‘What else can I tell you?'

In the spirit of Remembrance Day, we acknowledge a Jewish-American POW’s memories of World War II Europe.

Rosenberg as a young conscript in the US Air Force. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rosenberg as a young conscript in the US Air Force.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Sitting down to interview Herbert Rosenberg, a formidable 94-yearold World War II veteran, I had been informed of a few things by his daughter Carol Segev, who was the go-between for arranging our meeting.
First, that her father was still very much in possession of his mental and physical capacities despite his mighty age, managing to go to the gym three times a week.
Second, that his experiences of the Second World War were ones that he had up until recently told virtually no one.
His story, therefore, was one that he was telling for almost the first time in more than 70 years.
Born in New York City in 1921 to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Rosenberg, following high-school graduation and a range of menial jobs, found himself conscripted into the US Air Force at the age of 21.
Receiving his basic training in Miami Beach and then at bases around the US, he was eventually shipped off to England on January 1, 1944, at a time in which it was becoming clearer and clearer that the Allies were set to be victorious over the Axis powers.
Though raised Jewish, the young conscript (like nearly all of the Diaspora) had no idea whatsoever of the atrocities being perpetuated by the Nazi regime against the Jewish people.
Of the Germans, he said: “I had no feeling one way or another… When I was inducted and went into the service, I was happy dropping bombs on them. But I never thought I’d be a prisoner of war.”
This seismic change in Rosenberg’s life came about while taking part in a bombing raid on Poznan, Poland. After setting off from England and following the raid, Rosenberg and his squad were attacked by a group of German fighters and found themselves in dire straits.
Rapidly losing fuel and left with few options, they decided their only choice was to attempt to make an emergency landing in neutral Sweden. Able to get only as far as Nazi-occupied Denmark, the squadron made an emergency landing, upon which they were surrounded by German forces and taken prisoner.
Rosenberg’s memories of their journey deep within Nazi territory remained as vivid as if they were yesterday. Recalling the crowds he encountered as he neared the POW camp, Stalag Luft 17B near Vienna, he mentioned how German soldiers “had to protect us because the civilians were ‘kinda’ angry at us… they knew we were bombing their country. They were shouting, shaking their fists. I don’t speak German, but I think it was something to the effect of ‘You should drop dead.’” Upon arriving at the camp, he and his fellow POWs were asked to strip and enter the shower. Having heard German soldiers mention the fate of Jews in the concentration camps and having already been noted as being Jewish by the prison guards, Rosenberg feared the worst. Be he had a stroke of luck: These fears did not materialize, and he was not segregated from the other prisoners.
The conditions during his 13 months at the camp were ones of dire cold combined with no winter clothing, limited food supplies and atrocious sanitary conditions.
Yet in recounting them, he looked back not so much with sadness but with comic recollection. For example, he told of a fellow inmate at the camp who, during a late-night visit to the outhouse, stumbled into the latrine or, in Rosenberg’s words, “into the shit,” resulting in an anarchic rescue operation.
The picture painted by Rosenberg of the camp is one not so much of the stereotypical Nazi oppression and malice associated with the concentration camps but that of the Third Reich rapidly collapsing. He recalled frequent conversations with German officers who would ask the POWs themselves for goods, meekly saying, “Ich hunger, ich hunger.”
As it became increasingly clear that the Allies were close to victory, Stalag Luft 17B and its inhabitants were forcibly marched toward the center of Germany, with things becoming increasingly dire.
“We had no food, and I started to eat grass, as some of it had a sour flavor to it,” remembered Rosenberg. “I would be eating anything I could put in my mouth that was not poisonous.”
Yet liberation eventually came, as Gen. George Patton and the Third Army came, providing Rosenberg with food, warmth and the first opportunity to wash in months. Returning home, he became a pharmacist, got married and is now a proud father, grandfather and great-grandfather.
Sitting back to listen to the tape I made of our conversation, what struck me was a phrase that he kept repeating: “What else can I tell you?” Again and again, Rosenberg said this after describing details of his time as a POW, almost as if the process of recollection involved him digging deep for memories he had long buried and had not wanted to look over for decades.
In many ways, each “What else can I tell you?” – all of which were followed by another extraordinary tale of life at Stalag Luft 17B – served as a symbols of his effort to go back in time and reflect upon an experience like no other.
This reluctance to shine a light on the past, something so common in both war veterans and many Holocaust survivors, is reflective of how the past that we seek to understand in the present is not necessarily as clear for those who experienced it as the history books would have us believe.
Before leaving, I asked the fresh-faced and endlessly humorous Rosenberg why talking about his experiences had been such a struggle. Having been jovial throughout, at this point for a brief moment he became mesmerizingly somber, as he explained what it was that had stopped him.
“I didn’t know how to bring it up, I didn’t want to remember – I didn’t want to go into my subconscious. It was very painful; it may sound glib the way I’m talking about it now, but to have actually lived it… you know, you were a prisoner. At any point you could have been shot, living in conditions which weren’t fit for any human being to be living in.”
As our conversation came to an end, I told Rosenberg that he was a great man.
His response, true to his modest nature, serves as a lesson for us all in the humility that even those who achieved things as great as securing the freedom of future generations possess: “I’m really not; I’m just a person.”