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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 November, 2003, 13:27 GMT
Hidden children of the Holocaust
By Rosie Goldsmith
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

Polish square
In Lublin in Poland signs of Catholicism are everywhere

During World War II the Nazi's built several concentration camps and murdered three million Jews on Polish soil.

Today, 60 years after the war, astounding stories of survival are beginning to emerge, and a growing number of Poles are having to come to terms with a new identity.

The city of Lublin, in the south east of Poland, is a showcase for Catholicism. Churches dominate the skyline, while nuns, monks and priests mingle with shoppers and students on the streets.

The city boasts a world famous Catholic university and one of its professors was Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II. Ninety per cent of Poland is Catholic.

It was like being born again
Father Romuald Jakub Weksler-Waskinel

It is hard to believe that Lublin was once home to 40,000 Jewish people, and the city was a centre of Jewish life and learning.

Now there are barely a handful of Jewish families left; and a nearby concentration camp - Majdanek - is a constant reminder of the Holocaust.

But Poland is trying to come to terms with its tragic history, and to reconcile Jewish people and Catholics.

One remarkable man has come to embody the two cultures. His name is Father Romuald Jakub Weksler-Waskinel, a Catholic priest, academic and writer.

But as his name suggests, there is more to his story.

Raised as a Catholic by a Polish couple, he followed his faith into the priesthood. It was only after he had been a priest for 12 years that his ill mother revealed to him that he was not her son, and that he was in fact Jewish.

Father Romuald Jakub Weksler-Waskinel
Father Romuald is one of Poland's "hidden children"

"It was like being born again," Father Romuald explained, the tears still flowing at the memory.

His Polish mother told him that his true parents were to be transported to the death camps.

His Jewish mother handed her the baby and said, "You are a Christian. You believe Jesus was a Jew. In the name of that Jew, save this child. Bring him up a Catholic. One day", she prophesied, "he will become a priest."

This story of Catholic families saving and raising Jewish children is being repeated many times in Poland, stories which are only now being revealed, as the older generation feels able to unburden themselves of long-held secrets.

With Poland's own suffering in the war, and with its reputation for anti-Semitism, these acts of heroism are a source of pride to Poles.

Father Romuald has two photos on display at home, one of his Polish mother and one of his Jewish mother.

When he discovered his true origins, he had to mourn not only the deaths of his Jewish parents and brother Samuel, but also the loss of decades of his true identity.

He was now both Catholic and Jewish.

Therapy

It was not until after communism collapsed in Poland in 1989, and after democracy and free speech arrived, that Father Romuald could share his story.

POLAND'S IDENTITY CRISIS
Crossing Continents will be broadcast on Thursday, 13 November, 2003 at 1100 GMT

Before that, Poland's remaining Jewish families had suffered political purges and defamation. Many left for the US or Israel. Others chose to live incognito as Catholics. Some - like Father Romuald - were not told they were Jewish to protect them.

Today they are called the "hidden children", although most of them are adults in their 60s or 70s.

In 1990, a group was formed in Warsaw to help them, The Association of the Hidden Children of the Holocaust.

When it started there were four members, now there are 800.

The Director, Elzbieta Ficowska, herself a "new Jew", says its members often need therapy to cope with their changed identity so late in life.

They come here to share their stories and to mix with others in a similar dilemma. She adds that many "secret Jews" will go to their graves not knowing the truth.

We have had death bed confessions... But often parents and grandparents will not talk
Rabbi Shudrich

One Pole is so scared that his family secret will get out that he asks to remain anonymous.

For 60 years he has kept to himself the fact that the brother he grew up with is Jewish.

As a baby, his brother was thrown from a train transporting Jews to the death camps.

The baby was rescued by a woman who raised him as her own son, and as a Catholic.

His brother believes it is too late to tell him, as it would disrupt his life and destroy his memories.

Reconciliation

Rabbi Shudrich
Rabbi Michael Shudrich is devoting his life to Jewish revival

The first tentative steps in a reconstruction of Jewish life in Poland have been made. Since 1989, Jewish people have been free to practice their religion and explore their culture. But it is still early days.

No one is quite sure how many Jewish families now live in Poland. It is perhaps 20,000, a quarter of whom are living in Warsaw.

There is a Jewish school and kindergarten; a travel agent; restaurants; and a theatre.

The focus of Jewish life in Warsaw is the one remaining synagogue. The community is led by the charismatic Chief Rabbi Michael Shudrich, an American who has devoted 10 years of his life to the revival of the community in Poland.

He admits the situation is chaotic but exciting.

"Every permutation you can think of has happened," he said.

"We have had death bed confessions. We have had conversions; young people interested in finding out whether they might be Jewish.

"Sometimes they only have a name to go on, no documentary evidence. Often their parents and grandparents still will not talk."

Rabbi Shudrich also spoke about reconciliation between Jewish people and Catholics:

"A lot of Polish non-Jews come to the synagogue too. They want to learn about this minority group that has lived amongst them for centuries.

"This process has been supported by Pope John Paul II who declared that Jews were the older brother. When their Pope speaks, Poles listen.

"He is the most important figure in bringing together Catholics and Jews. What is happening today in Poland is a normalisation."

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 13 November, 2003 at 1100 GMT and repeated on Monday, 17 November, at 2030 GMT.



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SEE ALSO:
Poland's identity crisis
06 Nov 03  |  Crossing Continents
Country profile: Poland
05 Nov 03  |  Country profiles
Rosie Goldsmith: Biography
30 Oct 03  |  Crossing Continents


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