Romuald Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel, born in 193?
Where is my homeland?
I was born (most likely) on February 28, 1943, in the ghetto in the town of Stare Święciany near Wilno. My first remembered image, as though in a dream, is very clear. In some spacious place, my mother at a window, bent over a pail, is cutting up boiled potatoes with a chopper, feed for the chickens and pigs. I am standing, holding tightly onto her skirt. My feet are touching a large pan in which threads spun from wool are soaking in boiling hot water.
“Up, Mama, up..” “Just a moment, Romcio. Mama will pick you up. Just…” Unfortunately, before I found myself in her arms, I tripped and fell on my bottom into the pan of boiling water. A terrible yell, excruciating pain …and with this, the “film” is interrupted… According to my Polish mother, this incident which I remember, took place when I was beginning to walk. I was a year and two months old.
I remember nothing of the trip transferring us to Poland in 1945. The displaced persons for whom Poland “shifted to the west” were repatriated to the Recovered Territories. In this way, the majority of Polish families from Święciany found themselves in Lidzbark Warmiński.
Piotr and Emilia Waszkinel left the transport in Białystok and set- tled down in a small village, Łosiniec (near Korycin, district of Sokółka). It was from there many years before that as an eighteen-year-old, Emilia Chorąży had left for France in search of work. Now, she was returning to her hometown with a husband and a small son. The latter, black-haired, stuttering, quick to cry, would most willingly sit on his mama’s knees or possibly follow her everywhere like a chick behind a hen, holding onto his mama’s skirt. He was afraid to be alone; he feared being abandoned… He also liked being with his father, but, most often, he was not at home.
Because the family “nest” of the Chorąży family proved to be too cramped for the arrivals from the Wilno area, the Waszkinel family moved, in the summer of 1946, to Pasłęk, near Elbląg. A small town, at that time consisting of about 10,000 inhabitants, became for me a “port” for a longer stay.
Elbląg – formerly Elbing, East Prussia, it was also part of the Recovered Territories.
I was then four or five years old; thus, it was 1947 or 1948, a late summer afternoon. I was returning to my house when two drunken men shouted at me, “Jew, Jew, a Jewish bastard!” When I turned to look at those two drunkards, they burst out laughing. I had no doubt that they were calling me names. I ran away to Mother, frightened, and I tried to explain to her what had happened. I did not understand at all what “Jew” meant.
My questions remained without answers. Mother explained to me only that decent and wise people certainly would not call me such names as those two stupid drunkards had done. Besides, one should not listen to stupid people at all; one should avoid them. It was my first encounter with what could perhaps be called anti-Semitism.
Afterward, many times in Pasłęk, particularly when I was younger (more or less during the period of elementary school, 1949–56), I found myself in a situation similar to that described. I encountered many remarks with a double meaning or malicious allusions to the topic of “Jew boys.”
What caused me the greatest embarrassment were questions of the type, “Whom do you really resemble, your father or your mother?” I was completely unable to deal with such questions, because I resembled neither Father nor Mother. They were auburn haired with typical Slavic faces; I had thick jet black hair and a totally different face. I suffered so much from it internally that it hurt. However, because I was very much loved by my parents, it was precisely their love that was the best “balsam” to soothe the pain.
I did not want to be a Jew; I was fearful of being one! Why? The reasons were varied… Above all, however, I wanted to be the child of those whom I considered my parents, and they were Poles. I wanted to be the same as other children in school, and they were Polish children. Poles lived all around. It was said about some that they were Lithuanians or Ukrainians. Occasionally, one came across German families. There were no Jewish families in the vicinity.
In the lyceum, from 1956 until 1960, the Jewish problem seemed to evaporate. The young people in a lyceum are already a little wiser. Besides, I was a very good student. My parents were proud.
In the matriculation class, sometime in February, in a conversation with the priest who taught religion, I blurted out that when I passed the matriculation I would go to an ecclesiastical seminary.
I became frightened at what I had said, but since I had said it, it seemed to me that I should keep my word. I had to go there; words should not be idly tossed about. I kept repeating it, troubled I was uneasy, and
still that very day, in the evening, I confided to my father this “declaration” that I had made to the priest. Father’s reaction irritated me.
“Well, well, what is this I hear? And what is to be done with all those girls?” he questioned me jokingly, letting me know, at the same time, that he was not taking seriously what I had said. It affected me like a red cloth waved at a bull.
