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Five Things: Physicist, Psychoanalyst, And Holocaust Survivor Izio Rosenman

Courtesy Izio Rosenman

After a summer break, the Five Things podcast is back! (Did you miss me? I sure missed you.)

I am absolutely delighted to be starting this season with a truly remarkable story. A friend of a friend suggested that I might want to talk to his father for this show -- I often get suggestions for interesting people -- and as soon as I heard a little bit of his story, I knew I wanted to make it happen. Izio Rosenman is 83 years old, and he's had an incredible life. Professionally, he was a physics researcher for 40 years, then he became a psychoanalyst and saw patients for 15 years. He was also a prisoner in the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany when he was a child, where one of his childhood friends was the writer and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel. I wanted to know how he not only survived the camp, but I was also interested in his recovery from the trauma of those years.

Dr. Rosenman has lived in Paris, France, since Buchenwald was liberated and he was taken to a French orphanage with 400 other children from the camp. Lucky for me, he was visiting family in New York City in the spring and I was able to spend some time with him then. He had just returned from a trip to Cuba with his wife of 43 years, which was their vacation after organizing a symposium in Paris on the future of Israeli democracy the week before. (As you can tell, he stays pretty busy.) He doesn't shy away from talking about his experiences as a child, but he emphasized that he has generally chosen to look towards the future rather than dwelling in the past.

The conversations on Five Things usually center around important objects in a persons' life, but this interview got pretty far afield -- I didn't mind a bit, and I don't think you will either.

On a random kindness while he was in Buchenwald:
"Once I was walking in the camp, and an SS [officer} arrested me, and said to me, 'Come with me.' Where did he take me? He took me to the brothel. It was a brothel in Buchenwald for the SS, where there were young Jewish girls, and he took me to the brothel and he gave me a very good soup. He gave me also a container to bring the soup home, let's say. The only reason I found that he would do that, it will seem curious, was that I was very beautiful. When I look on my picture, I looked like an Aryan person. And he saw a Jew, probably, who didn't correspond to his image of the Jews."

How he found his role models, in the absence of having a normal family situation:
"Orphanages are generally isolated places, isolated culturally and isolated humanly. So when you live in a normal situation, you with your parents, you live with your friends. When you live in an orphanage, you have to imagine your own future. That's not an easy thing. I knew one person who was in the university and went to engineering school -- maybe five, six years older than me -- so the only thing I thought was, 'When I'm older, I will do the same engineering school as this guy.' And when I was ending this school, the boy -- who was now an adult -- was doing a Ph.D. in physics, so my idea was, 'I will do the same Ph.D. as him.'"

How he became an atheist as a young adult:
"It happened maybe 50 years ago, by thinking on shoah. Until that time, I lived but I didn't think much because, you know, during 10 or 15 years, for most people the most important thing was for them to survive, and to build their lives. People were interested in living, studying. Later, I began to think. When I was religious, I was very religious. But after thinking, I became very not religious. If God had been present, how could he allow what we saw? Thinking about all these things which happened, I decided, how could there be a God? Life is in our hands, I think."