by Ann Votaw
Before his 1938 arrest in Hamburg, Eric Rosenbaum, 93, spelled his name the German way, “Erich.”
This week, Rosenbaum, New York City resident and former U.S. soldier, examined his relationship with Kristallnacht and World War II.
“I lived through both times,” he said, “by the grace of God.”
The Rosenbaums were German, having lived in the country for generations. His father, who ran an import/export business, served in World War I against the United States. But he knew Hitler was dangerous.
“I was supposed to become a doctor, but the Nazis didn’t want Jews to go to school past a certain point,” Rosenbaum said. “My father was very smart. He said, ‘You have to work with your hands and not your mind.’”
As a result, Rosenbaum studied tools and dyes, and the family arranged passage to the United States. Shortly before their voyage, paramilitary forces and non-Jewish civilians broke into Jewish-owned buildings. It was Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. Rosenbaum was 18.
“On Nov. 9, 1938, I happened to be in the business with my father, and in came two civilians who identified themselves as secret servicemen. They asked my name, my father’s name. They said, ‘You’re arrested. For what? Shut up.’”
Rosenbaum was taken to a Hamburg police station with his father and other adult Jewish men. “We asked questions,” he said. “They told us to shut up.” After three hours, a bus came and took the men outside of the city where they were loaded into trains with armed guards.
“We didn’t know where we were, what we were doing,” he said. “In the middle of the night, we arrived in Sachenhausen Concentration Camp. I learned that later. They walked us in line to shave our hair and took our clothing for disinfecting. They put us on the floor of barracks with no beds. The next morning, they got us out and said, ‘If you can’t stand this anymore, we’ll finish you off.’”
Rosenbaum worried about his father’s safety. He thought they were going to miss the boat to America.
After three days at Sachenhausen, his father’s Christian friends and associates spoke to the Gestapo and were able to get them released. Rosenbaum never learned the details, but because of their bravery, he and his father, mother, and younger brother boarded the ship to America.
“They risked their very lives, you understand,” Rosenbaum said. “There are German Christians who risked their lives to protect Jews, save Jews, and do the best they could. By the grace of God, we got out in time to get on the boat to America.”
In New York, Rosenbaum found work in a machine shop for $10 a week. Even though he was an illegal alien, the army needed his skills and deferred him three times, filling out special paper work every time he had to travel more than 50 miles. Eventually, the army drafted him and sent him to training at Camp McClellan in Alabama. He encountered familiar racism. “There were signs that said, ‘Rooms for rent. No Jews or n***ers apply.’”
Rosenbaum served in Europe in the 80th Infantry under General George Patton. He was wounded in the shoulder and the arm and received the Purple Heart. Later, he became a First Sergeant after serving in other units. He said he never felt conflicted fighting against Germany because he knew what the Nazis were doing to Jews.
After the war, Rosenbaum moved to the New York neighborhood of Washington Heights. In his 30s, he got married and bought a furniture store on 72nd Street.
“I was very proud that America trusted in me to let me fight for the freedom it gave me I appreciate everything that America has given me, which is a lot, being from an enemy country, in the beginning,” he said. “I want to thank America for doing what it did, for helping me to survive. I will be grateful forever. Our families will be grateful forever.”
He has a daughter who lives in Long Island and a son in New Jersey.