Albert G. Rosenberg:Living in the Shadow of Buchenwald
Updated: Sep 12, 2022
Of the hundreds of German Jews who fled Hitler’s Germany and then joined the American army to serve in its defeat, Albert G. Rosenberg, the officer charged by General Eisenhower with writing The Buchenwald Report, has come under particularly intense scrutiny. He is a favorite scapegoat of the Holocaust deniers, who challenge the findings of The Buchenwald Report and accuse him of manipulating the exhibits put on display for tours of the camp. Their attack centers, in particular, on one item from Buchenwald that the American prosecuting attorney Thomas J. Dodd unveiled at the Nuremberg Trial of Major War Criminals on December 13, 1945. Dodd’s son Christopher has reported how, following the viewing of films that showed the horrors of the Nazi camps, his father moved to a table on which a piece of evidence lay hidden beneath a white sheet. Thomas Dodd said:
Thomas J. Dodd, with
“We do not wish to dwell on this pathological phase of the Nazi culture; but we do feel compelled to offer one additional exhibit, which is offered as Exhibit Number USA-254.”
At this point, my father instructed a courtroom guard to remove the white sheet. There was a stunned silence. After a dramatic pause, my father continued: “[A] human head with the skull bone removed, shrunken, stuffed, and preserved. The Nazis had one of their many victims decapitated, after having had him hanged, apparently for fraternizing with a German woman, and fashioned this terrible ornament from his head.”
This macabre evidence, obviously, caused a great stir in the courtroom. And soon thereafter, hundreds of newspapers around the world showed a photograph of my father holding the shrunken head. It is a gruesome sight, and the idea of using it as a model must have given him pause. But at that point in the trial, he wanted to show that beyond the numbers, beyond the stacks and stacks of documents, hidden in the vaults of memory was evidence for the ages of inhumanity.
The historian Lawrence Douglas has suggested that the display of the shrunken head at the Nuremberg trials was more symbolic than evidential; it was intended as a visual demonstration of the degree of barbaric savagery that had erupted under the Nazi regime in what had previously been regarded as a “civilized” European country. But, despite any wish to use the head as a symbol, Dodd was very specific regarding its source: it had come from a man hanged for fraternizing with a German woman. At a later trial of Ilse Koch held at Dachau, a former political prisoner at Buchenwald, Dr. Kurte Sitte, testified that the head came from a Polish prisoner decapitated on the order of the SS doctor Mueller.
This shrunken head, which was never tested for dating or authenticity, is a red flag to the Holocaust deniers. They are quite correct that there is absolutely nothing to suggest that any Nazis ever involved themselves in the practice of shrinking human heads. As a result, these deniers looked for a scapegoat and, because of Rosenberg’s history, the focus of their attack fell on him.
But even without the shrunken head, Holocaust deniers had always questioned Rosenberg’s objectivity in compiling The Buchenwald Report. He was, they noted sneeringly,
Jewish, born and raised in Germany. He had recently become an American […] One could say the documentation of Buchenwald is largely a story of liberated communists working in a posh villa, under the supervision of a Jewish Psychological Warfare Division Lieutenant who had emigrated to the USA from Germany just seven years earlier. Objectivity you can count on.
Georg Konrad Morgen, an SS judge and lawyer who investigated crimes committed in the Nazi concentration camps, was also critical about the reports of objects such as shrunken heads and lampshades of human skin being created at Buchenwald. In mid-1943 he had investigated the camp commander on charges of theft, military insubordination, and murder, and, as a result of this inquiry, Commander Koch had been executed. After the war Morgan stated that the stories of human-skin lampshades and shrunken heads were untrue; that in his 1943 investigation of the Koch home, he had found nothing of the sort. He also questioned The Buchenwald Report’s objectivity:
Nearly everyone in psyche warfare involved regarding Buchenwald was Jewish. You can tell from their names: Edward A. Tenenbaum, Albert G. Rosenberg, Daniel Lerner, Saul Padover. Rosenberg was German Jewish. Tenenbaum was American Jewish. Jews were probably around two percent of the US population at the time.
He went on to state that Tenenbaum spent a night in Block 50 before Rosenberg arrived at Buchenwald, and this “would have been the right place to plant skin and shrunken heads. Then again Rosenberg could have planted them when he arrived five days later.” He asserted that the shrunken heads put on display for those touring the liberated camp were actually “South American.” Because Rosenberg had been stationed in Brazil before being sent to Europe, suspicion rested especially heavily on him. When confronted with these accusations many years later Rosenberg responded, “I was flabbergasted. That I should have carried shrunken heads from Natal, Brazil, taken them across the ocean, and then kept them in my rucksack through Europe in the middle of World War Two for the express purpose of framing the SS for brutality! As if they needed me for that. What an idea.” The danger of such an accusation, he felt, was that it implied that the situation at Buchenwald had not been so horrible after all, since one had felt the need to plant false evidence there.
