During WWII, the Polish-born Rosenberg was part of Varian Fry's rescue network that saved many intellectuals — including Hannah Arendt and Marc Chagall — from the Nazis.
"Justus was one of the last witnesses of the Holocaust. As a member of the French Resistance he was also a hero in the fight against fascism," Bard college President Leon Botstein wrote in a letter
in tribute to his former colleague following his death.
Justus Rosenberg had ended his teaching career as a professor emeritus of languages and literature at Bard College, a liberal arts institution in the state of New York. He died on October 30, as reported by the New York Times on Thursday.
Rosenberg was born in 1921 in present-day Gdansk, Poland, which was at the time the Free City of Danzig, a semi-autonomous city-state that existed between 1920 and 1939.
Racial laws at the time meant that Rosenberg was kicked out of school because he had Jewish parents. He was sent to study in Paris for school and enrolled later at the Sorbonne.
Refugee in Marseille
When the Nazis took over Paris in 1940, Rosenberg fled the city with thousands of others and finally landed in Marseille.
"At the time, the American Rescue Committee, which was founded in the United States, sent a gentleman by the name of Varian Fry to Marseille with $3,000 in his pockets," Rosenberg said in an archival video published by the International Rescue Committee.
Fry had a list of names of people who were thought to be particularly under threat from the Nazi regime. The plan was to secretly smuggle them out of Nazi territory.
"I was a courier boy," Rosenberg said in the video. "I was running errands, except, those were not ordinary errands. These were errands to run with false papers, money, various documents, to try to get to the refugees who were trying to get out of [areas that Germany had occupied]," he added.
Helping thousands escape
At the time, Rosenberg looked much younger than his age. He was blonde and Germanic-looking and was not often stopped by soldiers to check his papers. In his own words, "I looked so innocent and angelic at that particular time." The professor confessed in the video that he was not really aware of the danger the task entailed. To him, it was mostly about adventure and romance.
Altogether, US journalist Varian Fry's operation helped 1,500 people escape the Nazis.
However, the operation came to a halt in 1941 after being exposed and expelled by the antisemitic and authoritarian Vichy French government, led by Marshal Philippe Petain.
Rosenberg was left to his own devices and managed to escape being sent to a Nazi labor camp in Germany-occupied Poland. He joined the French Resistance and fought alongside the Americans after the Normandy invasion.
Following the end of World War II and Germany's capitulation, Rosenberg served as an officer at a displaced persons' camp run by the United Nations.
A reluctant hero
He later enrolled at Sorbonne again and left for the US in 1946, where he completed his doctorate and taught literature and languages at Swarthmore and then at the Bard College.
In 2020, Rosenberg published a memoir called "The Art of Resistance: My Four Years in the French Underground."
Speaking to the New York Times, Rosenberg's wife Karin, who met her husband in the 1980s, said she knew nothing of his heroism for many years. "Oh, I just didn't want to brag about it," Karin Rosenberg remembered him as saying. "I believe he was a hero… But he did not think of himself as a hero. To him, he was just doing what needed to be done," she said.
"It was a miracle that Justus fulfilled the well-known birthday greeting of the nation of his birth that calls for '100 years' of life,'" Bard College President Botstein said in his memorial letter, referring to the Polish birthday song, "Sto Lat," meaning "May you live a hundred years."
Botstein added, "Justus reached that milestone, against all odds. In Poland, the country of his birth, just under 3 million Jews — nearly 90% of all Polish Jews — were murdered between 1939 and 1945" by the Nazi German occupiers.
Corrections from November 21, 2021: This article has been updated to clarify that labor camps and the mass murder of Jews in Poland were instituted and carried out by Nazi forces while Germany occupied Poland.