How an Israeli Artist Discovered a Family Holocaust Secret

More and more Poles are discovering their Jewish roots.

Director Ronit Kertsner, 55, found Weksler in Lublin when she made her first film, “The Secret,” in the late 1990s. She met him as the result of a tip she received from Israel Kertsner, her brother-in-law, who was in charge of Holocaust studies at the Education Ministry, and among other things, traveled to Poland with groups. “He told me about a new phenomenon in Poland, about people who grew up as Poles and one day discovered that one or both their parents were Jews,” she says.

Kertsner had a similar experience. “My parents told me I was adopted, and that they didn’t know who my parents were. And when they would go abroad my father would say: ‘You see this suitcase? You mustn’t open it.’ In 1991 he died and I ran to the suitcase and found my adoption papers from 1956 with the name of my biological mother. At the age of 35 I underwent an identity crisis. My entire history was erased in a moment. I was already married, with two daughters, but I felt I had no idea who I was. After concerted efforts, I found her in Paris. She wasn’t willing to tell me who my father was. The first meeting was very moving, and at the second meeting she said she wanted no contact with me.”

Ronit Kertsner - Daniel Bar-On - April 20, 2012
Daniel Bar-On

Kertsner, a film editor at the time, decided to take on the Polish story and direct a film of her own. “The Secret,” produced with the help of the Makor Foundation for Israeli Films, tells the story of young Poles who seek their Jewish roots and start a vibrant Jewish community in Warsaw. “It wasn’t easy to get them to talk,” says Kertsner. “When I met them they were still very scared. In my research I discovered Romek Weksler and I traveled to him in Lublin. We called him ‘the priest.’”

“The Secret” was a big success. It was screened on Israel’s Channel 8, won a prize at the Berlin Film Festival, was screened at various festivals the world over and on Canal+ in France. Later Kertsner directed a film about adoption, “I, the Aforementioned Infant,” as she was called in the adoption contract she found in the suitcase, and “Menachem and Fred,” which she directed with Ofra Tevet, about two brothers separated for many years by the Holocaust.

Last year she directed “Torn.” Its protagonist is Weksler and it tells of his difficulties after immigrating to Israel. It was screened at cinematheques in Israel and on Channel 8, at Jewish film festivals in San Francisco and New York, at a special screening at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, and this week it will be shown at the Polish Film Festival in London.

“Jacob’s experience is extreme. His inner confusion is tremendous. People here ask him why, so many years after discovering that he was a Jew, he didn’t do anything with that information and didn’t search for his family. He couldn’t. Just as I didn’t open the suitcase all those years, although I presumably could have.”