The Catholic Priest Who Discovered He Was A Jewish Holocaust Survivor

Updated: Aug 25, 2020

by the Simanim Institute

Simanim Institute
Simanim Institute

Romuald was born in 1943 in Svencionys, a town about 80 kilometers northeast of Vilna. This was in the middle of WWII and Europe was in the throes of catastrophe. Little Romuald had no idea what kind of life awaited him and was raised in a Catholic family in northern Poland.

When he was in his early twenties, Romuald decided to study for the priesthood. To his surprise, his father, who was a strict Catholic, objected and tried to dissuade him, but without success. A few years later Romuald became a priest, to the chagrin of his father, who died a short while later. Romuald advanced his career in the Catholic academic world and became a lecturer at the Catholic University in Lublin.

In retrospect, Romuald relates that even in his childhood he silently questioned whether he was the biological child of his beloved parents, but he had no clear information to the contrary.

In 1978, that situation changed dramatically. One evening at dinner with his mother, Romuald decided the timing was right, and he pressured his mother to tell him about his past. She finally gave in and told him that his parents were indeed Jews who had lived in their town, and shortly after his birth the Nazis had liquidated the Jewish ghetto and deported all the Jews to their deaths. Romuald’s parents were among those who were murdered in the Polish forests.

Romuald’s mother told him that he had a brother named Shmuel, who was three years older than him. His mother had wanted to give Shmuel to Romuald’s adoptive parents too, but she was afraid of the Nazis, whom everyone knew would kill anyone found saving Jews. The two women, therefore, agreed that the Polish couple would adopt only little Romuald and that his mother would leave him on the window sill so that the Polish woman could say that she had found him. She did not remember Romuald’s parent's names and could tell him only that his father had been a tailor.

With those scraps of information, Romuald found it very difficult to trace his family. In 1988 one of Romuald’s acquaintances visited Israel. Romuald asked her to try to gather information on his family, and she indeed succeeded in locating a few survivors from Svencionys. When she told them Romuald’s story, one of them exclaimed, “That’s Yankele Wecsler! He was the only tailor in our town back then.” After further inquiries, Romuald was able to get in touch with his father’s brother, Zvi Wecsler, who confirmed that Romuald had a brother named Shmuel, who at the age of 3 was murdered with his parents, by the Nazis.

Romuald continued working as a lecturer at the Catholic university, even though he already knew that he was Jewish. Changing one’s identity overnight is no easy task, but gradually Romuald decided to leave his native Poland and immigrate to Israel. A long and arduous journey lay ahead of him, after his decision to leave his life in the Catholic church and reclaim his Jewishness.

Romuald decided to change his name to Yaakov Wecsler, in memory of his father and applied to immigrate to Israel. People sympathetic to his story helped him obtain a permit from the Israeli Ministry of the Interior, but he was still not recognized as a Jew. All his pleading was to no avail, and he was told that with all due respect, his religious status could not be altered based only on a story. In order to change his status, he had to present documentary proof, which of course he did not have...

“All I am asking is that I be buried as a Jew,” he told all his acquaintances. “That’s what my parents wanted before they were murdered, and that is the only thing I can do for them.” Unless he could prove his Jewishness, however, his request would not be granted.

All Yaakov’s attempts to be recognized as Jewish met with failure until he was referred to Simanim Institute to see if his Jewish identity could be confirmed with a DNA test. Rabbi Zev Litka conducted the test, and Yaakov’s DNA showed clearly that he was an Ashkenazi Jew!

From that point onward the process for obtaining recognition as a Jew was very quick. Rabbi Litka accompanied Yaakov to the Rabbinical Court and managed to convince the Dayanim to accept the proof of Yaakov’s Jewishness based on the DNA test.

On the last day of Chanukah, 2019, after a delay of 76 years, Yaakov Wecsler had his brit milah, upon his recognition as a Jew and a Holocaust survivor. His friends at Yad Vashem held an impressive Bar Mitzvah ceremony for him, 63 years after the original date.

Yaakov was very fortunate to have found his identity. The descendants of many other Holocaust survivors, however, are still in Europe, without any knowledge that their true identity was robbed from them during the Holocaust. Our hope is to discover those descendants!

For more information contact the Simanim Institute.