A Survivor’s Story

After we made “Schindler’s List,” more and more Holocaust survivors came up to me ,and every one of them said, “Now let me tell you MY story.” And each story was different and compelling. – Steven Spielberg

This is the story of Henryk Rosmarin, his harmonica, and his love for a girl named Jadzia. Henryk and Jadzia lived in the small Polish town of Czeladz, near the German border, which had fallen to the invading Nazi army in early September 1939, at the very beginning of World War II.

Later that month, they met for the first time at a clandestine High Holy Days service, when he was almost 14 and she was 12. More than 60 years later, Rosmarin’s eyes still brighten at the memory. “She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen,” he says.

Jadzia Jakubowicz and Henryk Rosmarin spent the next two and a half years at forced labor in the Bendzin-Czeladz ghetto. In the beginning, life was a little better for the Rosmarins than other Jews. The father, Abraham, a muscular coal miner, continued working in the mine for 10 months, until the SS took over and put an end to the special “privilege.”

Henryk and Jadzia became close friends, to the point that he was emboldened to propose a future marriage. “One day, when all this is over, we will find each other, go back to school and get married,” Henryk urged. Jadzia was more realistic. “There won’t be another day for us,” she responded.

A few weeks later, in the spring of 1942, Jadzia’s prophecy seemed to come true.

The Germans, who had incorporated the Polish border region into the Reich, decided to make the area Judenrein by deporting all Jews. As the central collection point for deportees, the Nazis picked a former Jewish orphanage. The musically gifted Henryk composed a song of lamentations, “Sierocincu” (In the Orphanage), later widely sung in the ghettoes and camps of Eastern Europe.

Jadzia and her family were sent first to a forced labor camp, then to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Henryk was at first luckier. He got a job in a small ceramic factory, run by what he describes as a “small-time Oskar Schindler,” who shielded his 30 Jewish workers for two years.

Then his good fortune ended. He was deported to the first of six concentration camps he was to survive, as he did a final death march.

Although Henryk had been stripped of almost all his personal possessions, he hung on to his harmonica. He performed Kol Nidrei at secret religious services and lighter songs to keep up the morale of fellow prisoners.

“We used to say, ‘When a Yid plays music, he forgets about hunger,'” Rosmarin recalls. Yet hunger was ever present. Henryk had seen his father die, begging for a piece of bread as his last wish. “I had no bread to give him, and I will carry that pain for the rest of my life,” he says.

Henryk himself was down to 80 pounds and his toes were frostbitten when he arrived at Darenfurth, a satellite concentration camp of Gross-Rosen, near the Polish-Czech border, and he wasn’t sure how much longer he could hold on.

One night he was sleeping in his bunk when someone shook him awake and said, “The commandant wants to see you right away. He’s heard that you play the harmonica and he wants you to play for him.” The commandant had been drinking and was holding a snarling German shepherd dog on a tight leash. “What do you want me to play, Herr Commandant?” asked the emaciated 17-year-old.

The Nazi officer, who hailed from Vienna, threw Henryk one of three harmonicas on a table and demanded, “Play something by Schubert, you stupid dog.”

It had been many years since Henryk had played anything as difficult as Schubert’s “Serenade.” He closed his eyes, put the picture of Jadzia in the center of his mind’s eye, and played as if his life depended on it – as indeed it did.

When the recital was over, the commandant hesitated a moment, then reached back, threw a loaf of bread at Henryk and told his aide to transfer the boy to kitchen duty.

“That was my most important audition,” Rosmarin, now 74, recalls from the perspective of 57 years. “That was better than becoming CEO of Microsoft. That meant survival.”

Thus favored by the music-loving commandant, Henryk recruited a guitar player and an accordionist, and the strolling trio entertained in the German mess hall. Their reward was clearing the dishes off the tables and devouring the scraps of food meant for the dogs.

The privileged existence came to an end in the fall of 1944, when Henryk was shipped first to the main Gross-Rosen camp, then to Buchenwald. As the war drew to a close, he escaped during a death march and was finally liberated by the Russian army.

Now 19, Henryk immediately hitchhiked back to Czeladz, his Polish hometown, hoping against hope that he might find his mother, his older brother Max – and Jadzia.

He soon found Max, who had survived Dr. Mengele’s medical experiments, and learned that his mother had been killed, but nobody knew what had happened to Jadzia.

Henryk was told once that Jadzia had died of typhus in Auschwitz, and he was almost ready to abandon the search when one day a cousin knocked at his door and told him to brace for a surprise.

The cousin reported that she had been waiting at a tram station when a girl got off and asked her if she was Jewish.

When the cousin said yes, the next question was, did she know of a young man named Henryk Rosmarin? “I went downstairs and there was a girl with short-cropped hair and beautiful dark eyes,” Henryk recalls. “We embraced and kissed for the first time and swore never to part again.”

After their marriage at a displaced persons camp in Austria, the couple came to the United States in 1948 and Anglicized their first names to Henry and Janet. They lived first in Kentucky and Indiana and later moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a salesman, retiring in 1990. The couple has two adult sons. To this day, Janet Rosmarin has never talked about her wartime experiences, but her husband has thrown himself wholeheartedly into the task of preserving the memory of the Holocaust.

He has worked with Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation since its inception six years ago, and his own story is permanently recorded in the first CD-ROM produced by the foundation. His various assignments have included training interviewers and cataloguing and reviewing the testimonies of other survivors.

His harmonica is still his “calling card,” and he plays at professional gigs, at his synagogue, Temple Ner Maarav in Encino, and to entertain residents of old age and nursing homes.

Occasionally, not often, when the mood is right and old friends who know his story request it, Henry Rosmarin will play Schubert’s “Serenade.”