The German Jew Who Beat Hitler


To Shambhala and Back: German Swami Gauribāla’s life-long Grail Quest

Swami Gauribāla Giri
a.k.a ‘German Swami’

I have met some remarkable people in my travels, but no one has influenced me as much as Swami Gauribāla Giri, or ‘German Swami’ as he was known throughout Ceylon from the 1950s until long after his passing in 1984. Why do I mention him now? Because this month marks fifty years since I first met him–and my life has never been the same since then.

Born Jewish as Peter Schönfelt in 1907, he grew up in Berlin of the 1920s. He started as an apprentice bookbinder at an artist press specializing in printing poetry by young poets surrounding Germany’s romantic poet laureate Stefan George. Soon he was one of them. Thus began a life-long Grail Quest that took him in 1936 to Ceylon where he became the Buddhist monk Nyanakhetto at the same Island Heritage where I arrived thirty-five years later planning to do the same in 1971. However, having witnessed the dry scholasticism of Ceylon Buddhism, he disrobed during the war when all Axis citizens were confined to internment camps in Dehra Dun.

Post-war: Swami Gaurabala with his younger brother Malte Schoenfeldt who emigrated to Ceylon after the war.

After World War II and with a full decade of experience in India, he took ordination as the Dasanami sannyasin Swami Gauribāla Giri and wandered over India in search of someone, anyone who knew what Swami Gauribāla also wanted to know. He even met Ramana Maharshi (and may be seen walking with Maharshi in archival films) and yet he still was not satisfied, until he met Nallur Yoga Swami, who found Gauribāla perusing the sacred books section of Lanka Book Depot and gruffly told him, “You bloody fool! It’s not found in books. Nee summa iru!” and abruptly left, leaving Gauribāla speechless and confounded. But he had found the one he had long been looking for.

Gauribāla was a polylog who read and spoke multiple European and Indian languages. By comparison, I was a rude, ignorant and uncultured 20-year old American seeker (now I am just a rude 70-year old).

When I first approached German Swami fifty years ago this month, he was pouring over high-resolution maps of the Himalayas, preparing to set out on an expedition to Shambhala, a quasi-mythical land in the Trans-Himalaya. He had even identified from the map what he called “three gateways to Shambhala”. He decided upon Mu Gompa (‘Mu Monastery’) on the Nepal-Tibet border.

The author at Bumusa Zen monastery, Korea in 1970

As far-fetched as it sounds today, I was totally enthralled and blurted out, “May I come too?” I was accepted, but where was I going and what would I be doing? I hadn’t the faintest clue, except that I would be trying to cross the high Himalayas, a long long way from the palm-fringed shores of sunny Ceylon.

Thus began the greatest adventure in my entire life, my five-month quest in search of the Road to Shambhala in 1971.

So how did a Jewish ‘nobody’ beat Hitler and the Nazis?

Watch for the rest of the story. It gets even more quirky, amazing and mysterious, like the German Swami himself.