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Volume 17, No.2 / Fall 2003            
Using Testimonies for Researching and Teaching about the Holocaust, Part 2
In the Lion's Den: The Life of Oswald Rufeisen - Review


Recent Works by Nechama Tec
When Light Pierced the Darkness
      • Review
      • Questions & Activities


In the Lion's Den
      • Review
      • Questions and Timeline


Defiance: The Bielski Partisans
      Review
      • Questions & Activities


Resilience and Courage
      • Review
Reflections
Reflections on Nechama Tec's Life and Work

Glossary
Credits


Cover of In the Lion's Den

While working on When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland, Nechama Tec came upon the fascinating testimony of Oswald Rufeisen, a Jew born in Poland who converted to Catholicism during the Holocaust.  At the time of Tec’s research, Rufiesen was known as  Father Daniel, a monk living on Mount Carmel in Israel.   Tec could not resist following up on this story: Oswald Rufeisen became the central figure in In the Lion’s Den: The Life of Oswald Rufeisen.  Her examination of Rufeisen’s life touches on the complexity of religious identity and the challenges of rescue and resistance during the Holocaust: What motivated Rufeisen, a Jew, to take inordinate risks to save Jews and Christians in Eastern Europe?  Why did Rufeisen convert to Christianity?  How does Rufeisen continue to think of himself as a Jew while practicing as a Catholic?   

Oswald Rufeisen was born in Zadziele, a village in southern Poland that bordered on Czechoslovakia.  Both his parents—Eliasz, a veteran of World War I decorated for bravery, and Fanny, the business manger of the family—believed strongly in the importance of education.  Having recognized their son’s potential, they moved the family to Zablocie and educated Oswald at the Polish state high school in Bielsko.  Here, Oswald became proficient in German and Polish and graduated in 1939, a year ahead of schedule.  Oswald’s success as a student was unusual at this time since his family came from the lower middle class of a rural community.

During secondary school, Oswald showed increasing interest in Zionism, and his parents were planning for him to attend university in Palestine when World War II intervened.  With the Germans converging on western and central Poland, Oswald and his brother Arieh escaped to Lithuania then under Soviet control. They established an Akiva Group in Vilna, and Oswald apprenticed as a shoemaker.  Before the Germans attacked and occupied Vilna in the summer of 1941, Arieh managed to go to Palestine.  Oswald was less fortunate: he was picked up by the Nazis and became a shoemaker for the SS (Schutzstaffel).  While working for the SS, he learned of the Einsatzgruppen actions that resulted in the murder of approximately 48,000 Jews on the outskirts of Vilna between June and December 1941. 


Oswald Rufeisen and his brother Arieh

Eventually, a Christian farmer named Zukowski rescued Oswald, helping him pass as a Polish farm laborer.  Oswald enjoyed the “protective environment with no resemblance to the chaotic and cruel conditions on the outside . . . .”  He was particularly grateful since Zukowski did not really need his services but wanted to help a person in need (51).

Oswald left the farm and traveled to Belorussia where he again worked as a shoemaker and occasionally used his German to translate documents for the local police. He was still passing as a Polish Christian in November 1941 when the regional police commandeered him to work as an interpreter and translator for the Belorussian officer Siemion Serafimowicz and the German Polizei Meister Reinhold Hein.  His superiors so trusted him that they outfitted him with a gun, an SS uniform, and a horse.

From this advantageous position Oswald decided to do whatever he could to help Jews and non-Jews.  As he explained: Once I had officially joined the police, I felt responsible for what they did.  I felt an immediate co-responsibility for everything the policemen might be doing, even if personally I would not be participating . . . . For me there was a strong necessity to build a counterbalance to the evil around me”  (85).


