Coming home to Izhbitze

The final chapter of a Holocaust story still waits to be written.

Synagogue (photo credit: courtesy)
(photo credit: courtesy)
On a hillside near the Jewish cemetery in the remote Polish village of Izhbitze, a delegation of high-school boys on their school trip to Poland, gather around their guide, Rabbi Benny Kalmanson. Izhbitze, he tells them, was predominantly Jewish from 1750, when Jews were expelled from nearby Tarnogora, until the Holocaust wiped out nearly all of its Jewish population. Most Polish villages with large Jewish populations had two parts – one that was dominated by a church and a second by a large synagogue. Izhbitze never had a church.
Today, except for the cemetery and a house in the village that includes a succa, nothing remains of the town’s once vibrant Jewish past. Even here in the cemetery, most of the gravestones were uprooted and broken; many were used to construct a Gestapo prison in 1941. This prison was demolished in 2006, and the gravestones returned to the cemetery, where they are piled in a corner, their Hebrew inscriptions still legible. Eventually, when a new wall is built around the cemetery, these orphaned stones will be set into it.
At the highest point in this cemetery, Kalmanson points out a large monument of black granite, capped with two tablets of the Law. On an accompanying, incongruously modern headstone, there is an epitaph in Polish and Hebrew: 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.
Unusual for the grave of a Catholic priest, but totally fitting for a tombstone in a Jewish cemetery, there is no cross. The grave is empty.
Kalmanson tells the boys about a previous visit he made to this cemetery.
“We saw two Poles, carrying shovels,” he says. “When we asked them whatthey were doing, they replied that they were digging a grave. ‘For whom?’ we asked, and they answered, ‘For our priest.’ We were surprised – why bury a priest in a Jewish cemetery? ‘When did he die?’ we asked them. And they replied ‘He didn’t. He’s alive.’” Kalmanson was directed to the local church for further information. When he asked to speak to the still-living priest, the secretary laconically told him, “He’s away.” After some pressing, the secretary gave him a telephone number that began with 972 – the Israel country code.
Dialing the number, Kalmanson reached Father Gregor Pawlowski, a priest located in Jaffa. Once, long ago, before the murder of most of Poland’s Jews, his name had been Ya’akov Tzvi Griner, originally from Zamosc.
Sitting in the library of St. Peter’s church in Jaffa, Father Gregor Pawlowski – a Catholic priest yet still a Jew – tells his story.
IN 1941, the Griner family – Miriam and three of her children, Sheindel, Surah and Ya’akov Zvi – were marched from Zamosc to the ghetto of Izhbitze.
Miriam’s husband, Mendel, was already dead. Before leaving for forced labor one day, he had embraced all the members of his family and parted from them, never to return.
Another child, 14-year-old Haim, had previously moved east with the retreating Russian Army, convinced that no Jew would survive in Poland. He eventually reached Moscow, where he attended school and was accepted to the university. Two weeks into his first semester, Haim was drafted into the Red Army. His son, Menahem, says that his late father zealously preserved his Jewish-sounding name, even when fellow Soviet soldiers urged him to adopt a more Russian name.
Together with other Jews from Zamosc, 11-year-old Ya’akov Zvi (or Hersch as he was called in Yiddish), his mother and his sisters were housed in the homes of residents of the town who had already been deported or murdered. Shortly after their arrival, an Aktion roundup took place. Miriam and her children attempted to hide in a shop cellar along with other Jews, but were found by Nazi soldiers, alerted by a baby’s cry.
Ya’akov Zvi managed to escape.
Those who were less fortunate were held at the local fire station for 10 days without food in freezing weather, and then brought to the cemetery and shot on the edges of pits prepared there.
Father Gregor – who indicates his preference for the name Zvi – describes his flight as instinct. Yet, although he is now in his 80s, his abandonment of his mother and sisters continues to trouble him. “Who runs away from a mother?” he asks plaintively. He still dreams about his mother embracing him, speaking words of encouragement and hope.
