News & Commentary

Saved by a Catholic woman, a Holocaust survivor has a message for the world

A photo of Holocaust survivor Alex Rosin, 83, born in Poland in 1940, with children on a ship from Poland to England in 1947. He is the boy in the front center with a light jacket. Rosin was saved by living with a Catholic woman in rural Poland. (OSV News photo/Debbie Hill)

JERUSALEM (OSV News) — At 83, Alex Rosin, born Elek Rebensztok, is among the youngest child survivors of the Holocaust. As fewer survivors are able to give their testimony, he feels an urgency to tell people his story, especially considering the increasing antisemitism he senses following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on southern Israeli communities and the subsequent war in Gaza.

“I was very shattered, absolutely shattered (by the Hamas attack). Sometimes at night I think to myself, we’ve been through this. I was in hiding because of this. And yet we are still confronted today in the 21st century with the same thing,” said Rosin. “Demonstrations are OK and people don’t have to agree on everything. But I would say that the world was silent with Hitler, and today yet again the world is silent,” he said.

On the eve of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day on May 6, Rosin, who was sheltered for six years as a young child by a Catholic Polish woman — who raised him with her own son — spoke to a group of young people at the Jerusalem Institute of Justice, an Israeli legal research and advocacy institute, as part of the “Zikaron BaSalon” (“Remembrance in the Living Room”), social initiative where survivors give their testimony to an intimate group of people.

Rosin’s mother died a few months after he was born from typhoid and as Adolf Hitler rose to power, his father was left alone with three small children. Following the advice of his rabbi, his father went with Rosin and his two older sisters — aged approximately 6 and 4 — to a very poor neighboring Polish village, which Rosin recalls as Dandowka, now a district of Sosnowiec in the Silesia region.

In 1942, his father found shelter for his three children with a woman named Katarzyna Bojka, who worked in the coal mines and had a son about Rosin’s age. The peasants of the village were very poor, but were willing to take in Jewish children for a sum of money. Jews were either instantly killed in Nazi German-occupied Poland, were placed in ghettos or were sent to concentration camps. Rosin’s father knew that could be his and his children’s fate too.

He had Bojka promise that if he were not to return, she would turn over his children to a rabbi, who would come for them after the war to return them to the Jewish people. He wrote down the details of where her home was and gave that, along with some documents about his children and photographs of himself and his wife, back to the rabbi of his village.

Rosin’s oldest sister Marysia Rebecca died of malnutrition, and his younger sister Stanislawa Basia was given to another family before he was old enough to remember either of them.

Because of the papers his father left — which survived the war — Rosin knows he was born on Dec. 31, 1941 to Stanislaw Israel Rebensztok and Bronislawa Kubanska-Rebensztok in the small village of Klimentow near Sosnowiec.

Rosin grew up together with Bojka’s son Zbigniew, who was affectionately called Zbysio by Rosin, like they were brothers. He remembers extreme poverty but also warmth and love in the home from the woman he knew as his mother until he was 6 years old.

“Although she was hiding me, she was absolutely like a mother, a true mother to me,” he recalled.

Now an orthodox Jew and a rabbi, Rosin remembered that he would go to church every Sunday with his adoptive family, and he still recalls the silence of the space and the special smell of the incense.

The Catholic Polish woman risked the lives of her family members giving shelter to the Rosin children as Poland was the only country in occupied Europe where the death penalty was imposed for hiding Jews or helping them. This was the fate of Blessed Józef and Wiktoria Ulma and their seven children, martyred for hiding Jews on March 24, 1944, and beatified in Markowa, Poland, on Sept. 10, 2023.

On May 6, thousands of Jews and Poles marched together in the premises of Auschwitz concentration camp as part of 36th March of the Living joined by Holocaust survivors and Jewish students, leaders and politicians. Seven months after the Oct. 7 attack, Israeli hostages released from captivity in Gaza and families whose relatives are still being held captive also joined.

U.S. university presidents also came to honor the 6 million Jews killed by Nazi Germany amid the backdrop of pro-Palestinian protests that have roiled American campuses. Rabbi Ari Berman, president of Yeshiva University in New York, led a delegation of leaders from Catholic, Evangelical and historically Black colleges and universities, The Associated Press reported.

“The message here is clear. The dangers of allowing hate to go unchecked are real. And we don’t need to get to the cattle cars in order for it to be unconscionable and unacceptable,” he told AP, referring to the cattle cars used to transport Jews to their deaths at camps under German wartime occupation.

The terror of the wartime days stayed with Rosin until today. One traumatizing memory he has from the time when he was about three years old, was when Nazi soldiers broke into their house in the middle of the night and demanded the boys remove their pajamas to see if they were circumcised.

Before Rosin was born, the rabbi of his birth village had decreed that baby boys should not be circumcised as is the Jewish tradition, sensing the danger that might cause with the rise of Nazism and antisemitism. His Polish caregiver insisted they were both her sons, so the Nazis left them.

“If my mother had been caught hiding me, the Nazis would have killed her, my brother and me,” Rosin said.

Rosin’s father did not survive the war but, as he said, a rabbi did come for Rosin. After he had visited many times, Rosin’s Polish Catholic caregiver finally revealed to him that she was not his biological mother and that he was Jewish and would have to go with the rabbi.

“It was more than traumatic,” Rosin said. “I said to myself, why do I have to go? Where am I going? This is my mother … this is my brother. But then inwardly I had this feeling that my father would have wished for this. That I should be integrated back into the Jewish world.”

After several more meetings Rosin left with the rabbi and his wife, Simcha and Sonya Rothfeld, and eventually was sent to England with other Jewish war orphans where he was adopted by the Rosin family.

Because his Polish Catholic mother was illiterate, they were unable to remain in touch. She died in 1953, but Rosin was able to reconnect with Zbysio — following a visit to Poland to Auschwitz with his synagogue. His wartime brother was able to help Rosin find his surviving sister who had been adopted by the family who had rescued her and was living as a Catholic.

Today, Rosin has a message to the world: “I am against any sort of racism or antisemitism in the world,” he said. “We should stop it right away. What does it lead to? Just more hatred.”

By Judith Sudilovsky | OSV News