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Defying Moment

As a teenager in Auschwitz, Joe Rosenblum's shrewd moves kept him alive

By MARGO HARAKAS, Sun-Sentinel      
Web-posted: 12:43 p.m. Mar. 14, 2001

Joe Rosenblum believes in God. He believes in luck. And despite the screams and smell of torture and death that are as indelibly affixed to his being as the number tattooed on his forearm, he believes, absurdly perhaps, in the profound goodness of people.
The tattoo that spelled out Deerfield Beach resident Joe Rosenblum's work detail in the Nazi death camp is still plainly visible.
( Judy Sloan Reich/Staff)
  The tattoo that spelled out Deerfield Beach resident Joe Rosenblum's work detail in the Nazi death camp is still plainly visible.
      That he can still believe is proof enough of the fact.
      Rosenblum is the subject of the recently published Defy the Darkness: A Tale of Courage in the Shadow of Mengele, ($29.95, Praeger Trade).
      It's an extraordinary story of a teenager cheating death, working with the underground, and having his life saved through surgery by none other than the barbarous Dr. Joseph Mengele, the Angel of Death.
      The book, says co-author David Kohn, "is not about the gassing, the grim, the grotesque," though, of course, those things are there in painful detail.
      Rather it's about this now-gray-haired man with the twinkling eyes and the inexplicable smile not far from his lips, "who rose above all that. He held on tightly to his humanity no matter what happened to him," says Kohn.
      By sharing scavenged food with other death camp prisoners, by finding them jobs, by beseeching them to hold on one more day, and by hiding children selected for the gas chamber among groups of women headed for work camps, he saved lives.
      Yet for more than 60 years, Rosenblum kept his exploits and the details of his horrific experiences secret, even from his wife and two children.
     "I didn't want them to have the nightmares I have," says the 75-year-old Rosenblum, who will return in April to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., for a second book signing.
      "Joe looks as much like a hero as I look like Tinkerbell," says Kohn, marveling at the man whose life he shared for the five years it took to write the book.
     "I was lucky," says Rosenblum, shuffling though photos in his Century Village East condo in Deerfield Beach. "God was with me."
      Ask if he still believes in God, and he'll answer, "Yes, He was there for me."
     Yet, he can't help adding, what about the millions of others? "Where was He then?"
     Rosenblum was 14 when the Germans rolled into Poland, turning his prosperous hometown of Miedzyrzec into a ghetto and a temporary holding station for Jews slated for extermination.
      In the weeks before Poland surrendered, Rosenblum remembers standing on a hill overlooking his mother's orchard and seeing endless waves of desperately hungry, fleeing refugees stripping the trees bare.
     "Life is over," his mother told him. "Now, God knows what is going to happen."
     Sept. 27, 1939, the Polish Army raised its arms in surrender and in a blink, Rosenblum's world was awash in a nightmare so heinous the devil's own child could not conceive it.
      About 3,000 townspeople, nearly one fifth of the Jewish population, were evacuated across the border to Russia. One of Rosenblum's sisters and a couple of cousins were among those who left.
     Most of the rest of his family would be shot or would die in or en route to the gas chambers. His mother would suffocate in a cattle car on her way to Treblinka in the summer of 1942.
     But between '39 and '42, the family still had hope, though getting food and avoiding the grasp of the police and occupying troops was a monumental daily struggle.
     Joe's blond hair and blue eyes allowed him to pass for a gentile. That fact got him a job for three summers on a nearby farm, where he was paid in food that he sneaked by past the Germans to his family, hunkered down in secret bunkers built into the attic and beneath the floorboards of his home.
     The farm family, the Zbanskis, were Polish gentiles who risked their lives to shelter him, he says. They knew he was Jewish, but that didn't deter them from treating him like a son. Last year, Rosenblum revisited the family and remains in contact with them.
     In 1942, Joe left the Zbanskis, fearing for their safety, and joined the Russian partisans operating in and around his hometown striking back against the Nazis and their sympathizers. The killing generally was the work of the other partisans, but Rosenblum writes, "I killed several Germans myself by choking them from behind."
     Though small in stature, he tells of one time jumping three Germans at once. "I had a gun and killed one with a single shot, then stabbed the others. They shrugged off the wounds I gave them, so others beat them to death."
     During the next few months, Rosenblum would be wounded by police, rescued from execution by a cousin working with the Germans, witness the machine-gun death of his brother. Finally, on May 1, 1943, he, his father, cousins and uncle would be arrested and shipped to Majdanek.
     En route, his father, as he had done a few months earlier when Joe's mother and four siblings had been carted off, kicked a window out of the cattle car and fled the train. Wounded by gunfire, he would make it back to his village, only to be executed a few days later.
      Upon arrival at Majdanek, Rosenblum and the others were issued uniforms, "...striped shirts with crosses on the back, which made us an easier target if we ran."
     They also received patches to attach to the shirts. "A red triangle meant a prisoner was there for his politics, such as being a Communist or Socialist. Jews had a six-pointed star. Those labeled ...antisocial had a black triangle. Some gentile murderers had a green triangle. I very shortly would find out more about murderers," he writes.
     They often were the foremen or Kapos at the camps, and as masterful at brutality as the SS guards. Beatings and killings occurred daily. Food rationing was kept at a starvation level, forcing prisoners to eat insects, frogs, garbage, bark or leaves off trees.
     Rosenblum was quickly moved from Majdanek to Auschwitz-Birkenau and later to Dachau.
     He rolls up his left sleeve. Etched into his forearm in a still-vivid blue is the number 126628, indicating, he explains, the special work detail to which he was assigned. "There were 465 boys selected to go to Auschwitz-Birkenau to build the death camp," he says. He may be the only survivor of the group.
