When he was 15 years old, Justus Rosenberg snuck into a Wagner music festival. The next year, as Nazis descended upon his town of Danzig, he stole away again to Paris. When the Nazis took that city from him as well, Justus went underground, and so began a daring chapter in his life that would force him to grow up immediately.
Joining the French Resistance, he stayed alive and active, a young Jewish man without a nation, fighting against the Nazis and the hate they represented. Now, more than half a century later, as a new resistance amasses to combat the rise of nationalism in America and Europe, this memoir is as timely as ever.
“The Art of Resistance” (William Morrow) is an expertly assembled work of narrative nonfiction. It tracks the loss of innocence as evil pervades Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Reading this book was an especially poignant experience for me, as I had the pleasure of taking a class with Justus my senior year at Bard College.
The class was called “Ten Plays That Shook the World” and focused on pivotal moments in history and how audiences responded to challenging works at the time they were originally performed. It was also the most fascinating class I took in all four years, due in no small part to Justus’ incredible storytelling ability.
Though it was a literature course, it was also a crash course through world history, with all roads converging at World War II. Being that Justus is a very humble man, of course, I would never have guessed the extent to which he lived, and the incredible things he lived through, until I picked up this book.
More than a witness to history
“The Art of Resistance” accomplishes many things, but what hit me the hardest was the way it portrays the calm before the storm. A young Justus, enraptured by seeing Adolf Hitler speak, goes home to tell his uncle about the experience, and his uncle, who later perishes in Auschwitz, says that “National Socialism was an evil wind that would pass.”
His father felt similarly, and it is only because Justus went away to France for his schooling that he managed to survive the Holocaust.
Luckily, Justus does not have to run forever, and when he settles into Grenoble he is able to continue his education and take on an important role in the French Resistance. Such moments of respite can be a relief for the reader, though the shadow of Nazi Germany looms over any bit of hope.
Everybody plays their part, Justus notes, doing whatever they can do to resist tyranny. “As the occupation wore on,” he says, “everyone was ‘underground’ in one way or another.”
The next time you feel alone resisting the far-right movement creeping into our politics, remember those words.
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