Meet Brother Daniel: A Jew-converted-Christian-turned-monk

The truth behind the story told by Russian novelist Ludmila Ulitskaya, a fictionalized version of the life of Brother Daniel, a Jew converted to Christianity-turned- monk, is so remarkable in itself that it's not clear why the author saw the need to turn it into a novel.

By Shalom Goldman
Brother Daniel

Brother Daniel ministering to his flock, 1982.

Photo by: Rachel Hirsch

A Novel in Documents, by Ludmila Ulitskaya (translated from Russian by Arch Tait ) Overlook Duckworth, 416 pages, $27.95

In the struggle over definitions of Israeli and Jewish identity, Oswald Rufeisen, better known as Brother Daniel, was a pivotal figure. The case that Rufeisen (1922-1998 ) took to Israel's High Court of Justice in 1962 brought the question of "Who is a Jew?" to public attention in a new and startling manner. And the decision in that case, which historian Michael Stanislawski has called "a fundamental episode in the history of the Jewish State," has influenced Israeli law and public opinion to this day. In it, the court was asked to decide whether Rufeisen, a Polish Jew who had converted to Catholicism during World War II, and had served for many years as a Catholic priest, should be granted citizenship under the Law of Return. In a four to one decision, the High Court ruled against Rufeisen, on the grounds that by joining another religion, he had forfeited his right to fast-tracked citizenship in the Jewish state.

In "Daniel Stein, Interpreter," Russian novelist Ludmila Ulitskaya has fictionalized Rufeisen's life and presented his remarkable story in what she dubs "documentary" form. Published in Russian in 2006, her novel has now been translated into English.

But it's not as if Rufeisen's tale hadn't been told before. There have actually been a number of earlier accounts of his life. Nechama Tec's 1992 book "In the Lion's Den: The Life of Oswald Rufeisen" (later published in Hebrew ) remains the standard work. There is also a fine Israeli documentary film from 2001, "Brother Daniel: The Last Jew," directed by Amir Gera. The film includes extensive interviews with Rufeisen and those who knew him.

It is a story so compelling and difficult to believe that it is hard to see what is gained by turning it into fiction. And it is even more challenging to have to read this fictional account in the form of hundred of documents, all of which are imagined rather than authentic - including letters, court decisions, transcripts of imagined conversations, and imagined newspaper articles.

That the author is aware of the difficulties inherent in this fictionalized documentary approach to telling a life story is clear from the "letters from the author to a friend" that appear at the end of each of the book's five sections. In the first of these letters, Ulitskaya writes that after conducting interviews with those who knew Daniel and reading everything that has been written about him, she rejected a historical and narrative approach. "I am making another attempt, only this time I shall try to free myself from the pressure of documents, of the names of real people who might be offended and harmed, and to retain only what has 'non-private' significance. I am changing names, inserting my own fictional or semi-fictional characters and changing the setting and time of events." If she had in fact done all of that, and not written the novel in the form of hundreds of separate and seemingly disorganized documents, the attempt to construct a novel out of Brother Daniel's life might have been more successful.

But Ulitskaya's novel does highlight the most significant and controversial of Rufeisen/Brother Daniel's actions and give us many glimpses into how Israelis and other responded to him.


In addition to the issue of his conversion to Catholicism, what made Israeli reactions to Brother Daniel even more freighted was that he had saved many Jews during the war and had been acknowledged as a hero by those whom he saved. Fleeing the Nazis in l941, Rufeisen and friends in the Akiva Youth Movement in Vilna were apprehended by Lithuanian policemen collaborating with the German occupiers. As he spoke fluent German and didn't physically fit the Nazi stereotype of a Polish Jew, Rufeisen was able to pass as a Pole.

It was at that point that Rufeisen made a daring, one might even say astounding, move. Having heard that German officers were in dire need of Polish interpreters, Oswald offered his services to an officer of the local military police in the White Russian town of Mir. When asked about his ethnic origins, he identified himself as a Volksdeutsche, a Pole of German origin.

