“In this great confusion there are innocent people with pure hearts who are at a loss, shaken by what they see, who ask with pain and sorrow: “Where will our help come from? Who will guide us and give us an example through their life, by their behaviour? Who can we follow?” Young and old search for true light with deep longing, wrestling with their doubts.” – Natan Hofshi (Israeli pacifist)
When a massive heart attack took 83-year-old Josef Ben-Eliezer on the night of March 22, his family – and hundreds of fellow Bruderhof members around the world – were left reeling by the suddenness of his death. For Josef himself, it was a mercifully swift passage into the arms of a God he had once denied, but later embraced so ardently that even as an elderly man, he glowed with the zeal of a new convert.
Josef was born to Jewish parents in Frankfurt in 1929. One of his earliest memories was of a Nazi youth group marching down his street, singing a song that chilled him to the bone: “When Jewish blood runs from our knives…”) Not long afterward, the family left Germany for the apparent safety of Poland, where, a few years later, Hitler’s minions caught up with them. Driven from their homes on foot by armed SS guards, they fled further east, to Russia, where they were interned with other Jews - and then tricked into boarding a train of box cars headed for the the freezing wilds of Siberia. (Ironically, this probably saved Josef’s life: had his family been returned to Poland – their hope – they might have ended up in Auschwitz.)
In 1943 Josef landed up, via Samarkand, Tehran, and Karachi, in an “absorption center” for displaced children near Haifa. Among his peers were survivors of places like Bergen-Belsen who, though teens like him, looked like old men.
Two years later, the war was over, but he was still a refugee in every sense of the word. Rootless and parentless, his head swam with conflicting ideas and dreams. When asked to name his mother tongue, he could give no clear answer. Most burdensome, his heart brimmed with hatred – for the Germans, because of the Holocaust; but even more for the British, because of their attempts to restrict the immigration of concentration camp survivors into Palestine.
Like other Jews, I promised myself that I would never again go like a sheep to slaughter, at least not without putting up a good fight. We felt we were living in a world of wild beasts, and we couldn’t see how we would survive unless we become like them.
The next years brought a stint in the Haganah, the underground military force then fighting for the establishment of the State of Israel. During one campaign, he served in a unit that participated in the forcible evacuation (and interrogation, beating, and even murder) of Arab villagers from an area desired by Jewish settlers. Josef was no longer a victim, but his new position on the side of power brought him no peace. In fact, it did the opposite: it opened and reopened the memory of his own suffering, which ate at him and brought on waves of guilt. He eventually left the army, but he still wasn’t happy. He abandoned Judaism, and then religion as a whole. He tried to make sense of the world by rationalizing its evils. But even that didn’t seem to work.
Around this time I claimed that it was nonsense to believe in a higher power. After everything I had experienced and heard, I was indignant that my forefathers brought so much suffering on themselves through their faith in a god.
There is no God, I told myself, and certainly no incarnate Christ who suffered with us on the cross of the world, rose, and brings life. It seemed insane to me, through all the things I had heard and experienced that had been done in his name, especially to the Jewish people but also among the so-called Christians to each other, to still believe in the reality of the living God. I have to say that when I heard the word “Christ” I felt a shudder of horror. In my mind this Name was connected to the Inquisition, persecution, hypocrisy, and idolatry.
Over the next years Josef never flagged in his search for the purpose of human existence, and for a just, equitable society. Capitalism was abhorrent to him; Zionism, too, had lost its shine. Socialism and Communism held his interest for a while, as did the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre. For several months he tried community in Paris with a group of idealistic Marxists. But in the end, though, nothing truly answered the questions gnawing at the back of his mind. One – the riddle of why human beings cannot live together in harmony – burned with such relentless intensity that it drove him to despair. On more than one occasion, suicide beckoned.
In the meantime, he spent several months in Munich, where he stumbled on a neo-Nazi march and found admiration for the Führer alive and well, and delved into Esperanto, an artificial language championed by post-war European intellectuals who believed that a universal tongue might help bring about universal peace.
