My grandpa’s thrilling life as a clandestine rocket scientist

As the jet approached El Paso, Texas, I saw only desert. Then I spotted the twin towns of Juarez–El Paso below, two cities separated by the Rio Grande. My family once ran a moccasin factory in Juarez, Mexico.

Daniel Rosenthal
Daniel Rosenthal

Inspired by a book about emotional genealogy, my Aunt Donna and I were on a roots trip to discover more about my grandpa, Morris Rosenthal. On March 24, we’ll celebrate his 90th birthday. A pioneer rocket and space scientist, Grandpa knew astronauts from John Glenn to Neil Armstrong and Admiral Hyman Rickover (Poland-born as Chaim Rickover), father of the U.S. nuclear submarine fleet. Grandpa also discussed physics, God and Israel with Albert Einstein.

His career started when the U.S. Army secretly brought Wernher von Braun, Hitler’s most important Nazi rocket engineer, to El Paso. Grandpa worked with von Braun, who became one of history’s top rocket engineers, father of the U.S. space program.

We drove to Congregation B’nai Zion, where Grandpa taught religious school. In 1947, he attended a Purim party. He was hungering for Sephardi-style hamantaschen, but there was only Chinese food. He spotted a beautiful 17-year-old. It was love at first dance. A year later, the rabbi married them. Grandpa and Grandma just celebrated 66 years of marriage.

The current rabbi, Rabbi Stephen Leon, asked me to perform a magic show in the synagogue. Many children and adults in the audience were Spanish-speaking Crypto-Jews (anusim, or “the forced ones”), whose ancestors in Mexico hid their Judaism to survive the Spanish Inquisition. Over the years, many descendants of Crypto-Jews have visited Rabbi

Leon, curious about mysterious family traditions, such as lighting candles Friday nights  and not eating pork or working on Saturday.

A Mexican woman told Rabbi Leon about her father, who went into a small room each morning, strapped a black box on his head and another on his arm. Wrapped in a shawl, he prayed in a strange language. When he was dying, he revealed that his ancestry traced to the Spanish Inquisition and he asked to be buried in his prayer shawl.

El Paso–Juarez has a very strong Crypto-Jewish presence. A number of people have returned to Judaism at Congregation B’nai Zion. No wonder El Paso has a kosher taco truck. El Paso is 1 percent Jewish and more than 80 percent Latino Catholic.

Minutes from the Mexican border, we drove to a historic cemetery. A Spanish-speaking grounds-keeper helped us find my great-grandfather’s grave. Placing a stone on his tombstone, I wished I had known this World War I vet, whom my father is named after.

Nearby, we found the white adobe house where my family had lived. I rang the bell. When a young Latina answered, I showed her black-and-white photos: my great-grandparents, grandparents and aunt in front of the house. She welcomed us inside. From this modest adobe, Grandpa drove his Studebaker to his secret rocket work at Fort Bliss.

In 1945, 116 rocketeers led by von Braun arrived in El Paso. Many were former Nazis, brought to the U.S. on the clandestine project Operation Paperclip. The U.S. wanted to use the Germans’ scientific know-how and keep them from being captured by Stalin’s USSR, which was intent on building its own rocket program.

A guard let us drive into Fort Bliss to see where Grandpa secretly worked on rocket development for the Army along with von Braun. Grandpa, a World War II vet and the only Jew working with the German scientists, remembers hating those who still remained rabid Nazis.

Von Braun was scientific director of infamous Peenemünde, on Germany’s Baltic coast, birthplace of the world’s first large rocket, the V-2, which rained terror on civilians in England, Belgium and France. Tens of thousands of concentration camp slave workers died building Mittelwerk, the horrific underground V-2 factory in central Germany. The U.S. Army sealed von Braun’s Nazi records until after his death in 1977.

Grandpa thinks it’s possible that if von Braun hadn’t convinced Hitler to develop rockets instead of the atomic bomb, the Nazis might have used the bomb with horrible consequences.

After a long drive through the desolate Chihuahuan Desert, we reached what was once known as White Sands Proving Ground. Here the Germans, Grandpa and other American engineers secretly test-launched modified V-2 rockets. The American race for space had started.

Outside the White Sands Missile Range Museum, I spotted a retired Redstone rocket, which Grandpa helped develop. In 1961, on two separate flights under Project Mercury, Redstone boosters put into orbit men Grandpa knew, astronauts Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom. Grandpa, who holds many patents, worked on various NASA spacecraft, including the lunar landings and the space shuttle. He’s proud that rocketry gave us inventions such as computers, CT scans and GPS.

As I looked up at the vast blue desert sky, I thought of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, which are part of Grandpa’s thrilling career. Movies like “Apollo 13” and “The Right Stuff” remind me of Grandpa, the space pioneer. Happy 90th birthday, Grandpa. You’ll always be my star.

Daniel Rosenthal is a high school junior in Santa Rosa. He won a 2012 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award for founding