Throughout history our ranks have had those who skirt about on the periphery claiming to have vast powers beyond mere mortals. Such individuals have managed to entrench themselves into deep historical mysteries, escaping any efforts to understand them to go on into the annals of weirdness. One such man emerged in the days before World War II, going on to become a powerful psychic and magician, feared by Hitler and held close by Stalin. Here was a man who had various powers that have remained unexplained, his very history uncertain and permeated by legend.
The man known as Wolf Messing was born into poverty to a Jewish family in 1899 in the small backwater village of Góra Kalwaria, about 15 miles outside of Warsaw in what is now Poland, and which at the time was part of the Russian Empire. He was a rather strange boy from an early age, claiming to have special psychic abilities such as predicting the future, clairvoyance, telepathy, and most spectacularly of altering people’s very perceptions of what they were seeing around them. As a teenager he would become rather well-known in his village for these purported abilities, and he began performing demonstrations for money, doing all manner of parlor tricks such as locating hidden items, reading people’s minds, and planting suggestions in people’s minds. He claimed that there was nothing paranormal about any of this, and that he was able to do all of this through natural processes that anyone could master, such as being able to sense subtle permutations in the human body, which helped him along in his feats and of which he would once say:
It’s not mind-reading, it’s, like the “reading of muscles” When human thinks hard about something, the brain cells transmit impulses to all muscles of the body. Their movements, invisible to the eye, I can easily feel. Often I’m performing mental tasks without direct contact with the inductor. The pointer to me here is the breathing frequency of inductor, the beating of his heart, voice timbre, his walking nature etc. My ability to see the future may seem to contradict the materialist understanding of the world. But there is not a particle of the unknowable or supernatural about precognition.
This went on for some years until Messing’s parents began to pressure him to join a seminary to become a rabbi, something he was not keen at all about doing. When it became clear that he had no choice in the direction of his life that his parents had mapped out for him, Messing decided to run away, hopping on a train to Berlin with a lot of dreams, no money in his pocket, and the horizon of his future blurry and indistinct. Indeed, he was so poor that he could not even afford a ticket for the train, instead sneaking aboard as a stowaway. When he was discovered hiding, he allegedly used his powers of mental persuasion to make the conductor believe that a scarp of newspaper was his ticket, and on he went to Berlin.
Once he reached his destination, he was unsure of what to do next. He lived on the streets doing odd jobs such as shining shoes, washing dishes, anything to put food in his mouth, and in the meantime, he worked on sharpening his psychic prowess. Eventually he was able to get a gig with a travelling circus, doing the same kinds of psychic tricks that had made him so well known in his own village, only this time he was playing to huge, sold out crowds. Word spread about the wondrous abilities of this outsider by the name of Wolf Messing, and so at one of these shows two of the members of the audience in attendance were two scientists you may have heard of by the names of Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein, who were unable to figure out how he was doing what he did. Messing allegedly famously asked Freud to imagine a task to complete, the more bizarre the better, and acting on this the psychic took a pair of tweezers and plucked three hairs from Einstein’s moustache, exactly what Freud had envisioned.
Messing would attract the attention of society’s elite and the rich and famous, until he was a major celebrity at the time, the talk of the town in Berlin, until Hitler came to power in 1933 and the Nazis and the looming World War II sent the very Jewish Messing running back to Poland. He would then make a prophetic announcement in 1937 that “If Hitler goes to war against the East, his death awaits him.” Considering Messing was so high profile, this got back to the Germans, who placed a rather sizeable bounty on his head, and when the Nazi war machine rolled into Warsaw in 1939 not even Poland was safe for him anymore. In his effort to get out of there another legendary story of his psychic powers would be born. According to the tale, Messing was captured by the Gestapo and brought to a holding cell to be interrogated, but the psychic allegedly mentally commanded his two captors to go into a cell, which he then locked them into before fleeing to Russia.
Once in Russia, Messing immediately got to performing once again, wowing awed audiences with his feats of miracles and paranormal prowess, a dangerous game considering that Josef Stalin was famously against claims of psychic powers and had indeed outlawed such practices. Nevertheless, when word got to Stalin about this amazing psychic who was taking audiences by storm, rather than have him killed the Russian leader instead requested an audience with Messing. Stalin decided to give Messing a chance to prove his psychic powers, giving him the ultimatum that he was to pull off a “psychic bank robbery” by convincing a bank teller to hand over a large amount of cash using simply a blank piece of paper. Messing was told that if he could do this he would be spared, but if he could not, he would be imprisoned in a gulag. No pressure or anything.
Messing was then dropped off at the Moscow Gosbank, alone and unarmed by anything other than a blank slip of paper. The unflappable Messing calmly walked into the bank, presented the paper, and told the teller that he wished to withdraw one hundred thousand rubles. The teller looked thoughtfully at Messing’s “credentials,” being the blank strip of paper, and then dutifully nodded and retrieved the cash from the vaults. Messing then allegedly stuffed it into a sack and later dumped it at the feet of the flabbergasted Stalin. Another test was given to Messing, in which he was required to infiltrate and visit Stalin at a heavily guarded, fortified compound, which the psychic was able to do without any weapons and with merely the power of his own mind. Messing would later say that he had merely projected into the guards’ minds that he was the head of the secret police, which had allowed him to more or less waltz right through security.
After this he was a frequent fixture of the Kremlin, and met Stalin on several occasions, all while he dispensed prophecies such as the beginning of World War II, which he guessed to within a week, and visions of Soviet tanks lumbering into Berlin. There seems to be the common misconception that Messing was some sort of personal wizard for Stalin, but most historians believe that he only met the Russian leader a few times, and that Stalin was in fact more afraid of him than anything else. Yet the legends persist, and indeed it is said that Stalin died shortly after Messing predicted in 1953. This all furthered the legend of Wolf Messing, but alas he could not use his powers to stop his own death in 1974 of kidney and pulmonary illnesses.
Messing has managed to retain his air of mystique right up to the present, with much discussion and debate on just how true any of the claims and stories associated with him are. Indeed, he has become so legendary as a mystic and psychic, with so many tales swirling about his exploits, that it is hard to disentangle fact from fiction when it comes to Wolf Messing. Was this just a charlatan with urban legends and tall tales attached to him? Or was there something more to it all? Whatever you may think, Wolf Messing has gone on to become a paranormal historical oddity and cypher, and we may never know what the whole story is.