A Polish-Jewish Priest

Henryk Grynberg


It’s hard to be a Jew, but it’s not easy to be a Catholic priest either. Yet the most difficult is to be both at once. Especially if one is an orphan from the Holocaust in a land soaked with blood and is forced to talk with secret police. And with antisemites—some of whom wear clerical collars—while being rejected by both Catholic co-religionists as well as by Jewish tribesmen. I do not know a more extreme orphanhood.

Dariusz Rosiak’s book Człowiek o twardym karku. Historia księdza Romualda Jakuba Wekslera-Waszkinela (A Man with a Stiff Neck: the Story of Priest Romuald Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel, Wydawnictwo Czarne 2013) consists of conversations with the man, who insists on being both a Catholic priest and a Jew, and with his close and distant friends, who often contradict him and each other. The result is a very multi-sided portrait.

The boy was born on 28 February 1943 in the Święciany ghetto where—after most of its inhabitants had been killed—a small labour camp remained. Therefore he was not circumcised, which he would have been had he been born a little earlier, like my younger brother, and would have perished like him. At baptism, his adopted parents changed his date of birth to 25 March. Not because—as the author assumes—‘25 March is the holiday of Annunciation and deeply religious Emilia probably tried to shelter the infant under that date’, but simply because by 25 March the ghetto had been finished off and nobody could say that the infant was brought from there. I knew about Święciany and the thousands of Jews shot at the nearby military firing range from the narrator of my short-story ‘Elgena’ (see Drohobycz, Drohobycz, Penguin Books 2001), and I knew they were shot by Lithuanians, but the details in Rosiak’s book are much more horrific and it transpires from them that most Jews in Lithuania were murdered by their Lithuanian neighbours.

Weksler-Waszkinel did not want to be a Jew, like Jean-Marie Lustiger and many others who succeeded in becoming ‘Aryans’. ‘For if I am a Jew, you’ll see what I’ll do to myself!’—he warned his adopted parents. I, too, took in the Christian teaching, instinctively seeking shelter in the religion that was saving my life. And perhaps I, too, would have become a priest (though circumcised like Lustiger) if I had not had my Jewish mother and had not found myself among Jews after the liberation. Lustiger was not as defensive as Weksler-Waszkinel and did not complain about being called ‘little Jew’ or ‘Jewish priest.’ Perhaps French Catholics were more discreet, or maybe he did not want to know. Cardinal Lustiger insisted that the Church, though opposed to Judaism, did not preach the racist antisemitism which is a product of the nineteenth century. He reiterated this during his public appearance at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, when I asked him—anonymously on a slip of paper—whether the Church’s teaching of contempt for the Jews had contributed to the Holocaust.

He was wrong. James Carroll, who is Catholic and an expert, writes that ‘for centuries the Roman Catholic Church conditioned the European population to view the Jews as inferiors’. When in the early fifteenth century, after decades of persecution, nearly one half of the Jews of the Iberian peninsula had become Christian and as the converts prospered, intermarried and made careers in the Church hierarchy, the traditional hostility toward the Jews turned against the ‘New Christians’, initially with accusations that they are insincere Christians and ending with statements that ‘the pure blood of the Castilian Old Christians was being defiled by that of the Jewish race’(emphasis mine). In 1449, the City Council of Toledo decided ‘that no converso of Jewish descent may have or hold any office or benefice in the said city of Toledo’. Two years later, this racial decree was approved by the king and Christians of Jewish descent became an object of more suspicion and hostility than even the avowed Jews (see James Carroll Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, Houghton Mifflin 2002, pp. 321, 342, 326-47). For me, this decree is a precursor of the 1935 Nuremberg racial laws.  

In Dariusz Rosiak’s book, Father Weksler-Waszkinel cites a contemporary Polish version of this age-old suspicion: ‘A baptized Jew a Christian?—Perhaps. But a Jew—for sure’ (p. 115). They double checked whether he was truly baptized; by a little dirty trick, they destroyed his career as an international scholar; without his knowledge, registered him as an informant of the secret police; brought him home a bottle of cognac in order to be able to claim that he had accepted a payment. ‘And why did they suddenly reveal my file and not someone else’s?’—he asks. I asked the same rhetorical question, when my file was ‘found,’ although it was not listed (on the so-called ‘Wildstein list’). At the Catholic University in Lublin, he had 600 students, but not a desk for himself. Likewise I, at the University of Warsaw, held classes in a cellar storage room with my students sitting on packages. I had been brought over all the way from America thanks to the ‘Batory Foundation’ and its deep Jewish pocket of George Soros, but no room with a window could be found for my class. This is what happens when a ‘little Jew’ wants to be a Catholic priest or a Polish writer. When Father Weksler-Waszkinel complains about antisemitism, they say—as about me—that he is oversensitive. And when he protests, they say--as about me--that he is ‘becoming too radical’. Especially, when he states—as I do—that ‘Christianity is responsible for the Shoah’ (p. 118), which by now should be obvious. One more similarity: when telling his story, he cries (p. 126)—like every child of the Holocaust that I know.

One of the interlocutors in the book, Tomasz Pietrasiewicz, the well-known rescuer of Jewish memory in Lublin, quotes from a slip of paper found in a child’s shoe at Majdanek:

Była sobie raz Elżunia
umierała sama
bo jej tatuś na Majdanku
w Oświęcimiu mama

There was a girl Elżunia
she died alone
for her Daddy’s in Majdanek
and Mommy in Auschwitz

I do not know of a more horrifying poem.