Thanks to a lecture by Australian journalist Peter Grose, I learned the story of Oscar Rosowsky. Once again, we can award kudos to the adage “Timing is everything.”
Since the restructuring of my column at The Jewish Press, we have been focusing on the Jewish tenet that whatever G-d does, His interest is our good – even if we fail to see how events are for our betterment. Here is an example with a compelling script.
Oscar Rosowsky was a Latvian youth looking to carve himself a better life outside the Baltics. Because of his motivation, he learned three languages fluently: French, German, and Russian. He passed the second and higher stage of his baccalauréat, clearing the path for him to attend university in France. But history would get in the way.
After France’s defeat in 1940, the northern half of France and the whole Atlantic coast were occupied by Germany. Under the terms of the armistice signed on June 22, 1940, the “unoccupied” or “Free” southern half, including the regional capital of Nice, was managed from the French town of Vichy by a government led by France’s Marshal Pétain, a World War I hero. Vichy, France was a puppet government that not only collaborated with Germany in all matters, military and civil, but in some measures surpassed the Germans when it came to persecuting Jews.
On October 3, 1940, the Vichy government passed a law that excluded Jews from jobs in the pubic sector and parts of the private sector. The next day a law was passed requiring the immediate internment of all foreign Jews. The Jewish population in the unoccupied zone lived in a state of ignorance and denial, underscored by the belief that “it cannot happen here.” One of the Vichy laws which would have a catastrophic impact upon Oscar’s plans was the numerus clausus which restricted entry into professions, particularly medicine and law.
As his life dream was denied to him, Oscar took a job as a typewriter and mimeograph repairman. He specialized in the machines that were common in the prefecture. These machines were the source of all of the papers required by the Vichy administration. Be they ID cards, driving licenses, ration coupons, residence permits, travel permits – they all emerged from the machines that Oscar knew so well that he could produce a document backwards or upside down.
Meanwhile, the draconian laws that the Jews were subjected to kept increasing. Then the Vichy government announced its oppressive Statut Des Juifs which detailed which Jews were to be deported and who were to have their property confiscated. There was no escape. All French citizens over 16 were required to carry an ID card with their picture and address. Jews in the northern occupied zone had the word Juif prominently stamped on their cards. Such an ID provided license to any official to harass the bearer of the card.
Everything was rationed, from food to tobacco to clothing. If your card read “Juif,” you were not entitled to any of these three. It also meant property confiscations without compensation. If an official wished to settle scores with a Jew or was motivated by jealousy, that was more than adequate reason to impound and plunder. An explanation was never needed nor offered. Yet even worse was the fate of the Jewish foreigner. If the bearer of the Juif card was not a native Frenchman, he could expect deportation and would never be heard from again.
It was at this time that Oscar’s father, a foreigner, was taken – his tragic fate not to be determined until after the war. Then Oscar received word that his mother had been arrested and placed in an internment camp. From there she would inevitably be deported to one of the Reich’s death facilities. The only way to save his mother’s life, if there was a way, required immediate action.
Oscar turned to his friends from the Boy Scouts to explain his predicament, and they revealed something astounding to him: High in the mountain region 200 kilometers from the Swiss border was the remote French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. The Huguenot Protestants, under the leadership of Pastor André Trocmé, were willing to hide Jews. Oscar knew that to spring his mother without being able to provide shelter for her would have been pointless. The problem that hindered every plan of escape was where to hide. And just as the Poles and the Ukrainians would never offer shelter to Jews, to expect any better from the French under the Vichy regime was equally unrealistic.
Now that Oscar had located a haven, he knew what to do and how to do it. The internment orders had undoubtedly come from the prefecture in Nice, and the very same office could issue a resident permit – a permis de sejour. Because of his old job there, Oscar could move about lugging his boxes of brushes and tools unquestioned and virtually unnoticed.
Oscar helped himself to the prefecture’s letterhead and official seal, and even forged a perfect signature authorizing Madame Mira Rosowsky to leave the internment camp for Nice. One of Oscar’s Boy Scout friends had connections in the camp and was able to smuggle the letter to Mira.
Then another good break occurred. On November 8, 1942, American and British troops, aiming to ease the pressure on Soviet troops in the East, launched “Operation Torch,” invading French North Africa. This opened up a second front to the rear of the German and Italian forces. France was now exposed to an Allied presence just across the Mediterranean. The German reaction was unflinching, and they instantly swept south, occupying all of France. The dizzying turn of events left everyone confused, some wondering if Vichy was still in control.
Mira Rosowsky presented her permis de séjour, and with all the bedlam that had seized the country and surely the camp, the authorities reasoned that one less Jew was one less headache.
The consequence of the Vichy numerus clausus law, as author Peter Grose points out, kept Oscar Rosowsky out of medical school and blossomed the career of one of the most successful and superior forgers of World War II. Of the 5,000 false ID cards that Oscar printed, we have no record that any one of them was ever challenged.