Father Gregor in Israel
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.
Hunger forced one to steal. Jewish children broke shop windows and stole whatever could be stolen. Hersch followed them. He picked up an alarm clock but the guard caught him and brought him before the Jewish Council of the community. “Why are you stealing boy?” they asked him. “So that I can get some money for food to eat,” he replied. They took the clock from him and gave him some money.
One day, the Germans caught some Jews and among them the father of the family. Hersch feared that something bad might happen to his father. He drew close to him and a German soldier began to shout at him and wanted to beat him. Hersch burst into tears and his father came to him quickly and embraced him. He turned to the soldier and said: “This is my son, do not hurt him”. The soldier did nothing but his father ordered him to return home and not to worry about him. The Germans forced his father and the other Jews to ride on horses and made fun of them. The ordered them to mount the horses and then whipped the horses. His father had never ridden a horse before and so it was no wonder that he fell off.
After some time, all the Jews of Zamosc were transferred to a neighborhood that was declared a ghetto. They lived there in constant fear. Almost every day there were frightening events. For example, a short time after they had moved to the ghetto, the Germans came to one house and brought out a Jew. His wife was trembling all over and begged them to let her give a coat to her husband. The Germans answered that he was in no need of a coat. The killed him in the street without any reason and left his body lying there.
The father of the family worked forced labor for the Germans. One day, before leaving for work, he said farewell to everyone and expressed doubts that he would return. He was told that if he felt that way it would be best that he not go. He said that he had to go. He embraced each one of the family and went on his way, his eyes filled with tears. That day his father did not return. Hersch waited for his father outside in the street. He even ran after a man who looked like his father from behind. However, he was disappointed. Everyone wept that day. It was an enormous blow for the family.
Some time after the disappearance of the father, 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. They found shelter in a shop cellar in the town but the cry of a baby alerted the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators and they entered the dark place and arrested everyone. 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.
Life alone in the dark days of the Shoah
Hersch fled to the edge of the town of Izbica and there a Pole directed him to a house where he might find food and shelter. The next day, the people of that house feared to keep him any longer and he again sought shelter. He entered a courtyard and lay in a pile of wood which had been gathered for heating. There too the residents of the house identified him as a Jew and he was again forced to flee.
Hersch returned to Zamosc and found refuge with acquaintances of the family. He entered the area of a forced labor camp and found there a bed and some warmth. Thus he wandered from camp to street and from street to camp. Sometimes people pitied him and took him under their protection. One Jewish woman, whose son had been murdered by the Nazis, took him to her hut and fed him there. As she carried him on her shoulders, she told him: “When I carry you I feel like you are the son they took from me”.
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.
One day, as he was warming himself in the booth of the Jewish guard of a forced labor camp, two Nazi soldiers entered and began to interrogate him. They even took him to the Gestapo headquarters. He showed them the baptism certificate and was released. With danger hovering over him constantly, Hersch/Gregor was permanently on the run, fearing that someone might identify him as a Jew. Once he was in the house of some Poles. A government bureaucrat came to the house and asked who the boy was. “An orphan,” they answered and the bureaucrat said that he would send staff from the orphanage to take him. Gregor fled from the place, fearing they would know her was a Jew when they discovered that he was circumcised.
In own village, he found work as a cowherd. Finally he found a family who took care of him and in their home he began to learn how to read and write in Polish. One summer day, when he was out with the cows of this family, the cows ran away from him. The sister of the master of the house screamed “Jew” at him and again he was forced to flee. Again he found refuge, again he fled either because of fear or mistreatment.
Finally, the end of the war arrived. He went out to see the Red Army of the Russians which entered to liberate Poland. He abandoned his work with the cows. When he returned home to the place where he was living he was told that he was fired. They gave him a shirt in return for the month’s work. He went on his way without knowing where he was going. On the road, a cart passed by and the peasants asked him where he was going. When he revealed to them that he had no home and that he was an orphan they invited him to join them. Thus, he reached a village next to the city of Tomaszov-Lubelski. Gregor felt ill and the peasants advised him to go to the Red Cross in the city. There he was brought to a doctor who wrote a letter so that he would receive free treatment in the hospital. From the hospital he returned 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.