But, because the claims of the Holocaust deniers are so extreme, and because the claims of some Holocaust victims are provably false, even the people who were only indirectly involved in the debate have had to suffer attacks upon their character. Albert Rosenberg is one such person. Perhaps it is time to take a closer look at the man. Who was he? Was he the type of man to take vengeance on his enemies by manipulating the evidence in the Buchenwald exhibits and the Buchenwald report? In this paper I will put these claims into context, by examining the full life of the man in question. I will base this study on interviews with Rosenberg, on memoirs by a number of friends and enemies, and on military reports and records.
Albert G. Rosenberg was born in June 1918 in the university city of Göttingen, Lower Saxony, in what is the geometric center of Germany. He spent his youth there, growing up in a large extended family. At that time, Göttingen had a synagogue and a well-established Jewish community of approximately 600 Jewish citizens.
Rosenberg’s parents, Otto and Charlotte, were firmly upper middleclass: his father was the owner of a textile plant; he was also a lay judge and a decorated World War I veteran. Albert had two older brothers, Horst and Werner. They were all part of a conservative Jewish family and celebrated the Jewish holidays.
Some of Rosenberg’s extended family in Göttingen. Albert is in the front row; his parents stand on either side behind him.
The University of Göttingen (the Georg-August-University) had a reputation for producing outstanding scientists and Nobel Prize winners. Many of these scholars were Jews, and some came to the United States to help with the development of the American weapons systems. At the same time, anti-Jewish organizations already existed at the university in the 1920s. Anti-Semitism, then, occasionally flared in Göttingen even before Hitler came to power. Still, there were also bonds of friendship there between some Aryan Germans and the Jews, although, after 1933, relations between the groups rapidly deteriorated.
The Nazis’ first officially sanctioned assault was a militarily-enforced boycott of Jewish businesses, in the spring of 1933. Fortunately, Albert’s oldest brother, Horst, was able to leave for Palestine in 1934 with a complete textile mill; his brother Werner left in early 1936 for South Africa. During World War II Werner fought in the South African army and became something of a war hero fighting the Germans in Italy.
Rosenberg had just begun studying at the University of Göttingen when, in late 1936, he was viciously attacked and beaten by Nazi thugs. “It was very terrible,” Rosenberg recalled, “These heavy boots thudding against my body, over and over again. My non-Jewish friends chased the thugs away. They saved my life.” Rosenberg’s back was severely injured in the attack, and his jaw had to be wired together. Although his parents still believed that they themselves were safe from Nazi aggression, they recognized the need for their youngest son to get out of Germany immediately. Rosenberg recalled: “My mother was desperate. The doors were closing for those of us who were Jewish. She knew only that some of her cousins had left Germany for York, Pennsylvania [at the turn of the century], and so she wrote to the Mayor of that town.” The mayor, Harry Anstine, found these two cousins, and they got in touch, through yet another relative, with a second cousin, Lenore Lebach Cahn; she and her husband Edmond had the wherewithal to sponsor Rosenberg and to secure a scarce exit visa for him. It was, Rosenberg’s cousin Edgar recalled, “one of Albert’s favorite stories: the unlikely set of family SOS’s that went out and yielded his rescue; the odds against the ‘girls’ being found; the way the family reached out, branch to branch and found my parents.”
Rosenberg left Göttingen for the United States on October 21, 1937, with a suitcase of toys and family heirlooms for his new family. He fit into the Cahn family immediately. Edmond and Lenore Cahn had twin children: Edgar and Mary. Edgar remembers how their home became a much happier place when Albert joined it: “You treated [my mother] always with an Old World gallantry, a deference and courtesy that came naturally,” he told him. “Yet you brought a playfulness too in a house that was so very serious and earnest. You would bring laughter, making jokes at your own expense and you could tease both her and my father without giving offense. It was a talent, a gift that changed our lives.”
Albert Rosenberg, 1937
Rosenberg began working at a New York hotel and started taking night courses. He was working in a department store in Philadelphia when Britain and France declared war on Germany in September 1939.
Almost immediately after this, Rosenberg enrolled at the University of Miami with plans to study law. He was in his third year of study when he was drafted into the U. S. Army in February 1942, and sent to basic training with the air corps in Biloxi, Mississippi. While he was there, the recruits were asked who among them knew calculus. Rosenberg admitted that he had studied it − but had heartily disliked it − and he was sent to Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois for a crash course in meteorological training.
