By Bruce Poli
My mentor and advisor at Bard College, Justus Rosenberg, a Polish Jew who speaks a dozen languages, turned 99 on January 23rd. He studied at the Sorbonne, taught Brecht in China, and socialism, revolution, theater, French poetry, languages, and general cultural classes including one of his favorites, “Ten Plays That Shook the World,”—which he still teaches today—here in America.
Rosenberg was one of the New School’s early and longest-serving professors (1959-2013), teaching 18 different classes (which at one time was “the only job Jews could get”), and has taught at Bard and the New School for more than 60 years. He brought Hannah Arendt and Isaac Bashevis Singer, among others, to Bard.
Far more remarkable, however, are Rosenberg’s years in the French Underground with the Emergency Rescue Committee—a legendary Resistance group—that saved the lives of 2,000-4,000 intellectuals and artists from the Nazis. The group helped save, among others, Marc Chagall, Andre Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Jean Arp, Pablo Casals, Wanda Landowska, Alma Mahler, and Hannah Arendt. Eleanor Roosevelt, Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos, and other American cultural and political leaders gave support. Today, we see these brilliant cultural icons’ enormous contributions to our world’s arts and culture. Nearly a century old, Justus is the remaining living witness to aiding such a dramatic gift to our American creativity and humanitarian values.
As a teenager, and only child, in Danzig (Gdansk) Poland, Rosenberg was captured by Nazis and sent to Auschwitz but managed to escape. He then spent two years in the south of France hiding in cellars and moving about the countryside (shades of the film Inglourious Basterds). One day in Marseilles he encountered a humanitarian group, led by American journalist Varian Fry, whose mission was to save European intellectuals and artists from the SS. Our lives have been elevated by the courageous work this group accomplished eight decades ago, when Rosenerg became their messenger and courier, carrying messages and forged identity papers to those the group was trying to save…a key role in the future of European-American culture. The rest of the story is etched into American history.
Until five years ago Justus never uttered a word about his legendary past to anyone. “The Professor Has a Daring Past” (New York Times, May 1, 2016), recounts his harrowing journey and brushes with death in Europe (example: his jeep convoy was blown up and everyone was killed but him, as he was on the back flap of the jeep and thrown backwards) through his rise as a pioneer at the New School and on to Bard College where he has taught languages and literature for 58 years. He was my professor and guiding light from 1971-1975. His intellectual breadth and historic knowledge is invaluable; I consider him an architect of 20th century European-American culture.
Over the years Professor Rosenberg has been given many awards. One is the Legion d’Honneur—France’s highest military award. I said to him, “In England they knight you, what do they call you in France?” “Commandant!” he answered. He has also received honors from the Shoah Foundation and The New School.
The Justus and Karin Rosenberg Human Rights Foundation was founded in 2011. Its mission is to combat and increase the serious study of hatred and antisemitism, emphasizing projects that help college students and promote academic freedom. Rosenberg’s memoir, The Art of Resistance: My Four Years in the French Underground, was just published by Harper Collins.
Emergency Rescue Committee
France’s swift collapse caused by Hitler’s armies came as a shocking blow to the United States and Great Britain, but it also alarmed activists who were concerned about refugees in Europe. In 1940, a group of these concerned activists met in New York and organized the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) to help refugees displaced by the war. The committee felt strongly that the restrictive quotas of the Immigration Act of 1924 would prevent needy refugees from coming to the United States, and were particularly concerned about the status of refugees in Vichy France who could be surrendered to Nazi authorities at any time. With the U.S. government refusing to open its borders to increasing numbers of immigrants, private organizations like the ERC took on the job of helping Jews and non-Jews gain safe passage to secure locations.
From the outset, the ERC enjoyed strong support from influential members of New York’s literary community, including John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, and Dorothy Thompson. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was also very active in providing help, linking the ERC to the power corridors of Washington.
Varian Fry, an editor and writer, was a founding member of the ERC and traveled to France on the committee’s behalf. He assisted refugees in acquiring visas and other documents necessary for a quick escape, but was quickly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people who needed assistance. He responded by establishing a legal relief organization under the auspices of the French government, using it as a fig leaf in order to evacuate endangered refugees through illegal means. These included falsified documents, black market transactions, and clandestine escape routes. Fry and his team of young assistants, however, could not prevent detection by collaborationist forces forever. Working without a valid passport, Fry naturally attracted the attention of the secret police, who put him under surveillance and detained him for questioning on several occasions. As evidence mounted that Fry was operating illegally, the Vichy French administration sought his removal from the country. In this effort they were assisted by the U.S. State Department, which was seeking to prevent American entry into the war for as long as possible. Not long after Vichy France obtained American cooperation in 1941, Fry was arrested and deported back to the United States; consequently, the ERC’s activities were halted indefinitely. Nevertheless, during the thirteen months that Fry had actively aided refugees, he succeeded in helping over 2,000 people leave Vichy France. They included political, cultural, and labor leaders like Hannah Arendt, Pablo Casals, Marc Chagall, Wanda Landowska, and Alma Mahler.
In 1942 the International Relief Association and the ERC joined together, forming the International Rescue Committee (IRC), an organization that remains committed to refugee relief operations to this day. This is why democracy matters in our dark times. Our lives have all been enriched by the courageous and remarkable work this group has accomplished during the last eight decades.