Machlokes / Controversy

Jewish World Review / August 5, 1998 / 13 Menachem-Av, 5758

Oswald Rufeisen aka 'Brother Daniel'
The strange case of 'Brother Daniel'

By David Twersky

BROTHER DANIEL RUFEISEN’S death in Israel last week puts to an end one of the strangest stories to emerge from the horror years in Europe more than half a century ago.

Brother Daniel led the Carmelite monks in Haifa. His fame came almost four decades ago when he immigrated to Israel and asked to be listed as a Jew under the Law of Return. The case highlighted the bizarre twists and turns of Jewish identity politics. Those familiar only with the modern Who is a Jew? controversies may find it interesting to discover that the first great test case in Israeli law centered on a Catholic priest who saw his national fate and destiny as part of the Jewish people.

Moreover, the Chief Rabbinate’s and Israel’s Supreme Court’s positions were the reverse of today’s predictable stands. The rabbinate ruled that the priest should be given citizenship as a Jew; born to Jewish parents, his fate was with his people, regardless of any faith decisions he had made along the way.

The Supreme Court, today the favored venue for those seeking to expand recognition to non-Orthodox streams, ruled that despite the halachic logic of the rabbinate’s position and the unusual circumstances (Daniel had single-handedly saved several hundred Jews in the town of Mir), you couldn’t be both a Catholic priest and a Jew. Es past nisht.

Brother Daniel lost his case, but was later naturalized as an Israeli citizen and lived the rest of his years serving the church from his residence overlooking Haifa and the sea. (The church does not proselytize among Israeli Jews).

Born Oswald Rufeisen to a Jewish family living in Poland, near Oswiecim, Rufeisen belonged to Akiva, a Zionist youth movement. Akiva was a non- socialist, kibbutz-oriented movement affiliated with what later became the Independent Liberal Party in Israel. Hillel Zeidel, an IL Knesset member who broke ranks and joined Menachem Begin’s Likud in 1977, was a childhood friend from the movement.

When the Nazis invaded Poland, Rufeisen fled east with his brother and some friends. With exits south blocked, they set their sights for Vilna. Lithuania was then enjoying a brief moment in political independence. Soon the Soviets would roll in; then the Nazis. Because they hoped it could provide a way out of Europe, thousands of Zionist youth arrived in Vilna during the early months of the war. (It was in Vilna that the Russians drafted Begin into their rump Polish Anders army; when they later dispatched the force to the Middle East, Begin deserted, finding refuge in Palestine.)

Rufeisen and his friends survived the Soviet takeover and at a key moment when a limited number of visas were made available, he sent his younger brother on.

(His brother successfully made it out of Europe and became a farmer on a moshav just north of Haifa). Oswald and his friends became slave laborers once the Nazis arrived, chopping wood in the frozen forests outside of town. Oswald hitched a ride with a farmer offering him a way to escape. Aided by his fluent Polish and German, he passed himself off as a Folk Deutsch (Polish German). Eventually, he walked out of Lithuania and into White Russia, stopping at the town of Mir.

Although the students and faculty of the famous Mir yeshiva had already fled to Shanghai, the town still boasted a Jewish population. By the time Rufeisen arrived, the Jews were all herded together into a makeshift ghetto at the decaying palace of a long-forgotten Polish noble. Rufeisen talked his way into a job with the German military police, none of whom, he told us, were as frightening as the local police chief, Serafamovich, who Rufeisen recalled literally tearing people apart limb from limb.

With his gift for languages, Rufeisen translated for the police. As it happened, some of the younger Jews in the ghetto had also fled to Vilna, and then wound their way home. They recognized Rufeisen, whom they had met as a young Zionist, now in a German uniform. Rufeisen told them he would help them; he gave them guns he had smuggled from police headquarters. When he overheard a phone conversation between his superior and the SS about the date for the liquidation of the Mir ghetto, Rufeisen warned his friends and organized a wild goose chase to drive the police out of town, allowing almost 300 Jews to walk out of the Mir ghetto and flee to the forest.

Rufeisen escaped from the Germans, hiding for more than a year in the local convent, dressing as a nun when the convent was forced to relocate to another building. During this time, he decided to convert to Christianity. Forced into the forest, he joined some partisans, translating between them and their German prisoners.

When the Red Army rolled west, Oswald Rufeisen identified all those in the Mir area who had collaborated with the Nazis. He testified against many Nazi war criminals (Eli Rosenbaum, now director of the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, flew to Israel in 1982 to interview him on a case).

When Serafamovich, who disappeared in 1945 after fleeing west with the Germans, was arrested in London in 1993 and brought to trial two years later, Rufeisen flew to London to testify against him. It was the first time the British tried a Nazi war criminal case. According to Rosenbaum, on Jan. 17, 1997 the court declared Serafamovich mentally incompetent, a victim of Alzheimer’s. The case was dropped; Serafamovich died seven months later, on Aug. 7, 1997.

In 1945, after the war, Rufeisen returned to Poland, converted and studied for the priesthood. In the late 1950s, he made his way to Israel, fulfilling the Zionism of his youth and reuniting with his brother and other Akiva friends and Mir survivors.

Oswald Rufeisen, Brother Daniel, was a short, gentle man. The surgery he attempted to perform — adopting Christianity while affirming Jewish peoplehood proved impossible. A Jew could be an apikores, a skeptic or an unbeliever, perhaps, but not a believer in another faith.

There were six million-plus stories in the Holocaust. Brother Daniel, Oswald Rufeisen -- Zionist youth activist, lumberjack, German policeman, Catholic priest, new oleh, Holocaust-justice seeker, friend -- was one of them.

New JWR contributor David Twersky is Editor in Chief of the New Jersey Jewish News.


©1998, David Twersky