At the end of the course, he was sent to Natal, Brazil, from where the U.S. flew war supplies from the hump of Brazil across the Atlantic to the Allied troops in Africa as part of the South Atlantic Ferry route. Rosenberg’s role, as meteorologist, was to determine the weather patterns across the South Atlantic for the various flights. This was a critical job, since the only place where planes could land between Natal, Brazil, and Dakar, Senegal, was on Ascension Island, a small volcanic island that was under British sovereignty, had an American airbase, and lay approximately mid-way in the trans-Atlantic route. Because meteorology was a relatively new science at the time, Rosenberg found reliance on the army weather predictions “so risky and so primitive” that it was almost like flipping a coin. The Americans were sending two stripped down bombers (B 26s) loaded with weaponry on the African route; these flights were perilous because, if the meteorologists made a mistake, and the planes could not land on Ascension Island, they would not have enough fuel either to get back to Brazil or to go on to Senegal. During part of his stay in Brazil, Rosenberg was sent way up the Amazon River where there was a “soft air mass” for weather prediction in the Amazon basin. He and about a dozen others went there by small motor boat and by native canoe. The area was so remote that it could be located only by coordinates on a map, and the living conditions were so rough that the army rations included alcohol for the period of their stay there. They stayed at this camp for four to six weeks, making weather observations from balloons and radioing them down to Natal.
Altogether, Rosenberg spent about six months in Brazil. One dramatic night some RAF bombers, loaded with war material, simply disappeared over the Atlantic; neither the planes nor the airmen were found. Rosenberg did not like the idea of contributing to men’s deaths through risky meteorological tests, and decided to apply for officers’ candidate school.
The application was accepted, and he was sent to Kentucky to train there as an “armored force officer” and to acquire the rank of lieutenant. He spent 90 days in officer training, then was sent into battle training in the Kentucky hills with a platoon of men in medium Sherman tanks. Rosenberg was not impressed with these tanks, because he found them “weakly armored.” The German tanks, he knew, were superior; there were .88 guns mounted on the German tanks, but only old French .75s on the American ones. While his platoon was on its training mission the radio went out, and, as a consequence, he and his men were completely lost. The tanks wandered in the Kentucky mountains for several days before they finally appeared, unannounced, in the suburbs of Louisville.
Rosenberg spent six months in Kentucky, then, “to get out of that,” he applied for work in intelligence training. He had more than the requisite language skills: he had studied in France, and, as a result, he was fluent in French, as well as in German and English; he had also picked up some Portuguese during his tour of duty in Brazil.
Rosenberg spent two months in intelligence training at the Military Intelligence Training Camp at Fort Ritchie, Maryland, then followed this up with a short period of intense psychological warfare training at Camp Sharpe in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. There he came under the tutelage of Lieutenant Hans Habe, a Hungarian Jew now serving at Camp Sharpe as the primary instructor in propaganda services. The two men admired one another. Rosenberg regarded Habe as “highly intelligent” — a “very creative-thinking person with a remarkable sense of humor.” Habe was equally taken by Rosenberg’s natural abilities to listen carefully, establish rapport, and prepare detailed and accurate reports, and declared, enthusiastically, “I shall make you a major-r-r.” Habe “carefully selected” the men of Camp Sharpe’s Fourth Mobile Radio Broadcasting Company who would work on Rosenberg’s team; all the men in the Company, Rosenberg remembered, were “sergeants and corporals, [and] much more significant and educated and important than I.” The team was considered so important to the war effort that the men did not sail to Europe on the uncomfortable and overcrowded transport ships, but were flown directly to England, on July 16th, 1944.
Once he entered the war, Rosenberg began working under orders of complete secrecy, so it is rather hard to trace all the actions of his unit. His “Kampfgruppe”, or combat group, lost two members during their service in Europe, but the full roster of men included Richard Akselrad, Ernest S. Biberfield, Leo D. Fialkoff, Michael Josselson, Max M. Kimenthal, Paul A. Mayer, and Alfred H. Sampson, Most of the time, he and his men interrogated German prisoners, then used the information gained from these interviews to produce propaganda leaflets that could be fired by shell directly into enemy lines. They were an elite group of American interrogators, since each member was fluent in several languages, and, among their members, they represented all the major languages spoken in Europe. In addition, they were able to understand all the German and Austrian dialects, and, because all of them had either grown up or spent their childhoods in a German-speaking area of Europe, they were well informed as to the German way of thinking and could easily recognize irony or sarcasm when they conferred with the prisoners. During the first months of active service they spent a good deal of time interrogating German prisoners of war who had been brought to a “very secret (allegedly)” camp in Yorkshire, England. Paul Mayer reported to his wife that they were interviewing prisoners “15 hours on work days,” but, since the work was fascinating, he did not mind the long hours. Also, he noted, “our officer is a straightforward man, and as long as we do our work all right, it’s the thing that matters.” In September the men were working in France. Here they continued their interviews; they now interrogated French civilian populations as well as German collaborators and prisoners. Later in the war they debriefed the enemy and made contacts with the German civilian populations. During the Battle of the Bulge this sometimes involved going behind enemy lines, or even entering the prison camps in disguise.
