He Saw the Messiah in Jesus

Author: Fr Mieczysław Piotrowski S.Chr.

A dramatic history of the conversion of a Polish Jew — Father Daniel Oswald Rufeisen, a discalced Carmelite (1922-1998) — shows that searching for the truth in earnest always ends in a personal meeting with Jesus Christ who lives, teaches, forgives all sins and guides us to heaven in the Catholic Church.

Childhood and adolescence

Oswald Rufeisen was born on January 29, 1922, in the village of Zadziele, Kraków province. His parents were “progressive Jews” — they did not wear traditional clothes and spoke Polish at home. When Oswald turned 12, he joined the Zionist youth organization AKIBA that worked towards the return of the Jews to Palestine and the rebirth of a Jewish State within the borders of the ancient Kingdom of David. The boy owed to this organization his self-control, abstemiousness and a dislike for dancing, merrymaking, lavishness and luxury. It was a good school of character. After his conversion, Oswald did not have any problem with accepting the truth that Christian life calls for self-discipline, self-sacrifice and asceticism.

In May 1939, Oswald graduated from high school. On September 1st that year, Nazi Germany unexpectedly attacked Poland, starting the Second World War. The very next day, Oswald was fleeing the Germans with his parents and brother Leon. In Kraków, they boarded a train going east, to Lvov. The Germans bombed and fired on helpless columns of fleeing civilians. After seven days of travelling on the train, the Rufeisens had to abandon it and continue on foot. After two days of walking, the parents resolved to return home, while Oswald and Leon crossed into the zone occupied by the Soviet forces and reached Vilnius via Lvov with the intention to emigrate to Palestine. Witnessing the cruelty of war, Oswald realized the extremes of lawlessness and bestiality that were reached when democratically elected governments rejected God and his law. He became aware that only a community of believers, ready to make sacrifices, virtuous and just, governed by people of integrity, guaranteed peace; that these were necessary conditions for such a community to develop successfully and lead a happy life.

He realized the extremes of lawlessness and bestiality that were reached when democratically elected governments rejected God and his law.

In his youth, although believing in the existence of God, Oswald often had doubts in this respect. He thought that God who had created everything did not need our prayers or any religion for that matter and that he stood aloof from human affairs. The boy had read all kinds of books hostile to Christianity, which sent his mind into a spin. Finally, he concluded that all religions were false and, therefore, it was enough to believe in one God. He continued, however, to search feverishly for an answer to the question about the sense of life.

Only after his conversion did he realize that the spiritual quandaries and confusion he experienced at that time were fuelled by demoralized journalists and writers whose ideas he learned from books and articles. Oswald, however, blamed himself the most, “because wisdom will not enter a deceitful soul” (Wis 1:4). In his Autobiography, he wrote: “through my addictions I debased my soul, mind and heart in the worst possible manner. My blindness was so great that I unwittingly had respect for godless opinions and views, while I felt aversion to what was directed at God and involved God. (…) I strove, nevertheless, to conduct myself according to what my conscience told me, at least there where I was strong enough to overcome Satan’s assaults. But how often did I succumb to them? Had I not been raised in an organization that inculcated a disgust in me for merrymaking and enjoying oneself, I would have fallen completely and consistently followed my views in my conduct” (pp. 66-67).

“I believed that the Gospel was genuine. After all, it was written in Hebrew by a Jew for Jews” (O. Rufeisen)

In his memoirs, Oswald confessed that in his youth he suffered from terrible addictions that increasingly made him like an animal. He writes: “they tangled my mind and heart more and more, and they sullied my senses; only after I was baptized did I free myself from them. (…) Unchaste passions terribly handicap a man. I read about it in the Catechism and realized that this had been the case with me. (…) I feel utter disgust at all those dirty deeds and thoughts to which I succumbed. (…) If I have got rid of them now. I owe this solely and exclusively to the Most Blessed and Purest Virgin Mary (…), and if they still come, a single sigh to the Virgin Mary is enough for them to go away without returning” (p. 65).

