The Priest with a Jewish Past and the Future Pope Who Taught Him

Father Romuald-Jacov Weksler-Waszkinel was born in 1943 in Poland to Jewish parents. His parents soon gave him to a Catholic family for safekeeping before they were sent off to a concentration camp.

Father Weksler-Waszkinel was baptized and raised Catholic but endured taunts from his friends who said he looked like a Jew. He was ordained for the Archdiocese of Olsztuin, then studied at the Catholic University of Lublin in Krakow under then-Archbishop Karol Wojtyla. In 1978, at age 35, his very ill mother told him of his true ancestry, a day he calls his second birthday.

Now a professor at the Catholic University of Lublin, he was in the United States recently to tell his story and speak about Catholic-Jewish relations. Register correspondent Thomas Szyszkiewicz spoke with him, with the help of Polish interpreter Jacek Nowakow-ski of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

What did you study under Father Karol Wojtyla, or was he Cardinal Wojtyla at the time?

It was the ethics. I was a student in the department of philosophy [at the Catholic University of Lublin] and Cardinal Wojtyla lectured in ethics.

I had read Love and Responsibility already as a seminarian because it was a required text. Person and Act [or, in its English translation, The Acting Person] I also read as a philosophy student. And right now in my lectures with seminarians, I read this with my students.

How was Cardinal Wojtyla as a teacher?

Of course, I cannot say he was bad. But in reality, he was really very good.

How did the Pope help you when you found out the truth of your identity, since you found out the same year he was elected Pope?

The Pope was the very first and the only person to whom I sent a letter revealing the truth about myself. And I knew that the newly elected Pope was a friend of Jews from the early days and he would be the most trustworthy person to reveal that information. [So I wrote] asking him not to reveal it to anybody else.

When did you decide to make the truth of your identity known to others, and did the Pope have any hand in that decision?

I made my decision when I learned my true name. As long as I didn't know my name, I didn't want to talk about it because I didn't want to be perceived as an average Jew — I had a mother and father and I wanted to be someone, to have a name. So this is when I made my decision.

Only after I went to Israel and I met my uncle, my father's brother, and I touched him and I was recognized by my uncle, I wrote a second letter to the Pope. In that letter, now that I know who I am, I would like to add my real Jewish name in front of my adoptive Polish name, and also add the name of Jacov (Jacob), the name, of my father after my given name, and I'm asking your permission to do this. So I get a letter [from the Pope] that was addressed to Romuold-Jacov Weksler-Waszkinel, and that was the Pope's blessing.

Has the Pope ever consulted you on the question of Christian-Jewish relations?

I know that the Pope knows and loves Jews from his early childhood and that he is a very wise and very knowledgeable person on that subject. He knows much more about Jews than I myself do. I published two books, both of them are dedicated to the Pope and I know that the Pope has read them both.

What were the titles of those books?

The first is The Blessed God of Israel and the second one is Mysterium Ecclesiae Perescrutans.

What are you teaching at Lublin?

I teach ethical anthropology.

And I presume this is much in the line of the Pope's personalist philosophy.

Yes, of course, it is also the per-sonalism of John Paul II, but it is a series of lectures over two semesters. The first semester is the history of the philosophy of the concept of the human, from Plato to Lebinas. The second semester is the basic questions of understanding the human: the problem of the soul, problem of the human body, the problem of human knowledge, the problem of culture, the problem of free will, morality, society, and the very last question is the problem of death. These are only the basics in the second year of philosophy and the student then has another three years and can go deeper into one of these subjects. I give a panoramic view of these subjects; the student is given a map and the student can enter any place on the map.

Does the Pope's personalist philosophy penetrate the philosophy department at the University of Lublin?

Yes, definitely, it has an impact on some part of the philosophy department. At the university, there is an institute of John Paul II. But it is very difficult to say that there is one specific stream of thought that is being taught at Lublin. In fact, there are many different directions.

Turning to your own background, what was your childhood like, growing up in Communist Poland?

When you're a child, you don't really know that you're in a Communist country. Only from the perspective [of time] can you have a comparison. It is as if you were born in prison, you would not know what freedom is.

When you spoke in Chicago, the Tribune quoted you as saying that all your life you've been trying to answer the question, “What does it mean to be a Jew?” Have you ever come to a satisfactory answer?

No. If the Jews are the Chosen People of God, the answer will be when you face God.

What about the question of what it means to be a Christian?

It means that you are engrafted in the honorable olive tree, Israel — and always remember this.

Is there conflict between the two?

Yes, of course there is a conflict. There is a Jewish philosopher … who believes that Christ's faith joins us, Christ believed the same way as the Jews do. But our faith in Christ is what divides us.

John Paul II says that [he] who meets Jesus meets also Judaism. Judaism cannot accept Jesus as the Son of God, and of course for Christianity, Jesus is the Messiah, but also the Son of God, and this is the division.

Thomas Szyszkiewicz writes from Altura, Minnesota.

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