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


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.


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.

As we would expect, the book reaches careful and persuasive conclusions. Hilberg convinces us that, despite the lack of documentary evidence, Hitler was “the supreme architect of the Jewish catastrophe”; that in the lives of hundreds of German high functionaries the murder of the Jews was only a minor incident in long and successful careers; and that while some bureaucratic killers, for example an official of the German railroads, dedicated themselves to the deportation program with ascetic fanaticism, others saw it as a matter of boring routine.

Hilberg proves, if further proof be needed, that German medical doctors and jurists were among the most vicious murderers and torturers, and that after World War II most of these professionals went on to even more successful careers. He demonstrates that while steadfast rules cannot be applied to the countries in Hitler’s Europe, no government or nation was either entirely blameless or entirely guilty. The same cautious judgment must be ventured about most of the Jewish leaders.

One of Hilberg’s most interesting chapters deals with the refugees, who, having escaped the Nazis, often had deep psychological and economic difficulties. Yet he reminds us that sixteen Jewish refugees from Germany, Austria, Italy, and Hungary received Nobel Prizes in the sciences after emigrating, which makes one speculate about the possible outcome of World War II had the Nazis not been anti-Semitic.

Mixed marriages and mixed offspring caused more headaches to Nazi officials than perhaps any other aspect of the “Jewish Question.” The bureaucrats were never quite able to decide whether the Jewish blood of the half-and quarter-Jews, or Mischlinge, fatally infected the Aryan part of their blood or whether, conversely, their Aryan blood successfully cleansed their Jewish blood cells. The compromise formula developed in 1935 by Chancellor Adenauer’s future cabinet chief, Hans Globke, contradicted Nazi racial theories, for it separated the “Jewish” Mischlinge from the “non-Jewish” Mischlinge solely on the basis of the religion of parents, grandparents, and the Mischlinge themselves. The Nazis would have liked to dissolve mixed marriages by decree, but they never dared to do so for fear of a Catholic backlash; nor did more than a handful of non-Jewish men and women leave their spouses in the face of impending catastrophe.

The problem of Christian Jews was particularly acute in Germany, Austria, and Hungary, Hilberg shows, where there were many baptized Jews or persons of Jewish descent who had been “born” into a Christian denomination. In Hungary, for instance, nearly 10 percent of the so-called Jews belonged to one or another of the Christian churches. (As in many other European countries, church membership was compulsory in Hungary unless one secured permission to be “without a confession,” a status which, incidentally, did not exempt one from having to pay church taxes.) The right-wing Catholic governments of Hungary, Croatia, and Slovakia were especially ambiguous on the subject of Christian Jews. If a higher proportion of baptized Jews than nonbaptized Jews survived the Holocaust, this was because Jews who converted were already largely assimilated and had relatively high financial and social standing, and a fierce determination to escape the tragedy of Jewishness.

Of the many chapters on “Bystanders,” the one on “Messengers” is particularly revealing in its account of such fascinating figures as the SS officer Kurt Gerstein and the Polish underground fighter Jan Karski, both of whom risked their lives to bring the news of the Holocaust to a very skeptical world.

Hilberg offers no conclusion, but then there is really no way to reach a single conclusion in a book that reveals the terrible complexity of both the Holocaust and the for the most part muddled reactions to it by non-Jews. The tone of Hilberg’s book is characteristic of his other work—correct, restrained, and resolutely objective.


Despite its generous scope, Hilberg’s book still confines itself to the destruction of the Jews. A Mosaic of Victims represents one of the more successful attempts to combine the study of the Jewish Holocaust with that of the Nazi persecution of non-Jews. The editor, Michael Berenbaum, is project director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum; the contributors of the twenty-three essays come from several countries and represent divergent opinions, especially on such controversial questions as Polish anti-Semitism and Jewish Polonophobia, or Ukrainian resistance to and collaboration with the Nazis.

The two central questions that emerge from the collection of essays are whether the Nazi policy toward the Jews was based on a European consensus, and whether the Holocaust was a phase in a larger historic movement to achieve ethnic homogeneity. To both these questions, the author of the first general essay, Richard L. Rubenstein, gives a resounding yes. He argues that genocide is an established historical practice, whether in North and South America or in Australia, and that the policy of Nazi Germany differed from that of European colonizing powers only insofar as German policy was based on deliberately formulated intentions. In other words, Hitler was less hypocritical, and he had fewer illusions.