“I may, of course, not be able to bear it and drop out,” I responded to Father. “Perhaps I don’t even have any calling for it at all, but since I told the priest, then I ought to go.”
Father was clearly dissatisfied, both with my explanations and, more so, at the very prospect that I might become a priest. He saw a doctor in me, not a priest, or at worst, even an artist, although previously, he had on many occasions expressed reservations regarding the life-style of artists. My father’s attitude caught me completely by surprise. Religion was not an afterthought in their lives; it shaped them. I was never told, “Go to church,” or “Recite your prayers.” I went there together with them, and I prayed together with them.
…“even an artist” – because I played the accordion, I participated quite actively in school theatrical productions in the lyceum. I usually won school recitation competitions, and on many occasions at home, I broached the notion that perhaps I would become a performer. (Author’s note)
And thus when, when in spite of myself, I expressed the readiness to go where one could assume my parents would have wanted to see me go, I ran into the attitude which I least expected. But precisely this attitude on the part of my father somehow “spurred me on”. I became stubborn. I decided to stick to my position. Mother neither expressed opposition nor acceptance. She cried in the corner. It all seemed very strange, but I persisted in my determination.
In the middle of September 1960, I found myself in Olsztyn, in the Higher Ecclesiastical Seminary. On the twentieth of October of the same year, Father, while leaving the house at about six o’clock in the evening, fell down the stairs. A heart attack knocked him off his feet, and falling down limply, he hit his head on the floor—a sudden death!
After the funeral, I confided to Mother that I probably ought not to return to Olsztyn. “After all, Papa didn’t want it.” “Oh no!” she reacted immediately. “Papa loved you very much. That is not so. If you don’t like it, if you can’t manage, you can leave. It is your life, your future.” She began to cry… and I along with her.
I wanted to ask Mother why Father so decidedly did not want me to go where I had gone. I didn’t have the strength. Everything hurt… Father was barely fifty-two years old. He loved me so much; he was so needed.
Why did God take Father away from me? After a month of indecision, I no longer wanted to leave. Father’s death, his splendid love for me became, in some way, a challenge, a wager, a credit. I told myself that the stakes were too high. Father was afraid that I would not be able to manage. I must be a good priest! I was, of course, at the beginning of the road. I was seventeen years old. In front of me were six long years of theological studies, and I realized that anything could happen.
During the six years of studies, nobody called me a “Jew.” The Jewish problem disappeared, which seemed to me somewhat extraordinary. Thus, if in my boyhood, so many saw in me a “Jew,” then in my teenage years, particularly during my studies, the Jew in me was clearly “on leave.”
During all the years of my stay in the seminary, we sang a song about a chaplain’s calling, and in this piece, there was a verse, “Jesus took my heart and overpowered me with love.” In point of fact, I was then and am still today in love with a Jew, Jesus of Nazareth! Thus, when I realized that I was to become his chosen pupil, a chaplain, with respect to the ever-returning suspicions about my Jewish origin, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I really were a Jew…”
On the nineteeth of June, 1966, I was consecrated as a chaplain in the cathedral basilica of Frombork. I worked for one year in the parish of Kwidzyń, where a few persons managed to see a “Jew” in me. In part, it amused me; in part, it made me happy. After that year, I found myself engaged in studies at the Catholic University of Lublin. In 1970, I completed my studies in the Department of Philosophy, and, in 1971, I began working in the very same department.
In 1975, Mother sold our single family house in Pasłęk, and with this money, as well as partly with mine—after all, I was already working—we bought an apartment in Lublin. After an interval of fifteen years, we were again living together.
In some way, this was a continuation of my Jewish problem, because in Lublin many different “tales” reached me, which, in a certain way, woke me up from a dream. More and more intensely, a question was forcing its way into my consciousness, “And perhaps, I really am a Jew, after all.” Ever more frequently, I nurtured such a question within me, and the possibility of a positive answer no longer frightened me.
Precisely because of that, I call the presence of Mother with me in Lublin a beginning as well as a continuation, because my attitude toward the Jewish question was for her the beginning of something unknown until then. She quickly realized that not only was I no longer afraid of Jews but that I loved them. I loved them for many reasons. Among others, because, through centuries, they were a nation particularly subjected to suffering. From the religious side, all that was and is dearest in Christianity has Jewish roots. The maltreatment of a Jew is a maltreatment of Jesus, His Mother, and all His closest followers, the Apostles.
