Sunday, 05 December 2021

The Last Great Stories of WW II

   I've written before about the many fascinating stories that have come out the so-called Great Generation of WW II. Many of these stories have only been revealed following the deaths of those involved. Their obituaries appear less and less frequently now, as the few remaining survivors near or even surpass 100 years of age.

   One of the most recent, and most fascinating, of these stories follows, paraphrased from the New York Times obituary of November 19, 2021, written by Alex Vadukul. It is the story of Justus Rosenberg, who recently passed away at the age of 100. For the past sixty years, Rosenberg was a much respected professor of literature at Bard College. But he also represented one of the last living links to Holocaust history.

   As a teenager in WW II, he served as a courier in the fabled rescue team of Varian Fry, an American journalist who started a covert operation to provide safe passage to artists and intellectuals seeking to escape from Vichy France. Among those aided were such luminaries as Hannah Arendt, Marcel Duchamp and Marc Chagal.

   Rosenberg went on to fight in the French Resistance, throwing grenades at German tanks, aiding the U.S. Army as a reconnaissance scout and earning a Bronze Star and Purple Heart after the jeep he was riding in hit a land mine.

   Born into a prosperous Jewish family in 1921 in what is now Gdansk, Poland, he watched the rise of the Nazis throughout the  1930s. Anti-Semitism spread across his homeland. His friends began to avoid him, and mobs destroyed Jewish businesses. His parents finally sent him to study in Paris when he was just sixteen. It would be fifteen years before his family would see him again. When the Germans took Paris, Rosenberg fled with thousands of others. He ended up in Toulouse.

   There he met an American student named Miriam Davenport. She encouraged him to travel with her to Marseille where she had a job for him. That job was with Varian Fry, who had been sent to Europe with Eleanor Roosevelt's blessing by the Emergency Rescue Committee, a group of leading New York intellectuals who wanted to help cultural figures stranded in collaborationist Vichy France. Fry's operation became one of the most successful private U.S. rescue missions of WW II, saving some 2,000 people.

   Varian Fry needed a courier he could trust to deliver messages across Marseille, which had become a city filled with desperate refugees trying to flee the country. As a young, Aryan-looking and French-speaking man, Rosenberg said: "I looked very bland, very Germanic and younger than my own age, so I wouldn't be stopped often to be asked for papers, because I looked so innocent and angelic."

   Rosenberg bought passports on the black market and scouted escape routes for Fry's illustrious clients. He helped refugees escape across the Pyrenees into Spain. Among those he rescued were the writers Heinrich Mann and Franz Werfel, along with their wives. Werfel's wife, Alma, was the composer Gustav Mahler's widow.

   By 1941, Rosenberg was forced to leave France after the Vichy government became aware of his activities. His protection vanished, and he was soon rounded up with others and sent to a detention camp outside Lyon. A guard told him they were being transferred to a labor camp in Poland. To avoid being deported, Rosenberg pretended to have peritonitis and was sent to the infirmary. When he woke up, he discovered his appendix had been removed. He managed to make contact with a secret network of priests connected to the Resistance who helped him to escape.

   After healing from his operation, he joined the Resistance, was given a new identity and went on to retrieve airdrops of weapons from the British, to spy on the Nazis and to collect military intelligence. He became part of a guerilla unit that ambushed and fired on German convoys. After D-Day, Rosenberg fought alongside Americans and was assigned to the Army's 636th Tank Destroyer Battalion. He served them as a guide and interrogated prisoners in German. When the war ended, he became an officer at a displaced persons camp operated by the United Nations.

   Rosenberg returned to Paris and studied literature at the Sorbonne, finally emigrating to the United States in 1946, where he earned his doctorate at the University of Cincinnati and later joined Bard's faculty in 1962. He also taught courses at the New School in Manhattan for over fifty years.

   After he was settled in America, Rosenberg wrote to Miriam Davenport to tell her that he was still alive. In her reply, she wrote: "You were a symbol of sorts, to me, in those days. Everyone was moving heaven and earth to save famous men, anti-fascist intellectuals, etc. And there were you, a nice, intelligent youngster with no family, no money, no influence, no hope, no fascinating past."

   At the age of 96, Rosenberg was decorated by the French government as a commander of the Legion of Honor for his service in WW II. A year before he died, he publiished a memoir, "The Art of Resistance: My Four Years in the French Underground."

   Karin Rosenberg, who first met her husband in the 1980s, knew nothing of his valor for many years. "I believe he was a hero," she said. "But he did not think of himself as a hero. To him, he was just doing what needed to be done."



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