The “Kampfgruppe Rosenberg.” Standing, left to right: Ernest Biberfield, Leo Fialkoff, Max Kimental; back row: Richard Akselrad, Michael Josselson, Alfred Sampson.
These incursions could be quite dangerous. Rosenberg was haunted by a particularly nasty occasion when he entered a German prisoner-of-war camp in Lorraine, near Metz, in northeastern France. In this camp, as in all the German POW camps, the prisoners maintained their military ranks and discipline; this gave the prisoners an internal form of self-administration. This could also cause problems; in many of the camps, several prisoners were killed by the still-ardent Nazis who were housed there. For these Nazis, any statement critical of Hitler was a death sentence. And the camp in Lorraine was unusually bad. It had its own death courts, and every morning the prison guards found a number of men who’d been hanged by these camp fanatics. American intelligence decided it must figure out how strong the Nazi presence was in the camp and who its members were. It was Rosenberg’s assignment to masquerade as a German prisoner of war, enter the camp, and determine the names and numbers of the prisoners who were causing the killings. His entire mission must be kept secret, because, if knowledge of these camp killings became public, the Allies’ entire program of encouraging peaceful German surrender would be in jeopardy, and many more America lives might be lost.
As soon as the Allies were able to capture an SS officer, he was hustled across the Channel to Britain, while Rosenberg dressed in his uniform and entered the prison cage as a new captive. Once in the camp, he circulated among the other prisoners, sounding them out for information about the camp’s internal operations. The Nazis in the camp grew suspicious, and began to gather. The situation had become dangerous. Rosenberg tried to get to the fencing and reach a prison guard, but before he could do that, he was surrounded. He then shouted as loudly as he could: “I’m an American officer! Get me out! Now!” Fortunately, he was heard, and a group of GIs rushed to his rescue and he was able to get out of the camp unharmed.
In recognition of the vital nature of Rosenberg’s work, he was issued a SHAEF [Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force] pass giving him special authorization to carry out his activities without hindrance from the regular army. Rosenberg called it his “ultimate Eisenhower get-out-of-jail ticket, a 007 James Bond license to kill that let us do basically whatever the hell we wanted.” It declared that Rosenberg was engaged on a “special mission,” and that in the performance of his duties he was to be provided service or civilian transport anywhere within the Allied zone. He was to be given free access to all enemy documents, and he was authorized to take charge of prisoners and to interrogate “civilians, Prisoners of War, escapees and evaders.” Those persons he chose to take with him, whether soldiers or civilians, could not be questioned or even ID’d by the regular army; they were entirely Rosenberg’s own responsibility. All service authorities were asked to assist Rosenberg in carrying out his duties, “in every way practicable, including the provision of petrol, oil, rations and accommodation.” Rosenberg did not hesitate to use this pass. On one occasion, when he had to return quickly to the Continent from Britain, he found that there were no Allied planes flying. He learned, however, that the commanding admiral of the Free French Navy was about to leave on a private plane of the French air force, and he used his pass to get on board.
On April 16th, Rosenberg arrived in Buchenwald, five days after the liberation of the camp. Rosenberg was assailed by the stench of death and sewage that permeated the camp. A typhus epidemic had killed a good many prisoners; this − and the hasty flight of the German SS − explained, at least in part, the piles of rotting bodies that he found there. There were about 20,000 liberated survivors at the time of Rosenberg’s arrival; about 4,000 of these were Jews, and 850 were children. Buchenwald had been an especially brutal work camp for political prisoners of the Third Reich. Rosenberg found that the Communist prisoners had taken over leadership roles in the camp as camp overseers; they had had their own agendas and some of them had been as brutal in their mistreatment of the other prisoners as the Nazis had been. At the same time, these prisoners had worked to undermine the Nazi control of the prisoners and had, in effect, freed the camp of the Germans even before the Americans arrived there.
But the auxiliary “Little Camp” of Buchenwald held the greatest horrors for Rosenberg; this was where the sick were housed along with newcomers to the camp who had not yet been cleared for work in Buchenwald proper. Now, however, many of those Rosenberg found there were Jews who had arrived only recently as evacuees from Auschwitz. They had no food and no water, and their only shelter was a couple of windowless, doorless barracks. These prisoners, Rosenberg said, were “not human” any more, nor did they seem to realize that they had been liberated. Rosenberg cut a large Jewish star out of cardboard, put it on his uniform, cleared a space, and, because of the many nationalities of prisoners there, spoke Yiddish to them, telling them they were now liberated. He tried to get information from those men who were still able to speak, and sent the notes that he wrote about the little camp to the Jewish chaplain on Ike’s staff. Rosenberg believed that he lost his driver, Alfred Sampson, as a result of his viewing the horrors of the Little Camp. Three weeks after his first visit there, Sampson crashed his vehicle on a straight stretch of road between Buchenwald and Weimar and died instantly. Rosenberg was convinced that his death was a suicide.
