Child survivor, Hitler Youth join hands to pen book about Holocaust memories

The last time Bernat Rosner saw his parents was on the train platform at Auschwitz. It was July 1944, and the Nazi campaign to rid Europe of its Jews was in high gear, at that point focused on the Hungarian population. Rosner, who was 12, would be the only member of his extended family to survive the concentration camps.

He was liberated at 13, and went on to become an American success story: Cornell University, Harvard Law School, and eventually general legal counsel for the Safeway Corporation. Although he had been brought up as an Orthodox Jew, once in America he assimilated so completely that he ended up adopting his fraternity brothers' attitude that "typical Jews" were not his "kind of people." He even kept his Jewish background from his first wife, for a time, and raised his children as Christians. He dealt with his past by keeping it separate from his present, regarding it as something that had happened to someone else.

But all this would change during a 1993 visit to the newly opened U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. While Rosner did not bear the tattoo of many who survived Auschwitz, he distinctly remembered being assigned a number upon his arrival in the Austrian camp Mauthausen in September 1944. He asked the archivist if he could see the Nazi logs of inmate transfers and, scanning the names and numbers on microfiche, he found himself: Bernat Rosner, No. 103705.

"When I saw this, it hit me like a lightning bolt. You can't keep your past apart from your present."

Convinced that he must tell his story, if only for the sake of his children, Rosner picked what might seem an unlikely collaborator: Frederic C. Tubach, a professor of German culture and literature at U.C. Berkeley who was in the Jungvolk — the "kindergarten" of the Hitler Youth — at the time Rosner was in the camps. But to meet the two men, and to read their collaboration, "An Uncommon Friendship," is to understand that it was not an unlikely choice at all.

Rosner and Tubach will be speaking at the Contra Costa Jewish Book Festival on Thursday, Nov. 8 in Walnut Creek.

The two first met in 1983, when Tubach's wife, Sally Patterson Tubach, ran into an old high school friend, Susan Optner, Rosner's wife. The two women learned that their husbands had much in common. Both men were European; both had lost their first wives to cancer when their children were teenagers; and both were about 15 years older than their wives.

So, in the suburban setting of Orinda where the Tubachs resided — "suburbs are odd because they have no history," says Tubach — their friendship began to flourish. The men found that they shared an appreciation for travel, good food, fine wine, opera and classical music.

Tubach was born in San Francisco, but his family moved to Germany when he was 3 years old. Rosner knew that Tubach was German, but says he does not believe in collective guilt. "Of course, I would never forgive those who killed my family," says Rosner. "But even if his father was a Nazi, that doesn't make him guilty of anything."

As it turned out, the past was not an obstacle to their friendship, and they easily traded tales of their similar childhood experiences in small European villages. But Tubach now says that in some ways, their relationship remained superficial. As he tells it in the book, "Lurking just below the surface…were events that remained never more than a nightmare or a phobia away for both of us. Without our being completely aware of it, the walls we had raised around these events had already begun to crumble. As it turns out, something unexpected happened that brought the walls crashing down."

That unexpected event was Rosner's visit to the museum, from which grew their decision to write the double memoir, which in turn completely transformed their relationship. Ultimately, the very thing that should have divided them has cemented an unbreakable friendship.

The book is narrated throughout by Tubach, at Rosner's request, and was edited by Patterson Tubach. At first, Tubach had reservations about writing the book as the sole narrator. "Some people asked Bernie, 'How dare you? How could you let a German tell your story?'" says Tubach. "The Holocaust narrative is considered sacred by the survivors."

Rosner explains his decision to have Tubach write the book: "Survivors have different ways of coping with their pasts. My way has been to pretend that it all happened to someone other than me. The format of the book is in large part due to the concept that the 'Bernie' of the story is not the same person I am, that the horror of those earlier years happened to someone else." As he told his story — for the first time ever — deeply buried emotions rose to the surface.

