Heroic Professor Justus Rosenberg dies at 100

Justus Rosenberg, a professor whose long career in teaching literature was preceded by a notable 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 began to speak about his experiences during the Holocaust, when, as a Polish Jewish refugee in Paris, he worked as a courier for a rescue effort led by American journalist Varian. Fry to save intellectuals, writers and artists trapped under Nazi rule.

Even Rosenberg’s wife Karin, whom he first met in the 1980s, was unaware of her husband’s heroic past until 1998. “I think he was a hero. But he did not consider himself a hero. For him, he was just doing what had 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 banning Jews from schools, his parents sent him to Paris to continue his studies. When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Rosenberg lost all contact with his parents and sister, whom he would only learn had survived after the war ended. He finally met them in 1952 when they headed to Israel.

General view of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France (credit: CHARLES PLATIAU / REUTERS)

When the Nazis took over Paris, Rosenberg fled to Toulouse, where he met a woman who recruited him to join the rescue effort sponsored by the Varian Fry Emergency Rescue Committee in Marseille. Rosenberg, who was blond, looked younger than his age and spoke French, worked as a courier for Fry, carried forged documents and accompanied some refugees across the border into Spain. The rescue effort saved some 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, himself a refugee, was alone again and was soon sent to a prison camp on the outskirts of Lyon. When he learned that his fate and that of the other prisoners would be sent to a labor camp in Poland, Rosenberg faked an illness that would land him in a hospital. But even after his appendix was removed due to his nonexistent disease, Rosenberg was still scheduled to be sent to camp. Devising a new plan, he sent a message to a group of priests working with the Resistance that they brought him a package of clothing and a bicycle, which Rosenberg used to escape before recovering from surgery. After his recovery, Rosenberg joined the French Resistance and later worked as a guide for the American army.

He described his wartime experiences in a 2020 memoir, “The Art of Resistance: My Four Years in the French Underground.”

After the war, Rosenberg continued his studies in Paris before emigrating to the United States in 1946. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati and went on to teach literature at various schools before settling at Bard College in 1962. During his years in Cincinnati supplemented the scant Jewish education he received as a child by conducting his own study in the Hebrew Union College library.

He continued to teach literature classes at Bard after his official retirement in 1992 until his death and was buried in the Bard College Cemetery. Bard College President Leon Botstein wrote of Rosenberg’s love of teaching in a letter to the Bard community.

“For Justus, learning and study were instruments of redemption, remembrance and reconciliation. He had a magnetic ability to inspire a love of learning, ”wrote Botstein.

Rosenberg and his wife established the Justus and Karin Rosenberg Foundation in 2011 to combat hatred 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 Folksbiene Theater.

In 2017, Rosenberg was honored as a Commandeur in the Légion d’Honneur by the French Ambassador to the United States in recognition of his work with the French Resistance.

Speaking to New York Jewish Week in 2016, Rosenberg said his survival during World War II was “bashert.”

“It was a fortuitous twist of fate,” he explained.

Still, he didn’t find his work for Fry particularly noteworthy.

“I did not consider it particularly heroic,” he told Jewish Week. “It was just part of my life. I’m sorry we only did it for a limited number of people. There were a lot of people who did a lot more and were a lot more heroic. “


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