Stay in Vilnius

In February 1941, in Vilnius, Oswald’s brother, Leon, received a transit visa for passage to Palestine. Oswald did not manage to obtain it: on June 22, 1941, Germany declared war on the Soviet Union. Vilnius began to be heavily bombed. Oswald, putting himself in mortal danger, helped save people from collapsing and burning houses. When German forces occupied Vilnius, the mass extermination of Jewish inhabitants and members of the Polish intelligentsia began. They were relentlessly rounded up and shot in the surrounding woods. In early September 1941, on his way to work, Oswald was arrested and, together with several hundred Jews, was crammed into the courtyard of an old tenement house. They were to be taken out of town and shot…

Oswald looked for a way to escape. Unnoticed, he went inside the building and, prying a board away, was able to slip inside a cubicle. He then replaced the board and hid behind a pile of broken junk. Aware of his hopeless situation, he started begging God for help with all his heart. He heard the cries of gendarmes, shots, the groans of beaten and wounded people … After some time, all the people were loaded onto trucks and taken away. A deathly silence fell… Oswald gave a sigh of relief — nobody had noticed him. He took it to be a clear sign of God’s care. Thanking God wholeheartedly for saving him, he ripped off the yellow band with the Star of David from his arm and stepped outside. Having reached his flat, he took only the most necessary things and on November 1st, 1941, disguised as a peasant, set out for Turec, Belarus. He got a job there as a janitor. Soon, the commander of the German police in the district town of Mir learned that Oswald spoke fluent German and offered him a job.

“Wisdom will not enter a deceitful soul” (Wis 1:4)

Work in Mir

On November 27, 1941, Oswald received a German police uniform and moved in with the Chief of Gendarmerie — Meister Reinhold Hein – as his personal interpreter and secretary. Everybody was convinced that the new interpreter was Polish and Catholic. Soon, Oswald won the great trust of Hein, who treated him as his son. Unsurprisingly, he shared with Oswald top secret information. As an interpreter, Oswald was present at interrogations of prisoners; he also had to accompany Hein during the shooting of Jews, Poles, Belarusians and prisoners of war. As much as he could, he interpreted the testimonies of prisoners in such a way that they be spared and deported to Germany to work instead.

Oswald came into contact with resistance fighters and warned them against informers and military operations. He also saved several hundred Soviet POWs. By intelligently leading the interpretation, he was able to make Meister Hein give up the pacification of the village of Simakovo, near Horodzey.

When he learned from the Meister that the ghetto in Mir was to be liquidated on August 13, 1942, he immediately passed this news to the Jewish leaders. This was very confidential information that even the gendarmes did not know about. Oswald became involved in preparing the escape of the Jews from the ghetto. He delivered to them ten rifles, ammunition, two grenades and five revolvers. Several days before the date set for the liquidation, around 300 people escaped and hid in the woods. Many others, however, opted to stay behind.

Taken by surprise, the German police cordoned the ghetto off to stop anybody from escaping. Unfortunately, one young Jew from the ghetto went to Meister Hein and in a confidential conversation told him that it had been Oswald who informed them about the planned liquidation of the ghetto and supplied them with arms. He foolishly believed that by betraying Oswald, he would save himself and the Jews remaining in the ghetto.

Hein, an old gendarme, did not believe the informer. He invited Oswald for a conversation and asked him: “That Jew (he mentioned his name) said that you had given away to the Jews the date set for the liquidation of the ghetto. Is that true?” Oswald hung his head low and replied: “Yes, this is true” … Hein continued in a sad voice: “True … And I thought that he was lying. Why did you do that to me? I treated you as a son and I believed you so much, didn’t I” … Hein asked further: “Why did you admit it? Do you think that I would believe a Jew more than you? If it were somebody else, I would wipe him out, but you? I liked you, trusted you and did not conceal anything from you, did I? Why did you do it to me?” Oswald replied: “Out of compassion for them” … “You say you sympathized with them … I am sorry for them, too,” Hein admitted. “But why did you give them arms?” “I’ll answer only when I am given a gun so that I can kill myself,” Oswald spoke. “Agreed, speak then,” Hein said.

