Josef Rozenberg’s story of surviving the Holocaust as a Jewish teenager in Poland brings history lesson to life for Delano eighth graders
By Matt Kane
DELANO Standing 5 feet tall, 2 inches less than his Minnesota driver’s license states, with round spectacles, a bald head, and a soft, gentle speaking voice, 84-year-old Josef Rozenberg is a less-than-imposing figure. His message, though, is very powerful.
That soft voice comes out of Rozenberg’s mouth with a thick Polish accent, and it tells stories of death and survival. It tells of Rozenberg’s experiences as a Jewish teenager growing up in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II.
Tuesday morning, Rozenberg told the story of his and his family’s lives during the Holocaust, when over five million Jews, including Rozenberg’s parents and two of his five siblings, were exterminated by the Germans, to the eighth-grade students and teachers at Delano Middle School.
“This is my Kaddish,” Rozenberg said, referring to the Jewish ritual of mourning. “This is my memorial. This is how I honor my parents and all those (who died).”
Eighth-graders aren’t always known for their ability to pay attention, but all ears and eyes were on Rozenberg for the hour-plus presentation.
One of those eighth-graders was Zach Linden. He soaked in all he could.
“I thought he was amazing, talking to us about how he survived, and how he explained everything he could. And I thought it was amazing for him to stand up in front of us and say what he had to say,” Linden said. “I was really focused and paying attention. I couldn’t look my eyes away.”
Linden’s classmate, Lilly Carver, echoed his comments.
“I’m happy he could come and talk to us. I found it really interesting. I found it interesting about his experience and how bad it was. I’m sure that there were some good times, but not very many. I found that interesting,” Carver said. “His accent was really interesting, too. It was hard to understand, but you get used to it.”
Rozenberg’s visit to the Delano Middle School coincided with the part of the eighth-grade curriculum that focuses on World War II and the Holocaust. The students have read “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and “Soldier Boys,” and have watched movies about the Holocaust, but books and movies don’t do the Holocaust justice. Listening to a survivor live and in-person makes it real.
“In the books, it feels like it is so surreal, and you feel like it never happened, but, when you see him talking up there, you realize it did happen,” Carver said.
“It is great for people to actually learn from the people who were there,” Linden said.
Those students learned that Rozenberg spent time in the Lodz Ghetto, which was a housing project the Germans used to keep the Jews together in one area, in his home town of Lodz, Poland. And they learned that he was eventually transported to two concentration camps Auschwitz in Poland and Ahlem in Hannover, Germany before being liberated by US soldiers in 1945.
Rozenberg was the fourth of Rachel and Jonas’ six children. When he was freed by the Americans in 1945, only Rozenberg and his oldest sister, Esther, were alive.
Rozenberg was 16 years old in September of 1942, when his mother, Rachel, and younger brother, Abraham, were taken from the Lodz Ghetto courtyard by the German soldiers because they looked weak. He never saw them again, and, at the time, did not know of their fate. He later found out they were taken to Chelmno, an extermination camp.
“I didn’t have any idea, but I had a friend who was the same age as I was I can see his face now. I asked him, when he was working at the hospital, ‘What happened to the people?’” Rozenberg said. “My name was Hershel then (he went by his middle name, Hirsch), and he said, ‘Hershel, what do you think they do with the people they throw down from the windows onto the trucks?’ That’s what they did with the sick people at the hospital, they threw them down from the windows right onto the trucks and hauled them away. He told me nobody was alive.
“The elitists knew. Jewish elitists probably knew, but they didn’t talk about it,” he explained. The killings, I found out about after the war, and more when the Internet came around and my son gave me a computer.”
Rozenberg was separated from his father and his four sisters when he got off the cattle car at Auschwitz in 1944.
“Everything went so fast. You didn’t have time to say ‘good-bye,’” he said.
Rozenberg knew the fate of his father was the gas chamber. After they were reunited at the end of the war in Europe, Esther informed Rozenberg that their three sisters, Bluma, Leah and Rebecca, never made it out of Auschwitz. Bluma and Leah passed away from illnesses, and Rebecca was gassed. Leah perished the night before the Jews were liberated.
A year before his mother and sister were taken away from the Ghetto in Lodz, Rozenberg’s entire family of eight narrowly avoided being taken away.
“In 1941, in the winter, at the end of the year, the Ghetto administration came and said ‘You have to give up two daughters.’ Two people from your family have to be transported away,” Rozenberg explained. “My father said, ‘We all go.’ My father said, ‘If I have to give two children, we all go.’”
The Rozenberg family went to prison for two weeks, but were allowed to go back to the Ghetto because of his fathers’ skills as a sheet metal worker.
In 1942, his mother and brother were gone.
Rozenberg explained that the German soldiers started taking Jews from the Ghetto in 1941, when they began building gas chambers “Just to kill Jews.” Many of the Jews volunteered for the move, thinking they were going to labor camps, when, in fact, they were volunteering for their own extermination.
“In 1942, when the Germans started building the gas chambers, the Ghetto administration needed to provide the Germans with 20,000 Jews. The Germans knew they were going to be killed, but the Jews didn’t know that,” Rozenberg said. “I had a cousin who married a young woman and signed up for the transport. He thought, ‘It cannot be as bad as it is in the Ghetto.’ So, they all went to the gas chamber.”
Rozenberg told the Delano students that it was pure luck that he wasn’t sent to the gas chamber when he went to Auschwitz.
“We were all sent to the showers,” he explained. “The one shower room I was in had water. In the other shower room, instead of water, gas came out, and they were all killed.”
