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

Nechama Tec

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Book Description

8 April 2010
A Jew passing as a Christian in occupied Poland during WWII, Oswald Rufeisen worked as translator and personal secretary to a Nazi commander of the German police, repeatedly risking his life to save hundreds from the Nazis. A relatively unknown Jewish hero and rescuer at the magnitude of Oskar Schindler, Rufeisen's life and role during the Holocaust is perhaps even more riveting and complex than the man memorialized by Stephen Spielberg in Schindler's List.

Only seventeen years old when WWII began, Rufeisen joined the exodus of Poles who fled the approaching German army. Bright and talented, Rufeisen used his ability to speak fluent German to pass as half German and half Polish in Mir, where he came to serve the German commander in charge of the gendarmerie. As he carried out his duties - reading death sentences to prisoners, swearing in new police officers before a portrait of Hitler - he earned the trust and affection of the German commander, yet lived in constant fear of discovery. He used his position to pass secret information to Jews and Christians about impending "Aktionen" and to sabotage Nazi plans. Most notably, he thwarted the annihilation of the Mir ghetto by arming hundreds of Jews and organizing their escape, and saved an entire Belorussian village from destruction. Eventually discovered and denounced, Rufeisen escaped and found shelter in a convent, where he converted to Catholicism. Though a pacifist, he spent the rest of the war fighting in a Russian partisan unit, similar to the Bielski unit of Tec's Defiance.

After the war, Father Daniel (as he came to be known) became a priest and a Carmelite monk. Identifying himself as a Christian Jew and an ardent Zionist, he moved to Israel, where he challenged the Law of Return in a case that reached the High Court and attracted international attention.

In the Lion's Den, from author Nechama Tec of Defiance and several other astonishing accounts of Jewish survival and rescue during the Holocaust, offers a stirring portrait of a Jewish rescuer during the Holocaust and its aftermath, illuminating the intricate connections between good and evil, cruelty and compassion, and Judaism and Christianity.

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"Rufeisen's story is extraordinary, especially as recreated by Tec."--Publisher's Weekly"Tec has a good eye for historical detail. She...captures the emotional complexity of Mr.Rufeisen's position."--New York Times Book Review."..an unusual tale of heroism and survival during World War II..."--Library Journal"A fascinating and conscientiously researched account."--The New York Review of Books

About the Author

Nechama Tec is Professor Emerita of Sociology at University of Connecticut, and author of several books, including Defiance, soon to be a major motion picture starring Daniel Craig, and Courage and Resilience: Women, Men and the Holocaust(Yale 2003). Internationally noted Holocaust scholar, she was appointed in 2002 to the Council of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. She survived the Holocaust in Poland by passing as a Catholic in areas banned to Jews. She lives in Westport, C.T. with her husband, psychologist Leon Tec. Her son, Roland, is a film producer.

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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
46 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing. Un-Put-Down-Able. Must Be Read. 29 July 2007
By Danusha V. Goska - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
"In the Lion's Den: The Life of Oswald Rufeisen" may be the most amazing, gripping book I've read. On many pages I was gasping or crying; my heart was pounding, my gut, churning. Oswald Rufeisen is one of the most unforgettable human beings I've ever encountered in the pages of a book. That this book is not more widely read, known, and available is unfortunate, to say the least.

Had this book been fiction, not only would I have never been able to accord it willing suspension of disbelief, I would have protested its publication. The story is that outlandish.

Oswald Rufeisen was born to an undistinguished couple. His mother was an old maid; an apparent arranged marriage wed her to a younger, distant cousin. The family was poor and often in debt. They lived in a provincial backwater. Their first child died in infancy. The second child, Oswald, was short, unobtrusive, and not especially handsome.

Oswald's family's life changed forever, along with millions of others, on September 1, 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. The Rufeisen family hit the road, along with other evacuees. His parents, too exhausted to go on, stopped. Oswald would discover, after the war, that his parents probably were murdered in Auschwitz.

Oswald and his brother had begun their escape from Nazis in southwest Poland; they kept moving east and north, to Lwow, now in Ukraine, and then to Wilno, now in Lithuania.

This region, the "kresy," was a site of deadly crossfire. As Germans advanced from the West, Soviets advanced from the East. Lithuanians, Ukrainians, and Belorussians felt sometimes deadly hostility toward Poles. Nazis and Soviets did all they could to divide and conquer. Jews, of course, were targeted for complete extermination.

Eventually, through a series of incredible coincidences, Oswald Rufeisen, a Jewish teenager escaping the Nazis, adrift in this terrifying ocean of conflict, became a Jewish slave laborer for Nazis, an SS interpreter, the organizer of a Ghetto revolt and escape, a forest-dwelling partisan, a Catholic monk, and then priest, and, finally, he would make aliyah to Israel, and thereby challenge the Law of Return and concepts of both Jewish identity and the nature of Christianity.

The book does not depict Rufeisen as someone seeking adventure or heroism; in fact, author Tec reports he resisted publicity. Rather, fate seems to be a palpable force in his life. When he was a slave laborer, cobbling shoes for Nazis who threatened him with death were he ever to get sick and stop being productive, a Polish peasant passing in a wagon made eye contact with him. That peasant invited him onto his wagon, warned him that the Nazis were murdering all Jews, and invited him to hide out on the peasant's farm.

Through that unsolicited rescue, Rufeisen eventually began to pass as a German. One event followed another, and finally he became the right-hand-man of the Nazi in charge of eliminating Jews from the district. Photos of Rufeisen reveal a boy with marked Semitic features, and, in fact, people were constantly calling him out as Jewish, and yet his German was so fluent, and his manners so reflective of German culture, that even those who met him face to face would, in later years, remark, "Oh, Oswald could pass as a German because he was tall, blond, and Nordic looking." Even a visit to a public bath, where a certain giveaway feature of Jewish manhood was on full display, did not ruin his disguise.