Display table of tattooed skin and shrunken heads set up for the Buchenwald tours
In the main camp, the infamous display table of horrors for tours of the camp by military men, journalists, and politicians had been set up, with two shrunken heads, human organs, and sample pieces of tattooed skin. The tattoos were accompanied by a medical manuscript indicating that research had been carried out at the camp about the correlation between tattoos and criminality. There was also a lamp with a shade that was presumably made out of human skin. Rosenberg did not know whether this was truly the case or not, but he did recall how, one day when he sat interrogating prisoners in one of the camp offices, a French prisoner screamed at him, saying he was no better than the Nazis, since the lamp on the desk had a shade of human skin. Rosenberg said that, at the time, he had no reason to disbelieve the prisoner; he also declared that he had had no say at all in the display table of human horrors; that it had undoubtedly been set up by the prisoners themselves, probably by the camp overseers, who, in his words, “had their own agenda.”
By orders of SHAEF, the citizens of Weimar were forced to come to Buchenwald on April 16th and see for themselves the torment they had tolerated for so many years. Rosenberg was chosen to serve as a guide. One of the camp’s liberated political prisoners, the young Spanish Communist writer Jorge Semprún, followed Rosenberg around; he said that Rosenberg:
spoke in a neutral, implacable voice. He explained how the crematory oven worked, gave the mortality figures for Buchenwald. He reminded the civilians of Weimar that for more than seven years, they had lived, indifferent or complicitous, beneath the smoke from the crematory.
“Your pretty town,” he told them, “so clean, so neat, brimming with cultural memories, the heart of classical and enlightened Germany, seems not to have had the slightest qualm about living in the smoke of Nazi crematoria!”
When Rosenberg learned, years later, how Semprún had described his “neutral” tone of voice, he exclaimed: “I didn’t feel neutral. I was seething. Göttingen, where I grew up, was not all that different than Weimar. A shitty, right-wing town. Full of fascists. They tried to kill me in Göttingen, but it could have just as easily been Weimar. For all the lovely history and poetry, it was that kind of place.” He added, as an afterthought: “I might have sounded neutral, because that is the way a soldier is supposed to conduct himself.”
The young Jorge Semprún watched Rosenberg with fascination and with understanding: “His austere, dry, perhaps despairing voice — he was an American officer, certainly, which gave him a privileged position: he was an innocent and righteous victor. But he was, unforgettably and painfully, also a German Jew who was speaking to his fellow citizens […].” As Rosenberg put it, he understood these people:
SHAEF was very smart to give me the job of tour guide that day. They couldn’t have gotten anyone better. Those people claimed to be innocent, but I knew they weren’t. I knew that because I knew them. They said they were crying because they didn’t know. But that was a lie. They were crying because they did know. They were hoping their tears would absolve them, as if someone would pat them on the head and say, don’t worry, it’s going to be all right. But they had the wrong guy for that. The trains ran to Buchenwald every day. People from Weimar worked at the Gustloff factory next to the camp. Guards lived in the town. So don’t say you didn’t know, because you did. You knew.
Rosenberg was given orders by SHAEF headquarters to prepare a detailed, comprehensive report about the camp. This was to be completed quickly, before the prisoners were released and allowed to return home. The report should tell how the camp had come into existence; how it was organized; what happened there; and what the Allies had found there. Rosenberg said that he and his men could never have accomplished this task by themselves; it needed to be done by a small group of liberated prisoners who had worked in the various camp offices and knew where the records were. Using the same methods that he and his men had used throughout the war, Rosenberg relied on these inside collaborators to prepare a cohesive and authoritative report, while he and his men interviewed some six thousand prisoners; statements from 104 of them were included at the end of the main narrative report. He put the historian and conservative Christian journalist Eugen Kogon in charge of writing the main text; Kogon had been held as a political prisoner in Buchenwald since 1939; during his last years in Buchenwald he had worked for the camp doctor and had been able to help save a number of prisoners by exchanging their identities with those of prisoners who had died. During the preparation of the report Rosenberg took advantage of his SHAEF pass to take over the former home of the Hitler Youth leader, Baldur von Schirach, for Kogon and his men, to bring food in to them from army headquarters, and to give them meals that usually “only colonels eat.” He also reunited Kogon with his family by having his wife and children transported from Vienna to Weimar.
Kogon’s support team was made up of nine men from Austria, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Holland, and Latvia; they included Catholics, Jews, and Communists. The finished report was read to various groups of prisoners in the camp; they all testified to the accuracy of the report.
