Father Gregor Pawlowski, Jewish Holocaust survivor and Catholic priest, laid to rest in Poland

Kevin J. Jones   By Kevin J. Jones for CNA


A monument at the Jewish cemetery in Izbica, Poland. / Aung via Wikimedia (public domain)

Lublin, Poland, Nov 14, 2021 / 15:00 pm (CNA).

Father Gregor Pawlowski died in Israel Oct. 21 at the age of 90, but he wanted his body to be buried in Poland alongside his Jewish family and other victims of the Holocaust.

“Fr. Pawlowski lived in Jaffa for more than 50 years, serving the faithful ang giving the testimony of love for the Messiah,” said the website of the Saint James Vicariate for Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel.

“We will miss you, Gregor,” said the vicariate, an autonomous department within the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem that serves Hebrew-speaking children of migrants and asylum seekers.

The priest had a Requiem Mass. But among the priest’s wishes were that he have a Jewish burial at the mass grave in Poland that holds his mother, his two sisters, and hundreds of his neighbors from their home village.

He had long wanted to be buried there. He had set up a memorial in their name in the 1970s before moving to Israel.

The memorial bears an inscription in Polish and Hebrew from the Book of Job: “For I know that my redeemer lives and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.” It commemorates Pawlowski’s parents, his sisters, and “all of the Jews murdered and buried in this cemetery by the Nazi murderers and profaners of God’s commandments.”

“With gratitude to God for being saved, we establish this monument,” it was signed. It bears the name of Pawlowski’s brother, the priest’s baptismal name, and his birth name.

Rabbi Shalom Malul, dean of the Amit Ashdod Yeshiva, and several students flew to Poland to give the priest a Jewish burial next to the grave of his sisters and mother. They recited Kaddish, the traditional prayer of morning, as the priest had wished, the Jerusalem Post reports.

Pawlowski was born Jacob Zvi Griner to a Yiddish-speaking Jewish family in Poland on Aug. 23, 1931. He was the youngest of four siblings born to Mendel and Miriam. They lived in Zamosc in what is now eastern Poland, according to a biography of the priest on the website of the St. James Vicariate.

His parents, Mendel and Miriam, ran a small business that traded wood and coal and rented a fruit tree grove. He learned some Hebrew from a teacher at his Jewish school and some Polish from peasants in the village.

The Second World War began in 1939, the year Pawlowski would have started first grade. He always remembered the sound of German fighter planes that dropped bombs. The Soviets entered Zamosc and invited villagers to return with them to Russia. Pawlowski’s older brother, Hayim, left with them and eventually the family lost contact with him.

When the Nazis fully occupied Poland, the family faced great difficulty earning a living and finding enough food to eat. The children would do chores for other families in exchange for money, but at times they had to steal food. His father suffered harassment and humiliation under German soldiers.

The Jews in Zamosc were forced into a neighborhood converted into a ghetto, where persecution increased to the point where soldiers killed some Jews with impunity.

Pawlowski’s father was compelled into labor for the Germans. One day he left for work and never returned, leaving the family heartbroken. The Germans later destroyed the ghetto and put the Jewish residents on a forced march to Izbica, about 14 miles away, putting them in the homes left by other deported Jews.

Soon, the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators launched a mass arrest of Jews. Pawlowski, his mother and his two sisters tried to hide in a cellar, but they were discovered. The boy alone managed to escape. His mother and his sisters were taken to the edge of a mass grave and shot, dying along with about a thousand Jews from their home village.

During the rest of the war Pawlowski moved from place to place. Sometimes people aided him, other times they identified him as a Jew and put his life at risk. He learned the prayers of Catholic Christianity from some Poles, and a Jewish boy gave him a Christian baptismal certificate bearing a new name: Gregor Pawlowski.

Benedictine nuns took him into an orphanage and registered him for school. He quickly advanced through several grades, then moved to another orphanage.

A priest came to prepare the children for First Communion. The boy did not tell the priest he was a Jew, but said he had not been baptized. The priest did not entirely believe him, but baptized him conditionally on June 27, 1945, when he was almost 14 years old.

He finished school in the city of Polawny, serving the Church as a faithful Catholic and defending the Church and religion against a communist lecturer. The secret police took him in for questioning and tried to persuade him to spy on the nuns but he refused.

Pawlowski later sought to become a priest, entering the major seminary at Lublin. Few nuns and clergymen knew he was ethnically Jewish but the local bishop said that this was not an obstacle. However, some priests worried that parishioners would not accept a priest who was Jewish.

He was ordained to the priesthood on April 20, 1958. The nuns from his former orphanage hosted the celebration. He served as a priest in the Diocese of Lublin. In 1966, the millennium celebrations of the arrival of Christianity in Poland, Pawlowski drew national attention when he told his story in a major Catholic newspaper in Krakow. The article reached Israel, where relatives read it and contacted his long-lost brother Hayim.

He studied at the Catholic University of Lublin from 1968 to 1970.

Pawlowski then moved to Israel to serve both Polish and Hebrew-speaking Catholics.

“My place is here, among the Jewish people. I sensed a call to come and serve Christians living in my country,” he said.

“I belong both to Poland and to Israel. I cannot speak against Poles because they saved me and I cannot speak against Jews because I am one of them,” said the priest.

Pawlowski was based in Jaffa for more than 38 years. He wrote books of poetry about his life and about the life of Christ. He also wrote books about religion and historical topics, the Saint James Vicariate’s website said.

He also authored the Hebrew and Polish inscriptions for gravemarker, near the mass grave that holds his family and other fellow Jews.

“I left my family In order to save my life at the time of the Shoah,” it reads. “They came to take us for extermination. My life I saved and have consecrated it to the service of God and humanity.”

“I have returned to them in this place where they were murdered, for the sanctification of God’s name. May their souls be set in eternal life.”

It bears his Christian and Jewish names: “Father Gregor Pawlowski, Jacob Zvi Griner, son of Mendel and Miriam of blessed memory.”

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