Justus Rosenberg: college professor and saviour of Jews

Catherine TRIOMPHE
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Justus Rosenberg is believed to be the last surviving member of an anti-fascist smuggling network in France during World War II

If it weren't for his blond hair and blue eyes, Justus Rosenberg may have never lived to tell the tale of his little-known role in helping hundreds of artists and other intellectuals escape Nazi-occupied France.

The journey of this man -- who still teaches at Bard College in upstate New York at age 96 after a decades-long professorial career -- is a fascinating one that landed him France's highest honor this week.

Rosenberg is believed to be the last surviving member of an anti-fascist smuggling network set up by Varian Fry, a journalist dubbed America's Schindler.

Fry headed to the southern French city of Marseille in 1940 with just $3,000 and a list of about 200 people to try to save. In the end, he shepherded to safety about 2,000 people via the American-sponsored Emergency Rescue Committee, including artists Marc Chagall, Andre Breton and Max Ernst.

Rosenberg, who was just 19 at the time but looked younger and sported stereotypically "Aryan" features despite his Polish Jewish background, was the perfect courier for Fry's network.

He delivered messages to refugees and searched for possible routes for safe passage, including through Spain. Rosenberg later served with the French Resistance and the US Army.

Through his wartime actions and his continued fight against hate today, Rosenberg is a "living reminder of where history can take us if we lose our vigilance as informed and engaged citizens," French Ambassador Gerard Araud said Thursday in handing him the Legion of Honor in New York.

- 'Very selective' -

But this short, grey-bearded man doesn't portray himself as a hero.

"It really was more of an adventure at the time. It was very romantic," Rosenberg told AFP in a recent interview, his eyes shining brightly as he spoke in French.

"Afterwards, yes, I realized. But I did always wonder, why were we only helping the intellectuals, why not ordinary people too? Don't they also have the right to live? It was very selective."

He arrived in France after leaving his hometown, the Free City of Danzig, now known as Gdansk, in Poland. A top student, he was excluded from his school by anti-Jewish laws, so his parents sent him to Paris in 1937 to complete his studies.

After passing his high school exam, Rosenberg attended Paris-Sorbonne University, "falling in love" with the French language after seeing a performance of Jean Racine's play "Phedre."

When World War II broke out, he was suddenly cut off from his family, and penniless.

He picked up various odd jobs, including a role in a play adaptation of Jules Verne's "Around the World in 80 Days." Rosenberg had just one line: "Liverpool bound!"

- Escaping death, many times -

Fry was expelled in 1941 by the collaborationist Vichy regime. Receiving a hostile welcome upon his return to New York, his role in the refugee network long remained in the shadows and he died largely unknown in 1967.

With Fry out of France, Rosenberg joined the French Resistance in Grenoble. But the Vichy regime toughened its anti-Jewish laws. In August 1942, Rosenberg was arrested and interned at the Venissieux camp, which sent some of the first convoys to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

But Rosenberg faked a peritonitis just two days before his transport was due to leave, and managed to escape with help from a camp nurse.

He found refuge in a farmer's house in the southeastern town of Montmeyran, where he relaunched his clandestine activities with the assumed name of Jean-Paul Guiton.

"I've never forgotten those two women, who risked their own freedom by helping me," Rosenberg said.

And that's just one of the many narrow escapes that helped keep the young Jewish man alive during the Holocaust.

In 1944, he met some of the first American soldiers to arrive in France after the Normandy landings. They took him on as a guide and translator.

The men played a joke on Rosenberg one day, taking off in their Jeep without him.

Rosenberg jumped in the back. The vehicle then rolled over a land mine, killing the man in the passenger seat. Rosenberg escaped with minor injuries.

- Age is but a number -

Upon his arrival in the United States, in 1946, Rosenberg returned to his love of literature and languages -- he is fluent in English, French, German, Russian, Polish and Yiddish.

After several teaching stints elsewhere, he joined Bard College in New York state's Hudson Valley in 1962. Today, he still deciphers texts by the likes of Franz Kafka and Guy de Maupassant, mixing literary analysis with history.

In 2011, he founded with his wife the Justus and Karin Rosenberg Foundation, whose stated mission is to fight hatred and anti-Semitism.

A hearing aid and a walking cane are the only indications of his advanced age.

Rosenberg's secrets to longevity are numerous -- "luck," his fluency in French that saved him during the Occupation, family "genes" that he says also helped his parents and his sister escape the Holocaust and migrate to Israel.

He also cited his "late marriage," because "after the war, I had to catch up," Rosenberg whispered with a smile.

Rosenberg says he sees no parallel between the 1930s and the current, toxic political climate in the United States.

"But I wouldn't mind coming back here in 30 years to see how the world has evolved," he said, with a laugh.