“I’ve done this because I am not Polish, I am a Jew,” Oswald said. “You are really a Jew?” Hein asked, taken aback. Oswald then told him the story of his life. Upon finishing, he reached for a gun. Hein got up and approached him, saying: “You are very young. You have made it already twice … Maybe you’ll be lucky for the third time …” Hein’s eyes were red and filled with tears because of the emotions overwhelming him. He told Oswald to write a statement that he was a Jew. The statement left no doubt — it was a death sentence…

After dining together, Hein took the boy to the bedroom and left him under the guard of the gendarmes. When Oswald was left alone in the room, he made an attempt to escape. He left the house unnoticed and, when he passed through the gate, started to run for his life. After several hundred meters, he heard the cries of the gendarme who was to guard him. Others joined the chase. Almost dead from exhaustion, he continued running ahead, hearing shots and whizzing bullets. With each breath, he pleaded: “My God! Save me!” Finally, he reached sheaves of stacked corn and hid himself in a stack. The pursuers passed him. When the sheaves fell apart, Oswald crawled into an uncut field of corn and prayed with his whole heart: “God, if you save me now, I will know that you exist. I will praise you as long as I live and I shall tell everyone what you have done for me!” All the time he heard the gendarmes searching for him. One of them even passed close to him, but did not notice him. It started to get dark. Finally, Oswald heard one gendarme speaking to the commandant: “See, he did make it!”…

“He let me know him, for whom I unwittingly longed” (O. Rufeisen)

When night fell, Oswald wandered around, not knowing where to go. At last, exhausted, he fell asleep in the wood. He had a dream that he had come to the convent of the Sisters of the Resurrection in Mir and found refuge there. Awaking with a new hope and will to live, he stood up and actually went to the convent in Mir. It was Saturday, the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, August 15, 1942.

In his Autobiography, Oswald wrote: “Does God listen to the prayer of a sinner in need of grace?… He does! Because he heard me when I cried to him only: ‘God, save me!’ And perhaps he also heard those prayers of mine which I chanted for the Messiah. He let me know him, for whom I unwittingly longed”(p. 45).

Refuge in a convent

It was night, so Oswald could cross the town unnoticed. He entered the convent garden, which was next to the post of the German gendarmerie. Too afraid to knock, he waited until morning, having slipped into a passage connecting the house where the sisters lived with a barn. Early in the morning, a sister came to milk the cows. Startled by Oswald's greeting, she cried: “Jesus, Mary!” Cold and hungry, Oswald was taken into a room where he was given a hearty breakfast. When Oswald had worked at the police headquarters, he was in contact with the sister superior, Euzebia Bartkowiak, and secretly gave her identity papers for Jews in hiding. Now, it was he who asked her to allow him to hide in the convent for several days.

He received a reply when the sisters came back from the Sunday Mass in a church 16 km away. During the Eucharist, the sisters prayed fervently to learn the will of God. That Sunday, the Gospel on the Good Samaritan was read in church. He was the only passer-by who showed mercy and extended specific help to a man badly injured and robbed by highwaymen. Sister Euzebia understood Jesus' words “Go and do likewise!” (Luke 10:38) as a command that Christ addressed personally to her. Upon her return, she told Oswald that the sisters would hide him as long as necessary.

It should be remembered that helping Jews or hiding them carried a death penalty in German-occupied Poland during World War II. The sisters’ decision was a heroic one, being guided by selfless love. Risking their lives, they offered Oswald refuge and took loving care of him. In his Autobiography, Oswald wrote: “Because I was a Jew, not only I was not hurt in any way, but I was given a favor above any favor, for others risked their lives to hide me ‘right under the nose’ of the gendarmes” (p. 121).

