JERUSALEM (VINnews) — The Kollel Chabad volunteer who called up Yaakov Wexler, an elderly Jerusalem resident last month to find out how he was coping with the lockdown, did not expect to hear such an astonishing life story from him. Yaakov told the volunteer, whose organization provides daily hot meals for him, that for nearly 50 years he had served as a Polish priest.
Yaakov’s story begins in the Stare Swiecany (Shvintzian) ghetto near Vilna in February 1943 where he was born, the second son of Yaakov and Batya Wexler, just over a month before the Jews of the ghetto were deported to their deaths in the Ponar forest in April 1943. Yaakov’s mother handed him over just a few days beforehand to a childless Polish Catholic couple, Pyotr and Emilia Waszkinel. Batya and her other son, Shmuel, were murdered a few days later and Yaakov’s father was apparently murdered during the Stutthoff death march in early 1945.
Yaakov’s foster parents baptized him as Romuald Waszkinel. As a child Yaakov suffered abuse and humiliation due to his non-Polish looks but his foster parents insisted that he was their biological child. He grew up in a religious environment, studying for priesthood at the Catholic seminar in Olsztyn, where he graduated in 1966. In 1968 he began studying philosophy at Lublin university and taught theoretical philosophy, anthropological philosophy, metaphysics and French philosophy.
In 1978 his foster mother finally revealed to him his true identity. After this revelation he added to his name the name of his murdered father, calling himself Yaakov Romuald. In 1995 Pyotr and Emilia Waszkinel were recognized by Yad Vashem as righteous gentiles.
In 2008, Yaakov retired from priesthood, immigrated to Israel and learned Hebrew, returning at the same time to his Jewish roots. In 2014 Yaakov received Israeli citizenship and he now volunteers at Yad Vashem.
In 2017 Israeli television channel Kan interviewed Yaakov, whose story inspired a play which was played by the Warsaw theater in Tel Aviv. Yaakov describes his hope that his parents had saved his brother Shmuel like him and one day he could even meet him. He calls himself a “Tinok Shenishba”, a baby taken captive by gentiles, but he has come full circle and returned to Jerusalem, the place that his Zionist mother yearned to live in.