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Ordained by the Holocaust

Ordained by the Holocaust

Hundreds of Holocaust survivors never returned to Judaism and joined the Christian clergy.


Jaffa, Israel -- The embossed nameplate on the door of an apartment here a few blocks from the Mediterranean lists two occupants. The English letters identify Grzegorz Pawlowski; the Hebrew, Zvi Griner.

Only one man lives in the apartment. Grzegorz Pawlowski is the Polish name that Zvi Griner, a Jew, took while in hiding during the Holocaust. He survived by posing as a Catholic and later decided to become a priest.

Like many Jews who accepted -- or in the case of thousands of children during the Shoah, were raised in -- Christianity, Pawlowski says he is both. But as a member of the Christian clergy, his case has special poignancy for the Jewish community, which, more than 60 years after the end of World War II, is still dealing with the losses it suffered during the 12 years of the Third Reich.

Jewish lives could often find refuge in Christian hands, but their spiritual future was in doubt.

Today, Pawlowski, who wears a collar and conducts Mass in his Roman Catholic church here, is a stark reminder of one of the realities of the Holocaust. Jewish lives could often find refuge in Christian hands, but their spiritual future was in doubt.

Like him, many survived. Like him, many never returned to Judaism. Like him, many, out of belief or gratitude, became priests or nun.

Today, many of these men and women have died, the rest are aging, and many have chosen to serve as living bridges between their religion of birth and their religion of choice.

An estimated several hundred Jews who are still alive took their Catholic or Protestant vows, especially in Poland, a phenomenon little known and scarcely documented.

The number is at least "a couple hundred," says Rabbi Chaskel Besser, a Holocaust survivor who has served as director of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation's activities in Poland and has reconnected "hidden Jews" with their unknown or long-forgotten Jewish roots.

Jews in Poland alone talk of several hundred contemporary priests -- and a like number of nuns -- who are Jewish.

"This is primarily a Polish story," says Holocaust historian Michael Berenbaum. That's where the most Jews lived before the Holocaust, where the most Catholics honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Gentiles lived during World War II.

And outside of Holocaust history circles, it is largely an unknown story.

As a hidden cost of the Shoah, these members of the Christian clergy -- many, raised as Christians, probably remain unaware of their Jewish roots -- present a conundrum to Jews who honor the risks taken by Christians in occupied Europe to save Jewish lives, but condemn any attempt to take Jewish souls.

Uncounted thousands of Holocaust survivors owed their lives to Christians -- lay believers and members of the clergy -- who joined the ranks of wartime Righteous Gentiles.

"There is hardly a Jew who survived," said Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the late, Jewish-born Archbishop of Paris, " who did not, in one way or another, one day or another, receive help from a Catholic or a priest, or from a network connected with Catholicism or Protestantism."

Cardinal Lustiger, who spoke Yiddish and had the Kaddish recited at his funeral in 2007, is the best-known Holocaust-era priest who was born Jewish and openly maintained his Jewish identity.

Others with similar stories include:

• Brother Daniel, the Carmelite monk who was born Oswald Rufeisen in Poland and rescued several Jews from the Nazis. Hidden in a monastery for a year, he converted to Catholicism; his attempt to make aliyah became a test case of Israel's Law of Return.

• Israel Zolli, the controversial chief rabbi of Rome during the Nazi occupation who became baptized in 1945 and took the name Eugenio, the original name of Pope Pius XII, whom Zolli credited with saving thousands of Jews under the auspices of the Vatican.

• George Pogany, the priest raised by convert parents in prewar Hungary. The story of his twin brother's return to Judaism is told in Eugene Pogany's "In My Brother's Image: Twin Brothers Separated by Faith After the Holocaust" (Penguin Books, 2000).

Many of the Jews who survived the Shoah with Christian help were children, given by their parents to Christian families or to convents or monasteries as the Nazi noose tightened.

As death at the hands of the Nazis approached, Jewish parents in Nazi Europe faced a crucial decision.

"Most of us came from secular homes," says Nechama Tec, Holocaust survivor and author of a biography of Brother Daniel. "Jewish Orthodox children hardly ever made it to the Christian world."

As death at the hands of the Nazis approached, Jewish parents in Nazi Europe faced a crucial decision -- trust their children with Christian friends or strangers, or keep the family intact and likely consign them to death?

Rabbis -- notably Ephraim Oshry in the Kovno ghetto, author of "Responsa from the Holocaust" (Judaica Press, 1983) -- had to answer such questions daily.

"In the case of uncertainty" -- will the children emerge as Jews? -- "regarding matters of life or death one should be lenient ... and allow parents ... to entrust their infants to non-Jews," Rabbi Oshry wrote.

These issues "were examined ... by groups of rabbis who acted as public leadership," according to Esther Farbstein in "Hidden in Thunder: Perspectives on Faith, Halachah and Leadership during the Holocaust" (Mossad Harav Kook, Jerusalem, 2007).

Today the Jewish community faces an inevitable question: how do we regard these Jews who forsook, or never knew, their Jewish identities?

"Children who didn't know anything [about their true identities] certainly are tinnuk b'nishbah," says Rabbi Yitzchak Guttman, compiler of a recent CD on "Respona of the Holocaust" issued by Israel's Machon Netivei Ha'Halacha, using the Hebrew term for a Jew taken into captivity and raised without a Jewish upbringing.

