The interview with pr. Romuald Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel
[Karolina Dzięciołowska] When and where were Emilia and Piotr Waszkinel born?
[Fr. Romuald Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel] My mom was born on April 4th, 1909, in the village of Łosiniec, near Korycin, in the Sokółka poviat, in the Białystok voivodeship. Dad was born in 1907 – I don’t know the exact date. I believe it was March. He was born in the village of Wejszyszki, it’s near the town of Łyntupy, in the Polesia Voblast, currently in Belarus. Between the wars father left the village, he was twenty, so it was around 1927, and he went to France.
[K.D.] I learned that he served in the cavalry. Was that before he left?
[R.J.W.-W.] I think he served in the cavalry when he came back from France. (...) He was in the cavalry in Pabrade. He showed me the stables where the horses had been, and later, after 1956, people were living there. (...) He was very proud of his service in the cavalry. They came back in 1933 or maybe 1931 to the Vilnius area. They were living in Łyntupy, near Wejszyszki. And he was late for the 1939 draft. They did not mobilize him.
My mom was from the village of Łosiniec, near Korycin. She was an orphan. She was six or seven when her mother died. Her name was Zofia Burzyńska, it was her maiden name.
[K.D.] She was a half orphan?
[R.J.W.-W.] Yes. Her dad, Feliks Chorąży, married again. All the children of his first wife died of tuberculosis. My mom was the only child to survive. Her mother died of tuberculosis, too. Only Emilia Chorąży was left. Feliks Chorąży married another woman, also a Zofia Burzyńska, but from a different Burzyński family. And that [second] family [of his] had some more children. My mom raised them. She really wanted to go, she longed to travel abroad. She taught herself to read and write in order to sign the travel application. She left when she was eighteen or nineteen. They met in France. Dad was working in the mines, somewhere around Lille, in the north of France. Mom was very afraid for dad, because of his job in the mine. So later they worked mostly on farms, in farming. They got married in Amiens.
[K.D.] So they were living in France for some five years?
[R.J.W.-W.] They came back between 1931 and 1933, maybe 1934. I don’t remember the exact dates. They came and settled in Łyntupy. I think they even bought a house there. With the money they earned in France. They tried their hand in trading. And there was the war. The war.
[K.D.] So you don’t really know what they were doing before the war?
[R.J.W.-W.] I know they bought a house and tried to live off of what they made from trading. My parents were not educated. My Polish father completed three years of primary school before the war. He was a car mechanic, a handyman. A locksmith – in this photo he’s working with a milling machine. After the war he was a driver. (…) The war broke out, father wasn’t drafted; first came the Russians. He was sent somewhere to tractor driver classes, they wanted to prepare him to work in a kolkhoz.
[K.D.] They were living in Łyntupy the entire time?
[R.J.W.-W.] The entire time. When the Germans came in 1941, they were in Łyntupy. Father was denounced – he was making moonshine during the war. You had to make a living. It was the simplest way, making booze from potatoes. A German whose car father was fixing came up to him and warned him about the denunciation. He knew father was an honest man, he came up to him in the street and said: ‘There’s a denunciation on you, they said you’re making booze, get out of town or they’ll arrest you.’ Father says: ‘Where am I going to run to?’ And he said: ‘Anywhere. No one is going to look for you. This is war, you’re no political matter, it’s just an ordinary crime, there’s plenty of that around, so nobody’s going to look for you and they won’t find you; it’s best you’d just be gone.’ And my parents moved to Święciany. This was around 1942. They ran from Łyntupy to Święciany. And these are neighboring towns. These days they are separated by the Lithuania-Belarus border (Łyntupy belong to Belarus, and Święcany are in Lithuania).
[K.D.] They lived there in a rented room?
[R.J.W.-W.] They rented an apartment from a Mr. and Mrs. Grodzki. The Grodzkis.
[K.D.] They were strangers?