     Rosenblum occasionally got the chance to work in the kitchen, peeling potatoes. He'd tie his pants cuff and toss the peels down his pants leg to eat later, a little maneuver that got him yet another devastating beating.
     Four months after arriving at Auschwitz, Rosenblum was tapped by Mengele to keep his office clean. "I cleaned the windows inside and out, dusted, washed the floors, then polished his boots so they gleamed. I also washed down the roof and the walls inside and outside his office. Autopsies were finished by 2 p.m., then I'd do my duties there, plus cleaning barracks and carrying the dead to the corpse pile."
     At the same time, Rosenblum acted as a secret courier for the camp underground, a network that included the German head of the hospital and Mengele's own secretary.
     It's ironic that the monstrous Mengele, the same man who personally selected those to be herded into the gas chambers, would save the young Jew's life.
     Two days after being forced to strip naked and put on wet clothes in freezing temperatures, Rosenblum fell seriously ill. His entire body felt on fire. His head pounded with pain. His strength dwindled rapidly.
     "I knew I was going to die if I did not get help," he says. He confided in a member of the underground, and the next thing he knew he was reporting to the hospital.
     Lying on the operating table, "I looked up and my eyes almost fell out of my head. Underneath surgical masks were the faces of Joseph Mengele and his three assistants," Rosenblum writes. Before he could grasp what was happening, "... a mask was put over my face and the sweet smelling anesthetic was administered. I just didn't care anymore. ... I heard the pounding of a hammer, the scraping of a chisel, and the cracking of a bone. Then I blacked out."
     Mengele, he's convinced, saved his life.
     At the end of 1944, Rosenblum was moved to Dachau. As bombing by American forces intensified, and the end of the war loomed nearer, he and others were marched toward the Swiss border.
     "The intent was to kill us," he says.
      Fortunately for Rosenblum, even this last-ditch effort failed.
      Why he survived, when millions were casually slaughtered and others despaired and gave in to suicide, is perhaps a mystery.
      God, luck, circumstances, all were factors, he tells you. As were the genes that gave him Aryan coloring. "I looked like them," he says.
      Being part of the underground at Auschwitz also provided a measure of protection. Among other things, it slipped a noose off his neck when he was going to be hanged, and got him treatment for the life-threatening infection.
      Rosenblum's own unique attributes -- resourcefulness, strength of character and engaging personality -- can't be discounted.
     As Kohn says, "Joe's a very likable guy. In addition to his congeniality, he's incredibly resourceful. And he has street smarts in a way few people do."
     He realized, for instance, that being neat and clean, no matter how difficult to accomplish, got him better job assignments in the death camps.
      "Staying clean was important," Rosenblum writes. "Germans like cleanliness, and it was good for my morale..."
      He is also, perhaps unrealistically, eternally optimistic. Despite witnessing men, women and children being turned to ash, others being beaten or starved to death, Rosenblum never lost hope, or the dreams that would sustain him, "dreams I would be somebody. I would have a wife and children and would have a business with lots of people working for me. I believed that I would get out of this camp," he writes, "and have a future I could be proud of, and I believed that some of my friends could make it, too... Nobody in his right mind would think that any of us was going to get out of this alive, but I did."
      When he did get free, he crafted his dream into reality. Liberated in May of 1945, Rosenblum two years later married Elke, a woman from his hometown. In 1949, the couple emigrated to Detroit, where Rosenblum³©s uncle was living.
      Three years later, Rosenblum had established his own thriving paint contractor business, employing 72 people. His son, Sid, was born in '51, his daughter, Marla, in '57. Hoping the warmer climate would help Elke's arthritis, the couple moved to South Florida in 1981.
     Defy the Darkness was a difficult book to write, admits Kohn, who "pushed and pushed and pushed" Joe to recall ever more details. Certainly for Joe, the work was emotionally wrenching. Despite his efforts at distancing himself, Kohn too was at times overcome.
      "Even now," Kohn says, "I'll sometimes step into the shower and imagine all those other showers and the yelling and the screaming and the crying and finally the silence."
      And more than once, the horror had a visceral impact, sending him rushing to the bathroom to vomit.
      The reaction of Joe's family has been, "Why didn't you tell me?"
      His son still can't read the book. "He starts crying. He says he hasn't the stomach for it," says Rosenblum acceptingly.
      His wife finally finished the book only last month.
      Rosenblum was urged to write the book, now in its third printing, by a friend who knew some of the details.
      "What went on is something no human being should have to witness," Rosenblum says quietly, knowing the anguish can never be extinguished. "From early morning till I fall asleep at night, it's there. And every two days or so I have the nightmares. It will always be there."
     The most remarkable part of Rosenblum's story is that his heart and spirit survive unscarred, and his image of humankind remains unwarped.
     "People are good," he says. "There were only a minor, minor number of people in the world who did these atrocities. And look, there are only a minor, minor number who commit crimes and are in jail."
     He refuses to allow humankind, or life, to be defined by these aberrations.
     "Life is so beautiful. Life is so good," he says. "You can't forgive or forget, but we must go on. There is so much opportunity for us to do good things."
     With that, the shirtsleeve comes down, a smile spreads across the face and a quip begins to flow.
     Margo Harakas can be reached at or 954 356-4728.

Copyright 2000, Sun-Sentinel Co. & South Florida Interactive, Inc.

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