I have wondered recently if there can really be any new memoirs of WW2 being written, 75 years after its end, but here is an answer, from 99-year-old veteran of the French Resistance, Justus Rosenberg. Three quarters of a century lie between now and then, but his memories are as freshly recounted as though the events described happened last week, and his tease at the end of the book of further adventures across the world after the War make it clear he isn’t done with his life story yet.
Justus Rosenberg is a retired professor of literature, living in the United States, but as his book The Art of Resistance makes clear, his early years were spent at the very heart of the tumult of interwar and wartime Europe. The son of non-observant Jews, he grew up in Danzig (now Gdansk) in the sliver of former-German territory, gifted to Poland in the Treaty of Versailles, which connected the new country to the sea. Danzig was an oddity, a free city perched between Germany and its severed territory of East Prussia, but by the time Rosenberg was a teenager, the influence of the Nazis on the city was clear. In the book’s early pages, he describes, in riveting, horrifying detail, an anti-Semitic riot he witnessed in his home city in 1937.
While walking in the city one spring morning, Rosenberg, then 16 years old, found himself caught up in crowds flocking to a demonstration of Nazis, led by men shouting slogans such as “Judas Verrecke!” (“Let the Jews be slaughtered!”). Unable to break away from the advancing mob, Rosenberg witnessed them attack a grocery store owned by a Jew:
It happened like a bolt of lightning: a crash of broken glass, and Steiner’s shop window was smashed into shards. The men weren’t shouting anymore; they seemed to be in rapture over their fine work. The crowd remained silent, too, though the hiatus in the uproar didn’t last very long. Steiner came out of his store, his big blue apron hanging over his big belly. The children in the neighborhood were accustomed to making fun of him, and he’d often come out of the store, just like that, to chase them away. Now he looked stunned, surprised, like someone who had been slapped without his knowing why, as if by mistake. He stepped toward the Nazis, his hands out in front of him – begging for mercy? to protect himself? to show his peaceful intentions? to reason with them? Suddenly he brought his hands to his face. He stumbled backward, his hands covered with blood, his body careening.
The grocer had been struck by something hurled by the mob. As Rosenberg describes, Steiner disappeared back into his shop, but rather than disperse, the fascist mob moved on to find further targets.
Then one of the noticed Mr Klein, the tailor, standing next door in front of his shop, hurriedly attempting to close the shutters. The Nazis turned towards him. They seemed to be blaming him for Steiner’s hasty retreat. Mr Klein was a small man who always dressed sharply, as was appropriate for a tailor. But he had left his jacket inside, and in his suspenders he looked even more diminutive than usual.
“What’s the rush, Dad?” said one of the Nazis, the others burst out laughing. Before he could answer, another struck him in the face, first a slap, then blows with his fist, harder and harder, until the little man collapsed half unconscious; another kicked him again and again in the ribs, shouting “Look! This is the way to treat a dirty Jew!” Someone corrected, “Not at all! He deserves the noose!” Mr Klein wasn’t moving.
Rosenberg rushed back to his father’s shop and had him pull down the shutters before the mob arrived. The family was safe, but this episode demonstrates in extraordinarily vivid terms the atmosphere of violence and hatred faced by Jews in areas where the Nazis had reign, and all this a year before Kristallnacht. Still, there was an openness to Europe that would end two years later, and Rosenberg headed to Paris, via Berlin, to study and to taste the delights of life in the pre-war European capital of fun.
He studied at the Sorbonne, but the outbreak of war cut across all that and Rosenberg made a bid to reach free-Polish forces collecting at that time some distance from Paris. On the way, he came face to face with death for the first time, courtesy of a German air raid on the military encampment at which he had arrived:
“There’s somebody up there,” someone near me said. Two of us went to look. Suddenly light from outside flashed across our faces, and I could see a man who had just opened the door. He was cradling something in his arms. He leaned against the wall, seemingly unable to come down, moaning feebly. We went up to him. He took a few steps toward us and then let out a horrible scream – the thing in his arms were his intestines, slick with blood. He collapsed, dead, before anyone could do anything.
It could have been me. I could have been there, at the feet of two soldiers, a mess of entrails and torn clothes, nothing but lifelessness forevermore. There was not more meaning behind this mass of bloody flesh beyond its capacity to awaken horror in others. What was all this talk of dignity and beauty in war? Where was this dignity and beauty postmortem? Where had the meaning gone?
