Interview — Rabbi Moshe Rosenbaum, the Son of WWII Hero Pinchas Tibor Rosenbaum who Inspired the Film “Walking with the Enemy,” Talks to Rocking God’s House

Writer Kevin Ott At Rocking Gods HouseThe recent Hollywood feature film Walking with the Enemy (#WalkingWithTheEnemy), starring Ben Kingsley, Jonas Armstrong, and Hannah Tointon, is inspired by the true story of a Hungarian Jew, a man named Pinchas Tibor Rosenbaum, during WWII. When the Nazis came to Hungary, they sent Pinchas’s family — and thousands of others — to the Auschwitz concentration camp where they were all killed. Pinchas was the only one in his family who escaped the Nazi’s deportations. In the midst of such horror, he risked his life to save Jews by disguising himself as an Arrow Cross officer (the Arrow Cross Party was a pro-Nazi party in Hungary) and sometimes as an SS Nazi officer with uniforms that he had obtained. He saved countless people and would become a hero to thousands who owed their lives to him; and, most recently, he would be portrayed as the brave hero Elek Cohen in the recent 2014 film that was released in theaters nationwide.

Pinchas Tibor Rosenbaum At Rocking Gods HousePinchas (pictured right), however, was more than a WWII-era hero; he was also a brilliant Torah scholar that came from a long line of highly respected rabbis. After the war ended, he dedicated his life to helping the newly reborn state of Israel survive and thrive amidst great adversity. He died on October 23, 1980, and he was buried in the Har Hamenuchot cemetery in Jerusalem.

I had the great privilege of interviewing the son of Pinchas Rosenbaum, Rabbi Moshe Rosenbaum. As a rabbi who lives in Israel, Moshe has continued his family’s legacy of Torah scholarship and devotion to the Holy Land (#Israel). He was also kind enough to provide a fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse into the story of his heroic father:

As a lead-in to my first question, I shared with Rabbi Moshe some initial thoughts about the film Walking with the Enemy, which was very moving to watch. The scene that brought tears to my eyes the most was the final scene when your father’s on-screen equivalent, Elek Cohen, is safe with his family in New York years after the war, and he is honored with a moving toast. For the first time in the movie you feel a sense of safety; he is in a safe place, finally, after two hours of watching him endure danger after danger. The film was also very sobering and heart-wrenching — reminding me of my visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. when I was young.

Assuming you’ve had the opportunity to see the film, did you have any favorite scenes or moments from the film that especially resonated with you?

I saw the movie once in the fall of 2013 before Ben Kinsley got the role as Horty, and there might have been other differences between the version I saw and the final version.  The scene you describe is indeed moving, however it is not what happened to my father who did not emigrate to the USA after the war. In general, I was moved about the movie especially when Elek shows his courage and determination to do whatever could be done to save and help others. There was one scene which I thought was brilliant because it showed the horror of those terrible days. When the two youngsters went back to their home town for the second time, the very same person who was so nice to Elek the first time by offering Elek a ride home, became this horrific person taking over the family home and wanting to get rid of the two boys. I felt that this was so powerful. One suddenly realizes that anyone can turn out to be a monster and unless there is a real fear of the All Mighty or at least fear of the local authorities (which was absent in those days), no one can be safe.

Did you have the chance to meet or speak with any of stars from the film; and if so, what was like it meeting the performers who were working to bring your father’s story to life on the big screen?

I did not meet any of the actors, only the producers, Marc Schmidt and Randy. I felt and keep feeling very grateful to them for producing a film which means a lot to me and my family.

It is one thing to see a personality portrayed on a larger-than-life screen in a theater, but it is always fascinating to hear the perspective of someone who knew him. What was your father’s personality like in day-to-day normal life, as you knew him?

My father, in real life, was very different than Elek. He was not only a man of action, he was mostly a man of spirit. He was deeply religious and very knowledgeable in many disciplines. He was an ordained Rabbi and had a PHD in economics. He was brilliant and also very funny. Wherever he went, he became the focus because of his wit and charisma and also because people in general admired him. He was also very kind in small things as well, always polite to an extreme. He loved life and his passing at the young age of 57 was a tragedy beyond words for us all.

This next question is related to the previous question, and it’s possible your answers might overlap. But as a preface, I wish to quote from Israeli journalist Menachem Michelson (who is also writing a book about your father) as published in Shalom Magazine:

“If we wanted to relate all the courageous actions that Pinchas Rosenbaum took part in, it would require a thick volume. Pinchas himself never made much of it. Occasionally, on his travels around the world, he would meet a man or woman who owed him their life, and when such a person started telling about what he had done, his heroism and courage, Pinchas listened intently, as though they were talking about someone else…”

Were there any clues in his personality, as you knew him, that might reveal why he chose not to trumpet his brave legacy loudly to the world or even to his friends and family?

I really don’t think my late father thought he did anything more than what is expected of anyone. After all, the Torah says, “Do not stand by the blood of your neighbor…” (Leviticus 19, 16). He was also looking forward, what else he could do for others. He did not like to keep looking behind.

Michelson also wrote that after the war, “[Pinchas worked] with all his strength for the State of Israel, even carrying out a few missions for the Mossad and for Israeli security.” Did you ever learn, either from your father or from later sources, what kind of missions he did for Mossad or Israeli security?

I only know that my father was very active in trying to help the state of Israel in different ways. I have heard that he was heavily involved in the purchase of weapons desperately needed in the fifties. He was very close to many of the leading people in the Jewish State, including high ranking politicians, army generals and religious leaders.

Although I am an American based in California, I greatly admire Israel. I believe it is the most inspiring, miraculous, forward-thinking democracy in the world (and I hope to visit it one day). Respected foreign policy analyst Michael Ledeen agrees; he wrote very recently this month that Israel “may well be the most dynamic country in the world, bursting at the seams with high-tech startups, dazzling inventions — especially in military and medical technologies — and highly educated and talented people.” What would your father think about Israel today if he could see all the amazing things that it is doing as a nation?

I think my father would have been so happy and proud of many of the accomplishments of the state of Israel. He loved this country very deeply…

I belong to a portion of Protestant Christianity that stands with Israel and detests anti-Semitism. Corrie ten Boom, for example, is a Christian I greatly admire for her support of Jews during WWII, when she hid them in her home in Holland to protect them from the Nazis. Scenes in Walking with the Enemy depicted Christians helping the Jews who were being persecuted, and that was also inspiring to me. According to what I hear in the news — such as this survey of European Jews conducted in 2012 — there is an increase in anti-Semitism in Europe, which is deeply troubling. There seems to be an increase in America as well; at least I’ve seen more news reports of it in recent times. What can Christians — or anybody for that matter, not just Christians — do to fight anti-Semitism?

Anti-Semitism is a disease. It is often transmitted from one generation to another and is also very catching! Since most of the time anti-Semitism is irrational, I think one can fight it by pointing out how illogical and plain stupid anti-Semitic remarks and behavior can be. If we keep doing it, it might really help! There is much to discuss about anti-Semitism and maybe if we ever meet we can do this in person.

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You can learn more about the Liberty Studios (#LibertyStudios) award-winning film Walking with the Enemy — inspired by the true story of Pinchas Rosenbaum — at its official website, and you can read Rocking God’s House review of the film here.