Two weeks before Oswald arrived in Mir, German soldiers had murdered some 1500 of the town's 2500 Jews. The remaining thousand Jews were herded into a ghetto in the ruins of the town's castle. For his work, Rufeisen was issued an S.S. uniform and identity card. This gave him access to all restricted areas, including the Mir ghetto.

Rufeisen's "Aryan" appearance and linguistic abilities in Polish and German enabled him to remain undetected for nine months - and at the same time to work against his German bosses and their local collaborators. He warned the Jews of the ghetto, for example, when he learned that their "liquidation" had been ordered. Aided by Rufeisen, who gave them guns, the resistance fighters in the Mir Ghetto organized a breakout in August 1942, and over 300 Jews were saved. Hundreds of others who did not dare break out remained in the ghetto and were murdered.

Betrayed by an associate in the police department, Rufeisen was arrested. When his commanding officer asked him if he had told the Jews of the ghetto of the intended German aktion, Rufeisen admitted as much and confessed to being a Jew. As he testified in Amir Gera's film: "When he [the officer] accused me, I couldn't answer. But then I did. I was satisfied that I had saved the Jews of Mir. I admitted that I was a Jew." He later managed to flee to a Catholic nunnery not far from the police station. Rufeisen spent over a year in the convent, until November 1943. When German officers conducted a search within the nunnery, Rufeisen fled, and joined up with the local Partisans. But when he left, he did so as a practicing Catholic, for while in hiding, he had decided to become a Christian. He was baptized only three weeks after arriving at the convent.

Remembering his first months at the nunnery run by the Order of the Sisters of the Resurrection, Rufeisen told Nechama Tec that "I felt very much like a Jew, I identified with the plight of my people. I also felt like a Zionist. I longed for Palestine, for my own country. In this frame of mind I became exposed to the New Testament, a book that describes events that were taking place in my fatherland, the land I was longing for. This, in itself, must have created a psychological bridge between me and the New Testament."

'Daniel in the lions' den'

After the war, Oswald joined the Carmelite Monastery in Cracow. The Polish provincial of the order suggested that Rufeisen take the name Daniel, because "he had been like Daniel in the lions' den and survived." From 1945 to 1949 Rufeisen received training as a monk, taking his vows in 1949, at the age of 27.

Though he was a respected and beloved priest in the Catholic Church in Poland, Brother Daniel had never given up on the dream to live in Israel. On a number of occasions during those years he requested that the Carmelite authorities allow him to move to the order's monastery in Haifa. Those requests were always deferred or denied. In his application to the Polish government for permission to travel overseas, Rufeisen wrote that he was "requesting permission to travel to Israel for permanent residence and also for a passport. I base this application on the ground of my belonging to the Jewish people, which I have continued to do although I embraced the Catholic faith in 1942 and joined a monastic order in 1945 ... I chose an order which has a chapter in Israel, having regard to the fact that I would receive leave from my superiors to travel to the land for which I have yearned since my childhood when I was a member of the Zionist Youth Organization ... I fully believe that by emigrating I shall be able to serve Poland which I love with all my heart, by helping her sons scattered all over the globe and in particular those who are in the land to which I am going" (as quoted in a article about the case by the scholar B.J. Jackson ).

Eventually, at the end of the 1950s, the Polish government agreed to his request, but Rufeisen still had to convince the Israeli authorities to admit him. In Israel of 1959, the question of "Who is a Jew" was causing yet another parliamentary crisis and generating public debate, discussion and argument.

In Poland, by making an application to emigrate, Rufeisen had to give up his Polish citizenship and the right to return there. The Israelis, for their part, agreed to give Rufeisen a one-year residence permit. Thus, for a time he was officially stateless, a "man without a country."