Thus, in conversations with Mother, quite consciously and purposefully, whenever there was an occasion, I took up the subject of the Holocaust. Mother, and this was very puzzling to me, did not want to discuss it at all. She was silent, or, she would change the subject, probably deliberately. Occasionally, I would read some fragments about Jewish suffering during the last war. Then, quite frequently, tears would appear in her eyes.
Once, seeing out of the corner of my eyes that she was wiping away tears, I interrupted my reading and asked her directly, “Mama, why are you crying? Am I a Jew?” “Is it that I don’t love you?” she replied immediately, crying almost out loud.
It was uncomfortable for me to hear just such an answer, being really a question directed at me. She was a wonderful mother and loved me very much. But this answer-question of hers, given to me many times, was an indication that it was necessary to return to such topics, that something here was still a secret…
In Lublin, she never said to me that I was her birth son, although I tried to provoke such a declaration. I wanted to hear it clearly. I did not hear it. Whenever I could, I steered the conversation towards Łyntupy—Emilia and Piotr Waszkinel lived there before the war and at its beginning—as well as towards Święciany where they came during the war years and lived until the war ended.
Exactly such a conversation took place in the kitchen at dinner on the twenty-third of February, 1978. We were talking about Święciany during the war. At a certain point, I asked directly, “Mama, and the Jews. In Święciany, did you know any Jews?”
She looked at me and fell silent, as if she were struggling internally. “Romek,” she began, after a while, “you know, don’t you, that during the war when the Germans came in 1941…” Her voice trembled; tears appeared in her eyes. I took her hands into mine and kissed them, begging that she should finally tell me the whole truth. And that is when, for the first time in my life, I heard, “You had wonderful parents, and they loved you very much. They were Jews; they were murdered. I was only saving you from death.”
I expected just such an answer, and, to a certain extent, I was waiting for it, but when I finally heard it, my head started spinning… I recovered my senses. I will not attempt to describe what I was going through. I remember that my first question which then burst out was the following, “Mama, why did you hide the truth for so long?!”
“You had a wonderful, wise, and good mother… I was afraid, very afraid. For saving a Jew, even such a tiny infant as you were then, death threatened. As you know, we did not have our own apartment. We were renting a room… I explained this to your mother in the ghetto. She listened, but as if she did not hear. She looked at me, and her sad eyes—you have your mother’s eyes—told me more than any words.”
“HE sees everything,” she kept repeating. “Life is in HIS hands, and one ought to at least save someone who cannot save himself. Please save my child, a baby… You are a believing person, a Christian. You have told me several times that you believe in Jesus. After all, he was a Jew! Please save a Jewish baby in the name of this Jew in whom you believe. When this little child grows up, you will see, he will become a priest and will teach people…”
I heard how my heart was pounding… After all, knowing nothing about it, I had yet accomplished that which, in that tragic moment, my birth mother had said to my Polish mother. The meaning, the weight of a mother’s words! Why did she use just such an argument? One can only speculate… Undoubtedly, she wanted to convince a Christian woman to save the life of a Jewish infant. And thus, she saved my life!!! And she certainly did it effectively.
“I could not refuse your mama,” my Polish mother said, wiping away her tears. “It would have been as if I had renounced my faith. You had a loving, very wise and brave mother. She had the courage to give you birth at such a horrible time, and her words forced me to save you. The rest was in God’s hands…”
I asked about my birth name. I heard a sad reply. “I don’t know, I didn’t ask. Your mama undoubtedly told me, but I did not try to remember. I tell you, I was afraid. Those were dreadful moments. Papa and I were afraid not just of the Germans. We were fearful of everybody—Poles, Lithuanians, Russians, our neighbors, and, in general, of everyone we knew. I don’t know how I would have behaved if someone had denounced us. I don’t know… I am not a hero. I simply did not want to know any name. If somebody had reported us, they could have killed me, but, not lying, I would have repeated, “This is my child, and I love him.”
My splendid Polish mother. She was a hero! She protected me during the war and during peace. She always loved me very much.