He never reached the Polish army. Instead, he found himself in Marseilles where, given his ability to pass as an Aryan German, he was able move with relative freedom. Rosenberg fell in with a group arranging safe passage for European cultural figures out of occupied Europe, via the Pyrenees mountains. As a member of the Emergency Rescue Committee, Rosenberg, now barely 20 years of age, met some of the luminaries of the age. Marc Chagall left with their assistance. Rosenberg accompanied Alma Mahler Werfel (Gustav Mahler’s widow) over the mountains; his group was assisting Walter Benjamin’s escape when the group was stopped, leading to Benjamin’s suicide.
Rosenberg describes a French population coming to moral terms with occupation and collaboration. From Marseilles, he was moved on Grenoble, where he melted into the background, listened to conversations and picked out students who might be useful candidates for membership of the resistance:
There were cafes and bars located around the university, and when students emerged from their lectures and seminars, they would head for these places, and when my classes were over I went there too. Political discussions erupted in these venues with some regularity. There were basically three positions: those who justified collaboration with the Germans, those who advocated resistance, and those who declared “a plague on both houses.” Rather than enter into the pros and cons of collaboration, I listened.
All the while, Rosenberg remained in the dark about the fates of family members left behind in Poland, with whom he had had barely any contact since the outbreak of war. And though Rosenberg threw himself into a life fraught with risk, it is striking that the France he describes under Nazi-collaborationist rule was a much less oppressed place than Poland, which suffered almost apocalyptic destruction and brutality and the hands of its German occupiers. The work he did with the Emergency Rescue Committee was to a degree tolerated by local authorities; the notion of Polish students sitting around arguing about whether to capitulate to their occupiers in the cafes of, say, Krakow, is of course ridiculous.
Rosenberg, though, faced an extra degree of danger because of his Jewish heritage. One morning in 1942, policemen picked him up at his lodgings, and he was taken to an internment camp. With the distance of time, the fate of the prisoners massed there is clear, but to Rosenberg and his fellow detainees, a rumor of transportation to the east was all the clarity they had. This wasn’t a concentration camp, as such, and the extreme degradation and systematic murder of those camps out east was yet to come for most of the Jews held there. Rosenberg’s encounter with a guard one evening, outside the prison block, demonstrates that he and the other internees were still, relatively speaking, in the shallows:
“What are you doing here? Past curfew,” the guard said.
“I’m very sorry,” I responded. “there are so many of us in there I could hardly breathe. I thought I could get some sleep out here.”
“Well you can’t sleep out here,” he said thoughtfully. He lit up a cigarette and offered me one as well.
They talked a while, Rosenberg telling the guard a version of his story.
His sympathetic attitude emboldened me to ask, “Do you happen to know why we have been brought here and what is going to happen to us?”
“Well,” he said, “this is a detention camp. Once it fills up, you will be sent on a train to a labor camp in Poland.”
The man sat down beside me, and it seemed as though the barrier between prisoner and guard had almost dissolved somewhat. We were just two people sharing a smoke in the damp night air.
Rosenberg’s memoir is filled with these kinds of encounters, which often puncture the easy notion of good people fighting bad ones. Everywhere, there seem to be people making choices and ending up on one or other side of the divide. He is also open about his survival being a set of fortunate coincidences; the corollary of this might be a hundred, or perhaps a hundred thousand other Justus Rosenbergs whose luck ran out and who didn’t live to write about it all. There are flashes of violence, some truly hair-raising, but Rosenberg never romanticises them. They don’t play as they might in a thousand wartime thrillers; they happen and then they’re gone, with only a bewildered sense of another near miss left as aftertaste.
Hopefully, at this extraordinary time we all find ourselves waiting out, he’s safe and healthy, and busy writing the next volume of his memoirs. I for one want to know what happened in the USSR after the war was over, or what he got up to in Maoist China. After reading this, I really want to tell you about the time he dodged German soldiers undertaking the last successful German raid of WW2, of his beyond-daring escape from the prison camp in France… but you’ll have to read the book to find out about those stories.
The Art of Resistance by Justus Rosenberg is published by William Collins in the UK and by William Morrow in the US.
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