THE ART OF RESISTANCE
Born in the free city of Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland), his family were Jewish. Danzig was controlled by the United Nations until Germany seized it in 1933.
His father Jacob ran a successful import/export business and his mother Bluma Solarsky, was a homemaker. He had a younger sister. The family spoke Polish, Yiddish and German at home and he was fluent in all three languages. They were non-practising Jews.
Justus was successful at school until anti-semitism increased. He noticed other pupils were turning up to school in Hitler Youth uniforms – and then the teachers began to wear uniforms. All the Jewish children were expelled. Julius was the last Jewish student in the school.
After he witnessed a mob attacking Jewish businesses, his parents decided to send him to Paris to continue his education, for his own safety. He was just 16. They did not come with him. He later said his father thought Nazism was, “an evil wind that would blow away.” He didn’t see any of his family for another 15 years.
Just before he went, he was seduced by a glamourous friend of his mother’s. He said, “I was very lovable in those days.” When his father saw him off at the railway station, Justus was embarrassed to be given the ‘birds and bees’ talk – a little too late.
He instantly became fluent in French, proving he was a talented linguist. He enjoyed life in the French capital. “Can you imagine Paris? No parents? I went to school, then I roamed around.” He went to vaudeville cafes and saw both Edith Piaf and Charles Trenet performing.
After the German invasion of Poland, communication with his parents ceased – as did the money supply from his father. He survived by becoming a fruit seller on the streets of Paris. He was just 17. He didn’t realise it would be years until he heard from his family again, not knowing if they were alive or dead.
As the Nazis drew closer to the city, he fled south to Toulouse.
He initially slept on bags of straw in Cinema Pax in Toulouse – a refugee from invaders. Quickly, the city of Toulouse found itself in Vichy France.
Then he met student painter Miriam Davenport, an American who was training at the Sorbonne. As the Nazi’s took over France, Miriam recruited him with the words, “Gussie (his nickname from her – he reminded her of her younger brother), we’ve got a job for you.”
He followed her to Marseilles where he joined ‘Varian Fry’s Emergency Rescue Committee’. Fry was an American journalist. His aim was to rescue artists from the tyranny of the Nazi’s. They had the full support of Eleanor Roosevelt, the American president’s wife.
Initially he was ‘just’ a courier. It was a bit of an adventure to him. To ensure he wasn’t being followed he would rush into a large department store which had many entrances and exits, and rush out of another one, jumping onto a bus just as it set off. “It was a manoeuvre I’d seen in spy movies.”
Being a fluent linguist, Justus was soon extremely valuable to the committee. They rescued, amongst others, Hannah Arendt, Andre Breton, Marc Chagall and Max Ernst.
Rosenberg personally guided German novelist Heinrich Mann, and Austrian novelist, playwright and poet Franz Werfel, across the Pyrenees to safety. Both men were accompanied by their wives, Nelly Mann and Alma Mahler-Werfel. She was the remarried widow of composer Gustav Mahler.
Franz Werfel was an elderly and sick man. His wife Alma and Justus both put one of his arms around their shoulders and walked / carried him into Spain. A journey that normally was two hours took six.
Justus got on particularly well with Nelly Mann and together they shared her hipflask full of brandy – to keep him going.
Back in France, Justus was extremely busy as a member of the resistance. He acted as a courier, delivering messages, organised hiding places for refugees and people escaping and he was a scout who reported on Nazi troop movements. “I looked very blond, very Germanic and younger than my own age, so I wouldn’t be stopped often to be asked for my papers, because I looked so innocent and angelic…I was really unaware of the danger. To me it was something that was adventurous and romantic”.
He also organised airdrops from Great Britain and acted as a member of a guerrilla movement.
He was also responsible for buying forged passports. He was stunned to find that the forger was the old man who drew caricatures at Marseilles harbour, somebody he had walked past many times.
But Fry’s network was betrayed and was shut down and Varian Fry was forced to flee the country. It was his own government who pulled him out. He is often known as the ‘American Schindler’. All-in-all, the Fry Committee rescued 2,000 people.
The remnants of the group including Justus, became part of the IRC (International Rescue Committee).
He decided, with a friend, to escape France and make his way to London to join the Free French. They set off to cross the Pyrenees but were captured and thrown into prison. The arresting officer found a map stuffed into his underpants (and $200 – which was confiscated) and told him, “You don’t know how lucky you are. You would have frozen in the Pyrenees”.
He was released soon afterwards and decided to relocate to Grenoble but soon after he got there, a Gestapo sweep took place and he was captured.
He was sent to a transit camp at Lyon, prior to being deported to the East. A guard told him he was being sent to Poland (probably Auschwitz). “I knew that wasn’t good. I had to find a way not to go.”