That fate seemed to play a major role in his life is not to belittle Rufeisen's heroism. Again, though very much not the stereotypical dashing or vainglorious action hero, Rufeisen's basic, common decency caused him to do heroic things, from carefully laying aside one piece of bread from his meager food ration so that he could share it with a friend, to organizing a ghetto revolt under the nose of his Nazi superior.

The moral jigsaw puzzle of the SS scenes boggles the mind. At one point, Rufeisen orchestrated the killing of a retarded boy in order to save many others from death. Rufeisen speaks of the genuine respect and affection between him and his Nazi superior.

After the war, Rufeisen became, not just a Christian, but a monk. This caused his Jewish friends much distress. While admitting his wartime heroism, and the excellent mind of a man who survived by his wits and was fluent in eight languages, they attributed his Christianity, alternately, to stupidity, mental illness, childishness, and other factors that reveal an unfortunate amount of prejudice.

Publication of this book lead to England's first war crimes trial. 84 year old Szymon Serafinowicz who immigrated to England after the war, was exposed by the book. He was judged to be suffering from Alzheimer's and was not tried.

A student of the Holocaust cannot help but notice this book's demonstration of a frequently mentioned principle: while it took only one non-Jew to denounce a Jew, it took many to support that Jew's survival. Again and again, Rufeisen was fed, sheltered, and protected by Poles, Belorussians, and others, though they know him to be Jewish, and though those who defied Nazi law faced death. In one instance, a fellow hitchhiker Rufeisen had just met stepped forward and vouched for his not being Jewish. Even a known collaborator declined to denounce Rufeisen. The man who eventually did hand Rufeisen over to Nazis was himself Jewish. Perhaps he thought this would protect him; it didn't; that man was almost immediately killed.

This anecdotal evidence jibes with Gunnar S. Paulsson's 2003 book, "Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw." Paulsson, child of a Holocaust survivor and a fellow at the US Holocaust Museum, argues that approximately seventy to ninety thousand non-Jewish Warsaw residents, in one way or another, made existence possible for 28,000 Jews who lived hidden lives in non-Jewish Warsaw during Nazi occupation.
17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling story of a soul's journey through the holocaust. 24 July 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
It is seldom that one can view the depth of a human soul written by such a talented author. The book reads like a novel but has the pull of truth. I found it difficult to put down and wanted to share the incredible experience with others. It is worth the time to find a copy of the book. But, I warn you, you will want to own the book after reading it.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A deeply moving and fascinating story, but... 16 July 2011
By Beverly Swerling - Published on Amazon.com
Verified Purchase
I wish I knew if this was written in English originally, or composed in Polish and translated afterward by Ms Tec or someone else. The author's background is hugely important to understanding what is both wrong and right about this piece of work. Ms Tec, born in 1931 in Poland, is a Holocaust Survivor, a distinguished scholar, and the author of a number of books about WWII. They all display her deep understanding of not just the incomparable human tragedy through which she lived, but the influence of sociology, her professional discipline. The problem comes not in what she has to say but how she says it.

Here she's telling the story of Oswald Rufeisen, a Polish Jew and deeply committed Zionist who managed not simply to survive the Nazi horror by passing as a Christian, but to save hundreds of his fellow Jews while doing so. He then actually became a believer, a Catholic, and ultimately a Carmelite priest and as such went to live in Israel and demanded Israeli Citizenship as a Jew, engaging the old and fraught argument of exactly what that word means.

Such drama would cause most writers to salivate. Ms Tec manages to make her story not simply boring for long stretches, but uninformative. By choosing not to engage the spiritual dimension of the tale - she says she's not capable of doing so - she strips her story of meaning. In attempting to be both honest and fair to her subject she creates a work in which both the author and the subject are without passion. In this rendition of Rufeisen's extraordinary life and death choices during a time of high drama, no one appears to have any skin in the game. As such the book becomes a record of events, not a narrative; a journal, not a biography. To add to its burdens, the prestigious publisher, Oxford University Press, badly let down its author. At one point Tec makes the statement that a distinguishing characteristic of the Carmelites is that they: "...worship the Virgin Mary." This may well be a non-native English speaker's use of the word worship when what she meant was "are devoted to," but that such a shocking misstatement (worship is reserved for God, by Catholics along with other Christians and indeed Jews)slipped by the editor and copy editors shows how ill served Ms Tec was by OUP.
Anyone interested in Rufeisen's story will probably be more enlightened by reading Daniel Stein, Interpreter: A Novel by Ludmila Ulitskaya and Arch Tait. I know I have a novelist's prejudice, but here is one more case of fiction being a great deal more true than so-called fact.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars In the Lion's Den: Purchased at Amazon.com 16 Sep 2012
By dep - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
In the Lion's Den is about the life of Oswald Rufeisen. He was a Polish Jew who ended up posing as half German and half Polish and working directly with the Nazis. The Nazis eventually figured out who he was and he was nearly almost told to escape and was not punished which was very unusual to say the least. He spent the rest of the war in a Russian partisan group. After the war, Rufeisen became a Carmelite Monk and a Priest. Rufeisen comes across as such a spiritual person, very gentle and very humble. In most ways I really liked this book, but after his conversion to becoming a Monk and a Priest much of the book was way over my head. Over all though, a good book about a lovely and spiritual man.
5.0 out of 5 stars Good book 14 Jun 2013
By Yvonne Hatt - Published on Amazon.com
Verified Purchase
I knew Oswald and always wanted to read the book but I couldn't remember his last name. Recently I was in Israel and found the book but only in Hebrew but now I have it in English.
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