“It feels a lot different to me (hearing a first-hand account) because you can feel how hard it was to endure that,” Linden said. “When you read about it, you don’t see anybody surviving that, but, when you see a person who went through it, it’s pretty tough.”
Who was picked for a shower and who was picked for the gas chamber was purely random.
“People ask me how I survived. Survival depended only on how you were picked,” he said.
May of the Jews would have gladly accepted death if it meant the Holocaust would end.
Rozenberg explained that he could hear the Allies bombing the cities around the concentration camps, and he wished one of those bombs would strike the Auschwitz camp, where he was kept for three months.
“The American planes never bombed Auschwitz and they never bombed the railroad lines that transported the Jews to the concentration camps,” he said. “We all wanted one of those bombs to hit us, so it would come to an end.”
In April of 1945, as the Allies’ front line moved closer to Hannover, where Ahlem was located, the Germans relocated, taking the healthy Jews with them. Rozenberg, who was down to 85 pounds, was spared from the march because of his inability to walk well. The ill and weak Jews were left alone at Ahlem with now-German soldiers watching over them.
“They were always occupied with the Jewish problem,” said Rozenberg of why the Germans moved the healthy Jews, even when the Allies moved in. “They never gave up. They never gave up until the last minute.
“I asked people about the ones who couldn’t keep up during the marches. They were shot on the road.”
The Germans fled Ahlem Friday April 6, 1945. Four days later, April 10, 1945, US soldiers set Rozenberg and the rest of the Jews free.
“It was great. I didn’t believe it,” Rozenberg said of his feeling when he saw the US solders.
Rozenberg was taken to a hospital April 12, and the war on the European stage was declared over May 8, 1945.
Rozenberg and his sister, Esther, went to Sweden, and that’s where he lived in August of 1945, when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, ending the war in the Pacific Theater.
Rozenberg met his wife, Rose, in Sweden in 1945, and the two will celebrate their 61st wedding anniversary in April.
It turned out Rose was also from Lodz, and lived in the same Ghetto as Rozenberg. They never knew each other growing up, but Rose remembered seeing him on the boat from Germany to Sweden.
“Girls have better minds. They remember boys,” he said with a laugh. “We were on the same boat to Sweden. She remembered me, I didn’t know her.”
Rozenberg and Rose lived in Sweden 14 years before moving to Minneapolis, where friends lived, in 1958, with two young boys. They added a girl to the family after arriving in America.
Josef and Rose currently live in an apartment in St. Louis Park, which is luxurious compared to the home he grew up in Poland.
“The economy was bad in Poland at the time; it was very bad. It was hard for my father, even with the equipment he had, to make a living,” Rozenberg explained. “I live in an apartment that has two bedrooms, a den, a huge living room, a dining room and a kitchen. At that time, we had one big room, and everything was in that big room. In the evening, when we went to bed, it looked like a hospital. We had folding beds we put out at night. I slept with my father.”
Esther, Rozenberg’s surviving sister, remained in Sweden. The siblings remained close until Esther’s death in 1982. She had had three sons, one of which currently lives in Plymouth.
Rozenberg followed in his father’s footsteps, working in a metal shop in Sweden. After moving to Minnesota, he worked as a machine engineer for Fischbein Empress in Minneapolis. He retired in 1988.
Rozenberg returned to Lodz for the first time in 1996, with his three grown children.
“I was happy to be back, as weird as it sounds,” he said.
He and his children were also happy to be Americans.
“My daughter said, ‘Dad, I’m happy you went to the United States.’”
Rozenberg and his children were troubled that they still found anti-Semitic propaganda in Lodz, the second largest city in Poland.
Rozenberg was 13 years old, the same age as many of those eighth-graders in Tuesday’s audience, in 1939, when the Nazis invaded his home country of Poland and segregated all the Jews. He last saw his mother and brother in 1942, and his father and three of his four sisters in 1944. By the time he was liberated from Ahlem in 1945, Rozenberg was a 19-year-old man. Those six years spent in the Ghetto and concentration camps left Rozenberg a changed man, forever especially religiously.
“It has changed my life, because now I feel it is up to the people. It’s not predestined by God,” he said to this reporter, referring to the world’s events. “I was very happy (the students) did not go into religion. I am a Jew, but I am non-religious right now, because, how can I be? I see people can do good, and people can do bad. It’s not predestined.”
Rozenberg acknowledged one student’s question about whether he is still a Jew by saying he was, but that was the extent of any religious talk Tuesday. The point of his presentation was to inform the students about the Holocaust, so those students can pass on the stories after all the Holocaust survivors are gone.
Rozenberg opened his presentation by telling the students, “When you grow up, there will be no more left,” referring to Holocaust survivors. “Generations come and generations go. It’s almost over,” he later told this reporter.
Rozenberg didn’t start telling his story until the early 1990s because there wasn’t much interest before then, he noted. People weren’t interested until his generation started to die.
Three days after Rozenberg spoke at Delano Middle School, Swedish filmmaker Magnus Gertten and his crew interviewed Rozenberg and Rose about their experiences during the Holocaust. The film is scheduled to be released in 2011.
“I just hope I am still around to see it,” Rozenberg said.
It’s that uncertainty about how much longer survivors like Rozenberg will be around that makes Linden, the eighth-grade student, understand his responsibility to pass on Rozenberg’s story.
“When I get married, my kids will find out about a holocaust, but they won’t have a person to talk to about it, and I will have to tell them the stories,” he said.
“It is good to know the past, and to not repeat it,” Rozenberg said.
A little man, with a big message.