By Andrew Adler
About a dozen years ago, the American Bar Association organized an exhibit examining a subject that, for most people, occupied the fringes of history. Titled Lawyers Without Rights: Jewish Lawyers in Germany Under the Third Reich, it’ll be coming to the Trager Family JCC Jan. 15-Feb. 6, overlapping with the ABA’s Midyear Meeting Jan. 31-Feb 5 in downtown Louisville.
“The exhibit describes how Jewish lawyers were persecuted and deprived of their profession during the Nazi era,” says John Rosenberg, a renowned civil rights lawyer who lives in Prestonsburg, Ky. and is a Holocaust survivor.
“There is no record of opposition from other bar members or the German judiciary to this policy,” Rosenberg said in remarks five years ago, when the exhibition made a stop in Lexington. “Indeed, as we know, this was just one of the first steps in the campaign by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, which resulted in the murder of six million Jews.”
Over the past dozen years, the exhibition has travelled to more than 70 venues nationwide — in December of 2015, it also made a stop (translated in Hebrew) in Israel, where viewers included then-Israeli Supreme Court president Miriam Noor. The exhibit grew out of Simone Ludwig-Winters’ book Lawyers Without Rights: The Fate of Jewish Lawyers in Berlin After 1933, which was published in 1998, in German. The ABA underwrote the English-language edition, which came out in 2018.
“By the time of the Weimar Republic – 1919 to 1933 – at a time when Jews made up less than one percent of Germany’s population, the proportion of Jewish lawyers in Germany hovered between 25 and 30 percent,” lawyer and historian Douglas Morris said this past October during a discussion of the book at Villanova University’s Charles Widger School of Law. “In Berlin, almost half the lawyers were Jewish.” From the time the Nazis assumed power in 1933, those lawyers faced what was, literally, an existential crisis.
“You really don’t appreciate the rule of law until it doesn’t exist,” Stephan Göcken, executive director of the German Federal Bar, told the Jewish Journal Palm South in November 2022.
“The Lawyers Without Rights project — the exhibit and book — is about how one government — the Third Reich in Germany — systematically undermined fair and just law through humiliation, degradation and legislation leading to expulsion of Jewish lawyers and jurists from the legal profession for no other reason than they were Jewish or had Jewish ancestry,” Göcken said.
(Göcken and Ulirich Wessels, president of the German Federal Bar, will be in Louisville for the ABA meeting.)
Meanwhile, International Holocaust Remembrance Day arrives Jan. 27, and in Kentucky few memories of that era are as vivid as Rosenberg’s. He was seven years old when he witnessed one of modern history’s darkest events: Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass – which unfolded on Nov. 9, 1938, and which is widely considered the tipping point that ushered in the Holocaust.
In Rosenberg’s native city of Magdeburg, he and his parents were forced to watch as Nazis bombed their synagogue interior and set holy scriptures aflame. That same night, his father — along with all the town’s adult males – were taken to Buchenwald concentration camp. Several weeks later the father was released, and after an interval spent in a Dutch internment camp, Rosenberg, his parents and younger brother boarded one of the last ships to leave Europe for the United States.
For John Rosenberg, America became both a refuge and an opportunity. His family had settled in the Carolinas, allowing him to earn an undergraduate degree from Duke University and a law degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Soon he’d be off to Washington, D.C., working in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division from 1962-1970.
But the tug of social justice was strong, and Rosenberg spent the next three decades at the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund of Kentucky, a.k.a. AppalReD Legal Aid. He settled in Prestonsburg, Ky., and gained a national reputation for representing the impoverished and disenfranchised.
Prestonsburg is a long way from Magdeburg, and 2023 is generations removed from 1938. Yet the experience of Kristallnacht and what followed remains seared into Rosenberg’s memory. Indeed, at age 92, he often speaks about that night, recollections particularly relevant International Holocaust Remembrance Day approaches.
