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Justus Rosenberg, professor who helped artists escape Nazi Germany, dies at 100

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For almost 60 years, Justus Rosenberg was a beloved literature professor at Bard College. He was 100 years old when he died in late October. But before Professor Rosenberg made a living by teaching and writing about artists and intellectuals, he helped rescue them from Nazis during World War II.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As a young teenager, Rosenberg left Poland for Paris in the 1930s. Nazi Germany occupied Paris just a few years later, and he became a refugee.

CHANG: His fortune changed after meeting an American student at a rest stop who recruited him to help with an American rescue mission to help intellectuals escape the region.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUSTUS ROSENBERG: I was a courier boy. In other words, I was running errands, except those were not ordinary errands. These were errands to run with false papers, money, various documents to try to get to the refugees who were trying to get some way out of occupied Germany.

KELLY: That is Rosenberg talking to the International Rescue Committee in 2009.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROSENBERG: I must confess I was very young. I was really not aware of the danger. To me, it was something that was adventurous in many ways.

KELLY: In 1941, that mission ended, and so did his protection.

CHANG: He was rounded up to be sent to a labor camp in Poland but escaped by faking a stomach injury. The hospital ended up removing his appendix. With his stomach still bleeding, he was rescued by a secret network of priests linked to the French resistance. He joined the resistance under a new French name and fought alongside Americans during D-Day.

KELLY: After the war, he studied literature at the Sorbonne before immigrating to the U.S. in 1946. He joined the Bard University faculty in 1962, where he taught until he died.

ODILE CHILTON: We met in 1987, when I was hired at Bard College to teach French. He was sort of about to retire then, but as you know, he just kept going.

CHANG: Odile Chilton still teaches French at Bard University and was a close friend. She didn't know much about his larger-than-life story for years, but one night her father and Justus struck up a conversation.

CHILTON: My father, I think, basically bluntly asked him, why do you speak French so well? And he said, oh. He said, you know, I was in the war. I did a few things.

KELLY: Colleagues knew him better as a great teacher.

CHILTON: Many students sought him out to be a mentor. He didn't have children of his own, so I think he really enjoyed having that kind of relationship with young people.

KELLY: And friends knew him as somebody who lived life to the fullest to the very end.

CHILTON: He was a bon vivant. He liked good food. He liked good wine. The last time he ate at my house, he just went after the butter. I had gotten some French butter from Zabar's in New York City, and I couldn't stop him. And he was 98 years old.

CHANG: The late Justus Rosenberg turned 100 this January.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE'S "MOSSBRAKER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.