[R.J.W.-W.] Yes. The two towns were not far away. They were in Święciany in 1942. At the time the ghetto was already there. Did my parents have any contact with Jews? I don’t know. (...) I don’t know how the Waszkinels contacted the Wekslers. I suppose it was through the workshop of my [Jewish] father. He was a renowned tailor before the war. When I met Jews in Tel Aviv after the war, one of the women, Lila Holzman, said: ‘Do you think just any Jew could order a suit at your father’s? Ho, ho, ho! He’d have to have money!’ It was a very good, exclusive store; and that’s [related to] why in 1941, when the Germans came, they left the Jews who were needed in towns like Święciany. Father was left alone, so were house painters, locksmiths, some houses. Naturally, father did not stay at the workshop. He built a beautiful store before the war... The Germans placed several Jewish families [there] - I know, I was in Święciany when we were making the movie “Wpisany w Gwiazdę Dawida – Krzyż”? (Inscribed in the Star of David – the Cross), in the 1990s, there’s still one little house standing, in front of the church. And those families were placed in these few houses by the church. My mom was in the ghetto, but I’m positive their contact was through the shop. She was the type to spontaneously seek out people who needed help, a type of person absolutely oriented to helping others.
[K.D.] So you think that your mom, your Polish mom, learned that someone needed help, that there was a baby, through the shop whose customer she might have been?
[R.J.W.-W.] Perhaps. Professor pr. Zdzisław Chlewiński, who comes from Święciany, used to live in Lublin, and he told me that he probably visited my father’s store. He was at a Jewish tailor’s; it might have been that my mom or dad heard something and mom took an interest. (...) and my birth mother said the words I’m quoting, words that are my testament: ‘You’re a Christian, you said it several times, you believe in Jesus, and he was Jewish; please save my Jewish baby in the name of that Jew you believe in. When he grows up he will be a priest, he will teach people.’ I had no idea about it. This is very important for me. The conversation with my mother – who turned out to be my second, Polish, mother – took place on February 23rd, 1978. I consider this date to be a date of my birth – my second birth, because I know nothing of he date of my biological birth.
[K.D.] So the date which [figures in publications], February 28th, is a supposition?
[R.J.W.-W.] Yes, the date is just a probability. The only certificate I’ve seen had a different date of my birth. As a child I learned to read on the certificate written for Romualdes Waszkinielis, born March 25th, 1943. March 25th is the Catholic holiday of the Annunciation. (…) Anyway, those were the words of my birth mother and as it turns out, they meant my Polish, Christian mother had no choice. Years later she told me: ‘I could not refuse to take you. It would be like renouncing my faith.’ It was probably not my Polish mother who took me out of the ghetto, but my Jewish mother. It was Friday night – the Sabbath. And my grandmother, who was there, said it was Sabbath and it was forbidden. And my birth mother replied that any day was good to save a life.
[K.D.] Your mom was a Zionist, wasn’t she?
[R.J.W.-W.] She was a Zionist, an atheist. She had an education. I’m sure she graduated from high school. I suspect that, with her education going for her, she knew what would be the right argument to test a Christian. You believe? Then take it. Do something for your faith. And it was an argument my Polish mom could never counter. ‘I could not refuse to take you.’ (...) My birth mother carried me out of the ghetto and at the agreed time she left me on the porch of the house where my Polish parents lived. Mom took me from the porch. (...) I have this photo from Święciany, a photo where I’m already sitting, it was made by a photographer in Święciany.
[K.D.] Wartime photograph?
[R.J.W.-W.] Yes. When the friends of my [Jewish] mom saw the photo in Israel, they said: ‘She was crazy! She sentenced you to death, she sentenced herself! You’re clearly Jewish in this photograph!’ My mom did not see a Jew; all she saw was the child she loved. (...) My [Jewish] parents, probably between April 7th and 10th, 1943, were taken to the Vilnius ghetto. The remainders of Jews were taken from Święciany to Vilnius between 7th and 10th of April. In Israel, in Tel Aviv, I met Mr. Aleksander Bogen, a graduate of the Vilnius Academy of Art. When his late wife Rachela saw me, she burst into tears: ‘God, you look so much like your mother!’ My parents were allocated to their apartment in the ghetto. (…) I learned from Mr Bogen that my father was working with the Jewish underground; I mean Jakub Weksler, my Jewish father.
[K.D.] Was he working with them from Vlinius?
