The Jew who became a priest and will be buried as a Jew
Father Gregor Pawlowski, born Jacob Zvi Griner, fled the Nazis and obtained a Catholic baptism certificate.
Father Gregor Pawlowski, born Jacob Zvi Griner
(photo credit: ELAD FORTAL)
Later this week, a Jewish Holocaust survivor who became a Catholic priest in Poland, moved to Israel and served the Christian community here for nearly four decades, will be buried in Poland as a Jew alongside his mother and sister who were murdered by the Nazis.
Having grown up in a religious Jewish household, Father Gregor Pawlowski, born Jacob Zvi Griner, was saved during the Holocaust by dint of papers he obtained stating he was Catholic, and he eventually was baptized and ordained as a priest.
He eventually moved to Israel stating that he was part of the Polish people but that he was part of another nation first, the Jewish people, with whom he felt an ongoing attachment and among whom he wished to live.
Malul will this week fly out to Poland with several of his students, give Pawlowski a Jewish burial at that site and recite kaddish, the mourners’ prayer, in accordance with the priest’s wishes that he be buried as a Jew.
Jacob Zvi Griner, as he was originally named, was born in 1931 to a religious Jewish family and lived with his parents, brother and two sisters in the city of Zamosc, in the Lublin region in eastern Poland.
In October 1939, the Nazis occupied Zamosc and eventually transferred the Jewish population to a ghetto and pressed them into forced labor, during which time Griner’s father was taken away and presumably murdered.
Griner’s brother Chaim had moved to Russia while the Soviet Union temporarily controlled the area before handing it to the Germans.
The Jews of Zamosc, including Griner and the rest of his family, were subsequently moved to Izbica in 1941 and housed in the homes of the Jews who had already been deported from the town.
Griner himself escaped but his mother and two sisters were eventually taken outside the city together with around 1,000 Jews from Zamosc, lined up on the edge of pits that had been prepared and shot dead.
Griner fled Izbica and hid in different locations for short periods of time with locals, Poles and Jews, until the end of the war, at one point obtaining a Catholic baptism certificate bearing the name Gregor Pawlowski which he adopted as his own from then on. It helped save his life when confronted by Nazi officials on at least one occasion.
After the end of the war, Griner, now Pawlowski, found himself in an orphanage run by two Catholic nuns, was then transferred to a new orphanage and was formally baptized there on June 27, 1945 at the age of 13.
After finishing high school, Pawlowski entered a Catholic seminary and was ordained into the priesthood in 1958.
In 1966, Pawlowski told his story to a Catholic newspaper in Krakow, and initiated his plan to move to Israel.
Before he did so, however, he erected a monument at the place where his mother and sister were murdered and also established a burial plot for himself at the site of the mass grave with an inscription which included the words “I abandoned my family, In order to save my life at the time of the Shoah, They came to take us for extermination, My life I saved and have consecrated it, To the service of God and humanity.”
In 1970, Pawlowski moved to Israel where he was greeted by members of the Catholic clergy in Israel, and his brother Chaim who survived the war and contacted him after reading his brother’s story in the newspaper article published four years earlier.
For the next 38 years, Pawlowski served as a priest in Jaffa working with Catholic communities in the area until his death last week.
Seven years ago, Rabbi Shalom Malul was on a trip to Poland with his yeshiva students when he came across the headstone Pawlowski had made for himself and initiated their friendship.
Whenever Malul would take his students to the site he would call up Pawlowski by phone who would then relate his story to those on the trip, and add that they were standing on his grave.
During the course of their friendship, Malul says that Pawlowski told him he had dedicated his life to the Catholic church because his life had been saved by them and he felt an intense appreciation for this, so dedicated his life to the Catholic church and community.
But Pawlowski told him explicitly that he wished to be buried as a Jew next to the mass grave where his mother and sisters were killed, and said as such in his will as well.
“He said ‘I was born a Jew, I lived as a Christian, and I will die as a Jew’,” and that “my heart feels Jewish,” says Malul.
At one point Pawlowski put up a mezuzah on the door of his home, upon Malul’s suggestion, and said the blessing for the ceremony himself.
“He decided for many reasons not to return to the Jewish people during his life, but he told everyone that ‘I am a Jew and I will return to my people on the day I die’,” says the rabbi.
This Wednesday, Malul will fly out with some of his students to bury him at the place where his family was murdered. “This week he will be buried in a grave he bought for himself and we will say kaddish for him and he will return to his people, the Jewish people.”