FORT KNOX, Ky. — Mendel Rosenberg knows how fear and loss feel. He knows the sound of terror and the smell of death; he lived through it.
Born in Koenigsburg, Germany Sept. 18, 1928, his family moved to Shailiai, Lithuania where he grew up. Known as Schaulen back then, Rosenberg said they lived a happy, free, liberal lifestyle with no threats against them or the others in their Jewish community.
“We lived a rather comfortable life in a very Jewish environment,” said Rosenberg, during a series of oral histories published at the Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum HERE. “We had a very nice life.”
In 1939, Russian troops invaded after signing an initial agreement with Nazi Germany: Germany would occupy Poland, Russia would get Lithuania. The Russians forced his father to close his thriving clothing business, and Rosenberg and his older brother had to attend a more public school environment.
The Nazis broke the agreement in 1941 and invaded Schaulen in July of that year. With assistance from his daughter Renee Silverstein earlier this week, 92-year-old Rosenberg recalled the mood among them when Nazi soldiers took over.
“It was total disbelief,” he said.
Silverstein followed up. “There was a sense of ‘This can’t be happening,’ then, ‘We’re just going to live with this a day or two and then it will all get better,’” she said. “They could not even begin to comprehend what was going on.”
Almost immediately after the Nazis invaded, the family experienced their first loss.
“One of the first things the Nazis did was attempt to gather up the adult males out of the household. They would go door-to-door,” said Silverstein. “His dad and his brother both got arrested and were in jail. His mother was able to get his brother out by bribing a few people.”
Rosenberg’s dad never made it out alive; shot and killed along with several other men and boys. Rosenberg was barely a teenager.
The Nazis then moved the Jewish community into a ghetto there to control them. Normal life for Rosenberg became working for the Nazis as a carpenter, then on the railroad, then in a sugar factory.
“He would leave the ghetto,” said Silverstein. “At first, they were allowed to leave and go to school, but that ended. Then he left the ghetto to do some work. They were eating a little bit better than they were in the concentration camp.”
Rosenberg remembered the reality of the horror setting in one day when Nazis suddenly ordered all children six years of age and younger out of the ghetto. The Rosenbergs remained intact there until in 1944, when the Nazis transferred them to a concentration camp in Stutthof, Poland.
Three weeks later, his mother stayed at Stutthof as Rosenberg and his brother were transferred to Muhldorf, a sub-camp of Dachau in Germany. Tragedy would soon strike again for the Rosenbergs.
“His brother had survived most of the concentration camp with him, pretty much until the end,” said Silverstein. “Right before they were liberated he just gave out; just didn’t have any more energy.”
Sam died in the concentration camp in January 1945.
In April of that year, Patton’s Third Army invaded Germany from the south, forcing the Nazis to create a hasty plan of retreat. Part of that retreat involved getting rid of the 1,000+ prisoners working at Muhldorf. Rosenberg and the others were crammed into cattle cars and transported to the mountains.
Before they would reach their final destination, U.S. Soldiers from Third Army intercepted the train and liberated them.
After the war, a mutual friend of Rosenberg and his mother traveled back to Lithuania upon agreement from the Soviet Union, and told her that Rosenberg was still alive in the American sector of Germany. He sent word to Rosenberg not to join her.
“His mother said to not come back there because they were liberated by the Russians,” said Silverstein. “They felt like it would be better to be in American territory than in Russian territory.”
His mother joined him in Germany in 1947, and the two of them traveled to the United States, where they settled in Ohio with cousins. Rosenberg worked during the day and pursued his high school education at night.
By January 1951, the United States was entangled in the Korean War and needed able-bodied men, so Rosenberg was drafted in the Army and sent to Fort Knox to become a Soldier. Not yet having his U.S. citizenship, Rosenberg said he saw the Army as a way to get it.
Rosenberg has spoken as many as six different languages throughout his life. At the time, he knew Russian, Polish, German and English fluently, so he assumed that the Army would send him to Europe to assist with communication.
The Army sent him to Japan. He didn’t know Japanese.
Upon arriving, Rosenberg found himself working as a guard at a compound. Eventually, they made him a company supply clerk for the rest of his time there. Upon receiving his discharge papers in December 1952, Rosenberg was able to become a naturalized citizen in 1953.
In three years, Rosenberg had lost his grandparents, his father and his brother. After arriving to the United States, he has spent a lifetime gaining a wife, Sandra, having children together, and then grandchildren. Though suffering tremendous nightmares over the years, Silverstein said her father eventually found his voice and learned to share his experiences with others — especially children.
Looking back over his life, Rosenberg said he has always considered it an honor to serve in the U.S. Army: “I greatly appreciate having the opportunity to serve the country that liberated me.”