Written by Betsy Abraham Thursday, 06 June 2013 00:00
Rudy Rosenberg still refers to himself as the hidden child.
It was 1940 when Germany invaded Rosenberg’s home country of Belgium. Germans forbade him from going to school and his parents were not allowed to work. His father and mother began selling goods, such as cigarettes and steel tips for the German soldiers’ boots, on the black market.
Eventually, the life he knew began to fall apart. However, Rosenberg’s childhood was far from ideal before the German invasion. Both his parents were avid gamblers and very poor. His parents didn’t live together and Rosenberg and his sister were living in a Methodist orphanage at the time of the invasion. But Rosenberg says his parents’ gambling addiction saved his life. When life as a Jew in Belgium became too unsafe for the Rosenbergs, they had to go into hiding, which was very expensive. A couple in their 70s, whom Rosenberg’s parents knew from the casino, agreed to take in Rosenberg and his mother while his sister and father hid someplace else.
For almost 800 days, while he was 12-15 years old, Rosenberg hid in a basement with his mother.
“That’s a lot of time, especially when you’ve done nothing wrong,” Rosenberg says. “We didn’t even know if we would survive.”
Rosenberg would walk around shoeless, always quiet, with the knowledge that at any moment he could be discovered by the German soldiers who lived literally right next door. He would sleep for 12 hours a day, after listening to the BBC London broadcast on a small radio that he would press his ear up against because he had to keep the noise down. The couple that hid him, Mr. and Mrs. DeKnibber, would bring Rosenberg and his mother herring and turnips to eat; an apple was a rare treat.
Rosenberg and his mother waited for more than two years to be liberated, enduring nearby bombings and random searches. He recalls nothing especially unique about the morning of Sept. 3, 1944, but for the prior few months, the whispers of freedom had been getting louder. It was just another day until he heard that the Allies had invaded the capital of Belgium. A man drove down the street on a motorcycle, calling everyone to put out the flags because the British were coming.
“The rumor had turned into joyful yelling and shouting. We did not see any troops that night. We just knew we were free,” Rosenberg says. “We had survived.”
Rosenberg was exposed to plenty of anti-American propaganda. Americans were portrayed as cowboys, drunks or gangsters. However, after the liberation, he got to know American soldiers who were guarding broken-down materials.
“And I would guard them with them. I was a kid,” Rosenberg says. He would buy the soldiers tomato and onion sandwiches and hang out, talking and playing catch.
“They would talk to me, and that’s how I really learned English,” Rosenberg said.
In 1949, 19-year-old Rosenberg came to America, landing in Hoboken with $80 in his pocket. He lived with his uncle in Brooklyn and later served in the Korean War.
Now 83 years old, Rosenberg still vividly remembers names and faces of the people and places of his childhood. He maintains a peaceful, laid-back demeanor and shares his memories with a steady, thoughtful tone. He recently published a book titled An Unorthodox Life, an in-depth account of his life and his confusion over his faith.
Though technically Jewish, Rosenberg said he knew nothing about being Jewish as a child. His mother baptized him Protestant in an attempt to save him from being persecuted by the Nazis, and he also attended a Catholic summer camp where he learned prayers. As he got into his teen years, he shied away from a religious Jewish background.
“I thought being Jewish was a disease. And I had it, and I didn’t like it,” Rosenberg says. “I suffered too much from it.
Today, Rosenberg considers himself very Jewish, but not very religious.
“If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t do anything else,” Rosenberg says. “It was not just accepting the fact that I was Jewish, but being proud of the fact that I was Jewish.”
Rosenberg recently shared his story with the 10th grade AP History class at Carle Place High School where students got to hear a first hand what life was like during the Holocaust.
He is the founder of Accurate Chemical, a Westbury-based company that specializes in products for research as well as routine laboratory work. He has one son, two grandchildren and four great grandchildren, and four antique cars. An Unorthodox Life, as well as his other book, And Somehow We Survive, are available online.