House calls may not be the wisest move in the middle of a pandemic, especially when your host is ninety-nine years old. But I wasn’t content to meet Justus Rosenberg – that’s not Justice as in Sonia Sotomayor or John Roberts but J…U…S…T…U...S – on Zoom or some similar video chat service. Especially while I was in the throes of his memoir, “The Art of Resistance; My Four Years in the French Underground.” It’s published by William Morrow.
Journalism may not be especially well compensated, especially these days, but one of the perks of the job has always been meeting remarkable people in person. And the author seemed amenable to the idea, taking the proper precautions, of course.
So I reported to his home in Rhinebeck, NY, not far from Bard College where he’s taught language and literature for sixty years. It was on a recent sun-filled Saturday afternoon, to talk about his book, his life, and his still vital intellectual life as he approaches his 100th birthday.
By the way, “The Art of Resistance” is a new book. It was published in January of this year. “I was lucky,” Justus said. “Just before the coronavirus.” He added, in European accented English, “It sells very well.”
If there was any doubt about the author’s mental acuity it was banished when I mentioned that I’d recently come across photographs of a summer vacation my grandparents took in the 1930’s. I didn’t recognize the name of the resort scribbled on the back of the snapshots – Zoppot – until I looked it up. It also arises early in Justus’s memoir, as a font of pleasant pre-war memories when he visited from his home in nearby Danzig, these days known as Gdansk, in Poland. “I spent many a summer there,” he remembered as he sat in a well-upholstered armchair with an excellent view of the Catskills. “I have some wonderful, beautiful souvenirs of Zoppot.”
In his book he recalls hopping the train to Zoppot in 1936 when he was fifteen to attend a Wagner opera festival. Since he couldn’t afford a ticket he found a hole in the fence, slipped through it and found a spot with an unimpeded view of the stage. It wouldn’t be the last time he found his way in and out of a tight spot.
At the time, he also wasn’t aware that Wagner had been a virulent anti-Semite, a virus of a different sort that, while Justus didn’t yet realize it, was going to dictate his life and his movements for the next decade.
Reading the early chapters of his book as well as sifting through my grandparents’ photographs one marvels at how gracious and unsuspecting life might have seemed back then even though Justus felt the war coming. He attributed his subsequent survival as a French resistance fighter to a confluence of factors, including dumb luck, blond hair and blue eyes that allowed him to pass for Aryan, and intersecting with people who abetted his survival. But a sharp mind may have been his most faithful companion.
When his comrades in arms staved off monotony in the French countryside awaiting their next assignment by disassembling, oiling, and reassembling their guns, Justus studied Russian and English. “I knew that was going to be the languages of the future,” he said and added, “I was quick to analyze the situation in which I found myself.”
But I’m getting ahead of myself. He can still recall an international tennis tournament he attended in Zoppot, including a doubles match between Germany and Poland, as well as the names of the players on both teams and who won. “The Germans did,” he said ruefully.
Justus was able to reap revenge, creating a rematch of sorts after he moved to France in 1937 with his parents’ approval as the Nazis began targeting Jewish businesses in Danzig. He studied at a lycee before attending the Sorbonne but his college education was cut short when he fled to the free zone of France in September, 1939 just ahead of German tanks rolling into Paris.
There he joined the Resistance, at first as a courier for the American Emergency Rescue Committee shepherding famous Jewish artists and writers to freedom over the Pyrenees. Then, masquerading as a newspaper advertising sales agent, he spied on the German army while biking around southeastern France.
But he was known to the police, eventually arrested and put in a prison camp. He escaped, and escaped a train ride to the East and probably death in a concentration camp, by feigning an appendicitis attack. While it ended in unnecessary surgery it also allowed him to flee through the hospital.
On another occasion, now assigned to the invading American army’s 636th Tank Destroyer Battalion as an interrogator because he was multi-lingual, he and a U.S. radio operator named Bergan in his reconnaissance squad were sent along the Rhone River to scout a location to put a pontoon bridge.
“As we were standing next to the water, a shot rang out,” Justus writes. “Bergan keeled over, fell into the water, and was swept away.” To his death, sadly.
It was the first time the author had experienced the violence of combat so intimately. But there were others. He was wounded in the leg by a bullet on one mission and landed in the hospital after a jeep he was traveling in triggered a German plate mine. The explosion maimed the driver and killed another passenger.
After the war, Justus moved to the United States when he was invited to teach French at the University of Dayton in Ohio. Working through the Red Cross he also discovered that his parents and sister had survived the war and moved to Palestine, even though his father dissuaded him from reuniting with them until he secured an American passport in 1952.
In 1956, he was offered an associate professorship at Swarthmore College and in 1962 he moved to Bard. He married his German wife Karin, the first marriage for both, twenty-four years ago. He was already well past seventy. “If I want to be honest with you I always had girlfriends,” he told me impishly. “I was trying to catch up. I’d lost ten years because of the war, the ten best years of my life.”
As acknowledgement for his heroism with the U.S. Army Justus received the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. In 2017 the French government awarded him the prestigious Legion d’honneur.
Next year will be his last at Bard. “The college is going to make a big affair of the hundred years,” he said.
“It’s enough,” he added. He meant teaching and grading papers. “I’m beginning to feel it.”
But he has no plans to retire. In his epilogue to “The Art of Resistance” he writes that he has more memoirs on the way.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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