Imagine that you are a Catholic priest in your 30s whose world is suddenly turned completely upside down at your mother’s deathbed. Such was the case with Father Romuald Waszkinel when he discovered that his real name was Jacob Weksler and that his parents were Jews who had given him up to his Catholic Polish neighbors in order to save him from the Holocaust.
“Torn” is an apt title for a fascinating documentary about his experience, featured in Manhattan’s “The Other Israel Film Festival.” The film explores the dilemma faced by Fr. Weksler-Waszkinel as he tries to navigate the feelings of confusion and anxiety brought on by this identity crisis.
For years, Fr. Waszkinel continues his work as a priest but is angered by anti-Semitic sentiments exhibited by Catholics in Poland, which he compares to “people smoking under a sign that says ‘No Smoking.’” Nearing retirement in his mid-60s, Fr. Waszkinel feels compelled to move to Israel and immerse himself in the Jewish culture and faith. He hopes to live in one of the monasteries in Israel, but none will accept him. Changing tactics, he attempts to enter a kibbutz (Jewish community) and asks to leave every Sunday to celebrate Mass. The kibbutz leaders refuse his request. Distressed, Fr. Waszkinel declares, “I can deny everything, but not Jesus!” He finally agrees to their conditions and moves to Israel to join the kibbutz.
Catholics will no doubt be scratching their heads, thinking that to give up saying Mass is essentially to deny Jesus. I felt torn about this myself until I talked to the director of the film, Ronit Kertsner. She brings empathy to the priest’s dilemma as she, too, discovered in her 30s that her adoptive parents had lied to her about her true identity. Ronit muses, “Suddenly I had no idea who I was, which is ridiculous. Nothing had changed. I was married, I had two daughters, my life was theoretically fine. Somehow I just got completely disconnected from my past. I guess this is what’s called an identity crisis. A psychologist told me that your identity is like a woven tapestry. Sometimes one strand gets torn, and the whole thing falls apart.”
When I asked Ronit why a Jewish audience would be drawn to a film about a Catholic priest who wants to live in Israel, she goes straight to the obvious detail I had overlooked. “It’s not just a Catholic priest who found out he was Jewish. His story is from the Holocaust. The reason he became a priest is that his mother was being sent to her death and the only way she could save him was by giving him over to a Catholic family to keep him alive. His whole confusion, his whole ordeal is because of what happened then.”
“Torn” is very sensitive in the portrayal of Fr. Weksler-Waszkinel’s anguish over his mixed identity. He wants to have it both ways but clearly cannot. I was impressed by the goodwill shown to him by both Catholics and Jews. After he says his last Mass in an Ursuline convent in Poland, the nuns serenade him with a guitar and music, wish him well, and promise to pray for him. You can clearly see the sisters’ love for this priest and their regret at his decision.
When he arrives in Israel, the members of his new Jewish community make him feel welcome and are patient with his attempts at learning their language and customs. Currently, Fr. Weksler-Waszkinel is working at a Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. He still has three years to come to a decision regarding Israeli citizenship. According to Ronit, he has not yet officially left the priesthood.
“Torn” will be shown at The Other Israel Film Festival on November 15 and 16. Details are available at http://www.otherisrael.org/films . Readers wanting to learn more about the Jewish faith might enjoy reading Catholic author Cheryl Dickow’s fascinating book, Our Jewish Roots.