RIP to Jewish Holocaust Survivor who Became a Catholic Priest in Poland and Died at Age 90 - Fr. Gregor Pawlowski

A Jewish Holocaust survivor who became a Catholic priest in Poland, Father Gregor Pawlowski, born Jacob Zvi Griner, has died at the age of 90 on October 21st.

He was saved during the Holocaust by a Catholic baptismal certificate, and he eventually was baptized and ordained as a priest. He later moved to Israel stating that he was part of the Polish people but that he was part of another nation first, the Jewish people.

Father Gregor Pawlowski served the Hebrew-speaking and Polish-speaking communities in Israel for 50 years and all aspects of the life of the Church. 

Childhood with family

Father Gregor Pawlowski was born in Poland as a Jew on August 23,1931 to his parents, Mendel son of Zeev and Miriam daughter of Isaac Griner. His name was Jacob (Jakub) Zvi “Hersch” (Hersz) Griner. His family lived in the town of Zamosc which was in the region of Lublin. The family had four children: two sons, Hayim and Jacob Zvi, and two daughters, Schindel and Sura (Yiddish for Sarah). Hayim was the oldest and Jacob Zvi was the youngest, the Benjamin of his parents. He was called “Hersch” at home which was the Yiddish translation of the Hebrew Zvi (which means deer). The family had a small business, trading in wood and coal, and they were not very well off. They were very religious. On Sabbath and holidays the children accompanied their parents to synagogue. Father Gregor remembers the Jewish holidays which were celebrated with great devotion. At home, the family spoke Yiddish (the Jewish German dialect of Eastern European Jews) but as a child he learnt some Hebrew from a “melamed” (a Jewish teacher) in the “heder” (the Jewish school). He has good memories of that time. He knew a little Polish which he learnt from Polish peasants in the village where his parents rented a grove of fruit trees. Relations between Poles and Jews were generally good even if that was not always the case.

The older brother of the family, Hayim, read newspapers and he said that the situation of the Jews would be very bad if the Germans entered Poland. No one in the family thought it would happen so quickly. In 1939, the year Hersch was supposed to begin first grade, the Second World War began, In his memory is engraved the sound of the German fighter planes that dropped bombs. The family house was consumed in flames and they had to move in with relatives. After a short time, the Russians entered Zamosc and announced that whoever wanted to go with them to Russia could do so. Among those who left was Hayim who, it would seem, already sensed what was to come. After some time the letters from him stopped coming.

For the Jews a very difficult period of Nazi occupation began. The parents of the family dealt in trade in order to get something to eat. The sisters helped the parents and on market days lent a bucket to the peasants and also carried water themselves in order to water the horses in exchange for some money. Also the boy Hersch helped to provide for the family. For example, in autumn when the peasants brought the produce of the fields for the Nazis, he would hang onto the carts in order to get his hands on some potatoes, leeks or even a bit of cabbage. Often he was lashed with the whip but who noticed when one was suffering the pangs of hunger.

Hersch's father disappeared one day. Then, the Germans destroyed the Zamosc ghetto. The Jews were marched to the town of Izbica and housed in the homes of the Jews who had already been deported from the town. Shortly thereafter, there was an Akzion (the arrest of Jews) and many people tried to hide including the mother and her three children. 

The boy Hersch managed to escape and the curious Poles who had gathered around had mercy on him and allowed him to run away without drawing the attention of the Nazis to him. They took the people out of the cellar and brought them to fire station. There they were held in freezing cold for about ten days without food and anyone attempting escape was shot. They brought out groups of tens and took them to the town cemetery. There pits were prepared and the Jews were made to stand on the edge of the pits and were shot. Thus, about a thousand Jews from Zamosc and among them Hersch’s mother and two sisters were murdered.

The Poles taught him the prayers of their Catholic religion. One day a Jewish boy asked him in the street whether he wanted to live. Hirsch answered: “Yes!” Then the boy explained that he need to acquire a Catholic baptism certificate. The boy told him to wait a moment and brought him a baptism certificate. From that time on, Hersch adopted the details that were written in the document. The name on the document was Gregor (Grzegorz) Pawlowski and from that time on he bore this Polish name.

Finally, the end of the war arrived. Hersch went to the Red Cross and from there he was placed in an orphanage run by two Catholic nuns. There were only seven children there in the beginning. One of the nuns registered him in school and he began grade 2 but after two weeks was already put up to grade 3. In the summer he completed grade 4.

When he was transferred to another orphanage, he met with a priest who came to prepare the children for first communion. Gregor did not say that he was a Jew but he had to explain to the priest that he had not been baptized. The priest, who did not fully believe the boy, baptized him on condition (that he had not been baptized before). He received baptism on June 27, 1945 when he was almost 14 years old.

When he finished high school, Gregor was accepted as a seminarian in the major seminary in Lublin. At that time, only one nun knew that he was a Jew. When he had already taken the robe of a seminarian and was in his second year of studies he told the rector of the seminary that he was a Jew. After the rector had consulted with the bishop, he told Gregor that there was no interdiction for a Jew to be a priest. However, some of the other priests feared that when Gregor would become a priest he would have problems in the parish when the faithful found out that he was a Jew. Gregor continued his studies and completed them.

On April 20, 1958, Gregor was ordained to the priesthood. The nuns from the orphanage hosted the celebration because he was alone in the world.

When asked why it was important to tell his story, Gregor replied:

“I did not want to live a lie. I did not want to deny my roots, my mother, my father, my people. I want to be truthful. Thus, I have a homeland and that is Poland and I belong to the Polish people. However, I have a nation that is first – the Jewish people. I was circumcised on the eighth day and I belong. 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.”