The Art of Resistance: My Four Years in the French Underground
By Justus Rosenberg
William Morrow, 288 pages, $28.99
In 1937, with Nazi violence disrupting Jewish life in Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland), Justus Rosenberg’s parents sent him to Paris to pursue his studies. He was just 16, and it would be 15 years before he saw his family again.
Rosenberg’s daredevil wartime experiences with the American rescuer Varian Fry and the French Resistance are now, finally, the subject of a memoir. Rosenberg, an emeritus professor of languages and literature at Bard College, waited a long time to chronicle his past: In January, he turned 99.
The very existence of “The Art of Resistance” is its most remarkable feature. But the story, too, is a good one, recounted with astonishing lucidity. It’s a picaresque tale of a teenager who survives assorted perils by dint of luck, courage and his intellectual gifts, encountering various famous people along the way. “Sometimes chance itself occasions good fortune” is the book’s epigraph. Rosenberg himself refers to “the confluence of circumstances” that helped him survive.
He begins his narrative at a moment of high drama: He has just faked his way out of a Nazi internment camp in France, a train ride away from Auschwitz, by pretending to have severe stomach pains. He awakens to discover that he’s had an unnecessary appendectomy. Although far from healed, he’ll have to steal away from the hospital, with the help of the French Underground, and bicycle his way to freedom.
Rosenberg then flashes back to his childhood in Danzig, at the time a semi-autonomous city-state. His parents, minimally observant Polish Jews, speak both German and Yiddish. At nine, Rosenberg, already multilingual, dreams of being a diplomat. He’s a stellar student, and life is good until Nazi thugs invade his neighborhood. Rosenberg witnesses the destruction of shops and brutal assaults on their Jewish owners, and rushes home to warn his parents.
Eventually, they send him away to what seems like safety — though not before he enjoys his sexual initiation, with a friend of his mother’s, and travels to Poland to meet his Orthodox Jewish paternal grandfather.
Then it’s off to Paris, via Berlin, where he visits his paternal uncle. Emboldened by his blond hair and blue eyes, Rosenberg insists on attending an orchestra concert forbidden to Jews — and then, to satisfy his curiosity, a Hitler rally. It’s clear that our protagonist is a risk-taker. His first-hand account of the Nazi hysteria is gripping, if familiar. He hypothesizes that Hitler may have learned from the composer Richard Wagner how “to hypnotize an audience, to build themes slowly,” and, finally, to reach “a pitch of transcendent fervor.”
In Paris, Rosenberg plunges into “a heady new atmosphere,” discovers a lifelong love of Balzac, and acquires fluency in French. When money from home stops arriving, he takes odd jobs, including a small role in a play based on Jules Verne’s novel “Around the World in Eighty Days.” Rosenberg’s linguistic aptitude – he’ll later master both English and Russian – turns out to be his most salient and useful skill.
In May 1940, the Germans invade France, and Rosenberg ponders his options. Barred from enlisting in the French army and searching for the Polish one, he joins refugees streaming out of Paris. Getting a lukewarm welcome from the Poles, themselves in flight, he finds his way to Marseille.
There he becomes a courier for Fry’s Emergency Rescue Committee, tasked with helping European writers, artists and others escape the country. Rosenberg guides a group that includes the novelists Franz Werfel and Heinrich Mann on a slow, treacherous mountain trek across the Spanish border, while Fry, who possesses the requisite visas, accompanies their luggage on a train.
Rosenberg, surprisingly, is somewhat skeptical of Fry, who’s lately gained heroic stature. He notes that Fry was emotionally erratic and that his famous list seems not to have included left-wing ideologues and activists. Their arrogance notwithstanding, he mostly admires the surrealists he meets at the Villa Air-Bel, where he lives for a while. He remembers the writer André Breton telling him: “The revolution requires not only new economics but a whole new way of seeing the world.”
After Fry’s expulsion from France, Rosenberg is arrested during an escape attempt of his own. Freed by a Gaullist judge, he commits to the French Resistance. But his undercover recruitment work is interrupted when he is rounded up and sent to a detention camp with other foreign Jews living in France. “I didn’t panic…,” he writes. “In the face of danger, I make plans to act.”
He ultimately decides to feign sickness, and gets lucky: A nurse at the hospital helps him contact the French Underground, and a sympathetic priest gives him escape instructions.
Rosenberg describes his own increasingly dangerous Resistance activities with precision. He assumes a false identity, gathers military intelligence, receives airdrops of weapons and other supplies from the British, and scouts out hiding places for forest camps. He eventually joins one as a guerrilla fighter. After recovering from a bullet wound, he is able to ally himself with invading American forces. Even as Allied victory nears, he narrowly escapes death on several occasions.
In the end, of course, all turns out well – or we wouldn’t be reading this memoir so many decades later. Rosenberg will go on to enjoy a rich academic life in the United States and receive a French Legion of Honor award for his wartime heroism.
After the war, there are, in fact, even more adventures, including travels to Cuba, the Soviet Union, China and Nicaragua. These, the indomitable Rosenberg writes, may provide the grist for memoirs yet to come.
Julia M. Klein, the Forward’s contributing book critic, has been a two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Follow her @JuliaMKlein