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Movie tells story of Polish priest born a Jew during Holocaust

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Catholic News Service

If someone were to make a movie about a Polish priest who was born a Jew during the Holocaust, adopted by Polish parents who didn’t tell him until he was in his 30s of his parentage, his pilgrimage to Israel to reclaim his Jewish heritage, and his stubborn insistence to Israeli authorities that he be considered simultaneously both a Jew and a Catholic, “Torn” would be the perfect title.

Ronit Kertsner is on the film festival circuit with her documentary, which examines the life of Father Romauld Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel.

The Weksler surname comes from his Jewish parents, who gave him up for adoption March 25, 1943. “I must have been eight days old, I’m not sure,” he said in a 1993 interview. The Waszkinel surname comes from the Polish couple who adopted him before the rest of the Weksler family perished at the hands of the Nazis.

Father Romauld Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel is the focus of the documentary "Torn." The films tells the story of the Polish priest, who was born a Jew during the Holocaust, adopted by Polish parents who did not tell him until he was in his 30s of his parentage and his pilgrimage to Israel to reclaim his Jewish heritage. (CNS/Sovereign Throne)

Kertsner said she first ran across Father Weksler-Waszkinel in the late 1990s when she was making a documentary called “The Secrets,” about Catholics in Poland who found out they had been born Jewish.

“When I started making ‘Torn,’ I was finding out what had happened to these people” 10 years after “The Secrets” had been released, Kertsner told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview from New York, where “Torn” had been screened at a festival.

“When I got to Warsaw, I got a message: ‘The good news is you don’t have to go to Lublin'” to film the priest, she recalled, since he was bound for Israel the next day to line up living arrangements for a possible move.

Instead, Kertsner’s reaction was “we have to get a car and go immediately” to Lublin to film him before he left the country, she said. In Lublin, Father Weksler-Waszkinel served as the priest for a convent of Ursuline nuns.

“The priest had the most strongest story” in “The Secrets,” Kertsner said. “I mean, being a priest, his religion was his whole life. That’s what he was. What he believed in, who his parents were, this was everything (to him). So this is very, very strong. … He felt it was something bigger than him.”

Kertsner herself was born to Polish Jews, and adopted by French Jews who settled in Israel after World War II but who never told her about her adoption until she stumbled upon the facts as an adult.

She filmed Father Weksler-Waszkinel’s journey at age 67 to Israel, where he lived on a kibbutz. Kertsner said no Catholic monastery in Israel would accept him because he was a Jew, and no kibbutz would allow him to leave for a couple of hours on Sundays to celebrate Mass.

Kertsner said Father Weksler-Waszkinel now works at a Holocaust museum researching documents in his native Polish. His quest for Israeli citizenship has been stymied by Israel’s “right of return” law which states that someone who was born Jewish but practices another religion cannot be granted citizenship. He has, though, been granted permanent residency.

“He believes he has the right (to citizenship). I believe the same,” Kertsner told CNS. “Who are we to judge him? He’s a victim of the Holocaust. He got into this situation not by choice, but by the circumstances of the Holocaust. He is so unique. It’s not like there is going to be thousands of people (under similar circumstances) coming over to Israel. He’s a very unique case, and we should accept him as he is.”

She added, “When I gave him the name of the film, he was completely against it: ‘I don’t feel torn. I feel whole.’ ‘You may feel whole, but everyone else looks at you like you’re torn.’ Then he calls me some time later, and he says to me, ‘Maybe I am a bit torn.'”