Two Books on Resistance (II)

I recently read two books about resistance to fascism:

Norman Ohler, The Bohemians: The Lovers Who Led Germany’s Resistance Against the Nazis (2020) Trans. Tim Mohr and Marshall Yarborough (2020)

Justus Rosenberg, The Art of Resistance: My Four Years in the French Underground (2020)

I learned from both, but I didn’t learn what I most wanted to, namely, why do some people resist when most do not? Both books privilege historical detail over theoretical analysis. Still, the experiences recounted in these texts are interesting; setting them down, I found I had a lot to say, so I have divided this post into two parts. Notes on Justus Rosenberg’s The Art of Resistance are below; those on Norman Ohler’s The Bohemians are here.

Justus Rosenberg began setting down his memoirs at age ninety-eight. (I do love a late bloomer.) Published on the eve of his centenary, The Art of Resistance emphasizes Rosenberg’s wartime activities—its subtitle is “My Four Years in the French Underground”—but its most interesting sections concern the author’s childhood in the Free City of Danzig. This political anomaly was a compromise reached after WWI that balanced Allied intentions to grant Poland independence with the reality that 75% of the port city’s inhabitants were German. Danzig (today Gdańsk) and surrounding areas were made into a semi-autonomous city state; oversight was provided a high commissioner appointed by the League of Nations who sought to ensure that the rights of Poles (20% of the population) and Jews (5%) were respected in this new parliamentary democracy. In the early 1920s, almost 100,000 Jews from Russia and Poland passed through Danzig on their way to America. Others, though, especially those cultural affinities were with Germany, stayed on.

Among these were Rosenberg’s parents. Bluma Solarski and Jacob Rosenberg grew up in a shtetl only a few miles from the East Prussian border. Danzig was their haven—they eloped there to avoid familial disapproval (the Rosenbergs were rich; the Solarskis were not), and Justus was born soon after, in January 1921. The young couple rejected Zionism, attended a highly reform synagogue (and that irregularly), and hired a German nanny for their only son. (He barely mentions his sister, it is curious, even a little disquieting.) Like most of the rest of the Jews in the Free City, the Rosenbergs prospered. Not that the place was entirely idyllic; it wasn’t immune to developments beyond its borders. The local Nazi party won the most seats in the elections of 1932, yet the city’s international nature (its economy depended on the port) made them much more circumspect than their sister parties in Germany.

But by 1937 the gloves were off. Rosenberg witnessed a frightening attack on Jewish-owned businesses and homes to which the authorities turned a blind eye. After this, Rosenberg’s parents looked for a way to send him abroad, eventually arranging for him to study in Paris. Before leaving Danzig for good, he spent three weeks with his grandfather’s family in Poland, getting a crash course in Jewishness (Rosenberg was amazed to learn that not all Orthodox Jews were Chassidic). Still the sixteen-year-old was more interested in losing his virginity to a friend of his mother’s and reading French novels, which experience, admittedly, served him in good stead in Paris.

His trip to France was broken up by a stay with his paternal uncle in Berlin, a socialist, laryngologist, and composer (who had studied for a time with Schoenberg). Wandering the streets, sixteen-year-old Rosenberg saw posters advertising a rally where Hitler would be addressing the nation. Curious to know what sort of man could elicit such hatred in so many, Rosenberg ignored the signs blaring NO JEWS PERMITTED. His blond hair and blue eyes made him inconspicuous; before he knew it, he was in the middle of a fourteen-thousand strong crowd, watching with queasy fascination as the little man whipped up his audience.

This was the first of many times in his life when Rosenberg found himself in the presence of famous figures of the era. He had a knack for ending up at the centre of things. That Zelig-like quality manifested in full after three unremarkable, if satisfying, years in Paris. In the spring of 1940, his studies at the Sorbonne were interrupted by the invasion of France. By this time, Rosenberg was following events keenly. Already in 1938 most of the Jews of Danzig had left the city, most for Poland, but some, like Rosenberg’s parents, for Palestine. They wrote to say they had made it to Bratislava, and were embarking down the Danube to Romania in the hopes of reaching a ship. Rosenberg would not hear from them again until after the war.

When Paris fell, Rosenberg decided he need to do something. Like so many others, he left the city on foot; his destination, the barracks of the Polish army in exile, in Brittany. But he ended up south of the city instead, and when he finally, weeks later, made his way to Bayonne, near the Spanish border, where the British navy had agreed to take any remaining Poles to England, he found he had missed them by hours. By chance, he ended up in Marseille where, through friends of friends, he was taken on as a courier by an American who had recently arrived in the city with pockets full of money and orders to secure exit visas for prominent refugees. This was Varian Fry of the Emergency Rescue Committee; through him, Rosenberg met luminaries like Victor Serge, Andre Breton, and Max Ernst. He procured blank identity cards for forging, delivered sealed messages, laundered money through the Marseilles mafia, and even accompanied Franz Werfel, Alma Mahler, and Heinrich and Golo Mann on a nighttime trek over the Pyrenees. He played Exquisite Cadaver with Breton, took a message to Marc Chagall, and was given $500 by Peggy Guggenheim, “for an emergency.” See what I mean? Crazy stuff.

After Fry was expelled from Vichy France, Rosenberg tried to escape to Spain himself, but was arrested by the authorities. After a number of close shaves, he joined the French Resistance, who sent him to Grenoble to live undercover, but he was arrested again, in the summer of 1942, and interned in a camp near Lyons from which, a sympathetic guard told him, he and the others would be deported to Poland. (The map in this New York Times piece is excellent.) Chance intervened again—“Sometimes chance itself occasions good fortune,” the book’s epigraph explains—in the shape of the sister of a friend from his student days in Paris. Before being arrested she had been a medical student in Lyon, and she counselled Rosenberg on how to fake the symptoms of peritonitis. Before long, the “violently ill” Rosenberg was sent from the camp to hospital in Lyon where he was operated on. (Rosenberg speculates with pleasure about the surprise the surgeons must have felt when they found nothing wrong with his abdomen.)