[R.J.W.-W.] He was working with them back in Święciany. And since Mr Bogen was also in touch with the Jewish partisans, that’s why he intercepted father on the way and got them settled in their apartment in the Vilnius ghetto. (...) father was taken to Riga in July 1943. (...) there is a Jakub Weksler in Stutthof. Jakub Weksler from Vilnius. In 1945 he was alive in Stutthof. He probably died in a death march, or was shot and is resting in the Baltic Sea (…) As for mom, what I know is also only probable; I learned at the Jewish Museum in Vilnius that the Germans held women and children in front of the missionary church in Vilnius. That’s where they gathered all of them before transporting them (…) And so my mom was probably taken from Vilnius to Sobibor. (…) There is a Memorial Alley in Sobibor and I placed a stone there with the names of my mother and brother written on it.
But what was going on with me at the time; in 1945 or 1946, my Polish parents took the first transport from Święciany to Poland. (...) We wound up in Łosiniec (my mom’s home village). (…) Several months later, maybe a year later, we went to Pasłęk. I’m certain we spent the 1947Christmas in Pasłęk in our house at 5 Kolonia Robotnicza Street. (...) My parents paid for the house. This sort of Nazi Siedlungen – workers’ settlement. A garden by the house, my parents had a cow, chickens, a pig or two. Father worked as a mechanic. (...) [had a] small income. It was hard. Nettle soup was a treat. I remember sow-thistle soup – that was a terrible thing. (...) there was the cow, so we had milk, cheese; there were the chickens.
[K.D.] Your mom was taking care of the house?
[R.J.W.-W.] Mom looked after the house, and father was working. There was a garden by the house; almost everyone had a cow. In my final year of school, during the holiday, I was grazing maybe some 40 cows. There was a big pasture right behind the settlement. People would pay me, you could earn quite a bit throughout the holidays. Actually, you could say I went from the cows straight to the seminary.
(...) I remember how my parents sold the cow and bought me an accordion. I was a child and I liked an accordion, I didn’t even know it was called that. (…) I’d say: ‘Daddy, buy me the musical toy.’ And I was nagging him, I was clambering on his lap; I was ashamed to say it loud, because I knew it was expensive. I whispered to his ear that I wanted this musical toy. I’d stroke his hand... Not even my feet are like his hands were – so marred with work. He had these hard calluses on his hands. I’d knead them, saying: ‘Daddy, what are these?’ And he’d say: ‘It’s work.’ He was a very hard-working man.
(...) When I think about it today, I think that was the highest form of heroism. You don’t give gifts like that to little kids. I’m certain that had I been their biological child, my father’s response to that would be: ‘Give it a rest, we have nothing to eat, just look at the soup you’re eating, we’d better buy some food.’
I was really loved very much. There are no words to describe the love of my parents, my Polish parents.
[K.D.] When were you christened?
[R.J.W.-W.] I was christened during the 1943 Easter holiday. My uncle was my godfather.
[K.D.] He came for the christening from Wejszyszki, right?
[R.J.W.-W.] Yes, he was at the christening in Święciany. I know the name of the priest who christened me – Konstanty Miszkinis. You know why? Because it was a Lithuanian nationalist, who’d say that ‘one Lithuanian Hail Mary is more important than a Polish rosary.’
[K.D.] He wasn’t in on it?
[R.J.W.-W.] No, no. I think that he’d sooner give me to the Germans than christen me, had he known. Besides – I don’t think I should say such things, I don’t know for sure, after all.
[K.D.] And who was your godmother?
[R.J.W.-W.] Mrs. Krystyna Gapikowa. Just a stranger. Mom had asked a Mrs. Kowal – I don’t know whether it was her name or a reference to her husband’s occupation [a blacksmith, or a ‘kowal’ in Polish] – but she said she couldn’t christen me because she didn’t have any appropriate clothes. For the child, because the custom was that the godmother would buy the layette for the child. Mom said she was talking with Mrs. Kowal and a witness of that was Mrs. Krystyna Gapikowa, who I think was called Jonikas during the war. And she said ‘I can christen your boy, I got the clothes my daughter had [for christening].’