A fellow internee was a medical student. Justus asked her to suggest a realistic illness that would get him sent to hospital. She said peritonitis (a disease of the stomach lining.)
To fake the symptoms, he rubbed a thermometer against his stomach until the temperature went up, imitating a fever. He also convincingly acted writhing and moaning and was indeed taken to hospital.
But he woke up the next morning without his appendix. He had been operated on in the night. And he was told he was still going to Poland.
“In the face of danger, I make a plan to act.”
He was allowed just one letter, so he sent it to some nearby Catholic priests, asking them to pray for him. But the letter was coded. These priests were active resistance members.
One priest smuggled a bundle of clothes into the hospital, which he left behind a toilet. A bike was left under a window. Justus changed his clothes and hopped out of the window and rode away, still pouring blood from his stomach.
He was taken in by a Resistance supporting farmer who claimed he was her nephew and he stayed with her for 2 years. He used the pseudonym Jean-Paul Guiton, supposedly an orphan whose records had been destroyed.
But he was still very active in the French Resistance, supplying vital information about the German forces to the Allies.
Once the Allies invaded France in 1944, he attached himself to the US 636th Tank Destroyer Battalion. His linguistic skills were vital to the Americans and he was involved in many interrogations of captured prisoners.
But he still had time to actively fight, throwing grenades at Nazi tanks.
Once he was riding in a jeep when it hit a landmine. He usually sat in the same seat in the jeep but for this journey he had swapped with another soldier. The man in his usual seat was killed and he escaped unscathed.
At the end of the war Justus worked in a United Nations camp for displaced persons. He was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart by the Americans.
Then he went back to Paris to study at the Sorbonne.
But in 1946 he was offered a ‘preferential visa’ as a reward for his work with the Americans and he emigrated to the USA.
He studied languages at the University of Cincinnati and went on to get his PhD. Then he got post-doctoral positions at the universities of Columbia and Syracuse.
It was only in the 1950s he realised his parents and his sister had survived the war. They had got out of Danzig just in time and had spent the war in a British detention camp in Mauritius. After the war they went to Palestine.
He travelled on the boat ‘Negba’ to the port city of Haifa in Israel (the new name for Palestine). As it came into port, he could see his father waiting for him on the quayside. He did the whistle his family always did – and his father waved. He never knew such joy.
The first words his father said to him, after 15 years apart, were, “Are you really a professor?”
He also learned Miriam Davenport was still alive and he wrote to her. She replied, “You were a symbol of sorts to me in those days. A nice, intelligent youngster with no family, no money, no influence, no hope, no fascinating past.”
They stayed in regular correspondence until Miriam died in 1999.
Justus went on to have various teaching positions before ending up at Bard College, in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York in 1962. He taught there for over 50 years.
He taught French, German, Russian, Yiddish, Polish, French and Jewish Studies and ultimately the literature of many different countries and cultures – a man of many talents. He was always known for the tweed jacket he wore. His most popular university course was ‘Ten Plays That Shook the World’.
He wrote many scholarly books and was a guest professor in the USA, Great Britain and even Singapore.
He met Karin Kraft in the 1980s but they didn’t marry until 1997. For years, until they married, she knew nothing about his past. When she discovered it she said, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
He replied, “Oh, I just didn’t want to brag about it”.
She persuaded him to take a trip back to France and revisit all the places he had operated. When he walked into one isolated French village, an old man looked up and said, “Ah, Guiton” -his pseudonym in the war.
Together they set up the ‘Justus and Karin Rosenberg Foundation’, to fight anti-semitism and hatred in general.
Varian Fry had died in 1967. He was recently inducted posthumously into the Yad Vasheem ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ (awarded to non-Jews who helped Jews in the war). Justus was invited to the initiation ceremony.
He was a keen tennis player. His doubles partner was the Professor of Art History, Jean French.
When he eventually retired, he continued teaching in Africa, the Middle East and India.
He eventually became Emeritus Professor of Literature at Bard College. By now he could speak a dozen languages fluently.
In 2017 he was awarded the Legion d’Honneur.
His autobiography was published in 2020, entitled ‘The Art of Resistance: My Four Years in the French Underground’.
He died at his home in Rhinebeck, New York. He was the very last survivor of Varian Fry’s rescue organisation. Despite the number they had saved, he had always regretted it was not more. “I regret that we did it for only a limited amount of people. There were so many more people who did much more and were much more heroic.”
Upon his death Karin said, “I believe he was a hero. But he did not think of himself as a hero. To him, he was just doing what needed to be done.”
RIP – Resistance’s Inspirational Professor