Albert Rosa spied his older sister Luna across the chain-link fence. He remembered her as beautiful, with big, blue eyes and long, dark hair. Now she was skinny and filthy, her head shaved. “It broke my heart,” he said. Albert had been at Auschwitz only three weeks and had given up two days’ rations to persuade a bunkmate to trade uniforms and work details so he could see his sister. She was digging, supervised by female guards with guns, whips and German shepherds. He stood by the fence and got her attention. “Do you know anything about my children?” she asked him. “My husband? Mommy and Daddy?” A guard quickly appeared and clubbed Luna on the head. She fell, as blood gushed. The guard continued beating her.
Albert tried to rip the chain link apart, yelling the only words he knew in German, “Work faster, God-damned Jew.” The guard unleashed the German shepherd, commanding the dog to kill. As the dog charged his throat, Albert, a boxer in his native Greece, hit the dog with all his strength. They fought. Albert was mauled and, in his words, “left for three-quarters dead.” Still, he was ordered back to work. He later saw two women pulling a wooden cart. They picked up Luna’s body and threw it on top, “like trash,” Albert said.
Albert was born Jan. 25, 1925, in Salonika, Greece, to Ephraim, a hardware store owner, and Regina. The youngest of eight children in an observant and comfortable family, he excelled at swimming, soccer and boxing.
The situation for Salonika’s 56,000 Jews changed in April 1941, after Germany invaded Greece. Albert could no longer attend school, and his father’s business was confiscated. The persecution increased in February 1943, when the Jews were forced to wear yellow stars and relocate to ghettos.
A month later, in the early morning, Albert’s family and others were loaded into military trucks and then crammed into cattle cars, which over 10 days and nights transported them to Auschwitz. Albert spent the journey resting on a neighbor’s dead body. “We weren’t human anymore,” he said.
Arriving at Auschwitz, wearing only underwear and no shoes, Albert felt he had been put “in a deep freeze.” He was given number 110362 and a blanket and sent to a barracks with his older brothers Daniel and David. The next day, Albert was issued a uniform and sent to work in the coalmines, where he dug with a pick and shovel from sunup to sundown.
Later, after his sister’s murder, Albert was assigned to dig a pipe hole. At one point, seeing an open kitchen door, he grabbed a few potatoes. A guard saw him and started to shoot, but the gun jammed, so the guard began beating him with its butt, almost killing him. Albert’s brother Daniel, 6 feet tall and also a boxer, saw what was happening and, in Albert’s words, “came like a wild animal.” He knocked the guard out and choked him to death. Several guards intervened, cracking Daniel’s head and taking him away. That evening at the nightly hanging, which other prisoners were forced to watch, Albert saw his brother Daniel on the gallows. “Daniel, I will survive, and I will avenge you,” he said.
In autumn 1943, months after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Albert and a large group of Greek Jews who spoke neither Polish nor Yiddish were transported to Warsaw to bury the dead, whose decomposing bodies were piled up in bunkers. At the end of the almost yearlong assignment, they were commanded to blow up the ghetto.
Afterward, Albert was part of a forced march from Warsaw to Dachau. He remembers that the group panicked when they reached a wide river, too deep to wade across. Soldiers stood on a small bridge, firing at them with machine guns as they tried to swim to safety.
Albert reached Dachau and was quickly transferred to Kaufering, a subcamp. One day, in January 1945, hearing they would be killed, he and seven prisoners escaped. Two were killed immediately, and Albert, running through the forest as fast as he could, said he “left part of my face and arms on the branches.” Eventually they reached a farmhouse, where, ravenous, they ate from the pigs’ trough. And when the elderly farmer, a one-legged German civilian, began shooting at them, they dove into a pile of fertilizer. American soldiers soon liberated them. They gave Albert a uniform, and he joined the Americans, doing medic runs as bullets rained down around him. For his service, he was awarded a Purple Heart.
After the war ended, in May 1945, Albert spent six months at the Feldafing displaced persons camp in Bavaria and another six months hunting down Nazis. In spring 1946, he joined the Irgun, the underground Jewish resistance group, recruiting refugees to help build Palestine. He also met his future wife, Betty Rosensweig, at the Riedenburg DP camp in Salzburg, Austria. Soon after, he was imprisoned by the British in Cyprus for smuggling arms into Palestine, but managed to escape.
Albert and Betty married on Aug. 26, 1948, making their way to Denver in late 1949. Albert found a job as a janitor in an upholstery factory and worked his way up to factory manager. The family moved to Los Angeles in 1959. Here, Albert worked as an upholsterer and then, with a partner, ran a market and deli on Venice Beach for 20 years.
Albert’s daughter Regina was born in 1949, son Andrew in 1953, and second daughter Yvette in 1964. Betty died in 1997. He has one granddaughter.
For 55 years, Albert didn’t talk about the Holocaust. But after seeing “Schindler’s List,” his daughters and son encouraged him to speak out, which he now does frequently.
“I want the schoolchildren to know that life wasn’t always so easy. When I was their age, I was starving,” he said.