“The synagogue was bombed from the inside,” says Rosenberg, recalling that “we were told (the Nazis) were afraid that if they burned it down, they might damage a hospital that was pretty close. The next day when we returned to our apartment, they’d ransacked it, and it was pretty much unlivable.”
Small details stood out. “That morning the Nazis showed up to arrest my father,” Rosenberg says. “There was a fellow standing there at the door. And my mom – like a Jewish mother – said, ‘Can you wait a few minutes so I can make him a sandwich?’ He waited a little bit, then took my father down the street. My mom finished the sandwich and said, ‘Here, go run after your dad and give him that sandwich,” so I ran down the street and caught up with him.”
Typical maternal behavior, Rosenberg says. “My mother was always pretty gutsy. I mean, she’s holding my two-year-old brother, and there was big bonfire burning up prayer books, She said my comment was, “Alles kaput” – “everything’s broken.” She asked this Nazi standing there with his gun, ‘Are you going to kill us?’ He said he didn’t know – that was his answer.”
All this was being digested through a seven-year-old’s lens.
“In a way it’s very scary, and it’s part of an adventure. I tell students that while we were on the ship coming over, the movie we saw was The Wizard of Oz, which hadn’t been out very long. It was in English, but it wasn’t difficult to understand. We landed in New Jersey, but my mother had some family here already – her younger sister” in the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. “She gave me a quarter and told me to take good care of it. A quarter was a lot of money to a Jewish immigrant family in 1940.”
Rosenberg’s father was among the fortunate Jews to obtain exit visas.
Nazi authorities arrested 125 Jewish men,” John Rosenberg recalls. “The first couple of days were spent in the local jail; I think initially they thought they’d be going home at night, but they crammed them into a couple of cells and took them to Buchenwald. They were there for 17 days – pretty horrific days — he didn’t like to talk about. They lost about 25 of their number.”
Upon release, the remaining men were given 30 days to get out of Germany. “My father was probably among the last. He was a Jewish school teacher who assisted the rabbi of the congregation.” After arriving in the U.S. and unable to find work in New York City, a friend of a friend suggested he go south, ending up in Spartanburg, S.C. as an itinerant lay leader of religious services – supplementing his income working as a janitor in a textile mill.
Soon afterward the rest of the Rosenberg family joined him, settling in Gastonia, N.C. not far from Charlotte, into what was then racially segregated society. “I don’t know if I’d ever seen a Black person before we moved there,” John Rosenberg says.
“I think that stayed with me as I became a lawyer,” he says, suggesting “that somewhere along the way, I’d be able to work — in some way — to get rid of this caste system that we had in the South. Working in the Civil Rights Division, and here in Eastern, trying to make the system a little better for people who can’t afford lawyers. That’s has been a really wonderful way for me to serve.”
These days Rosenberg is a respected (some might say revered) figure in Prestonsburg. He’s among at least two Jewish residents (along with his law partner, Ned Pillersdorf). There is a core Jewish community 73 miles to the east in Huntington, where it’s possible to attend regular synagogue services. “Huntington is probably more liberal than most of the other” nearby locales, Rosenberg says. He allows himself a laugh: “Some congregants call it the San Francisco of West Virginia.”
Has he observed any increased antisemitism since the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel? Not in Prestonsburg, anyway. “I mean, we’ve been here for 50 years, and they’ve named a square downtown Rosenberg Square – which is about as Jewish as you can be in Eastern Kentucky.”
Meanwhile, Rosenberg continues to advocate on behalf of the voiceless. On Dec. 15 he received the latest of his numerous honors: an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the University of Kentucky. Proud as he was of that honor, it may have paled compared to what had unfolded a mere five days earlier back in Magdeburg: the dedication of a new city synagogue, a declaration of hope not far from where a seven-year-old boy had born witness to the fires of hat
The exhibit Lawyers Without Rights: Jewish Lawyers in Germany Under the Third Reich will be on public display Jan. 15-Feb. 6 in the Trager Family JCC’s Weisberg Family Lobby. For more information about the exhibit, go online at lawyerswithoutrights.com.