Mir During the Holocaust
The Escape from the Ghetto – the Story of Rufeisen
On 27 November 1941, a young Jew, Oswald Rufeisen, arrived in Mir holding forged papers and masquerading as a "volksdeutsche" (ethnic German). Due to his command of the German language, Rufeisen was used as a translator in the service of the commander of the Belarus regional police, Semion Serafinowicz as well as the Commandant of the security police and gendarmerie in Mir, the German Reihnold Hein. Rufeisen was appointed assistant to Hein, and donned a Belarus police uniform.
One day, a Jewish electrician from the Mir ghetto, Dov (Beretzke) Reznik, arrived at the Mir Police Headquarters to fix an electrical problem. Rufeisen recognized Reznik from their pioneering days in Vilna. Rufeisen also met Shlomo Charachas in Mir. Charchas and Reznik were leaders of "Hashomer Hatzair" in Mir, and organized the underground in the ghetto.
"… I was walking to work with my friend Laizer Breslin. Coming towards us was the Commandant of the Mir gendarmerie, accompanied by a Belarusian policeman. The Commandant was leading the policeman in a friendly manner, with their arms tucked one under the other. I recognized the policeman as Rufeisen. He also recognized me. He broke away from the Commandant, held back for a moment as if he was fixing his shoe, and when the Commandant moved on a few steps he whispered to me, "Shlomo, I will come to you today." My friend asked me what the policeman had said. I told him that I didn't know, I hadn't exactly heard him". Testimony of Shlomo Charchas, Yad Vashem Archives, M.49/727
Rufeisen made use of his job and special position, and began to pass information, and later weapons, to members of the ghetto underground. During the first stage, nobody except Charchas, Dov Reznik and his cousin Yisrael knew the real identity of Rufeisen. One day, Rufeisen told them about a planned aktion against the Jews living in the surrounding villages. They brought the information to the village Jews, but they were not convinced, and the aktion took place as planned, on the exact dates Rufeisen had reported.
"After the massacre of the village Jews, Oswald appeared and warned us that nobody should leave the ghetto to buy food from the farmers because the police were wandering around the streets and anyone that left would be shot. Two people went out – Longan and Azriel Kaplan – to meet with a farmer – and they were executed. Thus the relations with the translator were tightened, and the trust in him grew." Dov Reznik, "Rescue and Rebellion of the Mir Jews," Sefer Mir, p. 329
Members of the ghetto underground asked Rufeisen to bring them weapons. Rufeisen later recalled:
"I acquiesced, when I realized their request was a matter of life and death, and they had few more chances. In Meister Hein's room was a locked cupboard full of arms – rifles, pistols and hand grenades. Each time I took one of them and placed it among the plants in the garden, and when evening fell I brought it to Yisrael Reznik at the ghetto gates. In this way I handed over 12 rifles. Itzkowicz (Leibel Itzkowicz, a member of the underground who worked in the stables of the Germans in Mir) would come to the police headquarters every day after work. When he left, his bag was full of bullets covered with a small amount of food. Itzkowicz was a brave and sharp lad. He would sometimes place a rifle in the trash of the stables and bring it later that evening to the ghetto." Moshe Reuveni, Simcha Reznik, "The Wondrous Story of Oswald Rufeisen," Mir, p. 320
One day, during his posting at the police headquarters, Rufeisen heard Hein speaking on the telephone with Eichner, regional commandant of the S.S. in Baranovichi, and gathered that he was planning the liquidation of the Mir ghetto on 13 August 1942. Hein admitted to him that he was indeed planning an aktion. "It's a secret," he told him, "and nobody but you knows about it." On 6 August, Rufeisen came to the ghetto and told Dov Reznik of the bitter news. Rufeisen advised the underground to give up on their hopeless dream of battle, which would only end in the slaughter of all the remaining Jews of Mir. Instead, he suggested, they should escape to the forest via Miranka, Prilok and Kryniczno and join the partisans. On the day of the escape, Rufeisen promised, he would lead the armed forces out of Mir and in the opposite direction to those fleeing the ghetto.
The members of the underground warned the Judenrat about the upcoming liquidation aktion, and they told Rabbi Schulman, the chairman of the Judenrat, that Rufeisen was actually a Jew and that he had secured their escape. The escape was planned for Sunday night, and on Friday evening and Shabbat the ghetto was in turmoil. People ran around asking questions and nobody had any answers – should they stay or flee? Schulman held a general meeting and declared that no one was to stand in the way of those trying to escape. He himself, he said, had decided to stay. He felt that there was no way to avoid the upcoming disaster. A refugee from Nieswiez, who had arrived in the ghetto exhausted, broken and wearing torn clothes, told of his two-week wanderings with his son, which led many to believe that escape was not a solution. The members of the underground and the youth in the ghetto decided to flee. Many of them left family members behind.
"We fixed places to exit the ghetto. Each group appointed a leader and took some of the weapons. It was hard to leave those staying behind; nobody knew what tomorrow held, but those who stayed knew for sure: they were certainly going to die." Dov Reznik, "Rescue and Rebellion of the Mir Jews," Sefer Mir, p. 335
On the night of 9 August some 200 Jews fled the ghetto, among them all 80 members of the underground. A few of the fugitives returned to the ghetto. The rest gathered in the Muslim (Tatar) cemetery and from there fled to the nearby forests.
As Rufeisen had promised, that night the policemen were busy on a false chase after "partisans" in the opposite direction to the escapees, leaving only four policemen behind at the Mir headquarters. The following day the policemen returned from the futile chase and found out that the Jews had escaped. None of them yet connected the escape with Rufeisen. The true identity of Rufeisen was finally revealed by an informant. A Jew called Stanislawski who worked in the stables of the police headquarters told Hein that Rufeisen the Pole had betrayed him, and had warned the Jews of the upcoming liquidation. Stanislawksi did not know that Rufeisen was Jewish. Rufeisen was called to Hein, and he confessed his actions to the Commandant, as well as the fact that he was Jewish. He was sent to prison. He managed to escape, and hid in a monastery close to the police headquarters in Mir. In December 1943 he left the monastery, fled to the forest and joined the partisans in the Naliboki forests.