The Art of Resistance: My Four Years in the French Underground
(2020) is a memoir by German American Holocaust survivor and literature professor Justus Rosenberg recounting his experiences during World War II when he helped to smuggle intellectuals and artists out of Nazi-occupied Europe and fought with the French Resistance and the US Army.
Rosenberg begins with a brief account of his childhood and youth. He was born in 1921 in Danzig, a free city on the German-Polish border (now Gdansk, Poland). His parents, prosperous import-export traders, were part of the city’s highly integrated, secular Jewish community.
As the Nazis came to power during the 1930s, anti-Semitism began to worry Rosenberg’s parents. They suggested that he finish his studies abroad, in England or France. The 16-year-old chose France, dreaming of beautiful French women. He was sent to a boarding school, where he became fluent in the language, something which would save his life on many occasions.
Rosenberg started at the Sorbonne, but when the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, he was cut off from his family and left penniless. He found a job as a theatrical extra, but before long, the Nazis arrived in Paris. Rosenberg fled just days before the city fell. He headed by bicycle to Bayonne, and then to Toulouse, where his teachers at the Sorbonne had told him he could sit his exams. However, by the time he arrived, the country was under occupation.
At a makeshift refugee camp, Rosenberg happened to find himself billeted next to an American student, Miriam Davenport, who took a shine to him and brought him with her to Marseille. There Davenport connected with more expat Americans, including the journalist Varian Fry.
Fry was in France on behalf of New York’s “Emergency Rescue Committee,” a group of American intellectuals trying to evacuate their European peers. Working with the American consul and a team of refugees (including a forger), Fry assembled the documentation to extract artists, writers, and intellectuals from Nazi-occupied France.
He needed a courier to deliver messages, and Davenport suggested Rosenberg, who looked both “Aryan” and young enough to be a schoolboy and spoke fluent French. Davenport worked for Fry for the rest of the year, helping notable Europeans escape via Spain. By August 1941, however, the situation in Marseille was more dangerous, and Fry was forced to leave.
For Rosenberg, it was too late. New regulations forbade the issuing of visas to any person with near relatives in Germany. He tried to cross the border into Spain anyway, but he was arrested and returned to France.
A Resistance contact suggested that he go to Grenoble, but when he got there he was rounded up with hundreds of other foreign-born Jews and taken to a transit camp. In the night, he was shaken awake by a soldier, who told him that he would soon be sent to a labor camp in Poland. In the morning, Rosenberg asked another inmate—a medical student—what symptoms he should fake to avoid transport. On her advice, he feigned peritonitis. He was rushed to the hospital and anesthetized. He woke up without his appendix. His young French nurse told him that he would be sent to the labor camp on the next transport, so he begged her to smuggle a note to his Resistance contact in town.
A priest, Father Glasberg, arrived within days. He arranged for clothes to be hidden in the hospital bathroom, and for a bicycle to be left below the window. Rosenberg escaped on the bicycle and made for a safe house, where he recuperated from his surgery. The Resistance gave him a new name and a false biography.
On his recovery bed, he began to memorize the insignia of the German army. When he was healed, he traveled all over the country, spotting the insignia of local troops to help the Resistance build a picture of the occupying force. Later he was part of a unit that recovered airdropped arms, and finally, he joined a guerrilla force bombarding German convoys.
In 1944, he encountered his first American soldiers. Before long, he was attached to the 636th Tank Destroyer Battalion as a scout, guide, and translator.
After the war, Rosenberg returned to the Sorbonne. He was also appointed to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. He learned that his parents and sister had survived the Holocaust. They had escaped Germany on an undocumented ship and been interned on Mauritius for the duration of the War. Rosenberg would not see them again until 1952.
In Paris, he applied for a US visa and was told to come back in six years. He turned to his friends in the Army, and soon Rosenberg was in Ohio, teaching French and German and completing his doctorate.
Throughout his memoir, Rosenberg credits his survival to a mere “confluence of circumstance.”