“How very grateful I am to God for making me live in that very time, experience life as it was, face dilemmas as I did, and come to know the Truth” (O. Rufeisen)

Conversion and baptism

Oswald had to stay in the barn most of the time. He spent his time there reading books which the sisters brought him. He was impressed the most by Miracles at Lourdes. Oswald came to believe that the miraculous healings mentioned in it were the work of God. After 20 days in his hideout, he asked the sisters to bring him a Bible. The first book of theBible he read was the Gospel according to St Matthew. This is how Oswald remembered this time that changed his life: “A struggle began. I read slowly and carefully. I reread certain passages and compared them with others. For three whole days, I studied the Gospel according to St Matthew, reading deeper and deeper, and relishing what I read ever more strongly. The words of God convinced me. I realized that they were directed at contemporary Jews just as well. I was not at all hurt by the harsh words addressed to the Pharisees. (…) I believed that the Gospel was genuine. After all, it was written in Hebrew by a Jew for Jews… (…) I can’t say that Jesus is wrong, can I? I can’t deny miracles and that they were true, can I? (…) Those who have believed in Jesus Christ witness miracles also today, while in the Jewish religion, there have been no miracles since the time of Jesus…”

Oswald faced the most momentous decision of his life. Reading and analyzing the Gospels, he became convinced that all the Old Testament prophecies of the coming of the Messiah were fulfilled by the birth of Jesus Christ, the true God who became a true man and took upon himself the sins and suffering of all men, who truly died and by rising from the dead overcame death, forgiving all people their sins.

“I repented,” Oswald wrote, “together with those returning from Calvary and together with the centurion I confessed: ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’ (Matt 27:54). And that was all. Nothing else was necessary but only to recognize Jesus Christ and believe. Actually, I became a Christian in my heart already then, like that minister of the Canda’ce the queen, who, hearing the words of the deacon Phillip, believed that Jesus was the announced Messiah (cf. Acts 8:26-39). But I did not want to be baptized yet. I wanted to believe in Jesus without baptism. I was told that without baptism, we could not receive grace, which was absolutely unbelievable to me. But what was grace? What did I need grace for, if I believed in Christ? I was as stubborn as Peter at the Last Supper, believing that the powers of my own reason would be enough to believe, because at any moment, if I doubted, I could prove to myself that Jesus was Christ since this follows from the Bible. I did not know that this “followed clearly” for me thanks to God’s grace, that without it I would not have believed as my forefathers did not believe, although among them there were better brains than mine. But God in his invariable, eternal but always just decrees ruled to remove the blinkers from my eyes and heart so that I could come to know, accept and love” (pp. 123-124).

In August 1942, Oswald asked Sister Euzebia if it was written in the Bible that baptism was necessary for salvation. The sister pointed to the words of Jesus for him: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). This single sentence fully convinced him. Three days later he made an emotional request of Sister Euzebia, saying: “I want very much to be baptized; I request baptism. Please, do not deny me this favor, I beg you! I‘ve waited for Sister Superior since the morning to ask this great favor of you.” The sister, delighted, replied: “When I was praying in the chapel, something subconsciously whispered to me that I should pray for you a lot, because you would become a priest. I vehemently rejected this thought by saying: ‘What? He? A Jew?’… But the thought would not go away. I have not yet got over this and you are saying that you wish to be baptized. I can sense the hand of God in this.” Oswald wanted only to be baptized, live in chastity and proclaim the truth about Jesus to the Jews, but becoming a priest had never crossed his mind …

The only priest lived 16 km away from Mir, and Oswald was in danger of death. In these circumstances, Sister Euzebia decided to baptize him without a priest. Oswald received the sacrament of holy baptism on his father’s birthday, August 25, 1942. By the sacramental “washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5), he became a new creation, freed from slavery to Satan, sin and death. He became member of the mystical body of Christ and a member of the community of the Catholic Church. After receiving baptism, Oswald was full of joy and gratitude for God’s immeasurable mercy and for God’s loving him so much despite his great misery and sinfulness. Sister Euzebia was his godmother and offered a Bible and a rosary to her spiritual son.

 

After being baptized, Oswald wrote: “O, my God! The foremost and greatest Truth! I, Oswald Joseph Rufeisen, believe with my heart, profess with my mouth and confirm with my deeds that I believe and want to believe until my last day in all and any particular article of Faith given to us to believe by the Holy Roman Catholic Church. Although I cannot comprehend this (for who can comprehend what the Holy Faith submits for belief), subjecting my mind to Christ’s service, I venerate most humbly all the sacred mysteries and humbly request that they serve my salvation” (p. 127).

