The story of two Alexes appeared to me from old photographs, new documents, all kinds of papers, maps, clips, and fact leads of my ongoing art historical research with regard to the art looted by the Nazis during World War II, and on my family history as well. This time, the scene of the events is Paris in the early 1940s, and thereafter, when the war was just over.
My research has brought me to the heart of the Paris 8th arrondissement, to the street which runs in parallel with Boulevard Hausmann starting from the Place Saint Augustin and ending at the Champs Elysees. It is rue la Boetie, the very heart of central Paris. The street was also very much the heart of the French art life in the last century. Businesses, storages, houses of the leading art dealers were situated there. Wildenstein, Bernheim, Rosenberg, the creme a la creme of the French, Parisian and actually the world art dealers had been living and working on this street which I came to research in close detail.
There is more in such kind of research than a topography in its literal meaning. The stones of the buildings on rue la Boetie, as the stones of the buildings at any place, does keep the energy of the people who were living there, and some of it could be felt even decades on.
Coming out of the dramatic events from 80 years back, the destinies of two Jewish Parisian boys have resurfaced in front of me, in both striking and thoughtful parallel. Two Alexes of the same age and with a similar background, they both were thrown into the fire of the Kurban, as the Holocaust survivors were calling the Catastrophe for many years after it had happened. Both boys took their stand with a great bravery and determination.
One boy was Alex Rosenberg, the son of the world-famous art dealer who was the principal dealer of Picasso, and a major collector of post-Impressionists. The other was Alex Bujanover, the son of well-known doctor Simcha Bujanover and the second niece of Gustav Mahler, Eleanor Rose. Alex Bujanover was my uncle. Both boys were born in 1921, Alex Rosenberg on March 5th, and Alex Bujanover on September 27th. Both boys started to study in Sorbonne, Alex Rosenberg studied classics, Alex Bujanover medicine. Both Alexs’ university years were cut very short.
They were both nineteen in 1940.
Three months before the Nazis marched into Paris, almost all of the Paul Rosenberg family had left the capital. The dealer’s brother was staying ( he died in 1947 after all that he, his family and his brethren went through) , and Paul’s son Alex went to England to fight against the Nazis. He did it bravely, fighting with the French 2nd Armoured Division of the Free French Forces during the all years of the war in the world’s different locations.
Doctor Bujanover’s family did not leave Paris. They were in Resistance. Alex’s mother, my great-aunt Eleanor was helping the Resistance in a big way despite mortal danger for herself and the family. The couple’s just 15-year old daughter Eleanor ( the name went down in that family for its women in one generation after the other) was very active in Resistance youth, the same as her a bit older brother. At a certain stage, towards the end of 1942, Alex has become too close to real danger, and he had to escape via the Resistance route to Switzerland. I found the documents about it at the US Holocaust Museum Archive in Washington D.C.
Shortly after Alex’s run, in December 1942, his aunt, the first cousin of his mother with whom they were very close, the daughter of the legendary concertmaster of the Vienna Opera and Philharmonic Orchestras Arnold Rose, Alma was betrayed to the Nazis on her way to freedom. Alma was kept at Drancy for about a year while the family tried desperately to free her from there, in vain. Alma was sent to Auschwitz in 1943. I wrote about the saga of my family here.
I have learned that Alex’s run from the Nazis was very daring. It was very uneasy, as he clearly had a Semitic outlook. He managed, and later would prove his bravery under very daring circumstances after the end of the war, with so many tragedies still unfolding years after the pact of the Third Reich’s capitulation.
In his turn, Alex Rosenberg knew that the family’s house on 21, rue la Boetie, was confiscated by the Nazis almost immediately after the fall of Paris, in three days, actually, with everything that Paul Rosenberg did not manage to hide or relocate. He also knew that in their house, where his father used to work for the pride of France and its culture for decades, the Nazis and their local collabos ( the name for the Nazi collaborators in France) has set one of the most outrageous organizations, L’Institut d’Etude des Questions Juives ( IEQJ) , the nest of the vile anti-Semitism in occupied France. There was a special — and intent — insult added to a standard proceeding of the Nazi robbery, with regard to the Rosenberg family.
Meanwhile, Alex Bujanover was extremely worried for his family who spent the first two years of the occupation in Paris before they managed to relocate to the Bordeaux area.
During the rest of the war, both Alexs were each fighting against the Nazis and for their families and brethren, Alex Rosenberg as a soldier in the British forces, Alex Bujanover as a doctor.
More than four years later after running for their lives, Paul Rosenberg’s son Alex was just 23 when he was re-entering Paris with the Allied Forces in August 1944 as a victor and as a lieutenant.
In one of the most colorful episodes of WWII in France, lieutenant Rosenberg was informed about the Nazi-organised train leaving Paris and heading towards Germany. It was the last train leaving for Germany, and it was full of looted art. The train number was 40 044.
The train was loaded with about 150 large crates with the art looted by the Nazis in France. In an unbelievable sprint, Alex Rosenberg, who was given a car and soldiers to accompany him, was chasing that train and stopped it north from Paris.
The episode was described accurately in the astonishing book by Rose Valland Le front de l’art published in 1961. Valland, who died in 1980, is a very special person in the history of World War II and the looted art, and her amazing story is a subject of its own. Referring to just one episode, it was that woman who was personally confronting Göering with her first-hand testimony on him as a banal low-life looter at the Nuremberg Trial.