Was the report truly accurate, however? Reality is something shaped by individual and group perceptions. During their years of torment the prisoners had shared rumors among themselves, and many accepted these rumors as fact. Rosenberg heard “plenty of talk about the Nazis and human skin. I saw wallets and gloves and asked, are these skin? The answer was almost always yes.” Such stories were common, and not only in Buchenwald. Obviously the lampshade that was ostensibly made of human skin “had propaganda value, but it wasn’t our propaganda,” Rosenberg said.
Although The Buchenwald Report was completed on schedule and was a key resource for the prosecution of crimes committed at Buchenwald and Dachau, it then dropped from sight. Rosenberg understood the problems. “Right from the start it was perceived as being too much the product of the Communist groups at the camp, which was true to a large extent,” he admitted, adding:
The Communists had battled it out with the criminals and were on the top of the heap among [the prison leadership], the system of kapos that the SS depended on to run the place. They were the best-educated people in the camp; they knew the most. Besides, in 1945 the Soviets were supposed to be our allies. Of course, we knew not to believe everything we were told. The Communist kapos were guilty of a lot of crimes.
While Rosenberg was still supervising the writing of The Buchenwald Report, he received word that the Americans had liberated his hometown of Göttingen and were preparing to turn it over to the British forces. He hurried there at once, finding, to his surprise, that the town had suffered only minimal damages from Allied bombing. He did not reveal his identity to anyone, but, instead, assumed the identity of a “Lieutenant Wilson” as he tried to find out what people knew there about the fate of his family members. One home he visited was that of the writer Hannah Vogt; only much later did she learn Rosenberg’s true identity; he had, she determined, “introduced himself as such to us in order to learn what was going on first. He had, you see, gone to school together with my youngest brother and had gotten his Abitur [university qualification] together with him.… Lt. Wilson alias Albert Rosenberg knew our house, our garden, and the people very well.” Rosenberg would reestablish a friendship with Hannah’s family, and pay multiple visits to their home. On this occasion, however, he left almost immediately in order to make a quick trip to the concentration camp at Bergen Belsen, since he had learned that some of his relatives had been taken there. This camp had been liberated by British forces on April 15th, one day before Rosenberg had entered Buchenwald:
I drove through the camp, through that horrible death, people lying there staring into space, shouting on my U.S. Army bullhorn, screaming out to see if anyone knew the Rosenberg family from Göttingen. I found no one. Later I met one of my relatives, my cousin Henry, one of the few who survived […,] and he told me he heard me. Heard me shouting! But he could barely move. He couldn’t answer my call.”
Eventually he would learn that twenty-eight of his family members had perished in the Holocaust.
Albert G. Rosenberg, 1945
During the later stages of the war, Rosenberg was able to take a number of prisoners. He came upon one of these, the former German emperor’s son Prince August Wilhelm, by accident, when he and his driver came across a woodland castle outside Frankfurt am Main and went up and knocked at the door. Rosenberg knew that August Wilhelm − nicknamed “Auwi” − had been an early and enthusiastic supporter of Hitler, even to the extent of introducing Hitler at early party rallies. The prince, however, expected to be treated respectfully by the Allies, because of his blood ties both to the royal house of Britain and to Lo uis Mountbatten, the Supreme Allied Commander of the South East Asia Command. Rosenberg arrested the prince, and brought him out to the jeep. Until that moment the prince had reacted courteously to the encounter, but now he became unruly and Rosenberg had to tie his hands behind his back. “Imagine,” he later exclaimed, “I, an American officer and a German Jew, tying the hands of a Prussian prince!” When the prince continued to resist, and tried running away, Rosenberg’s driver pulled down his pants, so that he was unable to flee. Rosenberg had to keep the prince in a dingy hotel room until the Americans could come three days later and take him off his hands. During those days the prince uttered the ridiculous sentence, “Ich bin nur ein kleines Würstchen” [I am just small fry]. “I interviewed him,” Rosenberg said, “just to see what made him tick.” But he found him to be “a meaningless person” who “made no impression.” Still, the prince’s value as a prisoner became important because Rosenberg wrote up a report about his encounter, and it was used extensively in Allied broadcasting from Radio Luxembourg.
After VE-Day Rosenberg and his team were brought to Wiesbaden and put in charge of the Information Control Division Offices for the province of Hesse. Soon afterwards Rosenberg was sent to Bremen, a city situated in the north of Germany. Bremen had been handed over to the American military following its capture by the British, in order to give the Americans access to the North Sea. He soon found that in the postwar phase of occupation, the military was less eager than before to provide him with the assistance he required to perform his duties. When he reported to division headquarters and asked for quarters for his unit, he was brushed off as an outsider, then given a bombed out greenhouse. Rosenberg then drove around the city until he found a house being fixed up for residence by the American occupiers; he went back to headquarters and, again using his SHAEF pass, was given this house over the protests of the American officers. As a result, he and his men were disliked by the Americans from the moment they arrived in Bremen.