A Pole directed Zvi to a house where he might receive some help. Several times, he was forced to find different hiding places when he was identified as a Jew. As he wandered from one Polish farm to another, Zvi tried his best to refrain from eating non-kosher meat.
“If I am to die, let me die as a Jew,” he said to himself. But when his refusal to eat meat aroused suspicion, little choice remained.
A Jewish boy he met in the street brought Zvi a Catholic baptismal certificate.
Thus, Ya’akov Zvi became Gregor Pawlowski. When German soldiers took him to Gestapo headquarters for questioning, he produced the certificate and was released. Fortunately, they did not check if he was circumcised. He was taken in by a Catholic orphanage.
Zvi’s actual baptism took place years later, when he was nearly 14, after the war was over, when the children in the orphanage prepared for their first communion.
Gregor did not disclose that he was Jewish, but only said that he had never been baptized. Hatred of Jews did not die in Poland with the end of the Nazi occupation. “The fear from the war never left me,” Father Gregor admits.
Nor were Catholic religious practices, learned with survival as their goal, easily abandoned. They had become a way of life, of fitting in and remaining alive to the orphaned child.
“Had I remained with Jews, and the Shoah not occurred, I would have been 100 percent like all the Jews,” Zvi says, almost wistfully. “My family was very religious. My mother told me that I would be a soldier of the messiah. In Catholic school, they told me about Jesus the messiah and I accepted that.
There is no contradiction [between being a Jew and a Catholic priest] since we are all speaking about the messiah.”
Moreover, there was no Jewish “place” to which the boy could return.
At the war’s end, some 300 Jews returned to Zamosc. They were not welcomed; at least two were murdered by anti-Semites. Before the war there had been 12,000 Jews. By 1947 only seven remained.
Haim, Zvi’s older brother, returned to Zamosc, but there was little hope of locating any family members; apparently, they had all perished. Haim set sail for Palestine, was interned by the British in a detention camp in Cyprus and eventually fought in Israel’s War of Independence, married and raised a family in Haifa.
Meanwhile, Gregor Pawlowski finished high school and was accepted at Lublin’s foremost seminary. Only in his second year, already wearing the robe of a seminarian, did he reveal to the rector that he was Jewish. Nevertheless, Pawlowski continued his studies and was ordained to the priesthood in 1958. The nuns from the orphanage hosted his ordination celebration since he had no family.
His clerical duties took him to a number of towns and villages in the Lublin diocese. In 1966 he published an article that related his personal story in a Catholic newspaper that was distributed all over Poland.
Pawlowski stresses that publicizing his Jewish background was courageous.
There are other “Jewish” priests in Poland who kept their origins a secret, he says. “But I could not deny my mother and my father any longer, especially since they were murdered for being Jews. I did not want to live a lie.”
The article was published overseas, and one day Haim received a telephone call from relatives who had seen it.
“Someone in your family may have been found,” they told him. Haim’s son Menahem Gal (Hebraized from Griner) remembers that when his father received the telephone call, “he turned white.”
With his voice cracking, Menahem tells his father’s story. Zvi and Menahem exchanged letters and hoped to meet in Israel. The Six Day War in 1967 caused relations between Poland and Israel to deteriorate, delaying the trip until 1970.
“Please don’t come dressed as a priest,” Menahem recalls his father asking.
But, to his elder brother’s chagrin, that is exactly what Pawlowski did. In Vienna, on his way to Israel, an Austrian immigration official had treated him with disrespect, like a “foreign Jew.” Therefore, his cassock became his ticket to respectability – but not in the eyes of his Israeli relatives.
TODAY, PAWLOWSKI does not wear a cross, so as not to make Jews feel uncomfortable. Once, he relates, while walking past a synagogue in Jaffa, he was approached to join a minyan.
“They gave me a kippa and put a tallit on me,” he recalls with pleasure. When asked how he felt praying in a synagogue and wearing a tallit, he says, “Fine! That’s how my father and brother prayed.”
Pawlowski speaks Hebrew, which he learned at an Israeli ulpan. He refers to himself as a “Kohen-Dat Katoli” – a stilted construct meaning “clergyman of the Catholic religion.” He serves as priest of the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community in Israel and chaplain to Polish Catholics in Tel Aviv-Jaffa.
