Edwards AFB – Holocaust survivor Albert Rosa returned to Edwards Air Force Base March 6 for Comprehensive Airmen Fitness Day. In the Air Force Flight Test Museum, Rosa shared his story of unthinkable torture and survival.
Rosa is 90 years old today. He is happy and energetic and boldly proclaims, “God bless America, it’s the best land in the world.”
But it wasn’t always that way for him. Born to an upper middle class family in Salonika, Greece, Rosa was one of eight children. His father worked in the hardware industry. His eldest brother, Daniel, was a professional boxer and taught Albert to box at a very young age.
It was during his seventh grade year that Italy declared war against Greece. Rosa recalls being sent home from school and the principal’s promise that he would “call them back” when the war was over.
“Over 70 years passed, they never called me back. I lost my education,” said Rosa.
After Italy was repelled by Greek forces, Germany invaded and within a month had occupied the country.
“Germany at the time was the most powerful country in the world,” said Rosa.
It did not take long for Rosa’s family to feel the effects of the war. His father’s bank accounts were seized and his business was closed down. A sign was placed on the business that read, “This property belongs to the Third Reich.”
Rosa and his siblings, along with many other Jewish men and women, were taken into captivity as slaves. Each person was assigned a number, and for the duration of the Holocaust that number became their name. It was tattooed onto their bodies and displayed on their striped uniforms along with the Star of David. Their heads were shaved and their bodies became frail from starvation.
The Germans wore a swastika, “like a driver’s license” to prove they were not Jewish. Before the war, “some of them used to be my friends,” Rosa said.
On several occasions, Rosa and his brother would remove their stars and sneak out of the ghetto at night to find food for their family.
Eventually, he was transported from Greece to Poland in a cattle truck. They were cramped in that space for 10 days and nights with no food, water or facilities. People were suffocating and starving to death. The air was hot and filled with the smell of decomposing bodies.
“The children were crying, ‘Mommy I’m hungry, I’m thirsty,'” said Rosa. “Me, I was an athlete, I used to compete in other sports, I could take the punishment.”
When they arrived at the “death camps” they had been totally dehumanized. Those who were too old or too young for slave labor were sent to the gas chambers. Rosa had never seen a crematory before that, but the horrible smoke that filled the air was impossible to ignore.
In the concentration camp, the men and women were divided. Shortly after their arrival, Rosa traded uniforms with another prisoner to see his older sister Luna. His sister, who had once been beautiful and wealthy, was now malnourished and bald, which broke Rosa’s heart.
For just a moment Rosa forgot he was in a concentration camp; he called out to his sister and a female guard noticed. He watched as they killed his sister and then took her away in small wagon “like trash.”
Later, he would watch his brother Daniel die too. Rosa, desperate for food, stole a few raw potatoes. The Nazi guard who caught him ordered a guard dog to attack with deadly force. Daniel, who was 10 years older and much taller than Rosa “couldn’t take it anymore.” He began to choke the Nazi to death and later that night Rosa watched as Daniel was hanged.
“Daniel, I will do my best to stay alive,” Rosa said to Daniel in his last moments. “I promise you, if I survive, quite a few Nazis are going to die. I will avenge you and the family.”
As the men in his camp lost their will to live, several decided to take their own lives by throwing themselves against an electric fence. Rosa told them to attack a Nazi instead. Electrocution would be slow and painful, but if they attacked a Nazi they would be killed quickly.
“Take one with you, you’ve got nothing to lose,” he told them.
By 1945 Germany had started to lose the war. Orders were given to kill every Jew before the Allies arrived, and they were taken on a long death march. Realizing he had nothing to lose, Rosa, along with several others, decided to escape. Some did not make it, but Rosa took refuge in an American Army camp, where he later was given an American uniform and an opportunity to avenge his family.
“I want to die fighting with a weapon in my hand. I don’t want to be a fried chicken in the crematory. I want to take out a few Nazis before I die. And I was not afraid to die,” Rosa said.
He encouraged others around him to find the same bravery within them. About six months after he escaped, the war ended and Rosa became a Jewish underground soldier.
Rosa started a new life with his wife, Betty, but eventually started suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He was placed in a hospital for mental health and administered shock therapy treatments. He began to forget about his wife and children while becoming a “zombie.” When he decided to end his treatments and the memories returned, the doctor advised him to keep quiet about his experiences. He claimed that no one would believe Rosa, and for many years, Rosa would not talk about the Holocaust. Today, Rosa shares his story openly.
“If it wasn’t for the American soldiers, I wouldn’t be alive today. They’re the ones who saved me from the death camp,” said Rosa. “God bless America.”
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