About my family home I learned little. Two facts remembered by Mrs. Waszkinel proved to be very valuable. The first one was that my father was a tailor in Święciany. He had a nice large tailoring establishment in the market square. When the Germans came, because he was a valued tailor, they ordered him to work in his own workshop. The other fact was that I had a brother, and my mother called him Muleczek, Szmulek, Samuel.
When the Germans entered, and it was becoming ever more apparent that annihilation awaited the Jews, my brother Samuel, born in 1938 or 1939, was hidden with some Lithuanian family living in Święciany. Nobody expected my coming into the world. When, however, it in fact happened, a series of obstacles presented themselves to my mother, and each one threatened death. First, it was necessary to hide the very fact of her pregnancy from the Germans, as well as from the Szaulis (Lithuanian police), then, to give birth, and then, finally, to hide the infant as long as possible. Although my life was marked with the imprint of death from its very beginning, my parents had maintained the hope that the life of their first-born son was safe.
And then, already after my birth, the people hiding Samuel brought him back to the ghetto. In view of the situation which had arisen, my mother decided to seek care for me. It is well known that Jews paid with whatever they had for the assistance given them. Meanwhile, in order to save me, there was no longer anything valuable left to surrender because the people who had been hiding Samuel, and who had received for it many valuables from my parents, gave nothing back upon returning my brother. In the end, I received as a “dowry” diapers and the small comforter in which I was wrapped, as well as––and today, these are my greatest treasures—a samovar and a hand scale (called a berzmien).
In 1979, I found myself for the first time in Laski, near Warsaw, where I met the nun, Sister Klara Jaroszyńska. During a conversation with her, I quickly became aware that she had been actively engaged in rescuing Jews during the war. She was decorated with the medal, “Just Among the Nations of the World.” I confessed to her the whole truth about myself. I wanted to confide in someone trustworthy, but above all, I expressed the desire that she help me in a search for some “traces” of my family. I asked Sister to remember two bits of information that seemed significant, namely, one, the circumstances relating to my father, and two, the name of my brother.
Long years of waiting began. Ten years passed. Slowly, I was losing hope of finding any traces of my dear ones. Sister Klara’s search via correspondence was producing no results.
Finally, in 1989, Sister traveled to Israel, and there she came across the traces of the Jewish community of Święciany. A meeting was immediately organized for Sister with the remnants of the inhabitants of Święciany who had survived the war and were now living in Tel Aviv and vicinity.
Those two above mentioned pieces of information which Sister possessed turned out to be sufficient for me to regain the knowledge that the war had taken away from me.
That tailor who was ordered by the Germans to work in his own workshop was called Jakub Weksler. His wife was Batia, née Waiskońska (some pronounce it Waiszkuńska). The Wekslers had a small son named Samuel. What is more, they showed to Sister a picture of my birth mother in the book issued to present the story of the Jewish community of Święciany. It is a photo showing members of a Zionist organization from the thirties. My mama is sitting in the middle. She was then the chairperson of this organization.
In 1989 (on the fifteenth of April), my Polish mother passed away in my arms. In the spring of 1992, Sister Klara Jaroszyńska arrived in Lublin bringing with her the lost, it had seemed forever, “trace” of my relatives, as well as the picture of my birth mother. In the meanwhile, it turned out that my birth father’s brother and sister were still alive, living in Natanya. That very year (1992), in July, I traveled to Israel to make personal contact with my own very close relatives—the brother and sister of my father.
I was greeted with tears and a completely unimaginable love. Aunt Rachela (Rosa) Sargowicz, née Weksler (she passed away in November 1992), and Uncle Cwi Weksler, were elderly people, strongly affected by the war. Both knew about the existence of Samuel; my existence was for them a total surprise. Back in 1941, they had escaped into the depths of Russia. Uncle went through the purgatory of Soviet Lagers.
Two surviving girlfriends of my birth mother knew that towards the end of 1942, Batia Weksler was walking around, using their expression, with a “tummy.” However, both ladies had escaped in 1943 to join the partisans, and in the spring of 1943, the Jews of Święciany who still remained alive were deported to Kowno and Wilno. My dearest ones were most likely murdered in the Wilno Ghetto or in Ponary.
I am left only with a charred samovar and a hand scal—silent witnesses of those horrible days and nights. Not “only”! Today, I know that my mother’s eyes are in me, my father’s mouth, and the fears and tears of my brother… I carry within me the love of my parents—Jewish and Polish!
Lublin, December 15, 1994