By Harriet P. Gross
This postscript to the High Holidays of 5774 is the same as my prelude to it: a viewing of the Israeli documentary “Torn,” on the evening of Selichot.
The one-word title encapsulates the life of the film’s main character, who is not just “one in a million,” but truly “alone in the world.” Many Jewish children were saved during the Holocaust through adoption by non-Jews, but Romuald Waszkinel (aka Jacob Weksler) is the only one known to have become a Catholic priest.
Here is the incredible irony: In 1943, Jakub’s mother, knowing full well the fate awaiting her Jewish family, asked a neighbor in Lublin, Poland, to take her infant son. And as she did, she spoke some eerily prophetic words: “You can raise him Catholic,” she said. “He may even become a priest.”
And he did. The Wekslers’ son was a strongly spiritual boy who loved the church in which he was raised. At age 17, he entered seminary training and was eventually ordained a Catholic priest. It was not until he was 35-years-old that his adoptive mother, on her deathbed, told him he had actually been born a Jew.
In a discussion that followed the screening of this film, viewers debated a key question: Was it right for this woman to divulge such a life-changing secret to the man she raised, or should she have let it die with her?
“Torn” follows Father Yaakov, as he comes to be known, through his decision to go to Israel and its aftermath. This does not actually happen until he is in his 60s; knowing his birth parents were Jewish makes him acutely aware of the anti-Semitism that has lingered in Poland even after the Holocaust, and he finally commits to learning firsthand the language and the land of his roots.
It is not an easy path. The priest’s guide along the way is Michael Schudrich, Poland’s chief rabbi, who has become a good friend. But Rabbi Schudrich cannot do what Father Yaakov must do alone: decide if he can, and will, take the giant step of returning to the birth-faith he has never known.
One of the most affecting scenes in “Torn” is the priest’s last Mass in Poland, after he has decided to go to Israel. He leads a group of Evangeline nuns in prayer, and when that is done, they come up to him one by one to wish him well on his journey and in his new life.
That life turns out to be quite difficult, for Father Yaakov is unable to give up his belief in Jesus. He is finally accepted by an Orthodox kibbutz where he lives as a double “oddball”: a man much older than those with whom he’s studying, and one who is not really a Jew, since Israel’s Law of Return does not apply to someone who — although born to Judaism — has adopted another faith.
The conclusion of the film offers no conclusion at all, for Father Yaakov is still in a religious no man’s land today. The Israeli government has given him “permanent resident” classification, and in a year or two he will be eligible to apply for the citizenship that comes automatically to newly-arrived Jews. He has moved to Jerusalem for a position in the archives at Yad Vashem, and has given up celebrating Mass. But although he now lives in Israel, he has not (yet?) returned to Judaism.
Jacob Weksler’s mother made her supreme sacrifice when she gave away her child. Romuald Waszkinel’s stepmother — the only mother he ever knew — is enshrined in Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile who saved the life of a Jew: now a grown man, conflicted in his faith(s) and working in that very place.
Should she have made her own sacrifice by withholding the truth of his birth? Or did she need to clear her conscience for the peaceful rest of her Catholic soul?