He was 17, tall, blond, and rosy-cheeked, and as he walked the streets of Marseille in that summer of 1940 he could have been any French youth on some innocent errand. But Justus Rosenberg was Jewish, German, on the run, and – as he explains – “carrying mostly illegal documents, false passports, false visas.” He was a member of the motley crew that worked with Varian Fry, the American journalist in Marseille who from 1940-1941 smuggled s0me 2,000 European artists, writers and intellectuals to safety from Nazi persecution. Rosenberg served as the group’s messenger and delivery boy. “For somebody my age you indeed thought you were part of an important outfit,” he says. “I was a courier for an organization which was very exclusive, because it only helped people who were famous – well known artists and writers.”
In truth it was one of several organizations in Marseille helping refugees to safer havens, including Unitarians and other church groups, but Fry’s organization targeted only writers, artists, and intellectuals. In time, the organization’s narrow scope “began to bother me,” Rosenberg says. “I met other people – sometimes young people like myself – who needed help. I brought them to Varian Fry but they were turned away.” Rosenberg was not only the youngest member of the group, but also the lowest person on the totem pole.
Rosenberg was a long way from his native Danzig – then German and now known as Gdansk, the Baltic Polish seaport and shipyard. When the Nazis overran the city, his Jewish parents had sent him to Paris for safety. But Hitler’s Wehrmacht had rolled across Europe like the Juggernaut making Paris distinctly unsafe, and Rosenberg had moved south to the comparative safety of Marseille where, through an American friend, he had connected with Varian Fry.
By 1941, Varian Fry had been forced out of Marseille, leaving behind only a handful of his collaborators, among them Justus Rosenberg, and – for a time – the German artist Max Ernst and his paramour, the heiress Peggy Guggenheim. For young Justus, however, Fry’s departure was merely the opening chapter in a remarkable survival story that ended when he found safe haven in the United States and was eventually reunited with his family during a visit to Israel. From that point onwards his life was defined by his Jewish identity – which got him into trouble – and his un-Jewish appearance – which saved him.
Old men forget, according to Shakespeare, but he didn’t know Justus Rosenberg, who has told his remarkable story many times, and at over 90 is on the lecture and YouTube circuit. His narrative is good-natured and without rancor, almost as though it had happened to someone else. He is also writing his memoirs which keep growing and growing. But he says his target is to have them finished by next year. [The Art of Resistance: My Four Years in the French Underground was eventually released in April 2021.]
Without a passport and the necessary papers, he was unable to follow his former employer across the border into Spain. “I tried to escape using one of the routes that we had used with Fry,” he recalls. “Except that those roads had been discovered, and obviously I was caught before reaching the frontier of Andorra, and put in jail.” He was fined and released by a friendly judge, the first of a large supporting cast in his adventures, including a kind-hearted nurse and a Roman Catholic priest. Back in Marseille, one of Fry’s two French helpers talked him into joining the Gaullist wing of the French Resistance, and sent him to Grenoble to enroll in the university and try to recruit other students.
Unexpectedly in August 1942, the Vichy authorities organized a large-scale sweep – “la grande rafle, picking up French and foreign Jews to turn over to Germany,” says Rosenberg. “We were never told where we were going or why.” The “where” turned out to be a detention camp outside Lyon. “People were held there until they were put on trains and sent off. It was the end of August and very hot. We were each given a blanket and assigned to a dormitory. We were also told the times of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This was a French camp.”
From a friendly gendarme he learned that the prisoners were destined to be shipped to Poland to work in a labor camp, and he resolved to escape. His way of doing so reflects his determination. He went to the infirmary (“All concentration camps had an infirmary, even Auschwitz. Why? Because they were required in prison camps by the Geneva convention: You had to give prisoners treatment – then kill them”) complaining of suffering from peritonitis, chosen simply because he had learned the symptoms.
Pretending to writhe in pain, he found himself on an operating table, an ether pad was clamped on his mouth, and he woke up after surgery. As he lay in hospital, strapped to his bed, a sympathetic nurse (“a young woman who in many ways endangered her life”) delivered his message to the Resistance who managed to rescue him. “I was sent to an address in Lyon where I was given a false identity as Jean Paul Gruton,” he says. “I was told to stay with a peasant woman who was to pass me off as her nephew, and I disappeared often because I was sent on various missions.”
Rosenberg depicts the French Resistance movement as a “full-fledged army,” with specific units responsible for intelligence, logistics, and operations. He describes his particular underground organization as “left-wing socialists, but not communists,” and he was initially assigned to identify German units deployed in the south of France. “I had very good papers, and I looked very Aryan. I was supposed to be a traveling salesman,” he says. But between 1943 and 1945 he moved around in the organization, at one point being responsible for organizing drop zones, where the British could parachute agents and weapons for the resistance, and later moving to operations. He talks in a general way of setting up ambushes for German troop convoys, work that must have involved casualties on both sides, but his narrative is tactfully short on specifics.
On June 6, 1944, as he tells it, he was hiding in a ditch waiting to ambush Germans when instead three U.S. soldiers came ambling along the road. Puzzled, he went to meet them and learned that the invasion was under way. He was promptly hired by the invading U.S. forces as a guide and interpreter. Service with the U.S. army led to his coming to the United States where, after a succession of college teaching jobs, he settled at Bard College in Annandale-On-Hudson, while at the same time teaching at the New School in New York City. His main subject is comparative literature, and he is an enthusiastic and inspiring teacher who says, “teaching is not only about describing; it’s also about prescribing: not only about what exists, but also about what should exist.”
In the early 1950s he learned that his parents, whom he had last seen in 1937 and whom he presumed dead, were alive in Israel. The Jewish community in Danzig was the only one that survived Nazi persecution in its entirety, but Rosenberg lost 45 relatives living elsewhere, including a grandfather, his father’s brother, and several cousins. The Danzig Jews, however, had sold everything they owned, including their synagogue, to raise money to get out, had gone to Bulgaria and, after some adventures of their own arrived in Israel. In 1952, the year he became a naturalized American citizen, he went to Israel to be reunited with his mother and father. He was 31 years old.
But he returned to his teaching and his life in the United States, and his parents never visited. In 2016, he and his wife founded the Justus and Karin Rosenberg Foundation “to fight anti-semitism and prejudices against anyone” mainly through scholarships. “Racism is rearing its ugly head again,” he says. He emerged from his experiences not only unscathed physically, except for a flesh wound, but by his own account also psychologically. “I have no nightmares – I turned out to be pretty normal,” he declares, perhaps somewhat to his own surprise.
Article published in the November 2016 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.