He Helped Rescue Thousands from the Nazis, Then Kept His Story Quiet for Decades

Mon, 01/10/2022 - 4:48pm

In a five-hour interview with USC Shoah Foundation, Justus Rosenberg refers to himself as “small fry,” “a cog,” an unimportant person. And perhaps it was for this reason that for decades, the Bard College literature professor hadn’t let on—to his colleagues, to his students, and even, for a time, to his own wife—that he had fought and outwitted the Nazis during World War II to save thousands from persecution.

Between the years of 1939 and 1947, with Forrest Gump-ian omnipresence, Rosenberg was a courier and guide for Varian Fry’s Emergency Rescue Committee in Marseilles, a spy and a guerilla soldier for the French underground, a scout for the U.S. Army, and a relief worker at United Nations camps for Displaced Persons in Germany. As a result, he was awarded the U.S. Bronze Medal and Purple Heart and made a commander in the French Legion of Honor. 

Rosenberg first revealed the extent of these exploits when he recorded his Visual History Archive testimony in 1998 at the age of 77. And, just last year, he published his memoirs, “The Art of Resistance: My Four Years in the French Underground” (HarperCollins). 

Rosenberg died on October 30, 2021 at his home in Rhinebeck, New York, at the age of 100.

Risking For Rescue

Justus (pronounced yus-tus) Rosenberg was born in The Free City of Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland) in January 1921 to a well-off Reform Jewish family. At that time, Danzig was heavily German and by 1935 its Nazi-dominated city government had enacted the Nuremberg laws, which encoded discrimination against Jews. 

Rosenberg engaged with would-be persecutors even as a high school student.

“In biology, one of the teachers, I remember, would ask me a question such as this: ‘Could you tell me the reason why the Nuremberg Laws were enacted?’ My answer was, ‘Well, for the safeguard of German blood.’ He says, ‘Yes, that's correct … And safeguard against who?’ … Obviously, he wanted me to say against the Jews. And I was not going to say that. Well, after class I got a beating.”

In 1938, Rosenberg’s parents sent him to Paris to continue his education. When France surrendered to Nazi Germany in June 1940, Rosenberg headed toward the Spanish border, hoping to escape to Portugal.

At a movie house in Toulouse that had been converted into a shelter for refugees, he ran into Miriam Davenport, an American who took a liking to him because he resembled her brother. She invited Rosenberg to Marseilles to meet Varian Fry, an American journalist who had set up the Emergency Rescue Committee in the south of France with the support of the American government. Fry had arrived with a list of 200 intellectuals and artists to rescue from the Nazis, and the operation had since mushroomed. Davenport and American heiress Mary Jayne Gold were aiding in the effort.

Rosenberg was 19 but looked like a 15-year-old Aryan when he met Fry. He also spoke French, German, English, Polish and Yiddish. Fry hired him to carry messages and documents. 

“If caught with those papers, which were, of course, often illegal messages, I would have immediately ended up in a concentration camp,” Rosenberg said.

Fry soon tasked Rosenberg with coordinating logistics with mobsters, sleeping in the office to guard the files, and helping manage the crowds in the hallways, where people lined up daily for interviews to determine whether they qualified for rescue. Thousands were turned away.

"I was somewhat annoyed, irritated, about the discrimination that was being made, by favoring intellectuals and sort of ignoring many people, other people who had no particularly great accomplishments, but were just as human as anybody else and deserved to be rescued just as well,” Rosenberg said in his testimony.

Between the fall of 1940 and August 1941, the Emergency Rescue Committee extricated more than 1,000 people from Nazi-occupied territories, smuggling many over treacherous routes through the Pyrenees to Spain. Among those Fry’s operation rescued were Hannah Arendt, Marcel Duchamp, Marc Chagall, Heinrich Mann, Max Ernst and André Breton. 

All the while, Rosenberg kept an eye out for his own escape, and tried, with no success, to find word of his parents.

By August 1941, Fry’s operation had been shut down and Fry and his American cohorts were sent back to America. 

Spying And Fighting for Justice 

At the end of 1941, Rosenberg set out to cross the Pyrenees with a friend, but he was arrested by French police and thrown in jail “with a pimp and a guy who killed his wife’s lover,” he recalled.  

He was released after a few weeks and then made his way with other refugees to a resort in Grenoble, France. In August 1942, he and hundreds of other foreign Jews in Grenoble were arrested and taken to a transit camp near Lyon. Rosenberg learned they would be sent to a work camp in Poland within the next few days.  

Rosenberg knew what awaited Jews in Poland. So, with the help of a detainee who was a nurse, he faked peritonitis, moaning and groaning and rubbing a thermometer to show a fever. 