My Polish parents – maybe as a result of their time in France – were religious in a very good way. Their Christianity wasn’t the Christianity of your stereotypical Polish Catholic, it was the faith of a Christian, someone loving their fellow man simply by the virtue of their humanity.
They were magnificent people. Here’s an example from my first year in primary school. (…) In our class there was this girl, Marysia, who spoke Polish very bad. She was German. Her family, actually her grandmother, did not leave. We were ragging on Marysia. We’d draw a Hakenkreuz on her chair, she’d sit down and get up with a Hakenkreuz on her bottom; we called her names. There was this rhyme: “A jerry dog was killing frogs, took the skin, pigged it in.” We were raging on her as much as we could, and so did I. One day I came back home – we would always meet for dinner – we’d eat and talk about what happened at school. I’m talking about Marysia, how we have a German at the school, how we’re playing tricks on her. Father listened for a while, and said: ‘And you are doing that?’ I said: ‘Dad, she’s a jerry.’ And father said: ‘What did she do to you?’ ‘She didn’t, but the Germans did.’ Father: ‘You think all the Poles were so wonderful during the war?’ My eyes bulged out, I didn’t know what to say. Father said: ‘Listen. There’re no such things as Poles, Germans, Russians, Lithuanians. There are people. There are good people and bad people. You should love the good people, and try to be good yourself. You should be afraid of the bad people. You’re too small to fight them, and it’s best not to fight anyone. You need to be afraid of bad people, you need to get away from them. Remember, you are to defend this friend. She is your colleague.’
Father took my [decision to go to the] seminary very hard. Shortly after I began he died of a heart attack. Mom came to Lublin in 1975. We sold the house and mom came to live with me. (…) Here in this kitchen, on the 23rd of February 1978, she told me for the first time the entire story, the truth about me. It was a very, very profound experience. I was born again. (...)
[KD] Where did Piotr Waszkinel work after the war?
[R.J.W.-W.] He first worked for Mr. Andrzejewski, then at the State Agricultural Farms, and subsequently at a State Machine Center, where he worked with milling machines, in a lathe shop. He died at 52.
[KD] Did your family, your grandparents, know about your roots?
[R.J.W.W.] No, no one did. I only told them after 1992. My Polish mom died in 1989. She was exactly eighty.
I only found my Jewish roots in 1992. Between 1978 and 1992 was the hardest part of my life, because I knew everything about myself but my name. I was hiding, because I thought that if I didn’t know the name, I shouldn’t be able to say who I was. You get your name from your parents, and I didn’t know that name.
[K.D.] When did you go to Israel?
[R.J. W.-W.] First of all, I had no idea how to find any trace of my family. It was discovered by a nun, sister Klara Jaroszyńska. She asked: ‘What do you know?’ I said I didn’t know a thing. My father was a tailor and I had a brother named Samuel. That’s what my Polish mother told me. I don’t know anything. What was their family name? I had no idea. (…) She began writing letters to Israel, but she got no reply. Only when Poland established diplomatic connections [with Israel], sister Klara went to Israel. It was in the spring of 1992. And then someone had the brilliant idea to arrange a meeting with a group of rescued Jews from Święciany. (…) And when sister Klara said the son of the tailor from Święciany was alive – there was only one such tailor in the town, naturally Jakub Weksler. (…) She came back sometime after Easter with a photograph of my birth mother. (…) I went to Israel for the first time in July 1992. (…) I found my uncle, my father’s brother. My aunt was also live, father’s sister. She died soon afterwards, in November. And my uncle was alive until 1998, so I visited him every year, until 1997. I didn’t go in 1998, because he didn’t want me to – he was very ill. He lived in the town of Netanya and that’s where he died. He’s buried there next to my aunt.
[K.D.] Do you still have family in Israel?
[R.J.W.-W.] My uncle did not marry after the war, he couldn’t get himself together after what he was through. But my aunt had a son, Arie. He’a living in Herzliya. He’s got kids. He kept a shortened version of aunt’s name. She was called Sargowicz. He’s Arie Sagi. The aunt, Rachela Sargowicz, her maiden name was Weksler, so it’s a near family. There’s also the family of my paternal grandmother. They also live in Netanya, and their name is Refson.