 

 

To Sister Euzebia’s question as to what convinced him most to adopt the Catholic faith, Oswald replied: “Love of one’s neighbor. I saw the sisters sacrifice themselves for me, risk their lives, not making me feel I was a Jew. This made me reflect that there was something greater to it, some kind of Truth that gave strength” (p. 289). After receiving baptism, Oswald resolved to remain abstemious and poor, and refrain from public parties and dances because they are an opportunity to commit many sins by oneself and others.

Secluded retreat

Oswald called his 15 months of hiding with the sisters a secluded retreat. This was, as he himself said, one of the greatest graces he received from God. Hiding in the upper part of the barn, each day he divided his time between prayer, reading and handicraft. The light that came in through gaps between the boards was enough for him to read and observe the gendarmerie headquarters yard.

During those 15 months, Oswald read the Bible six times. This reading gave him the most spiritual nourishment. He also read the lives of saints and converts. The history of conversion from atheism by a wellknown Jewish pianist, Herman Cohen, a friend of Liszt’s, and Story of a Soul by St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus greatly contributed to Oswald’s discovering his priestly vocation at the Carmelite Order. He came to understand that faith is expressed and deepens in persistent everyday prayer, which is a privilege and gift. Neglecting prayer, a person breaks off his or her personal relationship with God and loses the treasure of faith. He loved Our Lady so much that every day he completely gave himself to her motherly care so that she would guide him along the paths of faith to Jesus. Every day, he would pray on a rosary and quietly sing Little Office of Our Lady. He also said the Chaplets to Divine Mercy and to the Five Wounds of Jesus. By reading a missalette, every day he would spiritually join the Holy Mass celebrated in churches and receive Jesus in the Eucharist. He mortified himself and fasted. He would also discharge his daily duties with great enthusiasm — he achieved great skill in knitting sweaters; he would also chop firewood for the sisters.

The sisters treated him as a person very close to them, like a brother. This is how he described his relations with them in the Autobiography: “I felt I was one with them in Jesus Christ. There, my sensus Ecclesiae was born — a supernatural sense of coexistence in the Church. The Church became my home, the whole world became my homeland, as I have brothers in Jesus everywhere (…) O blessed Church, the Mother of all people, how very close you became to me for this very reason! (…) Already here, on earth, you alone provide conditions for the peaceful and brotherly coexistence of people with each other” (p. 144).

The sisters were forced by Germans to move to another house. To conceal his presence, Oswald often had to put on a sister’s conventual garb. On many occasions, he had to hide in a closet when gendarmes or other unexpected guests came to the convent. Oswald attributed the fact that nobody discovered his presence to the special care of St. Joseph. However, with the situation becoming increasingly dangerous, Oswald left the convent on December 2, 1943.

He was again on his own with no place to go. This time, it was even worse, as it was bitterly cold and there was a lot of snow. After many adventures, which could have left him dead, he was finally able to join a group of resistance fighters, in which many Mir Jews were fighting. Many of them owed their lives to him. Thanks to their witness, he avoided being shot and could join the group and stay with it until July 1944. While in the resistance, Oswald prayed a lot and, whenever possible, evangelized with the example of his life and the word. He remembered: “Each time I was passing through an area where a church could be seen, if only at a distance, in which the Blessed Sacrament was kept, I would attempt to adore it at least from a distance and call it with my desire to come. I think it came indeed” (p. 182).

In the Carmelite Order

After the liberation, the first thing Oswald did was to visit the Sisters of the Resurrection in Mir. He shared with them the joyful news that he had made up his mind to join the Carmelite Order to help in Christ’s work of salvation as a religious and priest.

While waiting to be admitted to the order, Oswald worked in a parish office in Nowa Wilejka. He met there two Jewish girl twins who had converted after reading Pascal’s Pensées and sponsored one of them at baptism.

