APR 27, 2010
Executive Director and Holocaust Survivor visit Army Fort in Arizona
Painful memories of the past
By Bill Hess
Sierra Vista Herald
FORT HUACHUCA — For nearly three years his name was a number — 110362.
Treated as a criminal, Albert Rosa said the six-digit number was a way to take away his human identity.
“It was my name,” Rosa said Wednesday, as he looked down on the faded blue tattoo on his left arm.
One would think the striped uniform he wore was because he was a criminal and like in any prison, numbers are used instead of names.
But Rosa wasn’t a criminal, unless one considers it to be a crime to be Jewish — which Nazi Germany did in the 1930s and 1940s.
World War II came to Greece in late October 1940, when Italy invaded. But for the Italians it was a dismal failure with Greek forces outfighting them.
About six months later, Germany came to the rescue of its Axis ally and the Greeks were eventually defeated, which is when the nearly 100,000 Greek Jews found themselves under increasingly stringent Nazi rules, Rosa said.
Most of the Greek Jews were put in concentration camps and “only 5 percent survived,” he said.
Rosa was at the fort to speak at the annual Days of Remembrance, put aside to remember the Holocaust — when at least six million Jews died under Nazi direction. Another estimated five million gypsies, Jehovah Witnesses, homosexuals and others determined to be ant-Nazi civilians also were killed.
Before his talk, Rosa, who speaks 10 languages, was interviewed by the Herald/Review where he talked about the days as a teenager living under the Nazis. On one side of him was his daughter Regina and the other Mark Rothman, director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.
Nobody thought the Germans could ever do anything so horrible, he said.
“They were a civilized, cultured people,” he said as he sat in the living room of the Hazen House, the fort’s guest house.
But he was to learn differently — of the 70 members of his family, only he survived the concentration camps.
More than once he broke down, tears forming in his eyes, his lips quivering, words unable to flow from his mouth.
It was particularly difficult when he talked about seeing his sister beaten to death, a brother hanged in a camp and finally realizing his parents, grandparents and the youngest members of the family — those considered useless for slave labor — had been gassed. Their bodies were burned in crematoriums, leaving no signs they ever existed, with no monument placed over them so they could be mourned.
Each time, he would apologize for not being able to go on for a short time.
“I’m sorry; it’s hard,” Rosa would say, as his 85-year-old mind went back to those days which happened more than six decades ago.
At those times, his daughter would reach out and touch his arm, gently patting it.
It has been years since he was able to speak about his experiences.
After arriving in the United States, Rosa suffered what he called “a mental breakdown” and was in a psychiatric hospital for three months. Today it probably would be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder.
It was there he went through shock treatments and was advised not to talk about what happened to him.
“For 55 years I said nothing,” Rosa remarked.
Regina said she told her father it probably would be good for him to tell his story.
Besides, as she grew up, what happened to him and her late mother, also a Holocaust survivor from Austria, was never talked about at home.
A short man, Rosa said he was an athletic teen, a boxer, swimmer and soccer player.
His older brother, Daniel, who was more than six feet tall, was a champion boxer and taught his younger sibling the art of the sport.
After the Germans took control of Greece, the Jews of the country were constrained into smaller areas, homes of the wealthy members of the community were confiscated, yellow stars of David with the German word for Jew — Jude — had to be worn, he said.
Food was in short supply and more than once he and Daniel violated the rules, took off their yellow stars and went out seeking food.
At the beginning, Rosa and the family remained in Greece, with he and others building roads for the Germans.
But then there was a gathering up of the Jewish community, with families split apart in different trucks as they were driven to a rail head for transportation to a concentration camp.
The trip took 10 days and 10 nights, Rosa said. It was winter and he left a warm Greek beach area for cold Poland.
Traveling in box cars originally used to transport animals, there was no food, water or sanitary facilities.
Along the trip many died, he said.
Upon arriving at Auschwitz, the separation of families continued, with the old and young taken away and the able-bodied, like he and his brothers and sister, becoming forced laborers.
Sometimes mothers would not allow their babies to be taken away and without hesitation, the child was shot. If the woman was able-bodied, she was forced on to the women’s area to work for the Nazis, he said.
Whips and rifle butts were favorite items of discipline among the guards.
It would be some time before Rosa found out the old and other very young were immediately killed.