Rubenstein argues that the Europeans were virtually unanimous in wanting to exclude the Jews from the political communities in which they lived, and whether or not they admitted it to themselves, exclusion was tantamount to a demand for extermination. In Rubenstein’s view, the Holocaust was, paradoxically, an unintended consequence of the Jewish emancipation that had given the Jews a political voice. Church leaders, especially, “saw the denial of political rights to the Jews as a beneficial step toward the creation of a Europe that was culturally, intellectually, socially, and politically Christian.” Hence their deliberate silence in face of the Final Solution. The critical fact according to Rubenstein is

that the overwhelming majority of Germans regarded even the most assimilated Jews as aliens whose elimination would be a positive benefit to the nation…. Unfortunately, one cannot even say that it is irrational to want an ethnically or religiously homogeneous community consisting of those with whom one shares a sense of common faith, kinship, and trust.

Witness the case of Japan, Rubenstein contends, whose astounding success is owing, in large part, to its ethnic and cultural homogeneity.

These extreme and even desperate statements depend far too much on Rubenstein’s tendency to ascribe deep, unacknowledged genocidal motives to entire social institutions. Whereas one must agree with him that ethnic homogeneity has been the primary aim of many modern political movements, and that the elimination of minorities shows the popular appeal of these movements, no proof exists that ethnically homogeneous societies are more efficient than pluralistic societies, Japan’s recent success notwithstanding. Moreover, Rubenstein attributes too much purposefulness and unity to the “churches,” not limiting himself to the Catholic church, although even in the case of the latter one cannot demonstrate the existence of any unambiguous policy toward the Jews.

Indeed, Rubenstein may well exaggerate the importance of the churches in the Holocaust. As Hilberg argues in Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, “the churches, once a powerful presence on the European continent, had reached the nadir of their influence during the Second World War.” The major reason for the Vatican’s powerlessness, Hilberg says, was that the Pope could not speak out against fascism without alienating the Axis powers or against communism without alienating the Allies.

In his essay on Germany’s forced labor program in A Mosaic of Victims, Edward Homze demonstrates that, by August 1944, there were 7.6 million foreigners working within the Reich, and that in their case, as in all other cases of German policy, one must distinguish between the Nazi treatment of West Europeans, which was relatively mild, and that of the East Europeans, which was brutal, with the most abominable treatment reserved for the Poles and Soviet citizens. Peter Black shows, in his essay on forced labor in the concentration camps, that, beginning in 1942, the policy of the SS toward the camp inmates changed from annihilation through hard labor to an attempt to hold down the mortality rate so as to create a large labor pool for the war economy. However, stupidity, sloth, brutality, and the steady ability of the Gestapo to replenish the numbers of prisoners weakened this entrepreneurial scheme. The Nazis remained killers.

Writing on Nazi policies against the partisans in Serbia, Christopher Browning shows in A Mosaic of Victims that the German army’s ferocious terror did not pacify the population; instead, it provoked unrelenting violence. One manifestation of this senseless behavior was the German killing of thousands of innocent people in Serbian regions unaffected by partisan activity. Most of the German troops in Serbia were from Austria and were led by Austrian officers who were supposedly familiar with the peculiarities of the local population. Yet these commanders could think of no better solution than to execute one hundred “Communists and Jews” for every German soldier killed.

It did not matter that the Jews—as well as the Gypsies, who were almost completely annihilated—were the least likely to have engaged in guerrilla activity. One of the most horrifying absurdities of the war occurred at a camp in Sabac when predominantly Austrian soldiers gunned down about a thousand Central European Jewish refugees, mostly from Vienna, in retaliation for Serbian attacks on the German army. Even after the extensive killing of Serbian civilians had been stopped, late in 1941, the army continued to murder the completely harmless Jews and Gypsies.

Controversies begin with the essays on Poland and the Ukraine. Richard C. Lukas, the author, among other books, of The Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles under German Occupation, 1939–1944,3 has made it his life’s work to remind the Western public of Polish sacrifices and suffering; he argues that between 1939 and 1941 when the Jews were herded into ghettos and confined there, the Poles were the major victims of German racial policies. The first killing by poison gas at Auschwitz included three hundred Poles and seven hundred Russian prisoners of war. Nor did the Germans ever abandon their objective of exterminating the Poles, with the result that of the six million Polish citizens killed during the war, over 50 percent were not Jews.

Referring to a study by the American sociologist Jan T. Gross, Hilberg writes in Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders that

in 1940 and 1941 there was a widespread belief among the Poles that they were more exposed and threatened than the Jews. The Jewish communities had a form of self-government in their councils; Jews were not shipped to Germany, and they were not arrested or tortured for political reasons. At the same time it was thought that Jews, unlike Poles, were docile and subservient to the Germans.

