From Jewish Ghetto to Monastery: The Holocaust Survivor Who Chose Jesus

On the run in Nazi-occupied Poland, Rachel Drazek saw Jesus on a cross and found a kindred spirit. Later to become Sister Paula, she’s now buried on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Sister Paula in the Mount of Olives monastery
Sister Paula in the Mount of Olives monasteryCredit: Monastery of the Benedictine Sisters
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

At the end of the requiem mass this month for Rachel Drazek – Sister Paula – at the Benedictine monastery on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, something interesting happened. The Hebrew Kaddish prayer was said as well.

In death as in life, her two inseparable identities remained together – she was a Jewish Holocaust survivor who had converted to Christianity, becoming a nun.

Rachel Drazek (DRON-zek) was born in 1929 in Ostroleka, a city in eastern Poland, to Simcha and Fajga Drazek, neé Zlotowitz. Her mother died when she was a child, and she was raised by her father’s second wife Chaya in nearby Lomza. Her brother, Yitzhak, was born a few years later.

In September 1939, when she was 10, her father was drafted into the Red Army after the Soviets took eastern Poland. He was wounded, hospitalized and later killed.

Simcha and Fajga DrazekCredit: Drazek family

Rachel, her stepmother, and her brother were forced to move to an overcrowded Jewish ghetto, where they lived for a year. “One day I climbed onto the ghetto’s gate and watched the gathering of old people and children. I still didn’t realize they were being led to their deaths,” she said many years later.

When an escape from the ghetto was organized, “with the assistance of good Poles,” she said, she was caught by the Gestapo. “I was sure they were going to kill me, but they returned me to the ghetto.”

Rachel later did manage to escape. She never saw her stepmother or brother again. “It was cold, with the Polish snow of up to two meters. Poles helped us,” she said. “We were in the forest until we were warned that we had to flee.”

In January 1943, during the holiday of Epiphany, she encountered some Poles while wandering with a Jewish friend. “They realized we were Jewish and threw snowballs at us,” she said. “The Germans might have come at any moment.”

She suddenly saw a chapel and a cross. She told her friend that if they genuflected the others would think they were Christians. “That was a miracle for us,” she said.

Sister PaulaCredit: Zbigniew Dobkowski

When she rose, she says, she was a different person. “I saw someone suffering on the cross, just as I was. ‘You’re Jewish,’ I said. ‘You’re suffering and so are we.’”

She later swore that if she survived the war it would be a sign that Jesus was the messiah. She spent the following months in a potato cellar. She later presented herself as a Polish orphan, and lived with a German family.

“I had to go to church, celebrate the holidays and go to confession,” she said. In the end she was also baptized.

At the end of the war, at age 16, she entered the Benedictine monastery in Lomza. “I was lonely. Every day I wanted to die,” she said.

“I was in pain – why don’t they search and find my brother? I felt guilty. That was my stigma. My decision was that if I became a Christian I’d enter a monastery so I could pray for the Jewish people.”

Later on, relatives of hers located her and tried to convince her to return to Judaism, but despite the tears, threats, offers of money and other temptations, she insisted on staying at the monastery.

The monastery records reveal fears that Jews would try to abduct her, so she was locked inside. It was also said that a large reward was offered to anyone who could get her out, but she declared that she’d never leave.

The Polish name she adopted was Maria Janina Malczewska. On becoming a nun, she became Sister Paula. In the mid-1970s she traveled to Israel after making contact with Brother Daniel, formerly known as Shmuel Oswald Rufeisen, a Polish Holocaust survivor who had become a monk. Her next stop was the Benedictine monastery on the Mount of Olives.

She learned Hebrew at Ulpan Etzion in Israel, augmenting what she had learned at a Jewish school during her childhood. She lit candles on Friday nights and got time off on Shabbat to pray for the Jewish people.

“This is my place,” she said. "I don’t think I missed anything by becoming Christian. On the contrary. I found much more: Jesus was Jewish. His mother was a believing Jew. We Christians came from Israel and will return there.” For years she kept in touch with Jewish relatives in Israel and elsewhere.

In a note she kept in her room at the monastery she described how Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, another Polish Jew who converted during the Holocaust, had asked that Kaddish be said over his grave. The person who said Kaddish over Sister Paula’s grave was her friend Yisca Harani, a researcher of Christianity who had documented her life story.

“Sister Paula, Rachel, daughter of Fajga and Simcha, always smiled, was always good-hearted, but lived with deep sadness,” Harani said in his eulogy. “Her longings for her Jewish family that was lost in that terrible war on that Christian continent ended with her burial in a monastery on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Israel’s capital, Jerusalem.”

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