Very soon, Rosenberg further alienated the American military by identifying Nazis whom the Americans had put in charge of various State functions and seeing to it that they were removed from office. He was careful not to fault the Americans; he said that the Americans had simply taken Germans who knew good English, and were generally unaware of their Nazi past. Rosenberg discovered that even the acting mayor of Bremen, Erich Vagts, had been a Nazi representative to Berlin. Rosenberg let SHAEF headquarters know about this, and Vagts was quickly removed from office. Needless to say, those German officials whose positions were threatened by Rosenberg’s revelations were hostile to him; they referred to him as “the Jew Rosenberg,” and complained that the dismissed officials had not been allowed to defend themselves against his “false accusations.”
But Rosenberg did make good contacts with the “Kampfgemeinschaft gegen den Faschismus” [Action Group against Fascism]. This post-war organization of leftist anti-fascists had been suppressed by the American military government until Rosenberg arrived there. Rosenberg now saw to it that those who’d been held in prison were immediately freed. Historians now agree that, “It is primarily due to Rosenberg’s efforts that relations between the military government and the KGF improved noticeably after the obstructions of the first weeks.”
Rosenberg stayed in Bremen until 1947, then he applied for a release from duties because he continued to be plagued by a shoulder wound he had acquired in a tank accident during the final weeks of the war. He was brought back to the States in a hospital ship. He now enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh, where he was awarded a Master’s Degree in Social Work in 1949. He wrote his thesis on “Interracial Developments in Hill District Agencies and Schools, 1944-1948.” Pittsburgh’s Hill District was one of the most historic − and elite − African-American communities in America, although it was beginning to fray around the edges by the time Rosenberg was pursuing his studies. He would go on to play a critical role in the lives of many of the Afro-American community, at a time when the nation was torn apart by racial tensions. As a European Jew, Rosenberg didn’t carry the baggage of standard white Americans. He was also self-deprecating and a good listener. He won the confidence of both white and black communities, so that he was able to broker between them.
Following graduate school, Rosenberg got married and had three children: two boys and a girl. And in 1953 he was plunged into the racial upheavals of the 1950s. He was hired by the Chicago Housing Authority in the spring of 1953. The director of the CHA had developed a philosophy of mixing residents by race, economic class, and family size. But when Rosenberg came to Chicago in 1953, he learned that the Trumbull Park homes, which had been built in 1937 in an exclusively white neighborhood in South Deering, had an unwritten policy that only white working class families could settle there. In July 1953 a unit in this complex was accidentally sold to an exceptionally fair-skinned black woman named Betty Howard. When she and her husband moved in to the complex, violence erupted in the neighborhood as crowds of whites gathered nightly to hurl rocks and fire rockets at Betty and Donald Howard’s apartment.
Community leaders pressured the Chicago Housing Authority to remove the couple from the complex, although progressive voices also spoke up, until finally, in October, the Housing Authority moved ten more black families into the complex. Unfortunately, this triggered even more violent white protests, and only a large police presence prevented a great deal of bloodshed. As a result of this violence, the director of the Chicago Housing Authority was fired, and the agency changed from an institution promoting nondiscriminatory housing to one that maintained the racial status quo.
Rosenberg’s job was to help supervise community and tenant relations − a particularly challenging task given the shift in the Authority’s policies. Nevertheless, he stayed in Chicago until 1956, working on integration within the complexes, especially in creating a mix of family size and age ranges. One special problem that he addressed early on was the problem of the rising numbers of aged applicants to the agency’s housing units. It was important, he noted, that they be integrated into housing with other families and with younger people, and that recreation, health, and social agencies make educational and leisure-time programs available to them.
His next job was in Baltimore, where he was put in charge of urban renewal. His plan was to start in the Harlem Park Neighborhood, and, in the over twenty blocks of the neighborhood, tear down the deteriorating structures in the back alleys. These buildings were old slave quarters; they were in a deplorable condition and had no plumbing. His plan was to move the people living in these ramshackle buildings into better housing, and to turn the spaces where these building had stood into what he called “inner block parks”, or community recreation areas. The Afro-Americans living in this neighborhood were understandably suspicious of the motives behind this plan, and Rosenberg therefore brought in a former resident of the neighborhood, Jean Camper Cahn, the black lawyer wife of his cousin Edgar, to help persuade the people that these plans would serve the welfare of the community “in the best way possible.” In this job he was able to show that he could work with black communities and, with patience, win their trust. For the next twenty years he continued doing just that.