One day he asked another inmate what was being burned because of the terrible smell coming out of a series of chimneys.
He was told it was the bodies of the old and young being burned.
“Then I knew mommy and daddy were dead,” Rosa said.
Work was hard, starting before sunup and ending after sundown, Rosa said.
Sleeping arrangements in the barracks consisted of a dozen or more men stretching out on wooden beds, without mattresses during the night some died.
One day he heard from a bunkmate his sister Luna was alive and he arranged with the man to switch uniforms so he could try to see her.
The other man worked in an area near where the women were laboring, while Rosa worked in a coal mine.
Knowing the guards only looked at a prisoner’s number on the uniform and did not match it with the tattooed number, Rosa said he thought it would be an easy ploy to get away with and besides, he promised the other, hesitant, prisoner with two days of his food supply.
Making the change, Rosa went to the other man’s work area and through a fence eventually spotted Luna.
Describing his older sister as a beautiful woman with blue eyes and long black hair, he saw her hair had been all cut off and she was emaciated.
Violating every rule, Rosa made his way to the fence and got his sister’s attention and they began to talk.
The female guards, whom he described as big gorillas, carrying whips, wearing pistols and holding dogs on leashes — saw what was happening.
It was then Luna was beaten to the ground and when Rosa tried to interfere — ”I tried to rip the fence apart” — a dog was unleashed against him and male guards arrived to start beating him.
Bitten and beaten, Rosa watched as Luna was pummeled to death and then saw her body put into a cart like it was a piece of trash to be hauled off to be burned.
Returning to the barracks he told his brother Daniel, his boxing instructor, what happened — which angered him.
Daniel promised to kill a German for the death of Luna as Rosa tried to talk some sense into his brother.
Some time later, while both were on a work detail, Rosa stole some raw potatoes and began to be beaten, Daniel came to his defense and knocked down some German guards, strangling one to death.
For Daniel, it was a death sentence.
Try as he might, Rosa could not come to his brother’s defense because his leg had been broken.
Later, his brother was hanged and it was then Rosa promised his dying brother he would survive and take revenge on the Germans.
Initially, another brother, David, was in the same barracks but he had been moved and Rosa learned David had not passed physical muster and because he was so weak and couldn’t work he had been chosen for death.
Rosa’s story of maltreatment was told to an audience at Fitch Auditorium.
Time continued and when the Warsaw Ghetto uprising took place and as put down by the Nazis, Rosa was one of the prisoners who was taken to the area where thousands of bodies, most of them decomposed, had to be removed and disposed of, causing disease and illness among the concentration camp laborers chosen for the detail.
As the Soviet Army pushed into Poland, the Germans fell back and Rosa found himself on a forced “death march” to Dachau, in upper Bavaria in Germany.
Again he survived and when the American Army liberated the area he fell in with the GIs, serving with them “killing Nazis,” Rosa said.
By the time he was liberated his weight had fallen from more than 150 pounds to just more than 80 pounds.
Maj. Gen. John Custer, commander of the Intelligence Center of Excellence and Fort Huachuca, said it is first-person accounts by people like Rosa that must be heard.
It is important for today’s generations of soldiers to know the truth of the Holocaust to ensure what Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower warned should not happen after visiting a concentration camp in 1945. The horrors of such camps cannot be dismissed as propaganda because what happened “beggars description.”
Before he began his talk, Rosa saluted the soldiers in the audience and when he ended he said, “My life was saved by the U.S. Army.”
Today, he no longer responds to 110362 — he is American Albert Rosa.
Rosa’s road after the war
After World War II, Albert Rosa helped with the establishment of Israel, joining the Irgun, an underground, armed Jewish resistance against the British, who controlled the area.
He smuggled weapons to support the fight and was captured by the British, taken to Cyprus, where he was tortured by his captors before he eventually escaped.
He met is wife Betty, who died two years ago, after nearly 60 years of marriage.
Rosa, Betty and daughter Regina, who was born in Austria, came to the United States, where he started work as a janitor and eventually became the foreman of an upholstery factory in Colorado.
Visiting Disneyland, Rosa and his wife decided to move to California and started a deli and wine business.
He speaks to students, law enforcement groups, military and other organizations about the dark days of the Holocaust.?