A few days ago, 90-year-old Gregor Pavlovsky, once known as Yaakov Tzvi Gruner, passed away. Pavlovsky was born a Jew, was rescued from the Nazis at age nine, and died as a priest, with both Christian clergymen and religious Jews attending his funeral.
Rabb Shalom Malul, dean of the Amit yeshivah in Ashdod, related something of Pavlovsky’s life, gleaned from his discussions with him over recent years.
“He had a wonderful childhood,” Rabbi Malul related. “He learned in cheder, in a traditional religious framework.” Then, the Second World War broke out, and with the entry of the Germans into Poland, the Jews of Pavlovsky’s town were confined to a ghetto. His father was murdered, and then in ’42, his family was relocated to the town of Izbitza, which was just a stop on the way to the death camps, although many of the town’s Jews were also shot in the town and buried in mass graves. Several of Pavlovsky’s relatives shared this fate.
“It was at this stage that the young Pavlovsky sought refuge in the church where he was taken in as an orphan with a new identity. While he preserved the memory of his Jewish heritage in his heart, he began to learn about Christianity and eventually studied for the priesthood.”
Asked why young Yaakov Tzvi did not return to his Jewish roots when the war ended, Rabbi Malul replies that he never asked him why – during their discussions, they always focused on the latter years of Pavlovsky’s life. All the same, Rabbi Malul thought it reasonable to assume that, “as a young orphan with his whole past life destroyed, he must have felt protected and safe in his new life and wondered whether it was worth shaking everything up to start over. And maybe he also felt a certain sense of connection to Christianity, even though his Jewish identity always remained important to him.”
Yaakov Tzvi progressed in his studies, and then, just before qualifying, he decided to inform his teachers that he was actually Jewish.
“The Church was shocked and confused hearing that,” Rabbi Malul relates, “but after conferring with his superiors, his teachers decided that they would accept the situation as it was and allow him to complete his studies. They added that he was not the only Jew who had been adopted by the Church. And so, he was made a priest and became a very respected member of the clergy.”
20 years passed, and in ’66, Pavlovsky wrote an article in which he described something of his life. The article was published and reached the hands of his own family, who gave it to Yaakov Tzvi’s brother, who had survived the Holocaust with his Jewish faith and observance intact. The two met.
“Yaakov Tzvi told his brother of his wish to live as Jew among his own people,” Rabbi Malul relates. “He asked the Church to be appointed to a position in Israel and he was sent to Yaffo, where he lived among Jews.” A while later, he and his brother traveled to Poland where they erected a monument in memory of their parents and other members of the Jewish community of Izbitza who had been murdered during the Holocaust.
“In his will, Yaakov Tzvi wrote that he wanted to return to his people in full – he wanted to have a minyan at his funeral, and to have Kaddish said,” Rabbi Malul relates. “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 while living in Yaffo despite his will stating that he wanted to die and be buried as a Jew. He also started fasting on Yom Kippur and stopped eating chametz on Pesach.”
After becoming acquainted with the story of Pavlovsky, Rabbi Malul would contact him in Israel whenever he was on a trip to Poland with his students, so that they could listen to Yaakov Tzvi’s story while actually standing on Polish soil.
During one conversation, Rabbi Malul suggested to Pavlovsky that he might consider returning to Judaism before his death, given that the Church already knew of his intentions, and he asked him if he would like to start putting on tefillin. However, Pavlovsky replied that “he felt grateful to the Church and to Christianity, for saving his life.” Instead, Rabbi Malul came up with the idea of giving Pavlovsky a mezuzah to put up on his door, and the priest agreed.
On Rabbi Malul’s next visit to Pavlovsky, he brought the mezuzah with him. “I asked him if he wanted to affix it himself. I put a yarmulke on his head and he made the blessing. And whenever I spoke to him afterward, he told me proudly how he took care of the mezuzah and made sure it didn’t fall off.”
From Pavlovsky’s life story, the picture of how the Church interacted with Jews during and after the Holocaust becomes more complex than is often portrayed, and Rabbi Malul explains that, “Portraying things as simpler than they are can backfire, and people may wonder if information is being kept from them. It’s far better to present the issue in its full complexity, which shows that we’re not afraid of the facts and are open to discussing anything.”
Rabbi Malul adds that the story of Pavlovsky and the trials he underwent are unlike anything most of us ever encounter. Pavlovsky was presented with the question of how to live his life and also how to die – and he could easily have opted to die as he had lived, as a priest, and be buried with all the pomp and circumstance that a respected member of the clergy would have been accorded. Instead, he chose to rejoin his People. “Everything goes according to the ending, and Yaakov Tzvi was, at root, a Jew,” he says. “That’s something that everyone can learn from.”
Later this week, Rabbi Malul will be traveling to Poland together with several tour guides and six of his former students, in order to be present at Pavlovky’s Jewish burial, recite Kaddish with a minyan, and fulfill the last wishes of Yaakov Tzvi Gruner.