’t matter. I asked to go with my uncle to the synagogue, after all Jesus went to the synagogue.
After my visit I wrote again to the Pope, I didn’t want any secrets, but I wanted to keep all my names on my identity cards, which wasn’t normal, but I received a letter with all my names and managed to change everything. l am a Polish citizen, but my nationality is Jewish [In Israel the Jewish status of a person is considered a matter of nationality]. I also asked that my Polish ‘parents’ be honoured as Righteous Among the Nations’ as they didn’t give back a Jewish child, “I wasn’t a suitcase to be handed back”. On the 1st December 1995 a plaque was unveiled with their names, and it turned out that the reason his mother was in the Ghetto was that they were thinking of adopting and had heard about a baby and wanted to save him.
In 2009 I came to live here in Israel on a kibbutz in the Jordan valley. It was a religious kibbutz and at the beginning everyone was afraid that I was a missionary, but we grew to love each other and they didn’t want me to leave a year later when I decided to come to Jerusalem. I lived for a time in a Catholic house but now in a Jewish senior’s home and work here at Yad Vashem.
In 2012 I found my mother’s family and I am now a happy Jew. All I want now is to be a Jew, like Jesus – who wasn’t a priest or a Christian.
Perhaps it’s good to remember that one’s identity is not always found in our outward expression of faith, but internally, in the heart and mind and soul which God knows better than anyone and loves us all just the same.
Our Lord Jesus Christ said:
The first commandment is this:
‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is the only Lord.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
with all your soul, with all your mind,
and with all your strength.’
The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’
There is no other commandment greater than these.
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
Summary of the Law from Common Worship
Jakub’s, or Yaakov as he prefers to be called, life was documented by Ronit Kertsner in the 2011 file ‘Torn’. He discovered his real parents were Yaakov and Batia Weksler and that he had been born in Swieciany, a shtetl near Vilna. He also learned that Batia had been an ardent Zionist and that she and her husband had an older son, Samuel. On April 4, 1943, Yaakov, Batia and three-year-old Samuel were put on a transport to Vilna. From there, Batia and Samuel were sent to Sobibor, and Yaakov to Stutthof. They all perished in the camps.
This is such an extraordinary and moving life story. Thank you for writing about Yaakov at such length. The recent rise of anti-Semitism in Britain is, as you say, deeply disturbing. The left, in particular, has always been riven with Stalinist attitudes. Pip