“Gussie,” she told him, “I’ve got a job for you.”
Ms. Davenport had recently rendezvoused with Varian Fry, who was sent to Europe by the Emergency Rescue Committee, a group of New York intellectuals who wanted to help cultural figures stranded in Vichy France.
Mr. Fry arrived with a list of names and Eleanor Roosevelt’s blessing. His operation became one of the most successful private U.S. rescue missions of World War II, saving some 2,000 people, and he is remembered by Holocaust historians as the American Schindler.
But before any of that happened, Mr. Fry needed a courier he could trust to deliver messages and fake documents across Marseille, which had become a port city of desperation, swarming with refugees trying to flee the country. Ms. Davenport told him about the young Mr. Rosenberg, who was “Aryan-looking” and spoke French. Mr. Fry quickly enlisted him.
“I looked very blond, very Germanic and younger than my own age, so I wouldn’t be stopped often to be asked for papers because I looked so innocent and angelic,” Mr. Rosenberg said in an interview with the International Rescue Committee. “I was really unaware of the danger. To me, it was something that was adventurous in many ways, somewhat romantic too.”
Mr. Rosenberg was dispatched to buy passports on the black market, scout escape routes and find safe hiding places for refugees. When he worked with the team’s master document forger, he became convinced that he recognized him, and he was right: It was the same man who drew caricatures down by the harbor for 10 francs a pop.
Mr. Rosenberg also accompanied Mr. Fry’s illustrious charges across the Pyrenees into Spain, which often accepted refugees who made the crossing without an exit visa. He once shepherded the writers Heinrich Mann and Franz Werfel, who traveled with their wives. (Werfel’s wife, Alma, was Gustav Mahler’s widow.) As he guided them, he befriended Mann’s wife, Nelly, who brought out a flask of brandy for him to sip on as they marched across the range.
Mr. Fry’s operation ended in 1941.
Marseille’s refugee crisis had grown dire, and Mr. Fry was forced to leave France after his clandestine initiative finally ran afoul of the Vichy government. Mr. Rosenberg’s protection vanished, and he was left to fend for himself. He was soon rounded up with others and sent to a transit camp outside Lyon. A guard divulged that they were being transferred to a camp in Poland.