Bernie Rosner, of San Ramon, 85, is one of the last remaining Holocaust survivors. In a presentation to Rotary of Concord and Concord-Diablo Rotary on September 8, he shared this story. “I believe there is some historical significance to the fact that the current generation of audiences will be the last who will be hearing the story of those terrible days from those who actually lived through them.”
Rosner’s life went from happy to horror, which for 45 years he put those events and memories out of his mind. “I heard and read about Holocaust survivors and even their children who would not talk or even think of the things that happened because the memories were too painful. This was not the case with me. I shut the past out simply because I did not consider it relevant. I was in a new country starting a new life and my focus has always been on the future, not the past,” he said.
Then starting about the mid 80’s, he came to realize that you can’t chop your life up into compartments and jettison the parts that you considered irrelevant. It’s a part of who you’ve become whether you like it or not.
In 1992, Rosner visited the Memorial Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. While there, he was given access to the archives including the logs of prisoners entering the Mauthausen concentration camp. Combing through the microfiche files, he found the following entry for September 19, 1944, “Bernat Rosner, Prisoner number 103,705”, and the “floodgates of memory and emotions overwhelmed me.” Up to that point, there was nothing tangible that connected him to his former life. It was then that he decided he must tell his story.
This decision was met with a series of coincidences that are as unique as any other aspect of the story of his life. In the 1980’s, he met an Orinda man, Fritz Tubach, whose background and history was opposite of Rosner’s. Rosner, a survivor of Auschwitz, and Fritz, a survivor of Auschwitz, were raised in wartime Germany. Fritz’s father was a Nazi, so in his early youth, Fritz was a member of Jungvolk, the Cub Scout equivalent of the Hitler youth. Once they met as Americans, they had both accepted the fact that one is responsible for his or her own actions and not for those of your father or other members of your nation or race.
They shared stories and formed a friendship and together wrote a book “An Uncommon Friendship” which has had a fair degree of success and has been translated into German, Italian, and Dutch.
The Roundup to Auschwitz
Rosner was born in Hungary in a smallish, rural town called Tab. For 12 years he lived basically a normal happy childhood shaped by the rigor and discipline of Jewish Orthodox upbringing and a sensitive and literate mother. Anti-Semitism was certainly present in Hungary. It was institutional in terms of laws that restricted the freedom of Jews from practicing certain professions or owning land, and limiting the number of Jews who could be admitted to law, medical and other professional schools. Despite this, Rosner insists his childhood was basically happy and tranquil.
His life changed with dramatic suddenness on March 19, 1944, the day the Germans had taken over the country and the government. Rosner was 12 years old. The effects of this takeover were immediate and disastrous. Anti-Jewish edicts began. Jews could not travel at all. Prominent families in the community, as well as those suspected of subversive activities or associations, began to disappear.
Within a month, all Jews had to wear a prominent yellow star on their outer clothing. By May, all Jews were herded into a ghetto. “My family was lucky in this respect, our home was already within the area designated as part of the ghetto,” Bernie muses. However, his home had to suddenly house an additional 16 to 18 relatives who came from outside of the ghetto boundaries.
By the end of June, on a 24-hour notice, all Jews were ordered to be ready for departure in front of their homes with no more than one suitcase per person.
“Three images stand out for me from the day on which we were marched down the main street of Tab to the brickyard next to the railroad station. The first was the behavior of some non-Jewish inhabitants who stood on the sidewalk as we were herded by and jeered comments like ‘You Jews are finally getting what’s coming to you’.” Most town people simply retired into their homes and closed their blinds so not to have to see their fellow citizens being driven down the street like cattle. The second image was on the way to the station, I witnessed my mother’s humiliation at being stripped naked in a crowded room and hand-searched by Nazi thugs. The third was at the brickyard where an elderly woman standing up to recite her Sabbath prayers was clubbed bloody and unconscious by one of the guards.”
From Tab, they were shipped to a central collection point about 50 miles away and joined by seven to ten thousand others collected from other ghettos. Then they were loaded into cattle cars and headed for Auschwitz.
Escape from Auschwitz
After the Nazis rounded up the Jews in Hungary, they were loaded by the thousands onto train cattle cars and headed to Auschwitz.
Having arrived, on the train platform in Auschwitz, there was chaos, brutality, and confusion. “My immediate family, my mother, father, and my younger brother were still together.” Rosner’s father was designated to be in charge of the cattle car they were in. An announcement on the loudspeaker ordered all such persons to report to authorities.
“My father left us and that was the last time I saw him,” Bernie states. Another loudspeaker announcement was made to separate the males and females because showers would be given.
