LOS ANGELES — Employees of the Los Angeles District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gathered April 9 to listen to Albert Rosa, a Jew and Holocaust survivor from Greece, recount his tragic story of survival and endurance for the purpose of Holocaust remembrance. Coincidently, the day marked the 73rd anniversary of Germany’s assault on Denmark and Norway.
“I owe my life to the U.S. Army,” Rosa said. “If it wasn’t for the Army, I wouldn’t be here today.”
A spry, fiercely patriotic and proud-of-his-heritage man in his late 80s, Rosa shared horrifying memories from six years of slavery and human indignity that began when he was 15 years old and resulted in the deaths of 70 of his family members.
He spoke of how, although young, his passion and training to be a professional boxer like his older brother probably helped save his life. It gave him the stamina to survive the day in 1939 when he was roughly awakened from sleep to witness his grandmother and mother being bludgeoned and then being separated from his siblings, herded onto a cramped truck, then a train, for a 10-day trek without food, water, or facilities, only to arrive at a concentration camp in Poland where the majority of youth under 16 were taken to the gas chambers and killed because they had no value as slave labor. He said he went on to endure years of hard labor, while continuously surrounded by death and the smell of burning bodies, and he only ate two-to-three days a month. Understandably, it was just too much for many of the other detainees who succumbed to the cold, malnutrition, beatings, illness, and degradation.
The camp was overseen by “capos” (comrade police force) made up of killers, rapists and criminals who were released from jails and given guns to control the Jews. Rosa said they had no compunction against brutality and, for fun, would sometimes bet each other to see how far away they could hit a target, and the targets were the laborers. The Jews were dehumanized in every way and, like all the rest, Rosa’s name was replaced by a tattooed number on his arm, which he ended up hiding or making excuses for later.
Rosa showed the District employees bumps and scars all over his body—a few were the result of an attack by a guard dog, one large one was from being stabbed in the stomach by a bayonet, and another was from a bullet grazing his knee. During several scuffles, he tried to “give as good as he got” by using his boxing training, but he always ended up outnumbered and incapacitated and has the disfiguration to prove it. He kept telling himself that he needed to survive, so he could avenge the deaths of his family and friends.
At one point, he was ordered to pull the gold teeth from a pile of bodies, and he surreptitiously stole and hid enough teeth so that he could eventually make himself a ring in the shape of the Star of David when the war ended.
When Germany was defeated in 1945, Rosa was caught in the melee and chaos when Allied troops opened the gates of his camp. He joined a small band of men who ran from the camp into a forest, but two of the group froze to death while fleeing and two others died from gorging on food they stole from a farm. Rosa said that eating rich food after starving for so long made all of them sick.
He and three others eventually came across an Hispanic-American soldier who directed them to a military encampment where Holocaust survivors were being helped. There, Rosa scrounged for clothes and ended up with castoff uniform items. Ironically, at one point, he was mistaken for a regular soldier when he was willingly fighting alongside active-duty soldiers in an attempt to round up Nazis. He was even given an unofficial award for his bravery, when he was shot while trying to rescue an Army colonel who badly needed medical attention. He was also given the honorary rank of Master Sergeant.
After the war, Rosa spent time in the arms trade helping to equip people in Palestine, before applying to come to live in the United States. In 1948, he arrived, via ship, in Louisiana and traveled to Denver. After determining Colorado was too cold, Rosa came to live in Santa Monica, Calif., and he proceeded to open a delicatessen and liquor store. He considers himself to be a moderately rich man today.
“When I heard I would be able to come tell my story to people in the Army Corps of Engineers, I was happy to do it,” he said. “I owe my life to the Army, and I’ve done well for myself through very hard work.”
Rosa said he is proud to be an honorary sheriff of Los Angeles County and an honorary member of their SWAT team. He also said he is still boxing today, but only with his grandchildren.