Tubach grew up near Frankfurt in Kleinheubach, a village that shared in the violence of Kristallnacht and where, by 1942, not a single Jew remained. His father, a full-time member of the Nazi party and later a counterintelligence officer in the German army, was often absent. Tubach's mother had died when he was 3, and he was raised first by his grandparents, and then by his stepmother.

The book tells the boys' stories in parallel. While Tubach writes of the hardships the Germans endured during the war, he doesn't over-dramatize them; he can't, because he's also telling Rosner's story, which makes his own suffering pale in comparison.

In one example, Tubach explains how the boys in the Jungvolk were, in their own way, victims of the Nazi obsession with order and brutality. He writes of having to go through a "roll call," in which the boys' physical endurance was tested and the weakest boys were ridiculed in front of the others.

But Tubach was a quietly rebellious boy, and hid a small American flag under his brown shirt; he had always clung proudly to the fact that he was born here. After the war, he was deeply troubled by the actions of his adopted country and attempts by Germans, like his own father, to gloss over what had happened. At age 17, he decided to leave his family and return, alone, to the land of his birth. He and Rosner arrived in the United States within 18 months of each other.

When Rosner was liberated at war's end, it was most unusual for a 12-year-old to have survived Auschwitz. He attributes this in part to his "sharply honed instinct for survival," though, as with any survivor, it also had a lot to do with sheer luck.

Rosner, along with other Jewish refugees, was shuttled to various stops in Italy. The goal was to prepare them for immigration to Palestine at a Zionist training ground in Selvino. But before he got there, a chance encounter changed the course of his life.

In Modena, Rosner was in a building that also housed American soldiers, and appointed himself "doorman" to the American GIs. The impression of the barefoot, 13-year-old Jewish orphan carrying his duffel bag stayed with one GI in particular — Charles Merrill Jr., son of the founder of Merrill Lynch.

The two became friends and kept in touch. After Merrill returned to the United States, he soon offered to sponsor the boy. At age 15, Rosner was suddenly transported into an entirely new world — he attended prep schools and became a frequent visitor to Charles Merrill Sr.'s summer house in the wealthy enclave of Southhampton, N.Y. His association with the Merrill family helped him gain entry to the upper echelons of society, and he later became general legal counsel for Safeway Corporation, a company founded and run by the Merrill family.

After years as an outsider, he enjoyed being part of the establishment.

Tubach, meanwhile, with some financial help from a distant relative, embarked on an academic career. He started at City College of San Francisco, and later transferred to U.C. Berkeley.

He became a teaching assistant at Berkeley in 1954, earned his doctorate in 1957, and a year later joined the faculty. Teaching German subjects from medieval times to the present day, he co-authored "Germany, 2000 Years." He remained in the German department until his retirement in 1994.

Over the years, Tubach achieved academic success and became solidly anti-establishment, while Rosner became the embodiment of U.S. corporate success. The two men have never agreed on politics: "He's a conservative lawyer; I'm a Berkeley lefty," jokes Tubach.

If one incident shaped Tubach's political views more than any other, it was seeing a photograph of the corpses in the Warsaw Ghetto. "That photograph determined my political life," he says. "[From then on] I never trusted any institution where the highest level of power was invisible to me."

In the 1960s, he became involved in the student rights movement and the protests against the Vietnam War. In these battles between the students and the administration, Tubach grew more and more sympathetic to the students. "It was deeply disturbing to me to see uniformed policemen hitting students with clubs to enforce law and order within the walls of the academy." His outrage was fueled by having seen what had happened when a whole nation stood idly by and did nothing.

"Someone asked me why I wanted to know Bernie's story at all," writes Tubach. "For one thing, because the German crime of the Holocaust never lets me go. But wanting to know about Bernie's 'first life' was only part of what motivated me. I also wanted to link it to my story. I simply refused to accept the fact that the deadly barbed wire erected by Adolf Hitler and his henchmen half a century ago would forever mark us off from one another, that Hitler would have the last word in how we could relate to each other."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."