In 1958 Josef came across the Bruderhof. There – in a Christian community, of all places – he felt confronted by the God of his forefathers as never before. Though a convinced atheist when he arrived (and a skeptic bent on disproving the viability of community) he found himself irrevocably drawn. Gradually his arguments and defenses melted away. Two years later, he committed his life to Christ through believer’s baptism. Shortly after this, he wrote:
Looking back, I see that all along, my heart longed for God. How ashamed I was when I realized how great his love is, that he let his son be crucified for me! That he never forsook me or gave up on me but rather suffered with me and again and again held out to me his loving hand, that I might understand how great his love is. I still cannot grasp how I could be so blind and could not perceive him, when God’s love is so great, even for such a miserable creature as myself.
I had to go through many personal struggles. Sometimes the bottom seemed to disappear from under my feet, but when I felt my own helplessness most strongly – when humanly, it seemed hopeless – I experienced Christ beside me most strongly. He never forsook me.
There is no life that does not come from Christ! We have to allow ourselves to be led by him again and again, by expecting everything from him and allowing everything that comes from us to die. And Christ will not disappoint us, even if we often have little faith.
I can only say that I experienced baptism in shame – though also in great thankfulness and joy. Shame, because I had repeatedly pushed Jesus Christ away from me. And yet, his love is greater than our human understanding. It was a tremendous joy for me to realize that this Jesus, of whom Holy Scripture speaks, is alive today as he was 2000 years ago. Everything is true what was said about his greatness, but he is even greater.…
Josef added that it was through this discovery of the “real” Jesus – “someone who has very little to do with all the violence that is carried out in his name” – that he realized the promise of a life lived for love and unity.
In my heart I heard Jesus’ words, “How often did I want to gather you, and you would not!” I felt the power of these words and knew that it could unite people across every barrier – people of all nations, races, and religions. It was an overwhelming experience. It turned my life upside down, because I realized that it meant the healing of hatred, and the forgiveness of sins.
Decades later, Josef was contacted by a man whose father had been driven out of the village Josef had helped to evacuate as a soldier. This man had read Josef’s story, and was interested in meeting him. In 1997, with some trepidation, but also with fervent hopes of reconciliation, Josef travelled to Israel, where he met the man and his father, begged their forgiveness – and received it.
While only one incident in a long and eventful life, the fact that he undertook such a trip (he was then 68) encapsulates the way Josef’s heart drove him onward again and again, forever searching (and forever nudging others to search too) and never resting or allowing that he had “arrived.” At his side – or waiting for him at home – there was always Ruth, his beloved wife of fifty years. Together they had seven children, and well over a dozen grandchildren.
In a broader sense, Josef was a father to many more than his own children, both within the Bruderhof and beyond it. His sage advice and the humility with which he imparted it made him a trusted mentor, counsellor, and confessor to friends and acquaintances from New York to Europe and the Middle East. (Just months ago, he began mentoring two young Americans doing a year of voluntary service in Bethlehem).
On Josef’s 83rd birthday last July, he reflected on his life as a follower of Christ and a member of the Bruderhof. Among other things, he said:
It’s now over fifty years. How many struggles we’ve gone through - and I’m still here! One day, though, I will be departing. Don’t say, then, that Josef was faithful. He wasn’t. But God was faithful. He held me, and that’s what I want to emphasize today. I tell you, it’s the last thing I thought of – not in my wildest dreams: that I would land up in a Christian community. But God led me. God led me together with you dear brothers and sisters, and we are in it together: poor people who struggle each day and fail and stand up again and support one another. We can do this because God is there, and he helps us through. That’s why I’m praising God – because he has done this wonderful thing. I’m not so important, but God is great. May we continue to testify – not to ourselves, but to his glory.
After Josef’s death, a piece of paper was found in his pocket. On it, in Hebrew, was the Kriyat Shema, a 5th-century ritual prayer he carried everywhere he went:
I herewith forgive all those who have angered or taunted me,
all those who have sinned against my person,
my wealth, my possessions or my honor,
through compulsion, knowingly with malice, or in ignorance,
by their words or by their deeds.
No one should suffer punishment because of me.
In light of all Josef suffered, especially in his youth, the fact that he cherished such a prayer so greatly speaks volumes. In light of the longing that, at one time, almost drove him over the brink – the longing that all people might live in peace – it offers a deeply personal and deeply challenging piece of guidance for the road ahead.
For more of Josef's story, told in his words, see My Search.
See also an article written by his daughter, Routing the Nazi Ghosts.
Read more about the Bruderhof, the Christian community behind Plough, on our About Us page.