"You can't judge them. Nobody can judge them," says Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. He was saved by a Catholic nanny who had him baptized and raised him as a practicing Catholic.

"Had my parents not survived" and reclaimed him, Foxman says, "I wanted to become a priest or the cardinal of Warsaw."

Foxman says he doesn't condemn these individuals, but he mourns their loss to the Jewish people. "It's still part of the price of the Shoah that we continue to pay."


Pawlowski was raised in a "very religious" family. His parents ran a small wood-and-coal trading business. "We celebrated all the holidays. I have very good memories," he says, sitting in the darkened library of the church where he has served since 1970.

Jakub Hersch -- Zvi is the Hebrew version of Hersch -- was 8 when the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, starting World War II.

The Jews of Hersch's shtetl, Zamosc, near Lublin, were herded into a ghetto. His father was taken away for forced labor and did not return. His mother and two sisters were killed near a ravine.

The next six years, until the end of the war, were a succession of close calls, betrayals and escapes as he hid on farm after farm in the Polish countryside. At one point, a Jewish boy undercover provided a false baptismal certificate, explaining that "If you want to survive, that's they way to do it," by posing as a Catholic.

Hersch's new identity was as Grzegorz Pawlowski. Catholic neighbors in Zamosc taught him Catholic prayers. Homeless at the end of the war, he was placed in a small orphanage run by nuns. At 13, he was baptized. By then, he says, "I believed in it. I didn't remember anything about Judaism." He converted because "I didn't want to be different from the [other, Catholic] kids." Zealous in his adopted faith, he studied for the priesthood; ordained in 1958, he worked in various villages around Lublin.

In 1970 he moved to Israel to be near his brother, who had survived the war and lived in Haifa. Pawlowski was assigned to Jaffa, where he served the country's Polish-speaking Catholics. His job does not call on him to bring Jews to Christianity, he says. "I am not a missionary." Pawlowski is a citizen of Israel, his Jewish identity widely known. Sometimes he is invited to synagogue services and Passover seders. His apartment, whose doorpost bears a mezuzah, features photographs of Jesus as a shepherd and of the memorial monument in Poland he and his brother erected for their martyred family members. "I didn't forget" my roots, he says.

Pawlowski, 79, who recently marked his 50th year in the priesthood, has arranged to be buried near Zamosc, next to his relatives, when the time comes. A gravestone, inscribed in Hebrew and Polish, already stands in the cemetery. It bears two names: Father Grzegorz Pawlowski. And Jacob Zvi Griner.

A longer version of this article originally appeared in The Jewish Week.


November 15, 2008

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Visitor Comments: 23

(23) Zev, July 23, 2010 1:46 PM

My cousin

It is more painful realizing this is my cousin. His story is painful. I suppose if one looks hard at the Catholic Church, s/he would realize that this church almost destroyed all the Jews in Europe and created the conditions for the Holocaust.

(22) Rachel, December 2, 2008 8:37 AM

On my in-laws

My in-laws were children in France during the War, they were separated from their parents and in hiding. Both their fathers were murdered. After the war, although reunited with their mothers, they had little connection with Jews & Judaism. My husband had a very secular upbringing. I am a convert TO Judaism, and our 2 children are the only great-grandchildren of his family's martyrs who are being raised as Jews.

(21) Anonymous, November 25, 2008 3:23 PM

I've spent the last 3 years in Poland trying to understand exactly what happened. Its the epicentre of our trauma. what have I learned: The powerful Catholic church in Poland is the reason why eastern europe today is liberated. I was there when the pope died. The way the people mourned was fantastic and at the same time worthy and I started to realize the power and greatness of good faith - the power to break down the walls of any evil empire. This article is an important piece of the puzzle.

(20) Laura Campos, November 22, 2008 3:04 PM

This is all so deeply touching and interesting to me. I am the granddaughter of Romanian Jews who emigrated to America in 1899. My mother is half Jewish on her father''s side, which, of course, means she''s not a Jew and neither am I. It''s amazing how Jewish she looks, and on a recent visit to Paris'' Jewish Museum everyone assumed I was Jewish because of my appearance. I feel such a kinship with the Jewish people and their traditions and am drawn to Jewish history as well, including Holocaust history. My mother and I visited Poland in the early 2000''s on Remembrance Day and visited Auschwitz/Birkenau. We both spend much of our free time reading Jewish subjects and watching Jewish themed documentaries. Yet I am a committed Catholic and she is secular, never having been instructed in the Jewish faith and feeling no need to convert. There is no way for these two parts of me to reconcile, but I am still, somehow, in a way I don''t understand, both Jewish and Christian. It is there, in my heart, no matter what the world says. HaShem will sort me out one day! May G-d''s blessings be on Israel always.

(19) Anonymous, November 19, 2008 1:51 PM

Greatful for conversion

When my grandfather retired about 4 years ago he began to research our family history. We found that our ancestors had converted to xtianity during the Inquisition in Spain and later in Germany. Had they not done this my grandfather and I would not be here, reviving our Jewish heritage. Surely, they could have been more courageous, but if that had resulted in their deaths generations of my family would have been lost!

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