RHINEBECK, New York — At 19, he looked all of 13 — maybe 14 — years old. Fluent in French, the blond and blue-eyed teen navigated the twisting streets of Marseilles, fake papers in his pocket, and no one — not the gendarmes, not the Milice (the Vichy regime’s militia) — had any idea as to what he was doing.
“I was an excellent courier. Who would expect that I was carrying false papers? I looked too young,” he said, seated in his living room.
Behind him a picture window offered a sweeping view of the snow-covered Catskill Mountains, a far more manageable range than the Pyrenees he tried to cross so many decades ago.
At 96, Justus Rosenberg is the last surviving member of the Varian Fry group, a network which rescued thousands of artists and intellectuals from the Nazis between 1940 and 1941.
And last Thursday, March 30, in a ceremony at the French Consulate, Rosenberg was promoted to the rank of Commandeur in the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest decoration.
As France’s Ambassador to the United States Gérard Araud pinned the medal on Rosenberg’s smart suit, it was as if he was pinning the past to present. While the decoration paid tribute to a man whose selflessly risked life and limb for France — and later the United States — it also honored an outstanding academic career and a man who has been a role model for thousands of young men and women.
“It is not every day I have the privilege to elevate someone to Commandeur in the Legion d’Honneur,” Araud said.
The French ambassador told those seated in the richly paneled room that the French government wanted to honor “the exceptional bravery and sacrifice Mr. Justus Rosenberg showed during World War II, and his selfless engagement against anti-Semitism and intolerance… and for still inspiring new generations today.”
Rosenberg still teaches a full course load as a professor emeritus of languages and literature at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. It’s a position that, much like his house, which is perched high on a hill in Upstate New York, allows him to see the bigger picture.
Aside from teaching and writing — his memoir is due to be released in 2018 — he devotes time to the Justus and Karin Rosenberg Foundation. He and his wife started the foundation two years ago to combat and study hatred and anti-Semitism, a problem which is increasing both in the US and abroad.
Still, Rosenberg is careful not to draw too many parallels between the current climate and Nazi Germany.
“Basically they are two different cultures. Anti-Semitism was something that existed in Germany for a long time. The worst anti-Semitic speeches came from Martin Luther. The [United] States doesn’t have such a tradition, so it’s a different story,” Rosenberg said, fresh from the gym where he exercises three times a week.
Free, but not for long
Rosenberg’s story began in 1921. He was born to a prosperous family in the Free City of Danzig, an autonomous region between Germany and Poland established by the Treaty of Versailles after World War I.
His parents, who were both Orthodox, came from a shtetl outside Mlawa, Poland. Rosenberg is fairly certain his parents eloped; his father came from a wealthy Orthodox family, his mother’s father was a tailor.
The couple moved to Danzig, a cosmopolitan and relatively liberal city, and they quickly assimilated.
German was Rosenberg’s first language, and he could speak more than a smattering of Polish. He attended kindergarten and also spoke some Yiddish — remembering that his parents used it when they didn’t want him to understand. His was a traditional, but largely non-observant family.
“Twice a year they dragged me to shul, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur. They did Hanukkah and Pesach — but that was for the kids,” he said.
Rosenberg flipped through a photograph album and stopped on a black and white photo. There he was, a child of six, dressed in a sailor suit, posing in a studio with a floral backdrop, leaning on a toy rifle.
‘A German rifle. Can you imagine? I soaked in the German culture’
“A German rifle. Can you imagine? I soaked in the German culture. I still remember and still quote Goethe and Schiller. I did not experience discrimination until later,” he said.
Although Rosenberg didn’t mingle with non-Jews, there was no overt tension in the cosmopolitan city until around 1935. Hitler had been in power for two years and the Nazis soon won the majority in Danzig. That same year the Nazis held a rally in the town square.
Rosenberg implored his father to consider the danger.
“Jews could still get out of Germany, but my father thought it was an evil wind that would go away,” he said.
So the family stayed.
At school, where Rosenberg excelled in history, literature and language, students started showing up wearing Hitler Youth uniforms. Classmates avoided him and teachers wore uniforms to school. Rosenberg’s history teacher was a professed Nazi, but oddly enough he never discriminated against him in class, Rosenberg said.
Soon he was the last Jewish student at the German High School. And then in 1936, like all Jews, he was kicked out of school.
“In a Jewish family I was to be educated. So the question became where to send me,” he said.
It was decided that he would go to Paris and attend the Lycée Janson de Sailly. The US wasn’t accepting many refugees and the rest of Europe was mired in anti-Semitism.
“Can you imagine Paris? No parents? I went to school I roamed around all over town. I went to vaudeville Cafes. I saw Charles Trenet and Edith Piaf,” he said, eyes twinkling at the memory.
A quick study, Rosenberg easily picked up French.
At the end of the term in 1939, he heard from his father who said, “there’s no war yet — but, by the way, don’t come home this summer because we don’t know what will happen.”
That was one of the last times he heard from his father before Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939.
“Suddenly I could no longer correspond with my parents. I had no money. Like everybody else, I read about the war in the papers. I thought, ‘What can I do about it?’ Nothing, I know. I thought about it in very logical terms. I wondered what they could do,” he said.
An auspicious meeting
To support himself he took on a series of odd jobs, including selling fruit. But then in 1940, the Nazis occupied Paris and soon after that the Statut des Juifs was enacted, prohibiting Jews from public service and forbidding them from positions in journalism, radio, film and teaching. Rosenberg fled, becoming one of hundreds of thousands of French people on the roads. He eventually found his way to Toulouse.