Wartime beliefs do not, however, necessarily reflect reality, and it is depressing to encounter in some Polish publications (but not in Lukas’s writings) the argument that, during the first two years of the war, the Jews were indifferent to the Polish plight—as if Jews had had a choice between indifference and compassion. Admittedly, however, that argument is not as frequently heard as the quite paranoid accusation that the Poles were somehow responsible for the Nazi Holocaust, or that the Germans chose to locate their death camps in Poland because of Polish anti-Semitism and not because most European Jews lived there and because the Poles had no government to oppose the existence of gas chambers in their own backyard. It was, after all, far easier to transport a few hundred thousand Western European Jews to Poland than to ship over three million Polish and at least a million other East European Jews to an imaginary Auschwitz or Treblinka, set up, let us say, near Paris.

Israel Gutman, another contributor to A Mosaic of Victims, does not dispute most of the Polish claims, but points out that whereas the Nazis wanted to kill the Jews everywhere, the extermination of all the Poles was not a Nazi goal. For instance, the Nazis did not hunt down the numerous Poles or Polish intellectuals in France, Hungary, and Belgium. Gutman is undoubtedly right about the Nazis’ not wanting to kill all the Poles, but when it comes to Nazi plans regarding the Polish intelligentsia, I am not so sure. Lukas writes in the introduction to Out of the Inferno: Poles Remember the Holocaust 4 that, during the war, the Nazis wiped out 45 percent of Poland’s physicians and dentists, 40 percent of the professors, 57 percent of the lawyers, 30 percent of the technicians, almost 20 percent of the clergy, and most of the leading journalists. If we add to this the thousands of Polish professionals deported or killed on the orders of Stalin, then we can get some idea of the catastrophe of Polish elites.

The most heated debate in A Mosaic of Victims takes place over the Ukraine. Bohdan Vitvitsky points out that of

a total population of 36 million, 3 million Ukrainian Gentiles perished at the hands of the Nazis, another 2.4 million were pirated off for slave labor in Germany, additional hundreds of thousands were murdered as Soviet POWs, and last, 11,000 collaborated.

Aharon Weiss does not share this minimalist view of the Ukrainian collaboration; he strongly opposes the attempts of Ukrainians to deny that they were anti-Semitic, and he points out that a remarkable proportion of the Ukrainian population welcomed the German army as liberators. He quotes, as a typical example of Ukrainian prejudice, the slogan of a group of militantly anti-German, and thus not collaborationist, Ukrainians: “Long live a greater independent Ukraine without Jews, Poles, and Germans; Poles behind the river San, Germans to Berlin, and Jews to the gallows.” I do not know how many Ukrainians subscribed to this slogan. I have little doubt that its underlying philosophy was that of millions of Europeans.

The suffering of the Ukrainians is relatively little known. Taras Hunczak writes in A Mosaic of Victims that at least five million Ukrainians were killed in World War II (including 600,000 Ukrainian Jews), which means that, proportionally, the Ukraine suffered the greatest loss of population (16.7 percent), after that of Poland (19.6 percent). Compare these figures with the losses of Great Britain, which were 0.7 percent, or those of France, which were 1.5 percent. If we add to this the perhaps five million Ukrainians killed in Stalin’s collectivization drive in the early 1930s, and the millions of Ukrainians permanently displaced as a result of the war, then we get an idea of what Nazi and Soviet brutality, combined with local civil wars, did to the peoples of Eastern Europe.

A Mosaic of Victims contains, among others, a remarkable essay by the German historian Christian Streit on the ghastly fate of the Soviet prisoners of war. Some 3.3 million perished, or about 57 percent of the total; the German death rate in the Soviet POW camps was about 36 percent. Sybil Milton shows that the fate of Polish, Gypsy, and other non-Jewish children in the Nazi camps was no less terrible; and the book includes separate studies of the tragic and similar fates of non-Jewish adult prisoners, homosexuals, pacifists, Gypsies, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. I doubt I am the only reader who felt a great numbness after moving from one horrifying statistical demonstration of evil to another in A Mosaic of Victims; yet it is partly because it brings together deadly statistics from so wide a range of victims that the book is so valuable.

This is the second of three articles

  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?

  3. 3

    The University Press of Kentucky, 1986.

  4. 4

    I will discuss this book in a third article.