In recovery from what was a dangerous operation, even if it was fake, Rosenberg befriended a nurse who, it turned out, had studied with the medical student and, putting two and two together, put him in contact with the Resistance. A friendly priest hid a change of clothes in the hospital bathroom and a bicycle near the exit; clutching his stitches, the woozy Rosenberg wobbled his way to a safe house from which, after recovering for good, he was sent into the countryside, where he monitored Swiss radio. Later, he joined a cadre of resistance fighters and laid mines for German truck convoys. In the summer of 1944 he was swept up by an American battalion and became their interpreter. On leave in liberated Paris in late 1944 he learned of a new organization, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), set up to respond to what the Allies knew would be an unprecedented refugee situation after the war. Rosenberg, who as a child had wanted to be a diplomat and spoke several languages, was a natural fit. When mediating between the victorious Americans and the vanquished Germans paled, Rosenberg jumped at the chance to take a US military ship to America, where he began a new life that led him eventually to become a professor of literature at Bard. (He’s been emeritus for almost 20 years but still teaches, or did until recently anyway.)

Rosenberg in Marseilles, 1941

The Art of Resistance is as odd a book as its subject’s life has been eventful. Its tone is strangely cheery, which certainly fits the story of a man who seemed always to have landed on his feet, but which to me only highlights the grief that routinely goes unmentioned. In an epilogue detailing what happened to the various people referenced in the book, Rosenberg offhandedly notes that sixty-four of the sixty-eight members of his extended family alive at the start of the war were murdered in the Holocaust. Rosenberg, it is likely, did not know many of these people well (of the few that he did, his grandfather’s family died, as best he can tell, in the Warsaw Ghetto and the uncle in Berlin was killed at Auschwitz, but not before he organized a clandestine choir in the camp at Sachsenhausen where he was first interned). It is also true that, miraculously enough, his entire immediate family survived. His parents and sister made it to Haifa; his sister, now 92, still lives in Israel. All of which might explain why this is not a book about loss. And why should it be, I suppose? My sense, however, is that despite the fluency of the narrative, there is something blocked about it. I was regularly surprised that Rosenberg was not more forthcoming about his feelings, or reflective about his situation. How does he feel about his survival? He says only:

Time and time again, there was what I call a ‘confluence of circumstances’ that presented me with a window of opportunity, or a moment to be seized. At each juncture, a combination of factors enabled me to seize that moment or slip through the window. That’s my best explanation for how I survived.

He names some of those circumstances—he didn’t look stereotypically Jewish; he appeared younger than he was (people often took him for a 14-year-old), which inclined them to look kindly on him; he knew five languages and had had parents who arranged for a wonderful education—but the awkward, passive syntax of the passage tells a truth. Survival wasn’t only—wasn’t even primarily—a function of ability, but of chance. Rosenberg was plenty clever and resourceful, don’t get me wrong. But The Art of Resistance shows more clearly than many memoirs of Jewish WWII experience that the Bildungsroman imperative of the memoir as a genre sits uneasily with the realities of the period.

It’s fascinating to read an excerpt from a letter Rosenberg received, decades after the war, from a woman who had also worked with Varian Fry, a woman who “shrieked with joy” to learn of his survival. Rosenberg, she writes, was “just another kid, a Jew, a ‘nice boy, but there’s nothing we can do’ (as Fry said to me when I pressed him to help you).” (Fry is someone I need to learn more about; Rosenberg’s portrayal is ambivalent at best.) The woman says she and Rosenberg and the others who worked on the team are “a people apart,” but Rosenberg doesn’t seem to think of himself that way. He is a competent writer, but not an especially good one (he explains in plodding detail what it means to be a flaneur; gives a capsule definition of the Folies Bergère; writes of his student days, “I came to be of the opinion that eating is culture on a plate!”). He even gets a little sententious when, describing the sad fate of Walter Benjamin, who died attempting to cross the Pyrenees, on one of those missions of the sort Rosenberg himself helped lead (though not that one), he notes that gifted people have their weaknesses too, like anyone, before lauding his own habit of “thinking seriously about what was happening along the way,” as if others who died didn’t think seriously, too. And he can be a little boring: the last part of the book reads like a series of testimonials—he quotes from various commanders who extolled his work with them.

But the man’s had a hell of a life, and who cares if he’s a little complaisant. You won’t learn what the art of resistance is from this book, or even if it has an art—Rosenberg’s claim about chance seems to suggest no—but you’ll hear an amazing story. That might be enough to compensate for book’s inability to be clear about what it means to have such a story.

Maybe the lesson of books like The Art of Resistance and The Bohemians is that if we’re looking for a lesson, something like a manual for resistance we won’t find one. We just have to do it.

3 thoughts on “Two Books on Resistance (II)

  1. Well, that’s intriguing. To tell a story of your life, when you’ve lived through such incredible times, yet not reveal so much about the harder parts is a little unusual. It may be that’s his way of dealing with them – but it seems to contrast strongly with other books I’ve read of lives lived through the 20th century and I would have found myself questioning his method a little myself.

    • Indeed. I mean, those events were a lifetime ago (longer than many people live), so I would expect the view to be tempered. But there’s a refusal to go deeper that frustrated me as a reader.

  2. Pingback: What I Read, August 2020 | Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

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