Holocaust survivor turned priest to be buried as a Jew, as per his own wishes

Yaakov Tzvi Gruner was saved by the Church in World War II and dedicated his life to it in gratitude, but long ago decided that he would die as Jew.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

A Jewish Holocaust survivor turned priest who served the Catholic community in Israel for decades will be buried Wednesday next to his murdered family in Poland as a Jew, according to his own specific wishes.

Father Gregor Pawlowski was born Jacob Tzvi Gruner in 1931 and grew up in a religious home in Zamosc, Poland. When the Nazis invaded, the family was put in a local ghetto, and his father disappeared, presumably murdered by the Germans. He, his mother and two sisters were then moved in 1941 to another ghetto in Izbica along with the rest of the Jews of his town.  Gruner managed to escape, but his family was gunned down into large pits outside of Izbica along with the rest of Zamosc’s Jewish population.

The boy fled from place to place until eventually finding refuge in a church. He obtained a baptismal certificate in the name of Gregor Pawlowski, which he then kept for the rest of his life. He became a priest, but he never forgot his Jewish roots and wanted to serve among his people, even if not as one of them, and in 1970 the Church granted his request to send him to Israel.

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Before he left, he put up a monument at the Izbica mass murder site and even prepared a grave for himself there. In included an inscription on the stone that said in part, “I abandoned my family in order to save my life at the time of the Shoah…. 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.”

Pawlowski served the Catholic community of Jaffa for almost four decades. He became friendly seven years ago with a yeshiva head, Rabbi Shalom Malul, who regularly brings students to Poland, and had found the headstone, contacting the unusual priest when he returned. Whenever he returned to the site on another Holocaust education trip, he would call Pawlowski, who would recount the story of his survival to the students over the phone.

Malul said that Pawlowski had told him that he had joined the Church in deep gratitude for having been saved by them during the war. Yet he still felt intensely Jewish, said the rabbi.

“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,” Malul said.

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The rabbi said that Pawlowski also took on some Jewish rites, such as having a mezuzah on the doorpost to his home, fasting on Yom Kippur, and refraining from eating leavened bread items on Passover.

He did not keep his unusual burial plans a secret, either.

He not only wrote in his will that he wanted to “have a minyan at his funeral and to have Kaddish [Jewish prayer for the dead – ed.] said,” added Malul. ““He even told the Church about his will, which took no small amount of courage to do. He wrote that he would remain a Christian till he died, but that afterward he was cutting himself off from Christianity. The Church respected his wishes, and he continued to serve as a priest.”

Pawlowski died on October 21, aged 90, and Malul said that he will fulfill his friend’s will to the letter.

In 2008, on the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination, Pawlowski was interviewed extensively by a Catholic website and was asked why it was important to tell the entire story of his background.

“I did not want to live a lie,” he answered. “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.”

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Pawlowski did have one surviving relative, a brother who had fled into the USSR when it briefly held the area of Poland where the family lived. Chaim Gruner survived the war, emigrated to Israel and found his brother after reading an interview with Pawlowski in a Polish newspaper in 1966 in which he related his history and told of his plans to move to Israel.