Witnesses to Evil

In the Lion's Den: The Life of Oswald Rufeisen

by Nechama Tec
Oxford University Press, 279 pp., $21.95

A Mosaic of Victims: Non-Jews Persecuted and Murdered by the Nazis

edited by Michael Berenbaum
New York University Press, 244 pp., $17.50 (paper)

Out of the Inferno: Poles Remember the Holocaust

edited by Richard C. Lukas
The University Press of Kentucky, 201 pp., $25.00


Of the thousands of Jews who survived the Holocaust by disguising themselves as gentiles, Oswald Rufeisen, the subject of In the Lion’s Den, may have been the most resourceful. I first heard of him in the early 1960s, when the Israeli Supreme Court debated the request of Father Daniel, a Carmelite monk at the Stella Maris monastery on Mount Carmel in Haifa, to be given Israeli citizenship on the basis of the Law of Return. If this were granted, Father Daniel—formerly Oswald Rufeisen—would be identified in his Israeli passport as a Jew. One of the five judges was in favor of accepting Father Daniel’s claim, but the others turned him down, arguing that “a Jew who changed his religion cannot be counted as a Jew in the sense and the spirit that the Knesset (Parliament) meant in the Law of Return and as it is accepted among our people today.”

Several years later I met a historian, a specialist in East European affairs at the University of Haifa, who told me how at the time of the Supreme Court case he had been asked to interview Father Daniel. He did not find him at the monastery—Nechama Tec tells us in In the Lion’s Den that Father Daniel spends very little time there—so the historian talked to another monk, originally from Germany. “I don’t know why Father Daniel is creating such a commotion,” the monk said. “After all, I was born a Jew myself, but I didn’t mind petitioning the Israelis for Israeli citizenship and I don’t insist on my so-called rights.” “What kind of a person is Father Daniel?” the historian asked. Ein typischer Galizianer (a typical Galician), answered the monk—one of the nastier insults that a Western or Central European Jew might direct at an East European Jew.

In fact, Father Daniel/Oswald Rufeisen did not fit the stereotype of the Galician Jew: i.e., he was not dirtpoor, barely literate, and arrogant. As Nechama Tec, a professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, who herself once “passed” as a Catholic in wartime Poland with the help of non-Jewish Poles,1 shows in her fascinating and conscientiously researched account, Oswald Rufeisen came from a very modest West Galician family that had adopted the German-Austrian culture of the Habsburg monarchy of which Galicia was a part before 1918; at home the family spoke high German. This, more than anything else, later helped to save Rufeisen’s life. His father had served in the Habsburg army during World War I; he was wounded and became a Zugsführer, or buck sergeant (a far more modest rank than that of the position of platoon commander, which is usually held by a lieutenant, ascribed to him by Tec).2

In 1922, when Oswald Rufeisen was born, Galicia was already part of the Poland that had been re-created following World War I. Rather typically for the region and for its integrated families, Oswald first attended a Polish school where he was the only Jew and…

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