After the publication of Rose Valland’s book, Hollywood took interest in lieutenant Rosenberg’s chase of the German train number 40 044 in August 1944. The outcome of it is The Train film released in 1964 with Burt Lancaster in the leading role. Initially, the film should be directed by Arthur Penn. Interestingly, Lancaster who was calling shots at that production succeeded in firing the great director just a few days before the shooting would start. The reason? Penn was really interested in the art-line of the script and the Rosenberg family’s drama. Lancaster wanted action. The result is a rather clumsy film, and a very Hollywoodish tale that is really difficult to watch to the end out of its shallow boringness.
In real circumstances, not a Hollywood version of life, when Alex started to open the crates loaded in the train, in two of them he saw the artworks which were looking upon him in their family’s apartment and in his father’s gallery as long as he knew himself.
At the same time, Alex Bujanover has become a doctor at the DPC ( Displaced Persons Camp) after the war. As it comes from my research, it was Biberach camp that was under the French jurisdiction after the end of the war. The place is in the middle between Munich and Stuttgart. When I was trying to locate the former DP Camp, I learned that the place was demolished in the 1960s. I guess, they were only too eager to erase the place of the former sanatorium in which the camp had been located, instead of preserving it as a memorial and, importantly, educational center.
It is well known that medical conditions at the Displaced Persons Camps were extremely challenging, with a widespread of highly contagious diseases. During the first two years after the war, as many as 850 000 people, mostly after the Nazi camps, were living there. In Biberach, there were more than 400 of them on average, with people coming and going for over two years.
Once I have met a nice person in the United States, educated, thoughtful, versed in all kinds of knowledge man. Somehow, his behavior was a bit distinct. Thoughtful a bit too much, shy a bit too much, static a bit too much. I never asked a question, but his wife thought that it would be useful to let me know, at a quiet moment, that her husband was the person who ‘ was reportedly the first child ever born at the DPC, you know’. I did know. I loved this man. And I remember his rounded face, with his childish eyes, and that shy inner expression, all the years since we met for the first time in Boston, now it is some of them years after his passing, sadly.
After the end of war, and that famous chase of the train 40 044 from Paris to Germany, Alex Rosenberg joined his family in New York in 1946. Joining and later continuing the business with his father, Alex has become a very senior art dealer himself, the founder of the Art Dealers Association in America.
In a dramatic turn, Alex Rosenberg died prematurely, being just 66, in 1987. It happened in London, suddenly, during his visit to reunite with his fighting unit during WWII. Seemingly, that meeting, and the circumstances it evoked in his memory, turned out far too emotional and difficult to sustain.
Unlike Alex Rosenberg, Alex Buyanover did not live long enough to see his friends in Resistance for commemorations. As a matter of fact, he did not live long at all. Alex died in 1948, being just 27, of typhus which he had contracted at the DP camp on his doctor position there. His mother never recovered from that tragedy, yet another devastating blow of the Holocaust in our family. The line of very good doctors Bujanovers has come to its abrupt and forced end with the death of my just 27-year old uncle at the Displaced Persons Camp in 1948.
As we all know, there are things in life which are hardly explicable. In one such phenomenon, I always have those two same-aged, same-named Parisian Jewish boys from families of a similar background to Alexes, together in my head. They were so very much alike. And the destinies of their families, too.
Despite the French state returning that confiscated house on 21, rue la Boetie to Alex Rosenberg’s father Paul, he could never live there. He just cannot, and I understand him completely. I was always, and still am, terrified to think about the fact that German Nazi officers during the occupation of Ukraine, one of them major, as we know, were living in my paternal grandparents’ apartment in Ukraine. It was the apartment of Alex Bujanover’s uncle, my grandfather Elijah.
Not only the three Nazis were living there for three years, in the Bujanover apartment where my father and his brother grew up, but they also seized all those very special, unique large-size mechanized toys, models of car, ship, and the other things which my talented engineer grandfather created and produced by his able hands for his sons, my father Isaac and uncle Leonid.
It might sound a bit loony, but I am often thinking about who in Germany, which children in which cities were playing with my father’s car, and ship, and all those marvelous things, some of which I have on the family’s photos after the three Nazis did return to their homes if they did return. Hopefully not.
I cannot get it out of my mind, and I know that it will always be there, in the back of it: which German kids were sitting inside that great car, and ship which were made by the Jewish engineer for his Jewish sons? I really want to know it.
One more thing. This family reminiscence of two Alexes, two Parisian Jewish boys, had reminded me on how, being so young and inexperienced, they were so brave and so determined. I am looking into their both’ crucial years between 1940 and 1947 with grateful pride. In my head, I am reconstructing the process of sudden, emergency-like development of the character of those two boys. I can almost feel how steeled has become their inner will, which one would not recognize immediately in two well-bred boys from affluent families who had a serene trouble-free upbringing before the war.
I am thinking, and thinking again, on how courageous those two Alexes were, despite all the horrors that they were facing so suddenly and so shockingly. How helpful both of them has become to the others, at the time of an ultimate calling. How devoted they proved to be to their families, to our people, to everyone under the attack.
No Hollywood ever would be able to show the subtlety and the power of that dramatic transformation of the inner capacity of goodness inside our Jewish boys into the uncrushable fighting power and determined resistance to evil. This is why we prevailed.
As sad as I am for not being able to know my uncle Alex who would be as great a doctor, like his father, and over the premature death of Alex Rosenberg who might live well more than 20-plus years unless his heart had been too worn up by the Nazi war, I am very proud of both of them, and of many other Jewish boys with similar destinies.
But most of all, I am limitlessly grateful to that heritage of goodness that defines the best of our people and that makes them victors, even in their premature death.