On March 29, 1945, he was lucky to join a transport of repatriates and arrive in Kraków. On the way, he stopped over in Częstochowa. For the first time ever he prayed in the Chapel of the Miraculous Icon of Our Lady at Jasna Góra. This is how he remembered those moments: “I stayed there a long time — from seven o’clock in the morning until the covering of the icon — and I shed many a tear. (…) I spent all that time at fervent prayer — out of joy and gratitude for what I was, out of trust in the Virgin Mary and her guiding me where I wanted to go and out of an ardent desire to bring to her stray sheep from the house of Israel, her house. I also commended to her care that nation among whom I happened to live and who had placed its fate in her monarchal hands” (p. 209). From Częstochowa he went to a Carmelite monastery in Czerna, near Cracow, where he was admitted to the novitiate and was given the monastic name of Daniel. Having finished his studies in theology and taken eternal monastic vows, he was ordained into the priesthood on June 29, 1952, in the Missionary Fathers’ Church, Stradom, Kraków. The Sisters of the Resurrection stood in for his missing relatives. It was the Sisters who held a reception for him on the occasion of his celebrating the first mass in Stryszawa on July 5, 1952. The mass was celebrated by Father Daniel in the intention of his parents and family members who had perished during the war. After the ordination, he served as a priest with great zeal in Wadowice, Szopienice and later in a mission group. He made a name for himself as an outstanding preacher and retreat director. However, his persistent wish was to go to the Holy Land to preach the truth about Christ to his compatriots. After overcoming many obstacles put up by the communist authorities, Father Daniel was given permission to leave Poland and, on June 9, 1959, he arrived in Haifa and took up residence at the Stella Maris monastery on Mount Carmel. He began to minister to Catholics of Jewish origin.

The Israeli authorities refused to grant him citizenship, arguing that a Jew who converted to Christianity was no longer considered a Jew. Father Daniel challenged this decision in court. The trial attracted a lot of publicity around the world.

Father Daniel’s Prayer

You who know me better than I can come to know myself, who care for me as if I were your only creature, who desire my salvation more than I do myself, do not let me, oh, do not, return to where you snatched me from, save me from falling again into the claws of your enemy and becoming a plaything in his hands, you who know well that without your special grace I am not able to stick to my good resolutions even for a single moment or resist any temptation, give me, please, oh, give me over totally into the hands of your Sweetest Mother, so that she might keep me for eternal life. Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings (Ps 17:8), so that I shall not die, but shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord (Ps 118:17), and tell of thy name to my brethren (Ps 22:23). Amen.

In 1965, Father Daniel founded a Christian community in Haifa that used Hebrew in liturgy. He intended to create a community of believers modeled on the original commune of the church in Jerusalem headed by St. James the Apostle. Father Daniel was convinced that the rejection of Jesus Christ as the expected Messiah was the root cause of all disasters — not only those of the Israelis, but also of other nations. He was in close contact with Saint John Paul II and Card. Joseph Ratzinger, and was invited to give lectures by various universities in America and Europe, but above all he was a zealous priest until his death on July 30, 1998.

In his Autobiography, he wrote: “How very grateful I am to God for making me live in that very time, experience life as it was, face dilemmas as I did, and come to know the Truth” (p. 36); “O, my God, thank you for grafting me into you, who are a true grapevine” (p.44); “And isn’t it in those times of growing wickedness and the rule of Satan, in those godless times in which Lord Jesus is more crucified, scourged and reviled than ever before, isn’t it in those times a duty of every Christian to pray for the conversion and return of Jews to God?! This is my present Zionism! O thank you God of Upper Zion, my humble thanks to you from me, the most miserable sinner, the happiest man whom you have snatched from the very bottom of hell, for teaching me, for internally transforming me into a Catholic Zionist, for not allowing me to see the goal of life and a reward for sacrifice, sweat and blood in Jewish Zionism itself. A hundred thanks for freeing me from a snare, a thousand thanks to you for restricting Zionism to your Holy Church for me, in which there is space for everybody” (p. 42).

A sincere and persistent search for the truth led Father Oswald Rufeisen to the discovery of the joyful truth that Jesus Christ is the Messiah announced in the Old Testament and expected by the Jews. He believed that Jesus was the true God who became a true man to save us. He believed that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead and built the community of the Catholic Church. Only in the community of the Church can we come to know the whole truth about Christ, establish a personal contact with him and reach salvation.

Source: Fr. Daniel Maria (Oswald Rufeisen), Autobiografia, Kraków 2001

 

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