“By now my mother was quite frightened and told my brother and me to stay with her. I told her that I didn’t want to take a shower with a bunch of women,” Bernie recalls.
She didn’t argue with him, but as she walked away, her parting words to Bernie, “Whatever you do, make sure that you stay with your brother.” That was the last time he ever saw his mother.
Next, all the males were lined up in single file and inspected by two SS officers. The officers would split able-bodied and fit to work to the right, and those that were too old, young, or unfit went to the left. “My brother who was just 10 years old, was in front of me and the SS officer without hesitation sent him to the left. “Without realizing the consequences of his actions, and remembering what his mother had just told him, Bernie followed his younger brother to the left without being told to do so by the SS officer. The SS officer reached over and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and shoved him to the right.
“To this day,” Bernie says, “I do not know whether the Nazi thought that I just might be fit and old enough to be put to work, or whether he was simply irritated at my having made my own decision.” At any rate, that shove from left to right made the difference on that day between ending up in the gas chamber within the hour and surviving the next screening process.
Bernie’s ordeal did not end with that fateful shove. Every day for the next ten months, until his liberation by the Americans, was a battle for survival. At first, it was trying to avoid being sent to the gas chamber.
“This was because I kept flunking the physicals that the prisoners were subjected to in order to qualify for a permanent work assignment. By Mid-September of 1944, Bernie noticed that most of those remaining in his barracks consisted of the old, sick, or too young to be selected for work.” Bernie realized the danger he was facing and to remain with this group or to continue to not be selected to work would mean certain death.
One day, when he was passed over yet again, out of desperation, he decided to jump over the wall and join the inmates on the right. A guard stopped him with his boot before he could get over the wall. The guard looked him over for some time, shrugged and let him go. Bernie was able to join the group of workers who were boarding a cattle car with no idea what their destination was. They traveled for two days on that train, and 400 kilometers before they arrived at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. There, Bernie lied to the registration officers about his birthdate from 1932 to 1927, making him seem five years older. Bernie had escaped certain death in Auschwitz on a timely impulse of survival.
However, that battle was not over. Here, he found himself mostly fighting hunger, cold, brutal beatings, overcrowding, and unsanitary conditions. It was so bad, that upon liberation by the Allies, he was put on a scale… and at the age of 13 and a half, he weighed only 52 pounds.
The Soldier of Good Fortune
After the war, in 1945, Rosner was staying in a refugee camp in Modena, Italy, alone, ragged, and hungry. Thousands of kids like him were hustling for an extra piece of bread, gum, or candy if they were lucky. The only source for such treats was from the American soldiers stationed near the camp.
“Naturally, I spent my time hanging out near where the Americans were billeted,” Bernie says. “Then one day a Jeep drove up with four GI’s and their duffle bags. I immediately ran up to the Jeep, for the nearest soldier and with sign language offered my services as a porter.” The soldier smiled and pointed to one of the bags which was almost as big as Rosner.
Rosner delivered the bag to his room, and the soldier rewarded him with a chocolate bar. They tried to make conversation but discovered that the only means of communicating was through broken German. Rosner recalls, “I told him about my situation, and he was visibly moved. For the next five days, he spent all his free time with me, taking me to the movies and restaurants. These were treats I have never had before.”
After five days, the soldier was transferred, but they were able to correspond with each other. When the soldier returned to the states and was demobilized, he wrote Rosner a letter offering to bring him to America and become part of his family.
“What makes this even more remarkable is that the GI who befriended me happened to be Charles Merrill Jr., the son of the founder of the Merrill Lynch financial empire.
Rosner went on to prep school, and eventually earned his law degree from Cornell eventually and moved to the Bay Area. Here, his wife met a friend whose husband’s father was a Nazi, Frederic Tubach, (Fritz). Fritz and Rosner became friends and wrote the book, “An Uncommon Friendship” which found strong success here and internationally.
“My intention was not to send a moral message. My intention was simply to tell my story because I realized I had some obligations to discharge. First and foremost was an obligation to my children.”
Rosner kept the pain and emotion out of his stories to them to protect them, so he thought. “I realize now that this was not as much to protect them as it was to protect myself, he admits. Rosner also felt he owed a debt to his family he lost.
Millions of people died during the holocaust, and that story has been told many times. But where Rosner’s story differs is the bond he developed with Fritz. These two individuals from starkly different beginnings were able to overcome the walls that could have divided them, and looked beyond the conventional mindset that could easily have made them hate if not distrust each other for life. Instead, they formed a friendship. They ignored the labels and joined forces to tell what is a warm and inspiring story relevant to today.
May the world never experience such atrocities again.