Every life is unique, of course, but the generation now rapidly passing from us – the so-called Greatest Generation, those born in the first part of the last century – may have lived the most historic and eventful lives of any before and certainly since.
Consider Serge Ross, born Salomon Rosenberg in July 1927 in Paris. During World War II, as a Jew in occupied France, he escaped from two labor camps and survived a Nazi firing squad, after which he
joined the French resistance. His perilous journey began in July 1942, at the time of the roundup of Paris’s Jews, which was recounted in the best-selling book and movie Sarah’s Key.
Serge’s parents were Polish Jews who immigrated to France in the early 1920s to escape poverty and anti-Semitism in eastern Europe. Serge grew up near the Bastille prison, in a tough neighborhood where Jewish and gentile boys fought together, went to school together and hung out together.
A month before his 13th birthday the Nazis invaded France. The Rosenbergs joined thousands of other families fleeing south, hoping to reach a merchant ship reportedly leaving for America. When that failed, they returned to Paris, to an uneasy peace under the Occupation. Serge and his sisters went back to school; Serge’s father resumed work as a paint contractor.
But by the beginning of 1941 the persecutions began. Jews were forced to wear the yellow Star of David and were prohibited from ordinary jobs and activities. Arrests of Jewish refuges from eastern Europe soon followed. The Rosenbergs, who considered themselves Parisians, hoped they were safe.
Then came “The Great Roundup.” On July 16, 1942, thousands of Jewish families were herded by French police and German soldiers into the city’s bike stadium to be deported to Auschwitz. The Rosenbergs weren’t among them. A friendly French policeman had tipped them off the night before, giving them time to flee to the country village of Cressely, where they had a small summer home and friendly neighbors.
Serge, minus his yellow star, shuttled back and forth between Cressely and Paris, dodging the Germans and taking odd jobs to pay for essentials for his family. He was stopped twice and talked his way out of arrest. “It was just luck,” he said. He joined a small cell of young Communists, and was with a comrade who planted a bomb in a movie theater frequented by German officers and nurses. They were two blocks away when it blew up. Forty-two Germans were killed.
Later the same day he was arrested by police – not for the bombing but in a routine ID check – and sent to a transit camp in nearby Drancy, then to a prison camp in Pithivier, a small town near Orleans. Prisoners worked in the fields planting and harvesting food for the Third Reich. Guards shot anyone who didn’t follow orders.
One morning, while sitting in the back of a truck going to work, Serge decided to try to escape. He whispered to the young man next to him, “I’m going to make a run for it.” The youth told him he was crazy, he’d get shot. “I don’t care.”
When the truck slowed at a curve he jumped. The other youth was right behind him. They fled into the fields, hiding by day and walking eastward at night, trying to get to the relative safety of Vichy, the part of France not then occupied by the Germans. At the border to Vichy, they were caught. Serge was sent to a labor camp at Beaune-la-Rollande, where he escaped yet again, hiding in a garbage truck and digging his way out of a dump outside town. Again he hid during the day and fled east at night, stealing food from fields and clothes from scare crows, and sleeping in forests and barns. At the French-Swiss border he was detained by Swiss guards. When he told them he was Jewish and would be killed if they sent him back to France, they transferred him to an orphanage in Neuchatel, Switzerland. Even though he was safe there, he escaped a week later, determined to get back to his family in Cressely. But it was soon clear to him that, without money and papers, it would be too dangerous to try to cross the country by foot.
So he made his way to Rives, a small town 340 miles southeast of Paris. Rives seemed safely out of the crossfire of war, and Serge was hungry and tired of running. He found work at a local sawmill making pick and shovel handles and doing other odd jobs. He rented an attic room and kept to himself, afraid that anything he might say about his past could reveal his identity.
Rives was on the road between Lyons and Grenoble, and German convoys sometimes passed through town. One morning a German truck stopped for repairs, and two soldiers strolled over to a local park, not far from the factory where Serge worked. “I saw them on my lunch break,” he recalled. A band of French underground fighters, down from the nearby mountains, also saw them and took them away to be executed. The next day a German colonel told the town’s mayor if the two soldiers, still unaccounted for, weren’t quickly rescued, there would be a mass reprisal. That afternoon German soldiers surrounded the sawmill Serge worked in. The manager was ordered to pick 80 workers. Serge was one of them. They were lined up against a brick wall behind the village hall. German soldiers trained machine guns on the men. “I am going to die,” Serge thought. Just before the firing started, the man on his right, whom he barely knew, whispered, “Maybe I can save you.” He stepped in front and fell on top of Serge, shielding him from the gunfire. After the machine guns stopped, a German officer came through shooting survivors, but didn’t notice Serge was still alive. When the Germans left, the grieving townspeople gathered up the bodies. One woman started screaming, “Il y a un en vie!” (“There’s one still alive!”). “I was the only person to survive the massacre,” Serge said.
Wounded in the leg, he was driven to a doctor outside town for treatment. When he recovered, he asked a local farmer to take him to the partisans fighting in the Vercors mountains just outside Grenoble.
There were three thousand resistance fighters there. Serge was only 16, too young to join them, but he lied about his age. He was trained to use an automatic rifle. Coded orders from the Free French leadership in London specified targets in quick hit-and-run raids: German patrols and camps, dams, railroad trains and tracks. Planes from England parachuted guns and ammunition. When the soldiers weren’t out on attack, they helped the local farmers.
“Of course it was dangerous,” Serge recalled. “You could get killed at any moment. But I didn’t care. I was glad to be free, to be with other Frenchmen and to be fighting the Germans.”
Serge stayed in Vercors from October 1943 to June 1944, when American troops occupied the area. In one of his last patrols, he spotted a Jeep with American soldiers. Amazingly, one of the GIs turned out to be his mother’s cousin.
With the American liberation sweeping through France, Serge left the mountains and hitchhiked home. It took two weeks to get back to Paris, and then to his parents’ home in Cressely, where he learned his parents and sisters had moved to the comparative safety of a Vichy town. Miraculously, they too had survived the war. But many other family members did not. An aunt and three uncles died in Auschwitz and his grandmother died in Treblinka. Another uncle, his mother’s younger brother, jumped a German officer in Buchenwald and shot him with his pistol, then shot two other Germans before being killed. Altogether, 17 relatives were killed by the Nazis.
After the war the family struggled through food shortages and a war-ravaged economy. Serge met his wife Claire, who had also survived The Great Roundup, and they started a family. Serge worked as a furrier and tailor and with help from an American Jewish aid organization, launched his own business making women’s jackets.
Determined that their two daughters “shouldn’t go through what we went through,” in 1961 the family moved to the northwest side of Chicago, where Serge operated a dry cleaning store. In its own way, it was a hard life. “We had to start over, learning a new language and making new friends,” he said. He even took a new name, to distance himself further from the anti-Semitism they had lived through. He retired in 1985, and has struggled recently with heart and other health problems.
Yet he continues to triumph over adversity, and in his charmingly Gallic way, shrugs off the traumas of his life. About his amazing journey, he says, “God must have wanted it that way. All the tsuris, it’s normal for me.”