In July of 1959 Rufeisen arrived in Haifa. At the port he was greeted by his brother Aryeh, who had come to Palestine in 1941, and then set up residence in the Stella Maris Monastery of the Carmelites. There were fifteen monks in residence when Rufeisen arrived. Unlike most of them, Rufeisen did not intend to live a life of seclusion. As Nechama Tec noted, "The moment Oswald arrived in Stella Maris he made sure everyone around him knew who he was. He introduced himself as a Jew of the Catholic religion." In his early years at the monastery, Rufeisen developed the idea of an Israeli "Hebrew Church" in which prayers and the mass would be conducted for the Hebrew-speaking Catholics of the Haifa area.

'Not everybody will understand'

Brother Daniel's life after he arrived in Israel was in many ways as remarkable as his life had been in Nazi-occupied Europe and Communist Poland. From his arrival at Stella Maris and until his death, Rufeisen lived in the monastery, and served as a priest to the non-Arab Catholics of the Galilee area (Catholics of the Arab community were ministered to by their own Arabic-speaking clergy ). The 1962 trial in which he brought suit against the Israeli Ministry of Interior occupied much of his time in that year, and of course it brought him into the limelight.

In his request to the Interior Ministry, Rufeisen asked for the State of Israel to accept him as a Jew. As he recalled in a 1998 conversation with journalist David B. Green, in The Jerusalem Report, "The interior minister, Moshe Haim Shapira, invited me to talk. I had an hour-long conversation with him, his juridical counsel and the ministry's director general. He offered me citizenship, but told me: 'Don't go to the High Court, because not everybody will understand. They'll see it as discrimination against a baptized Jew.'"

In the late '50s and early 1960s, there were thousands of Eastern European Catholic residents in Israel - many of them Polish (or Romanian, Czech or Bulgarian ) women married to Jewish men. These couples had come to Mandatory Palestine after the war. Realizing that Israeli Hebrew was their common language, Rufeisen established a special ministry for these Christian believers. Interviewed in the 1980s, Rufeisen recalled that, "Eventually, as I worked with these people, I found Hebrew as a common language for all of them. From this grew the idea of a Hebrew Church. This was a gradual evolutionary development."

Stella Maris monastery provided a place for Brother Daniel to live, but it did not support his many projects. He soon realized that his many charitable and pastoral efforts required him to earn a steady income, and so, from the mid-'60s to the mid-'80s, he guided groups of Christian tourists to holy sites in Israel. Thus from 1965 onwards Brother Daniel supported his projects by serving as a licensed Israeli tour guide. During that period, Brother Daniel was so well-liked and respected by those who took his tours that word of his success reached the Tourism Ministry. The agency soon hired him to teach government-approved tour guides about the history and geography of Christianity in the Holy Land.

By the mid-1980s, Daniel was able to give up his work as a guide. He had attracted his own group of financial supporters, particularly in Germany, who sent him money on a regular basis. With that money he supported his charitable work, which included an old age home that he founded in Nahariya. Brother Daniel died in 1998 and was buried on Mount Carmel in the cemetery of the Stella Maris monastery.

All the episodes and elements that I have described can be found in Ulitskaya's book, but they appear there in a jumbled and artificial manner. For the reader who has never heard of Brother Daniel, this book provides an introduction to the fascinating life of the "the Jewish monk." But for those already familiar with his life's outline, Ulitskaya's novel will be a disappointment.

In the fourth of the five "letters from the author to a friend," Ulitskaya writes that as she finished writing this section of the novel tears were streaming down her cheeks. She despairs about the results of her efforts. "I am not a real writer and this book is not a novel but a collage. I snip out pieces of my own life and of the lives of other people and glue together 'without glue ... a living tale from fragments of days.'" This bit of literary artifice on the part of an author playing a character in her own novel comes all too close to the truth.

Shalom Goldman is Research Professor of Religion at Duke University. His most recent book is " Zeal for Zion: Christians, Jews, and the Idea of the Promised Land."

Share this: