– Justus Rosenberg taught his students the beauty of the great classics of French and Russian literature for a lifetime, but he himself had the life of a novel, only he never wanted to tell it. Now that he has passed away at the age of 100, Professor Rosenberg’s past as a French partisan and clandestine messenger who helped to leave France – then Nazi-occupied – has emerged. to painters, writers and intellectuals such as Marcel Duchamp, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Andrè Breton and Hannah Arendt.
As a boy, Rosenberg had dropped bombs at German tanks, aided the American army in the advance, earned a Bronze Star for his heroism. One day he was seriously injured by a mine while in a jeep. The comrade, who had taken the place that usually belonged to him, was killed.
The students knew their professor had fought the Nazis, and often tried to get him to tell something more. He had preferred to focus on the theme of his course, “The ten classics that shook the world”.
A short biography
Born in 1921 in Gdansk, Poland, to a Jewish family, Rosenberg had been sent to study in Paris to keep him away from the Nazis. Justus was 16 and didn’t know he wouldn’t see the family again for another fifteen.
In Toulouse, the young Rosenberg had met an American student, Miriam Davenport, who had encouraged him to follow her to Marseille. Once they arrived in the city in the south of France, the girl had made him an unexpected proposal: “I have a task for you”. Justus had thus entered a resistance committee whose task was to rescue the prominent figures stranded in Vichy regime France.
We needed a courier capable of delivering important messages and forged documents; being blond, Rosenberg would not have aroused suspicion. By commuting to the Pyrenees, at the risk of his life, Justus had helped many personalities, including the writers Heinrich Mann and Franz Werfel, and Alma, the Austrian composer widow of maestro Gustav Mahler, to leave France; even with his contribution, they had managed to escape Chagall, Breton and other great characters.
After the war, Rosenberg resumed his old project: he went to Paris to study literature at the Sorbonne, then emigrated to the USA. Here, after earning a doctorate from the University of Cincinnati, he entered as a lecturer at Bard College, north of New York, where he taught literature for more than fifty years. He spoke of his story only once for a documentary by Steven Spielberg about Holocaust survivors. He hadn’t said much to his wife, Karin, whom he met in the 1980s.
“When he told me about it – the woman told the New York Times – I said to him: Justus, why didn’t you ever tell me about it? He replied: because I didn’t want to pass by for praise”. Four years ago he was awarded the Legion of Honor, the only concession to his noble confidentiality. “I think he was a hero – Karin commented – but he didn’t see himself that way. Justus thought he only did what was right to do”.