From Baltimore he went to New Orleans to work in the Desire Public Housing Project in the Lower 9th ward; his focus here was on finding jobs for the Afro-American residents of these crime-infested row homes. He had a hard job here winning the trust of these residents. As he put it, “Everyone simply assumed anyone walking around with a badge or a clipboard was some kind of cop.” There was also a lot of graft and killings were common. He remembers how, one weekend, “seven people were murdered at Desire alone.” Still, the years he spent there were, he said later, “some of the best years of my life.”
In 1966 Rosenberg was called to Dayton Ohio . Dayton was one of the most racially segregated cities in America, and the situation between whites and blacks was always tense. But events turned particularly violent after a black army veteran was shot in the face in a drive-by killing. News of his killing spread throughout the black community and the city’s West side erupted in an orgy of violence and looting. One wonders what Rosenberg thought, seeing how, in this case, African-Americans, and not Nazis, were smashing windows and looting Jewish shops. Immediately after this rioting he was called to take over the job of directing SCOPE, the Supporting Council on Preventive Effort. This was part of President Johnson’s anti-poverty program, and Rosenberg was given the responsibility of administering it in five counties. He remained at this job for twelve years, during which he experienced the frustration of seeing annual budget cuts, and being forced to shut down or reduce parts of his programming. He did, however, manage to use his SHAEF pass in Dayton; although the war had been over for over twenty years, he drew upon this “James Bond pass” to get office space for his finance officer at an air force base outside Dayton, and to acquire access to a helicopter for travel between counties.
Albert Rosenberg and
his two sons, 1965
During his time in Dayton Rosenberg played a key role in the riots triggered by the integration of the Dayton schools. He came to the defense of Arthur Thomas, a black teacher who was fired for trying to protect African-American pupils from violence by leading them out of the school before their scheduled class dismissal. He also got Thomas the legal counsel that he needed to start a Students Rights Center, a legal services program for Afro-Americans, and to guide parents who wanted to fight the white system by getting equal resources for their own children. When asked what Rosenberg’s secret was to working with the black community, Thomas, who went on to become president of the historic black college Central State University, replied, “Action speaks louder than words. He just made things happen.”
Meanwhile, Rosenberg’s old town of Göttingen was beginning to come to terms with its Nazi past. In 1973 a memorial was erected on the site of the city’s old Jewish synagogue. From the outside, the new memorial represents a funeral pyre and, looking up to the top from the inside, one can see the outline of a Jewish star. In 1995 the town put memorial plaques beneath this monument, listing the names of the 200 Göttingen Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. To help commemorate these horrible events, Hannah Vogt, the writer who had been visited by Rosenberg in 1945, invited Rosenberg to Göttingen, where he spoke to the citizens about the life of the city’s Jewish community prior to Hitler’s rise to power.
By the late 1970’s Rosenberg was ready for a change. In 1977, while making a cross-country tour with his son, Rosenberg came to Texas, where he visited the Sociology department of the University of Texas at El Paso. During his conversations with members of the department, the department chair told Rosenberg that the university would like to hire someone with his skills to set up a curriculum in community organization. Rosenberg agreed to take this on; he came to the university in 1980 and taught there for ten years. During these years he became particularly active with the local Mexican community. He even married a Mexican, a bilingual education teacher whom he met at the university. Rosenberg foresaw the threats to community and neighborhood caused by sweeping tides of migration, and responded to that “as opportunity rather than destruction, as a chance to build rather than an enemy to fight.” As Rosenberg’s cousin Edgar told him at a tribute dinner: ” It is amazing to me that after picking up stakes in Ohio, after more than a decade of building roots there, that I should find you at the nerve center of good people and hopeful beginnings in El Paso — dealing with a different ethnic group, a different language, a different set of challenges. But always about the business of helping people escape from poverty and racism and despair.” At the university Rosenberg became an advocate for the Latino students and inspired several to go on to positions of leadership in social service organizations in the city.
Rosenberg retired from the university in 1990, but he continued to work during the next five years as a cultural therapist at the Hospice El Paso. He characterized his work here, helping patients who were facing death and providing comfort to their families and loved ones, as “the most important work I’ve ever done.”
On the 50th anniversary of Rosenberg’s arrival in America, Edgar Cahn described Rosenberg as one who had trooped “from war zone to war zone […], each time leading the charge.” He had, Cahn declared, “perversely […] kept choosing the lot of the underdog, the oppressed, the victim. And […] kept bringing hope, nurturing new leaders, finding new possibilities − making things change.” Much of what he had accomplished, Cahn told Rosenberg, was made possible by “your capacity to laugh at yourself while being deadly serious.” The other part was the fact that “you are genuinely the most unprejudiced person I know”; “not even the nightmares you saw at the end of World War II could stop you from believing in people.”