Oswald in Mir, 1941, before receiving the SS uniform

Many of his actions underscored his desire to serve as “a counterbalance to the evil.”  He intervened with decisions made by the Meister Hein, warning villagers of future Aktions.  In particular, he informed the Judenrat in the Mir Ghetto of Nazi plans for the total liquidation of the ghetto scheduled for August 13, 1942.   Oswald also helped the ghetto inmates’ plan an escape to the forest, where they hoped to meet up with partisans.  He deliberately misled the Germans with false information—a tactic that enabled hundreds of Jews to flee the ghetto. 

Someone from the ghetto betrayed Oswald, and he was immediately apprehended.  Resourceful as ever, Oswald escaped and found asylum with the Sisters of Resurrection whose convent was next to the police station.  Hidden in the convent barn, Oswald passed his time reading Carmelite publications.   He decided to convert to Christianity, seeing this religion as an extension of his Judaic roots.

On December 4, 1943, the Germans ordered the Carmelite nuns to relocate.  Oswald fled into the Nalibocki forest where he met up with two Jewish partisan groups and a Russian partisan detachment.  Oswald opted to join the Russian otriad, which included some of the Jews from the Mir Ghetto.  Fani Bilecki, a former inmate of the Mir Ghetto, describes in a postwar interview how excited she and others from Mir were to see Oswald: “We knew where he was.  We went. We met him.  We did not know yet that he had converted . . . .We saw him alive.  We loved him.  He saved our lives.  Other things were not important” (191).  The Red Army recaptured Belorussia in August 1944, and Oswald temporarily served as a policeman for the Russian Secret Service.


Oswald at the Czerna monastery in 1946 before he was ordained

In March 1945, Oswald returned to Poland.  Initially, he planned to search for his parents but changed his mind since he believed he already knew their fate.  Instead, he chose to enter a Carmelite monastery where he took his final vows in 1949.  Three years later he became a priest and celebrated his first mass in Zadziele, the village where he had been born.

During the early 1950s, Oswald reconnected with his brother Arieh in the newly created state of Israel.  Still considering himself as a Zionist, Oswald immigrated to Israel to serve the Carmelite monastery in Haifa.  Here he administered services to an increasing population of Polish speaking Catholics living in Israel.  Arieh’s family embraced Oswald despite his conversion. 


Oswald conducting a baptism on the banks of the river Jordan in 1980

When Tec interviewed Rufeisen he expressed his gratitude for having the opportunity to carry out such fascinating work.  He had gained a national reputation and enjoyed leading pilgrimages for Christian tourists, earning money for his many charities.

Nechama Tec enriches her biography of Oswald Rufeisen with quotes from her numerous interviews with the main protagonist as well as those who knew him in Zablocie, Vilna, Turzec, Mir and the Belorussian forests.  These interviews offer intimate, forceful and moving testimony.  For instance, one of the interviews illustrates the complexity of life and choices in the Mir Ghetto.  When the Mir Ghetto was being liquidated, one of the Jewish men was about to leave his son and wife.  The child asked, “’Are you going away from us?  What will become of us?’ The mother is silent.  She looks vacantly into space as she clasps the boy’s hand.  The man bends his head.  Resigned he whispers into his son’s ear, ‘I will stay with you.’  He places the modest bundle close to his wife.  The woman offers a tentative smile, a smile devoid of happiness, devoid of life” (146).

Historical background on the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Mir, Vilna and the partisans of Belorussia sets the context for the story. 

Thus, In the Lion’s Den illustrates Tec’s methodology: there is a balance of in-depth interviews, archival sources, and careful analysis.  The result is a powerful biography of the courageous rescuer and resister Oswald Rufeisen.

 

 

Dimensions Online
Volume 18, No. 1, Fall 2004
Yehuda Bauer

Volume 17, No. 2, Fall 2003
Using Testimonies for Researching and Teaching about the Holocaust--Part II

Volume 17, No.1, Spring 2003
Using Testimonies for Researching and Teaching about the Holocaust-- Part I

Volume 16, No. 1, Fall 2002
Remembrance and Commemoration of Two Catastrophes: September 11th and the Holocaust

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