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A MIR COMMENTARY
Some Observations on Oswald Rufeisen
and the Ghetto of Mir
1941-1942

Israel Shifron (Piernikov)(1)

INTRODUCTION

I was 16 years old when I escaped from the Ghetto at Mir because of the warning of Oswald Rufeisen. I left my mother and with my brother and many others I took to the forests, where I lived for almost two years until the Soviet invasion. Because of Oswald Rufeisen's act probably more than 220 of us escaped on that fateful evening. We, the survivors and our progeny, and the generations to come, owe and will owe our lives to this very special human being. It is in his memory that I pen the following lines.

After many years serving as chairman of the Mir Surviors Organization I developed a strong bond with Oswald/Father Daniel. When I got to know this unassuming man I learned of the pain that he felt, which derived from all sorts of false information on his activities during the war. Accordingly, for his sake I feel it incumbent upon myself to leave an additional, accurate account of his deeds. Together, with him and others, we "Mirers" attempted to reconstruct the past and rewrite history as it really was. One of our ways was to research and gather information.

VILNA — A CROSSROAD FOR JEWS INVOLVED IN SAVING A REMNANT OF MIR JEWRY

Vilna, then in Poland, but ceded with the German invasion to Lithuania, was a central meeting place and a hive for Jewish activity before and during WW II up to the German invasion. Early in the war numerous people involved in the eventual fate of Mir's Jewish population were in Vilna where they became members of Zionist organizations; among them Dov Betetzke (aka Berl) Reznik, Shlomo Charchas and my sister, Esther Piernikov. Vilna, at first a neutral place where Jews sought refuge, was a magnet for both Oswald Rufeisen and his brother Arieh. There they joined the Akiva group (Tec 1990:20-21) and it was because of Oswald's associations with this Jewish youth group in Vilna that he recognized and made contact with the Jews of Mir, first with Dov Beretzke Reznik. It was in Vilna that Arieh Rufeisen got his visa for Palestine and where Oswald was refused a visa.

A "MIRER" CONVENTION

In order to present an accurate history of the tragedy of Mir, my best friend, the late Zeev Schreiber and I reconstructed a list of escapees from the Ghetto including those "Mirers" who remained in the forest and those who did not survive the war, whether due to enemy action, illness or suicide. We spread our research wide, making phone calls in Israel and abroad in an attempt to find all the survivors of our shtetl. Then, in order to further ascertain the list's accuracy we, the survivors of Mir, together with Oswald as an honored participant, held a convention at the Avia Hotel (Yahud, Israel) on June 22, 1991, exactly fifty years after the German invasion of Russia began. There we presented the full list of known survivors to all participants. Each one was then was asked to scrutinize the list and fix and emend it according to the best of his or her knowledge. We eventually arrived at a total of ca. 220 names, which was considerably less than the 300 Oswald believed to have escaped. Although it was somewhat less than Oswald believed, he nevertheless expressed his appreciation of our attempts at maintaining strict accuracy. Interestingly, later, with the help of documents provided by Scotland Yard, we received indications that Oswald's estimate was actually more accurate.

OSWALD IN MIR

Between November 1, 1941, the date of the first mass slaughter of Jews, and August 13, 1942, the date of the extermination of all the Ghetto's (Castle's) inhabitants, Oswald Rufeisen, posing as a German/Pole working in the Gendarmerie of Mir, dedicated every effort to making connection with Jews. This was done on his initiative and surreptitiously, under the very noses of the Germans, Poles and Belorussians for and with whom he worked and resided.

Oswald came to a Mir in the charge of Meister Hein on November 27, 1941 (Tec 1990:75) when he was almost 19 years old. After establishing himself at the Gendarmerie he came into contact with Dov Beretzke Reznik when the latter came to work in Oswald's office as an electrician. Oswald recognized Reznik from his Vilna days when they were together in the kibbutz movement and it was at Oswald's initiative that the first contact was first made; it was not Reznik's initiative. Oswald was very clear on that and that aspect is well documented in Tec's (1990:90) book.

That contact was before the establishment of the Ghetto and according to Tec (1990:-91), Oswald consistently and vehemently denied and dismissed as "preposterous" any claim that he had any social contacts with Jews, especially in a synagogue or a Jewish home. His only public association with them was in an official capacity when accompanied by Seramifowicz, a non-Jewish, Belarussian official from the Gendarmerie. I, myself heard Oswald make that denial when he declared: "I never went into the ghetto". I was also informed this was adamantly reiterated by Oswald to Aharon Koch, Oswald's confidant, and Fania Biltzky, Shlomo Charchas' friend.