He sought refuge at Cinema Pax where the seats had been replaced with straw beds. There he met Miriam Davenport, a young American art student studying at the Sorbonne. The meeting changed his life. Davenport worked for Varian Fry, the head of operations for the American Rescue Committee.
Dubbed the “American Schindler,” Fry arrived in Marseille in August 1940 with $3,000 taped to his leg and a mission to provide safe passage for 200 artists and intellectuals. The mission quickly expands in scope. Fry needed help.
“Davenport told Fry ‘I have just your man,’” Rosenberg said.
Apparently Rosenberg, whom she’d nicknamed Gussie, reminded Davenport of her younger brother and she thought he’d be a perfect fit.
Before he had the chance to gauge the full depth of what he was getting involved in, Rosenberg was plunged into a world of counterfeit documents, passwords, black market currency, and mountain passes.
He helped Fry spirit out some 2,000 refugees from Nazi-occupied France, including Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall, and Max Ernst. The network received financial support from Mary Jane Gold and Peggy Guggenheim, the latter of whom was in Europe “collecting art and men, though maybe more art than men,” Rosenberg joked.
His work as courier for Fry stopped in 1941 when the Americans decided it was too dangerous. The American consul ordered Fry home and the network collapsed. Rosenberg also decided it was time to leave.
A great escape
With $200 and a map hidden in the waistband of his pants he and a Corsican friend hired a guide. They planned to cross over the Pyrenees into Spain, then to Portugal and ultimately to Great Britain where Rosenberg hoped to join the Free French Forces under De Gaulle. It was a most treacherous route. Some made it, some didn’t. Rosenberg and his friend didn’t.
‘You don’t know how lucky you are, you could have frozen in the Pyrenees’
“You don’t know how lucky you are, you could have frozen in the Pyrenees,” the gendarmes who arrested them said before throwing them in a Marseilles jail, recalled Rosenberg.
In jail he met Jean Gemähling, a former ARC colleague who now worked in the French underground. Rosenberg joined and was sent to Grenoble where he registered at the university. His job was to recruit students for the resistance.
In August 1942, a massive roundup of Jews began. Initially aimed at Jews from Germany, Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, the roundup accounted for more than a quarter of the 42,000 Jews sent to Auschwitz from France.
‘I didn’t know about a concentration camp, but I knew a labor camp in Poland wasn’t good’
Unable to escape, Rosenberg was sent to an internment camp near Lyon.
“None of us knew we were going to be sent to a concentration camp. I found out by accident. I went outside after curfew to sleep. The next thing a guard is standing over me. I asked him what was going to happen to us. He said ‘They are sending you to a labor camp in Poland,’” Rosenberg said. “I didn’t know about a concentration camp, but I knew a labor camp in Poland wasn’t good. I knew I had to find a way not to go.”
He feigned peritonitis. His performance so convinced the doctors they removed his appendix. While in the hospital he asked a nurse to pass a note to a drop box that the resistance used. A couple of days later a priest, working with the underground, came to Rosenberg’s bedside and told him to be ready in two days’ time.
On that second day Rosenberg found a change of clothes stashed in the bathroom behind a toilet. Changing clothes he walked out of the hospital with other visitors, found a bicycle the underground had left him and rode away, his incision still raw.
He assumed the identity of French-Alsatian orphan Jean-Paul Guiton.
A French farmer harbored him for the next two years, pretending Rosenberg was her nephew. Rosenberg was now tasked with memorizing German uniform insignia, information on units in the Rhone Valley and coastal defenses. He guided arms drops from British planes, disrupted communications and learned to throw grenades at German conveys.
After D-Day, Rosenberg was assigned to the US Army’s 636th Tank Destroyer Battalion. As a scout and translator, he sat next to the driver — except once. The change in routine saved his life. In a joking mood, his new comrades pretended to drive away without him. Just after Rosenberg jumped in the back of the jeep, they hit a mine. The explosion killed the sergeant who happened to be sitting in Rosenberg’s usual seat.
The Americans awarded Rosenberg the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. Mention of the medals brings a shrug from Rosenberg. Instead, the conversation turned to how war is portrayed on film and television.
‘I remember thinking, ‘That is a human being burning to death.’ Not, ‘We just got him’
“I remember an SS man running out of his tank on fire. We had fired on it. I remember thinking, ‘That is a human being burning to death.’ Not, ‘We just got him.’ They don’t show you that [in the movies]. They want you to see a nice happy ending,” he said.
After the war’s end Rosenberg worked as a supply officer for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. He helped 17,000 displaced persons.
In 1946 he received a preferential visa for services rendered to the US and immigrated. Through the Red Cross he learned his family had not only survived, they’d escaped Danzig. They’d spent much of the war in a British detention camp in Mauritius before finally reaching what was then Palestine.
Though anxious to see his parents and sister, his father insisted Rosenberg wait until he’d cemented his US citizenship before traveling.
Finally in 1952 Rosenberg returned to Marseilles where he boarded the Negba. As it sailed into Haifa harbor he spied his father on the pier. Rosenberg whistled. His father raised his head.
“Are you really a professor?” his father asked.
Now, 77 years later, the blond, blue-eyed boy from Danzig, sports a head of gray hair and neatly trimmed beard. He stood before those assembled under the twinkling chandelier and told them he wanted to thank France not for the honor they bestowed on him today, but for the nation’s three principles — liberté, égalité and fraternité — that it bestowed on him as a young man.
“These are indeed the three principles I kept with me and brought back to the United States, and to tikkun olam, repairing the world,” Rosenberg said.