Recently, he had a prelate’s miter, an honor in the Catholic church, conferred upon him by the Archbishop of Lublin. Pawlowski’s book Shoah Survivor, at the Service of Christ was published in Poland this year.
But according to traditional Jewish law, Zvi remains a Jew. In his own words: “I received a brit mila for my whole life.”
Zvi’s relations with his family have been tense over the years. When he initially arrived in Israel, he stayed at his brother’s home. But Menahem Gal remembers that his mother could not stand the idea of a priest returning to their home after his daily trip to church. Moreover, she feared the influence he might have on her children.
While Zvi has been included in family celebrations and in his brother’s funeral, his presence at more intimate family gatherings has not been encouraged.
Menahem and his family are observant Jews, and traditionally, Jews have held apostates in opprobrium.
The Hebrew term for apostasy is shmad – literally “annihilation.” Having an apostate as a relative is hardly a source of pride in a traditional Jewish family.
But can Pawlowski’s baptism and even his subsequent ordination as a priest be considered apostasy? Bereft of his family and the lone Jewish child in a Catholic orphanage, having witnessed close-up the martyrdom of Polish Jewry, was any other outcome likely? When asked if he remembered the Jewish declaration of faith, “Shma Yisrael,” from his childhood, Zvi rattles off the first verse, remarking that he had heard it many times in Israel. He uses the modern Israeli pronunciation, rather than the Polish-Jewish articulation of his early years. But when he reaches the second verse (“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart...”) he becomes confused and recites: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Pawlowski has never studied Judaism since his arrival in Israel. He mentions that he tried to take a course in Tel Aviv, but that it hadn’t worked out.
He seems completely unaware of Judaism’s intellectual and spiritual heritage and is uninterested in mining it – remaining a simple Polish parish priest, secure in his faith.
The priest is not torn between his two conflicting identities, although he recognizes that others see an abyss between the two. He proudly claims that he conducts himself as a Jew – fasting on Yom Kippur and eating matza on Passover.
Zvi says he prefers living in Israel, among “his own people,” to living in Poland, which he visits periodically. He contrasted his active and useful life in Israel with “waiting to die in an old-age home for priests in Poland.”
Menahem is still waiting for his uncle’s return to Judaism. “The tombstone he had made says, ‘I returned to them,’” he says skeptically. “How can it be considered a return if he returns as a priest? But he says that when he is buried, he will have returned.”
Israel’s Law of Return grants automatic citizenship to any Jew who immigrates to Israel – except one who has converted to another religion. Allowing a Christian to be registered as a Jew would to be a profound break in Jewish continuity and a betrayal of centuries of Jewish martyrs who gave up their lives rather than convert, according to the Supreme Court judge who ruled on this issue in the case of Brother Daniel, a converted Jew who requested Israeli citizenship in the 1960s.
Pawlowski is a naturalized citizen in Israel, whose identity papers state his name as Gregor Pawlowski, not Ya’akov Zvi Griner. Despite his suffering as a Holocaust survivor, despite his adherence to basic Jewish practice, and despite his joy when he heard of Israel’s victory in the Six Day War, Father Gregor Pawlowski/Ya’akov Zvi Griner is not considered a Jew by the State of Israel. He remains upset at this exclusion.
“A mother does not reject her child,” he claims irately. Just as he does not deny his Jewish origin and family, he wants Israel to accept him as a Jew. “Whatever people want to say about me, they can say. But it took courage to let the whole world know that I, a Catholic clergyman, am a Jew.”
Father Pawlowski erected his own tombstone in Izhbitze, fearing that after he died, there would be objection to the burial of a Catholic priest in the Jewish cemetery, despite the fact that there are no living Jews left in the village. He has arranged for a Warsaw rabbi to say kaddish at his funeral.
He reacts with surprise when asked why he wants to be buried there. “A family is always a family,” he says, his eyes damp. “A mother is always a mother. I am sure my mother and sisters are buried there. I want to be near Imma.”