Oswald informed Tec that he avoided all unnecessary contact with Jews as it would have endangered his already precarious position since there were some who suspected him of being a Jew (Tec 1990:65,79). At this first contact Oswald is quoted as saying: "When the two of us met I told him I would do for the Jews whatever was in my power. In return I wanted him to keep a secret. I demanded that under no circumstances should people know who I was, and only when absolutely necessary could someone be told that I, though a policeman, was helping." (Tec 1990:90). Thus, several stories that appear in articles noting Oswald's attraction to Jews and visiting them in a synagogue, their homes or in the Ghetto are, if Oswald himself is to be believed, a figment of people's imagination (e.g., Itzkowitz 2009). So too are some memories of Oswald as depicted by Eliezer (aka Mike) Breslin (Piat and Breslin 1987) who claimed that when Reznik first met Oswald, who made himself known to Berl Reznik, the following occurred: "Fearfully, Berl looked again, fearing a trick. But, some minutes later, he said, yes!. Now he remembered the young, tall, blond fellow with blue eyes, not at all Jewish looking, who spoke beautiful Polish, knew German and was well versed in Hebrew!" As anyone who ever met Oswald knows, he was short, of slight build, had dark colored hair (Tec 1990:65, photos of Oswald between pp. 148 and 149; Figures 1-2) and dark eyes (personal memory).

The story of Oswald Rufheisen is also documented in the Mir Yizkor Book (Blumental 1962:314-316) and is in part based on conversations I had with people in Germany and in Israel, who had been in on the secret of Oswald's true identity. Indeed, only a handful of Jews knew of Oswald's real identity and that was revealed to several more, including members of the Ghetto Judenrat, only just prior to the escape.

SUMMARY

I have written this article in the interest of leaving an accurate history of the last days of the Jewish Community of Mir and to do honor to the memory of Oswald Rufeisen, without whose help there would be no hundreds of survivors and all their descendants. I dedicate it to my soul-mate, Oswald. I will never forget you.

Giva't Shmuel
June 1, 2010

REFERENCES

Piat, X. and Breslin, E. (aka M Breslin.)
1987 The SS Man Who Was a Jewish Partisan, as Told to Xavier Piat by Mike Breslin, a Capetonian Who Was a Partisan (in the) Forests of Eastern Poland. Originally published in the Cape Argus, a daily newspaper of Cape Town South Africa. It was dated April 25 1987. Posted on the WWW and accessed May 25, 2010. http://www.uoregon.edu/~rkimble/Mirweb/OswaldArticle.html

Blumental, N. (ed.) 1992 The Book of Mir (Books of Remembrance for Communities in Exile) by the Association of Mir Immigrants {Igud Olé Mir}. Jerusalem: "Entziklopedia shel Gluyot" (Hebrew and Yiddish). [Alternately posted as: Sefer Mir (Memorial book of Mir), Editors: N. Blumenthal, Jerusalem, The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora, 1962 (H,Y,E, 768 pages)] and available online on the worldwide web: http://yizkor.nypl.org/index.php?id=1284

Itzkowitz, S.
2009 From Mir to Montreal. Posted on the WWW and accessed May 25, 2010 http://www.uoregon.edu/~rkimble/Mirweb/Itzkowitz1.html

Tec, Nehama
1990 In the Lion's Den. Oxford University Press.

________________________________________________
(1) Article translated from the Hebrew by Eliot Braun

Shifron1

Israel Shifron/Piernikov (standing) and Oswald Rufeisen/Father Daniel, at the "Mirer" Convention, Hotel Avia. The sign in Hebrew reads: "Welcome to the convention of Mir survivors; with particular acknowledgement of our savior, Oswald; because of him we are here; June 22, 1991".

shifron3
Oswald Rufeisen (3rd from right) and Prof. Nehama Tec (center), author of In the Lion's Den, chatting with "Mirers" at the June 1991 convention.
shifron2
Professor Nehama Tec and Israel Shifron chatting at the meeting in June 1991 while another "Mirer" looks on.

See The Escape by Israel Shifron

June 2010

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