When the Law of Return does not apply to a Holocaust survivor

Yaakov Weksler-Waszkinel, a Jewish-born, former Catholic priest, is denied automatic Israeli citizenship due to syncretic beliefs

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Yaakov Weksler-Waszkinel shows off his new Israeli identity card at his home in Jerusalem. (photo credit: Renee Ghert-Zand/The Times of Israel)
Yaakov Weksler-Waszkinel shows off his new Israeli identity card at his home in Jerusalem. (photo credit: Renee Ghert-Zand/The Times of Israel)

The identity card’s blue plastic cover stands out against the dark brown wood of the neatly organized desk in Romuald Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel’s room in a Jerusalem seniors’ residence.

Weksler-Waszkinel, who prefers to be called Yaakov, leans forward in his chair, picks the card up and hands it over to a visiting reporter one evening in mid-September.

“I just got this today, and I’m pleased, but a little sad,” he says.

His sadness stems from receiving the identity card after going through a five-year naturalization process. Instead of granting him automatic citizenship as a Jew, the Israeli government refused to apply the provisions of the Law of Return to him, despite the fact that he, the son of two Jews, is indisputably Jewish according to halacha, or Jewish law.

Israel’s government, however, was clearly not without reason in denying Weksler-Waszkinel’s application under the Law of Return: Until his arrival in Israel from his native Poland in October 2009, Weksler-Waszkinel was a Catholic priest. And even today, as he lives a Jewish life in Jerusalem, he still believes in Jesus.

“They are applying the Brother Daniel precedent, but it is not fair,” Weksler-Waszkinel says, referring to a 1962 case in which a Carmelite monk, born a Polish Jew named Oswald Rufeisen, was denied automatic Israeli citizenship by the Israeli government.

‘I am not the same as Brother Daniel’

Rufeisen, an active religious Zionist in his youth, had survived the Holocaust by hiding in the forests and in a convent. Later, he converted to Christianity and became a monk. He appealed his immigration case to Israel’s Supreme Court, which upheld the government’s decision, ruling that someone born a Jew, but who converts to or practices or professes another religion should not receive preferential access to Israeli citizenship through the Law of Return.

“I am not the same as Brother Daniel,” Weksler-Waszkinel insists. “I did not seek baptism. I was given to a Catholic family at the age of three months during the Holocaust. They hid me, baptized me and raised me as a Catholic. No one asked me what I wanted.”

Weksler-Waszkinel, 71, does not know much about his birth and first months of life. What he does know he has patched together from what he eventually learned from the relatives in Netanya he met on his first visit to Israel in 1992.

“I don’t know my exact birth date, but someone I met in Israel who knew my family said they remembered my mother Batia as being very pregnant in late 1942, so the assumption is that I was born in early 1943,” he says.

As was documented in the 2011 film “Torn” by Ronit Kertsner, Weksler-Waszkinel only learned at age 35 that he had been born Jewish. By then he was already a priest and a professor of philosophy at the Catholic University of Lublin.

Although Weksler-Waszkinel had not known he was Jewish, others suspected he had not always been a Catholic.

“I remember that when I was a boy, people would sometimes call me a dirty Jew or Jew bastard, and when I told my mother, she just told me that that is what drunk people say and not to listen,” he says.

By speaking with relatives, he discovered that he had been born to Yaakov and Batia Weksler 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.

‘People would sometimes call me a dirty Jew or Jew bastard’

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.

The infant son they left in the care of a local Polish family did not know anything of the specifics of his Jewish family’s fate until he was almost 50 years old.

“My first memory is of my Polish family fleeing to Prussia to get away from the Soviets,” Weksler-Waskinel says.

The family settled in the town of Paslek, and according to an essay by the former priest, his childhood was much like those of his peers. However, he did differ from the others in certain ways.

“I was a child of poor health, and also stuttered. Moreover, I was afraid of everything: geese, roosters, cows and especially mice. When I was playing with other children and a plane appeared in the sky, I fell to the ground at its sight,” he writes.

Photographs of Yaakov Weksler-Waszkinel's two mothers—his Polish Catholic mother Emilia on the left, and his Jewish mother Batia on the right. (photo credit: Renee Ghert-Zand)
Photographs of Yaakov Weksler-Waszkinel’s two mothers — his Polish Catholic mother Emilia on the left, and his Jewish mother Batia on the right. (photo credit: Renee Ghert-Zand/The Times of Israel)

Weksler-Waszkinel considered remaining in Israel after his visit in 1992, but he ultimately decided to return to Poland, because he thought that, as a Jew, he could support his former professor Pope John Paul II’s initiatives to improve Catholic-Jewish relations.

“I thought I could do a lot of good as a Jew in Poland,” he says.

Eventually, the pull of Israel and Jewish life was too strong to resist, and Weksler-Waszkinel gave up the priesthood and his professorship and moved to Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu to study Hebrew, celebrate Jewish holidays for the first time, and learn how to pray as a Jew.

For the last four years he has been living in Jerusalem and working full-time in the archives of Yad Vashem. He prays, but not in Hebrew, a language he has not yet mastered.

The former priest attends a variety of local synagogues, but prefers the Jerusalem Great Synagogue because of its choir. He brings along his Polish-language Jewish prayer book.

The Jewish former-priest keeps a menorah next to a photo of Pope John Paul II on his bookshelf in his Jerusalem home. (photo credit: Renee Ghert-Zand)
The Jewish former-priest keeps a menorah next to a photo of Pope John Paul II on his bookshelf in his Jerusalem home. (photo credit: Renee Ghert-Zand/The Times of Israel)

He often spends Shabbat and Holidays with Polish-speaking friends he has met in his neighborhood.

“I know a lot of people here. Many have reached out to me by phone or email after seeing ‘Torn,’” he says.

While Weksler-Waszkinel does not observe the commandments of tallit (ritual fringe worn by religious adults under shirts) and tefillin (phylacteries), he nevertheless feels deeply Jewish.

“It’s about changing the interior, not the exterior. I do things that come from within,” he explains.

Weksler-Waszkinel is not troubled by the apparent theological dissonance inherent in his being Jewish and also retaining his faith in Jesus.

“Why should I reject my whole life to this point? And how can I get out of Christianity if I never consciously made the decision to enter it?” he asks.

“Besides, Judaism has had many messiah figures. There is a messianic streak in Judaism and in Israel,” he adds.

Despite his disappointment the government’s refusal to grant him citizenship based on his being a Jew, Weksler-Waszkinel has no regrets about immigrating to Israel.

‘Why should I reject my whole life to this point?’

“I came here with my whole heart and love for Israel. Of course I am in the right place,” he says.

But this does not mean that he does resent what he considers to be the Israeli government’s pushing him to the side, its refusal to recognize him for who he is.

“My parents died because they were Jewish, and I am the last remnant. So what have I done wrong not to deserve to be considered Jewish?”

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