(JTA) – Justus Rosenberg, a professor whose long career in teaching literature was preceded by a remarkable tenure in the French resistance during World War II, died last month at the age of 100 .
Rosenberg was a professor at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York for decades, where he taught literature and languages, including German, French, Yiddish, Russian and his native language, Polish. . It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that he started talking about his experiences during the Holocaust, when, as a Polish Jewish refugee in Paris, he worked as a courier for a rescue operation led by the American journalist Varian. Fry to save the intellectuals, writers and artists stuck under the Nazi regime.
Even Rosenberg’s wife Karin, whom he first met in the 1980s, was unaware of her husband’s heroic past until 1998. “I believe he was a hero. But he didn’t consider himself a hero. For him, he was just doing what needed to be done, ”Karin told The New York Times.
Rosenberg was born in Danzig, Poland, in 1921 to a wealthy Jewish family that was not particularly religious. After being forced out of school as a teenager due to new laws prohibiting Jews from entering schools, his parents sent him to Paris to continue his education. When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Rosenberg lost all contact with his parents and sister, whom he would not learn of surviving until after the end of the war. He was finally reunited with them in 1952 when they visited Israel.
When the Nazis took Paris, Rosenberg fled to Toulouse where he met a woman who recruited him to join the rescue effort sponsored by the Varian Fry Emergency Relief Committee in Marseille. Rosenberg, who was blonde, looked younger than her age and spoke French, worked as a courier for Fry, carrying false documents and accompanying refugees across the border to Spain. The rescue effort saved around 2,000 people, including writers Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Mann and artists Marc Chagall and Marcel Duchamp.
When Fry’s efforts ended in 1941, Rosenberg, a refugee himself, was once again alone and was soon sent to a prison camp outside of Lyon. When he learned that his fate and that of the other prisoners would be sent to a labor camp in Poland, Rosenberg feigned an illness that would lead him to be sent to the hospital. But even after removing his appendix due to his non-existent illness, Rosenberg still had to be sent to camp. Devising a new plan, he sent a message to a group of priests who worked with the Resistance who brought him a bundle of clothes and a bicycle, which Rosenberg escaped before recovering from an operation. After his recovery, Rosenberg joined the French Resistance and then worked as a guide for the US Army.
He described his wartime experiences in a 2020 memoir, “The Art of Resistance: My Four Years in the French Metro”.
After the war, Rosenberg continued his studies in Paris before immigrating to the United States in 1946. He obtained his doctorate at the University of Cincinnati and taught literature in several schools before moving to Bard College in 1962. During His years in Cincinnati, he supplemented the meager Jewish education he received as a child by conducting his own study at the library at Hebrew Union College.
He continued to teach literature at Bard after his official retirement in 1992 until his death and was buried in Bard College cemetery. Bard College President Leon Botstein wrote about Rosenberg’s love for teaching in a letter to the Bard community.
“For Justus, learning and study were instruments of redemption, remembrance and reconciliation. He possessed a magnetic ability to inspire a love of learning, ”Botstein wrote.
Rosenberg and his wife created the Justus and Karin Rosenberg Foundation in 2011 to fight hate and anti-Semitism. In 2018, the foundation endowed the Bard Center for the Study of Hate. The foundation also supported the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene.
In 2017, Rosenberg was honored as Commander of the Legion of Honor by the French Ambassador to the United States in recognition of his work with the French Resistance.
Addressing New York Jewish Week in 2016, Rosenberg said his survival in World War II was “basher.”
“It was a stroke of fate,” he explained.
Even so, he didn’t consider his work for Fry particularly worthy of mention.
“I didn’t consider him particularly heroic,” he told Jewish Week. “It was just a part of my life. I wish we did it for a limited number of people. There were so many people who did a lot more and were a lot more heroic.”