Rhinebeck, N.Y. — Seven words probably saved young Justus Rosenberg’s life during World War II, and helped him save hundreds of others, including some of Europe’s leading Jewish artists and intellectuals: “Gussie, I’ve got a job for you.”
“Gussie” is what the friends of Rosenberg — a Jewish native of Danzig who had made his way by foot and bike some 1,300 miles from the German city to Marseilles, the French port city on the southern coast — called him.
Then 19, expelled from his prestigious Danzig high school because he was a Jew, he’d been in Marseilles one week and was out of work, out of money and nearly out of luck. That was when he ran into Miriam Davenport, a wealthy Boston-born painter and sculptor he had met the previous week in a refugee shelter in Toulouse. She told him those words over dinner in a Marseilles bakery-restaurant.
Davenport, looking to help her fiancé, who was stuck in Yugoslavia, had a few days earlier approached Varian Fry, a journalist from New York City who was running a small rescue operation in Marseilles for the New York City-based Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC). Fry, who 53 years later would become the first citizen of the United States to be honored as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem for his risky wartime efforts, was concentrating his humanitarian work on prominent intellectuals, artists and scientists.
But Fry was understaffed, besieged by members of Europe’s elite, now suddenly refugees. He asked Davenport to work for him, as a secretary. She agreed. In a city where the phones were tapped, Fry also needed a courier, someone dependable to carry messages and false identity papers to the people he was trying to save.
“I have just the man for you,” Davenport told Fry; she had Rosenberg in mind. “Send him to me,” Fry said.
Fry’s wartime activities, far less well-known than those of Germany’s Oskar Schindler or Sweden’s Raoul Wallenberg, are coming into sharper relief, with a documentary film in the works, 75 years after his clandestine efforts in Vichy France. Now 95, on the eve of Yom HaShoah – the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day that falls on May 5 – Rosenberg is sitting in a stuffed chair in the living room of his home on a small hill a few miles from the heart of this Dutchess County town, describing his initial meeting with Davenport and his subsequent, perilous work for Fry. It is the first time he has spoken in any depth in a newspaper interview about his experiences with Fry.
Rosenberg was intrigued by Davenport’s description of Fry’s operations. He went the next morning to Fry’s office in the swanky Hotel Splendide. His first impression of the American: “Always well dressed. Very controlled. He didn’t speak too much.”
Fry judged the teen perfect for the courier’s job. Rosenberg was multi-lingual, able to communicate with the refugees from several countries; he looked younger than his age, unlikely to arouse suspicion as he moved about; he was in good shape, unbothered by a day on his feet or a bike; he was street smart, able to maneuver in the labyrinth of spies, members of the Resistance, secret agents, demobilized soldiers, political activists, gangsters, black marketers and other suspicious characters who filled 1941 Marseilles.
The streets of Marseilles were crowded and dirty, full of beggars. Think “Casablanca.” At first, “it was a job,” says Rosenberg, an emeritus professor of language and literature at Bard College here who still teaches two courses a semester.
Over the next year — until Fry, who had done his dangerous work against the wishes of the Vichy government and the U.S. consulate, was eventually forced to leave France — Rosenberg was the youngest member of Fry’s rescue effort that saved an estimated 2,000 men and women. That group included Jews and non-Jews, among them some of the most prominent Europeans of that time.
“These refugees,” Fry wrote to his wife, “are being crushed in one of the most gigantic vises in history.”
“I felt obliged to help them if I could,” he later said.
Not Jewish, a self-declared atheist, Fry performed his work on a nonsectarian basis. Not trained in relief work, he trained himself on-the-job in Marseilles. Not naïve, Harvard-educated, he was politically astute.
At 32, he stayed in Marseilles beyond his month’s leave from his job as an editor at the Foreign Policy Association in New York City, beyond the expiration date of his passport.
The ERC, formed the day after France signed its 1940 armistice with Germany, dispatched Fry to Marseilles with $3,000 that the organization had quickly raised.
With early support from Eleanor Roosevelt, he guided what became the most successful private U.S. rescue operation during World War II. His first step: assembling a staff of like-minded altruists, mostly idealistic young Americans stranded in France after Germany’s 1940 invasion, Europeans on the run, and some sympathetic French citizens. Over the years about a dozen volunteers worked for Fry.
Enter Rosenberg. “After a while,” his job “became a mission,” he says, pulling old photos and letters and other documents from a folder, sometimes glancing out the large picture window behind him at a panoramic view of the Catskills. He grew committed to saving the refugees.
Fry’s work will be the subject of a documentary, “And Crown Thy Good: Varian Fry in Marseille,” which filmmaker Pierre Sauvage plans to release next year. Rosenberg, the last remaining member of the Fry Group, will figure in the documentary.
Marseilles, the biggest port in the openly anti-Semitic French State — the official name at the time of the country’s unoccupied section, which was granted limited autonomy under terms of the 1940 armistice and is commonly known as Vichy France — had become a haven for thousands of émigrés from other places in occupied Europe. But it was not particularly safe for the Jews among them or for other opponents of the Third Reich.
French police were ordered to round up Jews and other “undesirables” — including German nationals, as well as refugees from Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland — and “surrender [them] on demand” to the Nazis. Internment camps, which would become transit camps sending prisoners to their deaths in the east, were already operating. The refugees were panicked.
