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Witnesses to Evil

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

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

Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe, 1933–1945

by Raul Hilberg
HarperCollins/Aaron Asher Books, 340 pp., $25.00

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

1.

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 where he learned to recite Catholic prayers (which also helped him to survive later on); he then went to a Jewish school in which instruction was in high German; and finally to a Polish high school. He did not, he told Tec, suffer any discrimination in the Polish schools, and he had just graduated from high school when the Germans attacked in September 1939. The family fled east but only Oswald and his brother Arieh made it to Lithuania, at that time still a neutral and independent state. Vilna (Wilno, Vilnius) was under Polish rule in the years between the two world wars but Stalin had recently turned it over to Lithuania, knowing well that the latter country would soon be part of the Soviet Union. In Vilna, Oswald worked for a shoemaker and learned the trade, another turn of good fortune that would soon save his life.

In June 1940, the Red Army occupied Lithuania and, among its many crimes, deported to Siberia a number of Zionists and Bundists. Most Jews now tried to get out of Lithuania; Oswald’s brother Arieh and other members of their Zionist group Akiva received certificates to emigrate to Palestine; 2,400 other Lithuanian Jews made it to Japan, thanks to help from a warm-hearted Japanese consul. Yet when the Germans came, at the end of June 1941, Oswald was still in Vilna. Shortly thereafter, a Lithuanian policeman arrested him and his friends in the street for speaking Polish in public and for walking on the sidewalk rather than in the middle of the street. Thus they suffered doubly as Poles and as Jews.

Life for Oswald now became a series of narrow escapes. The Germans killed all the Jews in the prison, except for four they needed as shoemakers. Oswald, who was briefly able to go outside the prison, made the acquaintance of a local farmer who hid him and sent him to a relative in Belorussia. By then, Oswald had decided that for the rest of the war he would not admit to being a Jew. Again and again on his wanderings, he was recognized by Germans and Belorussians as a Jew; again and again, he persuaded them otherwise. Because he spoke perfect Polish and German, he did not, despite his looks, fit the local stereotype of a Jew. Also, he shrewdly claimed to be half-Polish and half-German, which meant that he could neither be elevated to the rank of a Volksdeutscher, too daring a gamble, nor reduced to the status of a Pole, an equally dangerous position, although not for the same reason.

Oswald was recruited to work for the German gendarmerie in the Belorussian town of Mir, where he advanced from interpreter to being in charge of dealing with the locals. By then he had learned to speak Belorussian. He was given a modified SS uniform and a gun, as well as a horse, which he could ride very well, for he had learned to ride as a boy: further proof in the eyes of onlookers that he could not possibly be a Jew.

Oswald’s superior in the town of Mir was Polizeimeister [Master Sergeant] Hein, a true police professional. Serious, efficient, taciturn, fair, strict about the rules, kind and fatherly toward Oswald, Hein never himself hit or killed anyone. He obeyed the rules, of course, which in Belorussia decreed that all the Jews should be liquidated wherever they happened to live. So Hein organized the appropriate Aktionen, and sent his more bloodthirsty underlings to do the job. He made sure, however, that the Jewish families about to be killed were properly informed that they had been sentenced to death.

It was Oswald’s task to translate the death sentences into Belorussian. (He spoke no Yiddish; not that he would have volunteered to use the language.) He told Nechama Tec, and eyewitness accounts cited by Tec seem to bear Oswald out, that by forging papers and by other evasive tactics he had saved as many lives as he possibly could. When once asked to shoot Jews himself, he politely declined. This was accepted because he was one of the German squad; the Germans did not allow the Belorussian police to refuse.

How could Oswald have gotten away with it all when so many people suspected him of being a Jew? Why did no one ask him to drop his trousers, a sure-fire method of inquiry that is mentioned in Louis Begley’s Wartime Lies and made much of in the film Europa, Europa, and was widely practiced, in my experience, in Hungary under Arrow Cross fascist rule? (In Budapest, this method of investigation, in the open street, was the specialty of a notorious deaf-mute squad.) He says that there was only one occasion, at a public bath, when he could have been discovered, but then Hein paid no attention to him. It all sounds rather unlikely, almost theatrically contrived. Still, there are the many Jewish survivors from Mir whose lives he saved, and who testify to having seen him on horseback in German uniform, brandishing a gun.

The most difficult moment came when Oswald learned that the complete liquidation of the Mir ghetto was planned for August 13, 1942. He immediately alerted some fellow Zionists in the ghetto and supplied them with a small arsenal of guns, grenades, and bullets. A breakout was organized and three hundred people escaped, quite a few of whom actually survived. The five hundred who remained were all killed. But Oswald himself was betrayed by someone who still remains unidentified; he confessed the gun smuggling and later even his Jewishness to Polizeimeister Hein. He was arrested, although only formally, for he continued to work for Hein and to take his meals with the gendarmes. When Hein later let him run away, he fled to a nearby Polish convent, whose mother superior he knew. The nuns sheltered him for sixteen long months; occasionally he had to be dressed as a nun. Meanwhile, he learned Christian rituals and was even baptized.

When the situation became untenable for the nuns themselves, Oswald escaped to the forest, there to join the partisans before he was liberated by the advancing Soviet army in August 1944. Oswald worked briefly for the Soviet NKVD but then moved to Cracow in Poland, where he first became a monk, and then, in 1952, an ordained priest. In 1956, his order agreed to send him to Israel.

Today, Father Daniel leads a small group of persons who hope for the reunification of Jews and Christians. He holds that Christianity and Judaism were originally one, and he advocates the creation of a Hebrew Church. People whom he had saved in Mir and elsewhere gather regularly in Israel and celebrate him as a hero.

2.

As if responding to the growing public interest in all those who were involved, whether passively or actively, in the Holocaust, Raul Hilberg has attempted a summary of the current state of knowledge in his Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders. Universally recognized as the preeminent scholar of the subject, Hilberg, who recently retired as professor of political science at the University of Vermont, has included much recent research in his book. It is likely to become a basic university textbook, along with his monumental three-volume The Destruction of the European Jews.

Whether Hilberg has entirely succeeded in achieving a synthesis is, however, debatable. Perhaps he was trying to do too much. The section “Perpetrators” includes, among others, separate chapters on Hitler, the “old functionaries” inherited by the Nazi regime, the enthusiastic and less than enthusiastic killers, the physicians, the lawyers, and the non-German volunteers who took part in the Holocaust. The section on “Victims” includes separate essays on, among others, the Jewish leaders, the somewhat divergent fate of Jewish men and women, Jews living in mixed marriages, Christian Jews, suicides, escapees, and resisters. Hilberg also discusses every nation in Hitler’s Europe as well as the Allies, the neutral powers, the rescuers of the Jews, the churches, and many others. In some cases he illustrates group characteristics with precise statistics; in others he offers interesting examples; in still others he treats the subject much too briefly.

  1. 1

    Other works by Nechama Tec, both highly recommended, are Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood (Oxford University Press, 1984) and When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland (Oxford University Press, 1986.) The latter was reviewed in these pages on December 19, 1985.

  2. 2

    There is nothing surprising about Tec’s—or was it Oswald Rufeisen’s?—mistranslation of Papa Rufeisen’s military rank. Many Jews of Central or East Central European origin cherish the memory of an ancestor who served under Francis Joseph, the greatest friend the Jews ever had. It is only natural that the military rank of such a notable forefather should rise with the passage of time. After all, both captains and buck sergeants wore three stars on the collars of their uniform. Who today can tell from faded old photographs the difference between gold stars and white stars?

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