Gregor as a scout
Gregor completed school in the city of Polawy and during his years at school he served the Church faithfully. He was a very religious youth and defended the Church when he heard the critique of a Communist party member who came to lecture against the Church and religion to an audience of young people. He was even called in for questioning by the secret police because of his religious positions. The secret police wanted him to spy on the nuns and he firmly refused. Despite his refusal, he finished high school.
Entry into the seminary and a new life as a priest
Gregor at end of high school
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.
Seminarians in Lublin
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.
Gregor’s ordination card
Gregor began to work as a priest in different towns and villages in the diocese of Lublin. In 1966, on the thousandth anniversary of Christianity in Poland, Gregor published and article that told his story in a Catholic newspaper in Cracow that had national distribution. The article made its way too Israel where relatives living in Bat Yam read the story. They contacted Gregor’s brother Hayim who was living in Haifa and that very day he came to Bat Yam. On reading the story, he said: “This is my brother!”
In those years, Gregor was also in contact with Father Daniel Rufeisen, who had arrived in Israel at the end of the fifties, he too a Polish Jew who had became a Catholic priest within the Carmelite order. Gregor began to think about aliyah (immigration to Israel) but before he left Poland he wanted to arrange the place where his mother and sisters had been buried. There he established a monument, a short distance from the cemetery in Izbica, where they had been executed. He also put in order the mass graves in which the bodies of the murdered had been thrown.
The inscription on the memorial (in Polish and Hebrew) says:
For I know that my redeemer lives
And that at the last he will stand upon the earth
To the eternal memory of our dear parents
Mendel son of Zeev and Miriam daughter of Isaac Griner of blessed memory
And our sisters Shindel and Sarah of blessed memory
And also of all the Jews murdered and buried in this cemetery
In the month of Kislev 5703
By the Nazi murderers and profaners of God’s commandments
With gratitude to God for being saved
We establish this monument
Father Gregor Pawlowski
Jacob Zvi Griner – Poland
Hayim Griner – Israel
The monument in Izbica
Next to the mass graves, Gregor also established a burial plot for himself and on the head stone he had inscribed in Hebrew and in Polish:
Father Gregor Pawlowski
Jacob Zvi Griner
Son of Mendel and Miriam of blessed memory
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
I have returned to them this place
Where they were murdered for the sanctification of God’s name
May their souls be set in eternal life
Gregor arrives in Israel
Gregor decided to immigrate to Israel in 1970. He was received at the airport by Father Daniel Rufeisen, priest in Haifa, and Father Alfred Delmée, priest in Jaffa, and by his family including his brother Hayim. He spent some time with his family and then accepted the invitation of Father Delmée to comer and live in Jaffa and serve the Polsish speaking community there. The priest of the community was elderly and sick. In that time Gregor learnt Hebrew at an ulpan (language school) in Bat Yam.
Father Gregor in Israel
Since then and for the past 38 years, Gregor has been serving both the Polish and Hebrew speaking communities. For 38 years he has lived in Jaffa and has traveled the length and breadth of the country educating children, encouraging believers and visiting the sick. Gregor has shown us a model of what a faithful priest should be, serving God and humanity.
When Gregor was asked why he wanted to come to Israel, he replied:
“My place is here, among the Jewish people. I sensed a call to come and serve Christians living in my country.”
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.”
Father Gregor at the ordination of Bishop Jean Baptiste, 2003
With thanks to Fr. David M. Neuhaus SJ in Jerusalem for this material
Father David Neuhaus, S.J. writes: However it is his funeral (a mass and prayer in Jaffa and then his burial in Poland) that is no less remarkable. I send here an article in Hebrew but which contains images from this extraordinary event that brought together Catholics and Jews… We have published the book Gregor wrote, Know the Messiah, written as a teaching tool for the religious education classes Gregor has given to tens of children over the years.
The Jerusalem Post also published the story:https://www.jpost.com/diaspora/the-jew-who-became-a-priest-and-will-be-buried-as-a-jew-683649