The U.S. consulate in Marseilles, on instructions from the State Department, was unhelpful, issuing only a limited number of “emergency visas” for entry into the States. The consulate suspected that Fry’s work, disdainful of Vichy regulations, would endanger the diplomats’ friendly relations with Vichy. And Vichy officials, in turn, feared that Fry would anger the Nazis; they refused to issue exit visas; entry or transit visas from bordering Spain and Portugal, places of refuge, were also hard to obtain.
Fry’s goal was to keep the refugees out of Nazi hands until he could smuggle them to safety in northern Africa, or North or South America.
As part of their duties for Fry, Rosenberg and his colleagues investigated conditions in local internment camps, scouted escape routes, issued forged travel documents, conspired with gangsters, found the refugees interim safe places to stay in and around Marseilles, bought passports on the black market, illegally booked passage on ships leaving Marseilles, and accompanied the refugees to the Pyrenees. At a refugee center set up by Fry, they distributed food, clothing, and a limited amount of money.
Rosenberg carried private messages, in sealed envelopes, around Marseilles and the surrounding villages. In time, he escorted refugees to the Pyrenees mountain range, helping them make their way to freedom in Spain. Fry smuggled other refugees aboard the freighters that sailed to North Africa, South America or North America.
Rosenberg received no salary for his work; just an occasional “small stipend” for food and sundries like toothpaste. He slept in Fry’s office, or in local villas rented by Davenport and another supporter of Fry; he ate in the villas or in a Catholic-run soup kitchen.
Among the people rescued under Fry’s aegis, about half of them Jewish, were Andre Breton, Claude Levi-Strauss, Jacques Lipchitz, Hannah Arendt, Arthur Koestler, Marc Chagall, Franz Werfel, Pablo Casals, and Max Ernst — people who, in the words of Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, “made monumental contributions to world culture.”
Rosenberg met many of these individuals on his life-saving rounds. “I wasn’t intimidated” by them. “They were afraid … I realized they were like all other [less-prominent] human beings.”
“At first it wasn’t dangerous” to do his work in Marseilles, Rosenberg says. “Then I began to use illegal methods.” Like the other people working for Fry, he circumvented Vichy laws, working underground. Secrecy and intrigue became his daily companions.
Was he scared?
“No, I needed work” — something to keep him busy, he says.
Rosenberg, with a passport from the pre-war, semi-autonomous “Free City of Danzig” [Gdansk in post-war Poland] in his pocket, realized that he faced jail, or worse, if he were caught taking part in Fry’s activities.
Traveling around by foot, bike, trolley and train, dressed “very casually,” he had only one close call, a “preventive arrest before a visit by Vichy’s Marshall Petain. With a “very German” name, no one suspected he was Jewish.
Under surveillance by the Vichy secret police, who frequently detained him for questioning, Fry was finally expelled as an “undesirable alien” in September 1941, with no American protest.
“The lives of hundreds of … refugees might have been saved if the American Embassy had not, at the request of Vichy, put an end to the activity” of Fry, Adam Rayski writes in 2005’s “The Choice of the Jews Under Vichy” (University of Notre Dame Press).
Fry’s departure meant new responsibilities for the again-adrift Rosenberg. Until World War II ended, he served in the French Resistance under the pseudonym Jean-Paul Guiton, was arrested, escaped from a hospital where he was feigning an illness, became a reconnaissance scout for the U.S. Army, interrogated German prisoners, earned a Bronze Star, and helped run a displaced persons camp under UN auspices. Rosenberg “has had a tremendous job, the distribution of all supplies for all camps totaling at one time almost 16,000 Displaced Persons, by far the toughest assignment in DP work,” DP Officer Leon Irvin wrote in a 1945 letter of recommendation. “I have found him thoroughly reliable, wholly trustworthy and eager to accept additional responsibilities.”
Rosenberg came to the U.S., alone, in 1946; he learned after the war that his parents had survived the Holocaust.
In the U.S. Rosenberg resumed his interrupted education; he studied at the University of Cincinnati, and taught at several schools before coming to Bard in 1962.
In 2011 he and his wife founded the Justus & Karin Rosenberg Foundation, whose mission is “to combat the growing problems of anti-Semitism, hatred, and the demonization of Israel, particularly as they impact our colleges and universities.”
A “secular Jew … a cultural Jew” who had little Jewish education growing up but who studied Jewish subjects in his spare time at the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College while studying for his Ph.D. at the University of Cincinnati, Rosenberg says a priest friend once told him that he remained alive during the war, to help others, because “the finger of God was upon you.”
Rosenberg offers no argument. His survival was “bashert,” he says. “It was a fortuitous twist of fate.”
Fry, back in the U.S. without a job after his expulsion from Marseilles, subsequently worked as an editor, businessman and Latin teacher, dying in 1967 at 59. He never had such an adventurous job again.
Rosenberg met Fry only one time back in this country, at a reunion the year before Fry’s death.
Does he think about those wartime days?
“Sometimes.” It’s the past, Rosenberg says. “I’m concerned with the present. I no longer have the enthusiasm to talk about these events.”
Was he a hero for what he did in Marseilles?
“I didn’t consider it particularly heroic,” Rosenberg says. “It was just part of my life. I regret that we did it for only a limited amount of people. There were so many people who did much more and were much more heroic.”