In childhood I often played soldier with my friend Gary, not realizing his Vienna-born father was a genuine D-Day hero, a Jewish refugee soldier who stormed onto a Normandy beach in a British army tank.
At the time, Gary’s father, Randolph “Roy” Rogers of blessed memory, was 23 years old and had lost his parents and many relatives to the Nazis. He remembered landing on the beach as a moment of exhilaration.
But Rogers’s path to Normandy was not straightforward. He had fled from Austria to England but, considered an “enemy alien” by the British, was exiled to Australia with 2,000 other Jewish refugees in the anti-Semitic-tinged Dunera affair. Rogers, along with an estimated 500 other “Dunera Boys,” returned to England to fight in the final onslaught against the Nazis and it is his courageous story I remember as we approach the 70th anniversary of D-Day on June 6.
Sadly, Rogers died at age 93 about six months short of this landmark date. But he had already retraced his trek through Normandy with Gary and wrote a memoir of his wartime experience. It shows how utterly alone we Jews were during those years, with no state of our own and facing extermination as most nations closed their doors to us.
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Roy Rogers, whose original surname was Rosenthal, was born in 1920. He lived with his parents and younger sister, Marianne, in an apartment in Vienna where he enjoyed a comfortable childhood. But when Hitler ascended to power in neighboring Germany, he saw Austrian anti-Semitism rear its vicious head.
During his teens Rogers worked as an apprentice at an optometry firm with the hope of becoming an optometrist but his plans were dashed when Hitler annexed Austria to the Reich in March 1938. With uniformed Nazis swaggering in the streets, Rogers realized that “for the Jews there was no future here” and that he’d better get out.
Previously he’d joined a youth organization that operated a training farm outside Vienna for young Jews intending to settle in Palestine. There he learned how to farm while still living part of the time in his parents’ apartment.
He was in Vienna on November 9, 1938, when Kristallnacht erupted. He heard shouts outside the apartment, then a sharp rap on the door. His mother opened it. Two Gestapo officers stood outside. Knowing better than to resist them, she invited them in. They looked around the apartment and asked for her husband. He had gone on an errand, she said, and she didn’t know his whereabouts.
Their eyes rested on the younger Rogers and they asked his age. Instinctively he replied “fifteen” though he was actually seventeen.
“I was lucky that I looked young for my age,” Rogers wrote. “I later found out they arrested all Jewish males sixteen or older and took them to camps.” Sometime later Roy’s father returned home breathless, saying their synagogue had been torched while a mob cheered and police did nothing. He had melted into the crowd for anonymity and in doing so had avoided the Gestapo who had come to his apartment. In this manner Rogers and his father had been spared the Kristallnacht roundup that netted some 30,000 German and Austrian Jewish men.
Rogers redoubled his efforts to flee Austria. He continued his agricultural training but also tapped into the “grapevine,” searching for any means to escape. In his desperation he even combed through American telephone directories, writing blindly to several people who shared his surname of Rosenthal asking if they could somehow help. No one ever responded.
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Early in 1939, Rogers got a break. The British government was offering conditional entry visas for young people; thanks to his agricultural training, Roy qualified. A month later, with only a suitcase in hand, he went to Vienna’s central train station and there bid an emotional goodbye to his parents and younger sister. The scene would be etched in his memory for the rest of his life: his father’s somber, almost dazed, face; his mother weeping openly; his sister quietly standing by. He would never see his parents again. His father died shortly afterward of a heart attack and his mother perished in a concentration camp. His sister managed to emigrate to Palestine but it would take 27 years for them reunite.