Friday, May 08, 2009

I Think I've Seen This Priest's Grave

The story:

...Grzegorz Pawlowski, a 78-year old Holocaust survivor from Poland, lives in a small and simply-furnished apartment in Jaffa.

In a level voice, but with his eyes still wide with the memory, Grzegorz related the long story that wound on from the moment, at the age of 11, he was separated from his mother and sisters - whom the Nazis then shot and dumped in a mass grave. Grzegorz survived for three years by wandering the streets and the countryside, and hiding.

He ended up, after the war, in an orphanage run by the Red Cross.

"I'm afraid to speak that I was Jew," he told me, swapping for the moment from Polish-accented Hebrew to halting English. "I'm afraid. Because Jew - you can kill him, yes?" And so Grzegor allowed himself to be baptised, before the orphans were to receive their first communion.

It was the start of a journey to Catholicism, which ended with him being ordained as a priest in 1958. But he kept his secret identity for another eight years.

"I felt uncomfortable that I was denying, to my mother and to my father, the fact that I'm Jewish. And so in 1966, I wrote an article in a Catholic Weekly, and there I told my whole story… how I got through the Holocaust, and how I became a priest."

Through that article, Father Pawlowski made contact with the one surviving member of his family - his brother, whom he thought was still living in Russia, where he had first escaped to.

Instead, his brother had made it to Haifa, in Israel. Grzegorz's conversion was a source of pain to his brother. "He never accepted it, never accepted it."

A long sigh followed. "He was a very religious Jew. We had very good relations. But he prayed that I come back to Judaism."

Much as Father Neuhaus explained, Father Pawlowski says that his identity, too, cannot be folded into neat boxes.

"I am a Catholic priest, and I also see myself as Jewish. I am connected to the Jewish nation. On Yom Kippur, I fast. At Passover, I eat matzah."

Sometimes, in synagogue, he says, he has to remember not to cross himself, and kneel; in church he has to make sure he is not wearing his kippa (skull-cap). Father Pawlowski delivers this last reminder to himself in a flat voice, before breaking into a loud, wheezy laugh.

And he has one final commitment to his Jewish roots.

"Close to where my mother and sisters were killed [in Poland], there's a Jewish cemetery, where there is a memorial to my mother and all those who were shot. And I will be buried there, next to my mother, in the Jewish cemetery."

The back story:

Five years ago, on the trip to Poland, we were in Izibiza and the guide, Rav Benn, showed us a strange thing. A gravestone for someone not yet dead. And the story was that a priest could not deny his Jewish roots and so would, upon his death, be brought back to this cemetery in the town he was born as a Jew and where his family was slaughtered in the cemetery.

The picture is a bit blurry in that it was raining and foggy. But here it is:

You can, if you click on the picture, make out the sign of the fish (the ancient Christian-Jewish symbol) as well as the Hebrew letters on the right side of the tombstone.

And I just took another look myself and yes, it is Yaakov Tzvi Pawlowski.

And see here for more details.

1 comment:

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