“The Geneva Convention said you cannot send prisoners away if they are sick or if they suffer from some sort of disease. You have, first, to re-establish their health. Then you can kill them,” he quipped in his testimony. 

A few days later, Rosenberg woke up in a hospital in actual pain—his appendix had been removed. 

During his recovery, he talked a nurse into sending a letter to an address that a social worker at the transit camp—a woman he had met in Grenoble—had slipped him. Within a few days, a priest showed up at the hospital with a bicycle and a change of clothes. Rosenberg slipped out of the hospital and got on the bike, standing as he pedaled to dull the pain, until he arrived at the church. 

After a few weeks of recovery, he was sent to the French countryside and assumed the identity of Jean Paul Guiton, the nephew of his Protestant host. Under his new identity, he taught at Sunday school, and became an ad salesman for the Yellow Pages—a cover for his work as a French underground spy. 

“This gave me justification to be in different towns, to go to bars where German soldiers were hanging out, or to other places,” he said. The information he gathered was transmitted to England or North Africa. 

But after a few months, the German army uncovered the operation, and Rosenberg escaped to join a guerilla military group in the French mountains in 1943. He learned to shoot and lob grenades, and he helped blow up German supply lines, railroads, and convoys. 

In August of 1944, Rosenberg was on a mission when he ran into three American soldiers, recently landed at Normandy, who had lost their way. Rosenberg helped them back to base, where the lieutenant major, learning of Rosenberg’s language and military skills, attached him to the 636th Tank Destroyer Battalion Reconnaissance Company as a scout and a liaison to locals. 

“You can imagine what it meant to me. First of all, I had these beautiful K-rations—toilet paper, chocolate, cigarettes—things I had not seen for years and years,” Rosenberg said in his testimony. 

Finding Family and Career 

The company offered to smuggle Rosenberg to the U.S. when they departed in 1945, but Rosenberg wanted to wait for legal status. He returned to Paris, where he studied at the Sorbonne, and then went to Germany to work for the UN in the supply operations for DP camps. 

During this time, Rosenberg learned with the help of the Red Cross, his family had survived the war. His parents and sister had escaped Danzig in 1941 and made it on to a ship in Turkey that was intended to take them to Palestine. But the British intercepted the ship one mile outside the port of Haifa and sent the Jewish refugees to a detention camp on the Island of Mauritius, where they spent the rest of the war. His family finally made it to Palestine in 1945. 

But by the time Rosenberg made contact with his parents, he had secured a coveted visa to go to the US, sponsored by a fellow soldier and the University of Dayton, where he was offered a job teaching French. Justus’ father advised him to stick with his plans and go to America.  

“Some of my religious friends—and I have many of them in all quarters, Protestants, Catholics, and Jews—tell me that God has designs on certain people, and that it was God's finger who guided me. I think, to some extent, survival is a question of luck, of chance, of a coming together, concurrence of circumstances. And to seize the right moment and the opportunity that is being offered, that little, little hole that exists there, through which you may slip through.”

—Justus Rosenberg

After gaining US citizenship in 1952, Rosenberg, then 31, traveled to Israel to see his parents for the first time since he was 16. 

When his ship landed in Haifa, Justus was sound asleep after a night of partying. 

“[My father] saw all the people coming down from the boat, and not his son. Eventually, I woke up. And I went in my pajamas to the railing of the boat, and I looked down. And there I saw my father, whom I hadn't seen for 15 years. … We had a family whistle that we used when I was a child. And I let go of that family whistle, and he looked up. He recognized me. No word was said, because we just looked at each other,” Rosenberg recalled. 

In the United States, Rosenberg earned an MA and PhD in linguistics and comparative literature at the University of Cincinnati, then taught at Dayton and Swarthmore and received tenure at Bard College in upstate New York. Rosenberg kept in touch with Miriam Davenport, Fry and others, and attended reunions of the Emergency Rescue Committee. In 1994, Yad Vashem recognized Varian Fry as a “Righteous Among the Nations.” 

Rosenberg went to Israel often to visit his parents and his sister, who had three children and nine grandchildren. In 1997, after never having wed, he married Karin Kraft. 

Rosenberg always retained a perspective of humility around his accomplishments. In his testimony, he acknowledged those who risked their own lives to help him, so he in turn could help others. 

“Some of my religious friends—and I have many of them in all quarters, Protestants, Catholics, and Jews—tell me that God has designs on certain people, and that it was God's finger who guided me. I think, to some extent, survival is a question of luck, of chance, of a coming together, concurrence of circumstances. And to seize the right moment and the opportunity that is being offered, that little, little hole that exists there, through which you may slip through.”

Julie Gruenbaum Fax
Julie Gruenbaum Fax was a senior writer and editor at the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles and has co-authored six personal history books. She is currently writing a book about her grandmother’s Holocaust experience.
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