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Liesel Rosenberg: A triumph of the human spirit

TOM BURGUM
Staff Columnist
burgum@lbknews.com

The Holocaust, which resulted in the programmed deaths of more than 6 million Jews, was an event so terrible that it is difficult to understand even today.

Perhaps, as Joseph Stalin told Winston Churchill when he was questioned about how he justified the deliberate starvation of 30 million Kulaks in Russia, “30 million deaths is a statistic, one death is a tragedy.”

Liesel Rosenberg, a longtime resident of Longboat Key, told Longboat Key News a story that will help us understand the tragic depth of the Holocaust and the personal cost to one of the survivors. Rosenberg passed away recently.

Longboat Key News will run her story in full in coming editions. Here is the essence of her impact and her life.

Liesel Rosenberg was one of those human beings who in just the act of living validated the resiliency of the human spirit. Born in Cologne, Germany, in 1922, she was one of the generation of European Jews that was almost totally destroyed by the Holocaust.

To paraphrase Franklin Roosevelt, to some people much is given, to others much is asked. Life asked a great deal of Liesel.

In 1933, when she was just 11, Adolph Hitler came to power in Germany. Before he took his own life 12 years later, a wave of mass murder had swept across Europe that killed more than 9 million people, 6 million of whom were Jews. When the killing ended those who survived came out of hiding and began the tortuous effort to again lead a normal life. It is hard to imagine today how real and deep the terror was for those who are engulfed by an unreasoning, homicidal madness so pervasive that it encompasses the entire world and from which there seems to be no escape.

Liesel and her parents had found refuge in Holland just before the murderous nature of the Nazi regime was fully revealed in the infamous “Kristallnacht” (Crystal Night) in November 1938. For a short period of time they seemed immune from the terror sweeping Germany. The respite was short. In May 1940, the German army swept through Holland and the Rosenbergs found their refuge had become a prison.

By early 1942, Liesel had lived with different families, assumed a false identify and even taken refuge in a Jewish hospital. Her running ended in the summer of 1942 when the Dutch underground saved her from a Nazi raid on the hospital and spirited her to the first of three houses she lived in for the next three years.

The real nightmare was just beginning.

Her story, as told to Tom Keyser of the Concord Monitor in August 1988, was one of isolation, hunger, long periods of boredom with short periods of stark terror. She was given food once a day, at least at first. She told Keyser, “You dreamed of fancy food, candy shops and baker windows. You made up recipes in your mind. All you could think of was food, of freedom, of walking. Generally speaking, it was a very inhuman experience.”

She remembers having a radio although that was a mixed blessing. News reports of Hitler’s success in Russia in 1942 depressed her greatly. The Allied invasion of France was, according to her a singular day. “I thought, we’ll be free very soon, it won’t be long now, but it was another 11 months. Those,” she recalls, “were the hardest months of all.”

History records that the winter of 1945 was particularly cruel. “The Dutch had no coal, no heat, hardly any food,” she told Tom Keyser. “Some days I ate only one quarter slice of bread. I survived on cooked tulip bulbs and sugar-beet syrup. I must confess that the last few months before liberation I remember little. I believe I was almost comatose.”

Liberation came on May 5, 1945, courtesy of the Canadian army. Liesel was now 22, looked much older, weighed only 68 pounds and was given only a marginal chance to live.

But, live she did. And, it was then she displayed a strength of will and an optimism that is, in retrospect, absolutely astounding. In July 1945, less than three months after liberation, she had found the strength to write to Harry Rosenberg, her childhood friend. She addressed the letter simply to the town in New Hampshire to which he had immigrated in 1939. The post office forwarded the letter to Harry’s sister in New York, and she sent it on to him in China where he was serving with an Army intelligence unit. In recalling this she allowed herself a slight smile and said, “That’s pretty good mail service.” Liesel and Harry were married in August 1946.

Life became good for Liesel after her marriage. Still, the Holocaust, Holland and hiding from the Nazis remained a very real memory. She could not stand to be cooped up in an apartment or even a house; memories of the attics were still too real. She couldn’t go into car washes, the jets of water reminded her of the gas jets in the death chambers. The noise of airplanes close overhead brought memories of the British bombers flying over her hiding place in Holland. She recalled that sometimes a V-2 rocket that the Germans were firing from Holland would malfunction and crash into one of the houses in her neighborhood. Small things would remind her of Holland; maybe a vase that looked like the chamber pot in her room, any such small thing. She admitted that as she grew older the memories of Holland became stronger and more troublesome but she refused to let them rule her life.

During her time on Longboat Key she become known as a gracious hostess. She was also a gracious guest, and she joined our family on many occasions. One Thanksgiving she absolutely charmed my two granddaughters. Her presence at a dinner party ensured its success. She always displayed a depth and gentleness that seemed to draw people to her. On one memorable night, she witnessed two of our guests, who were from different sides of the political spectrum, gesturing and yelling at one another, seemingly in the belief that whoever said it louder would win the argument. Liesel loved every minute and made us promise to invite her again whenever those two were on the guest list.

Despite her optimism, despite her will to live she could never entirely exorcise the ghosts of Holland. But she didn’t let the ghosts win.

Liesel Rosenberg, dead at the age of 89. R.I.P.

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