August 15, 2002
‘An Uncommon Friendship’
A survivor and a former member of the Nazi Jungvolk have collaborated to tell their unique story.
On the lecture circuit, Bernat "Bernie" Rosner and Frederic "Fritz" Tubach make for an odd couple. Rosner, at 70, is small, compact and bald, with a fighter's quick moves, while the gray-haired Tubach, 71, looks well-fed with a professorial air about him. Their differences, though, go much deeper than physical appearances.
In July 1944, Rosner, then a 12-year-old Jewish boy from the village of Tab, Hungary, arrived at the Auschwitz train platform with his parents and a younger brother.
The same month, Fritz Tubach, 13, was a member of the Nazi Jungvolk in the German village of Kleinheubach, ready to advance to membership in the Hitler Youth.
Tubach was actually born in San Francisco, but when he was 3 years old, his father, an ardent Nazi, returned to his native Germany and served as a counterintelligence officer on the German General Staff during the war.
How two men from such radically different backgrounds made their way in America and eventually became close friends and collaborators is related in their book "An Uncommon Friendship: From Opposite Sides of the Holocaust" (University of California Press, $24.95). It was also the topic of a recent discussion, appropriately held at the Museum of Tolerance of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Rosner was liberated at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, the sole survivor of his family. After he was shuttled to Italy, in preparation for aliyah, he befriended some American GIs. One American, particularly impressed by the 13-year- old orphan, was Charles Merrill Jr., son of the founder of Merrill Lynch.
Back in the United States, Merrill sent for Rosner. The boy suddenly found himself a member of America's wealthy WASP aristocracy and, after college, rose to become senior vice president and general counsel of the Safeway Corp.
Though raised in an Orthodox family, once in America, Rosner assimilated so completely that he even hid his Jewish background from his first wife and raised his three sons as Christians.
"Like many other survivors, I tried to bury and keep my past experiences completely separate from my present life," Rosner said.
In about the same time frame, Tubach, who had always gloried secretly in his American birth, left Germany at age 17, deeply troubled by the Nazi wartime atrocities and the refusal of many Germans, like his father, to face their guilt.
He settled in San Francisco, embarked on a distinguished academic career, and became a professor of German and German literature at UC Berkeley.
Unbeknown to each other, the lawyer and professor bought houses within four blocks of each other in the Bay Area suburb of Orinda, but actually met by a sheer fluke.
Tubach's wife, Sally, was shopping in a supermarket in 1983 when she spotted an old friend from high school days who had become Rosner's wife, Susan.
The two families started to socialize and the two men discovered that besides their European backgrounds they shared a fondness for travel, gourmet food and wine, opera and classical music.
Through a decade of friendship, the two men discussed many things, including politics, with Rosner as the corporate conservative and Tubach as a self-described "Berkeley leftie."
However, they avoided talking about their childhood experiences, which loomed like an invisible wall between them.
The wall suddenly crumbled in 1993, when Rosner visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and asked the archivist for the record of inmates for Mauthausen. Scanning the microfiche, he stopped at one entry: Bernat Rosner, No. 103705.
"That hit me like a lightning bolt and I realized that you can't separate your past from your present," he said.
Rosner decided that he must tell his story, both in memory of his murdered parents and for the future of his children. But he felt that he needed a writing partner and asked his friend Tubach to join him in the project.
The collaboration grew over years of often agonizing self-examination, with both men, but especially Rosner, forced to recall the experiences of half a century ago.
By a curious arrangement, Tubach is the book's first-person narrator, while Rosner's experiences are related in a more impersonal third person.
The format was requested by Rosner, who explained that although he was now ready to cope with his past, it helped if the "Bernie/Baruch" of the book was seen as a different individual as the present Rosner.
At some of their joint lectures, listeners have objected to a "German" telling the story on behalf of a Jewish Holocaust survivor. Tubach rejects the criticism, saying, "We have both refused to let the swastika and the yellow star define who we are."