On March 25, 1943, the Jewish mother of an 8-day-old boy placed her infant son in the care of a Polish Catholic family, in order to save him from certain death at the hands of the Nazis.
The devout Catholic family raised the boy as Romvald Waszkinel, who did not discover until 12 years following his ordination into the priesthood that he was a Jew.
Now, 68, Waszkinel goes by the name of Yakov, lives in Jerusalem, and works at Yad VaShem. Although he has embraced his Jewish heritage, and attends synagogue regularly, he has not abandoned the Catholicism in which he was raised.
Waszkinel’s struggle with his dual identity is the subject of the documentary “Torn,” which will have its Pittsburgh premier Sunday, Nov. 13, at the Regent Square Theater. Ronit Kertzner, the director of the film, will be in town for the event.
Kertzner first met Waszkinel 13 years ago when she was working on another documentary titled “The Secret,” about others in Poland who were born Jewish, but raised Catholic.
“When I met him [Waszkinel], I knew I had a film,” said Kertzner. “He deserved a film of his own.”
The film follows Waszkinel from Lubin, Poland, where he conducts mass in a church, to a religious kibbutz in Israel, where he is forbidden from openly practicing Catholicism. Once in Israel, he is neither embraced by the Catholic communities there, nor permitted to become a Jewish citizen of the state through the law of return.
Kertzner believes that Israel should not deny Waszkinel full citizenship because he is a practicing Catholic, as his Catholicism was a product of the Holocaust.
“He has these two identities,” Kertzner said. “There are these two religions within him. It’s our job to accept him as he is. It isn’t his fault. What happened to him directly resulted from the Holocaust.”
“Personally, I feel the State of Israel was built to be a home for people like him,” she continued. “It’s very sad.”
Kertzner estimates there are at least 20,000 to 30,000 people living in Poland who, like Waszkinel, were born Jewish, but raised as Catholics to escape the Holocaust. Many do not know of their Jewish identity, she said, and many who do discover it, “do nothing about it.”
The Pittsburgh premier of “Torn,” along with the visit of its director Kertzner, are sponsored by Classrooms Without Borders, a nonprofit educational organization founded in February 2011 by Dr. Zipora Gur in association with JFilm: The Pittsburgh Jewish Film Forum and The Holocaust Center. Classrooms Without Borders provides educational experiences for teachers and students, including travel opportunities to Poland and Israel in conjunction with Holocaust studies.
“The film and Ronit Kertzner are coming here as part of the follow-up to the programs Classrooms Without Borders is doing,” Gur said. “I took 40 people, including 20 teachers, to Poland last summer. The teachers were from public, private and charter schools. Then, 10 of the teachers came to Yad Vashem.”
While in Israel, Gur introduced the 10 teachers on the trip to Waszkinel.
“When I take groups [abroad], I introduce them to interesting people,” Gur said. “He is only one example of someone finding out that he is Jewish. He left Poland, and tried Israel. He really doesn’t fit there. He walked with Jesus for 60 years. Now, it’s a big issue. It’s a fascinating story.”
“Torn” will be presented by JFilm and the Three Rivers Film Festival.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Want to go?
When: Sunday, Nov. 13, 5:30 p.m.
Where: Regent Square Theater
Director Ronit Kertzner will speak following the film.