“I owe it to my fellow inmates from all the concentration camps where I was kept. They did not make it, but I did and I want the world to remember them.” These are the words of APS member and Holocaust survivor Morris Rosen. Morris died on December 12, 2020, in his adopted hometown of Baltimore, Maryland.
Morris Rosen and his grandchildren, Hannah and Michael, courtesy of his son Jake.
Morris, born Moniek Rozen in 1922, grew up in Dąbrowa Górnicza, Poland. He survived one of the darkest chapters in world history, from the ghettos to five different concentrations camps and two death marches. He later dedicated his life to speaking of his experiences and carrying the memory of so many people, from his hometown and in concentration camps, who perished at the hands of the Nazis.
His story of survival is miraculous and it’s a story he would share countless times to audiences, friends, and total strangers. He often opened his talks by noting, “If I talked for a whole week, it still wouldn’t be enough because I remember everything.” After learning about Morris’ life, I can understand the difficulty of conveying the history he carried with him.
His life before the war was filled with friends and family, as one of ten children. His father, Jacob, owned a general store in Dąbrowa until the rising tide of anti-Semitism forced him to close the business in 1938. At that time, the Polish government actively sought to reduce the Jewish population by assisting Polish Jews emigrating to Palestine to form a Jewish state.
On September 1, 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland. Morris recalled waking to airplanes flying over Dąbrowa, bombs exploding near his town. Even though he was just 16 years old, he fled east, making it as far as the Vistula River before advancing German soldiers forced him to return home. By the time he returned, his hometown was already occupied – his family’s possessions, like those of all Jewish families, confiscated by the Nazis. This included his stamp collection, which he started at nine years old.
Jewish residents were forced into labor, and Morris took a job as a carpenter’s assistant. His first job was to build a hanging scaffold in the town center. After the job was completed, the Nazis brought in ten prisoners from a neighboring town, performed a show trial for sabotage, and summarily hung them. Morris told the audience of his First Person talk, “This is what they were doing all over Poland.”
Morris would work in construction and as a painter until August 1942. Morris recalled that all the Jewish residents were told to assemble, wearing their best clothes, so they could get new identification cards. Instead, the Nazis sorted the residents into three groups for assignment. Older residents and those deemed too weak for service were deported to the Auschwitz death camp, including Morris’ parents. Not long after, Morris was shipped off to his first transition camp.
“I owe it to my fellow inmates from all the concentration camps where I was kept. They did not make it, but I did and I want the world to remember them.”
He arrived at the newly constructed camp to learn his barracks were not even complete. The prison guards confiscated all of their belongings when they arrived, including scores of pictures of Morris’ family, friends, and, as he called it, “a girl he had been sweet on.” In the middle of the night. Morris escaped from the barracks, jumping a fence that had not yet been electrified, to the barracks where the stolen possessions were stored. After an hour-long search, Morris recovered the photos and returned to his barracks, storing them in a soup can and burying it.
By 1945, Morris was in the Kittlitztreben concentration camp in Poland. As Soviet troops closed in on the area, the Nazis evacuated the camp and forced the prisoners on a death march to Buchenwald, inside the German border. The 230- mile march in the winter snow would take them through Dresden, which had just been bombed by Allied Forces.
The prisoners were poorly dressed for the march, which lasted eight hours or more daily through the snow and cold. At night, the prisoners would huddle on the snow to keep each other warm. Morris told the story of reaching the Elbe River, where the prisoners were told to bathe and wash their clothes in the freezing river. When Morris emerged, he broke one of his pant legs, still frozen.
When he arrived at Buchenwald, he encountered “mountains of dead people.” Those who were still alive “looked like movie monsters.”
In early April 1945, as U.S. forces marched toward Buchenwald, the Nazis again started evacuating. With an active underground resistance in Buchenwald, Morris attempted to escape and hide. He’d discovered a hole in a barracks wall and climbed inside. Other prisoners attempted the same, only to be discovered by Nazi soldiers. When they opened fire on the wall, Morris managed to make it out and join the last group of prisoners shipped out by train. In his First Person interview, he noted, with some regret, that if he’d missed that train, he would have been one of the 21,000 prisoners saved by the Sixth Armored Division of the U.S. Army.
Instead, he endured a rough train ride toward Theresienstadt “camp-ghetto” located in what is today the Czech Republic. During the trip on the cramped, freezing train, prisoners would die, and they threw them off the train at night. Soviet planes targeted trains traveling, ultimately disabling the train he was on and forcing him to take a second march.
Morris finally made it to Theresienstadt, which was more of a ghetto than a camp. The ghetto was a “retirement spa” for older Jews and a concentration camp for sending Jews off to their death. By this point in the war, the Nazis refused to feed the prisoners, hoping they would die from starvation instead of executing them. Morris was a prisoner there for two weeks before the camp was liberated by Soviet troops. By that time, he’d lost his parents and five siblings to the Holocaust.
After the war, Morris remained in Europe for four years before immigrating to the United States in 1949. When Morris arrived, he educated himself, first learning English, then going to the Maryland Institute of Art where he got a degree in interior design. He spoke proudly about starting his own business in Baltimore, Maryland, getting jobs by word of mouth and repeat business.
Morris Rosen and his son Jake and grandaughter Hannah, courtesy of his son Jake.
He married his wife Miriam, and they had two sons. Morris told the story of seeing a doctor for his nerves and anger issues. The doctor prescribed medication and he took it for two years, but it was not helping him. He went to see another doctor, who told him he was addicted to the pills and had to quit, throwing his pills in the trash. The doctor asked him if he had any hobbies, and Morris responded that he’d collected stamps as a boy. The doctor said, “So collect stamps.”
Morris started collecting Olympics stamps, amassing one of the largest and most notable collections in the world. That collection earned him invitations to the Olympic Games every four years. He went on to exhibit those stamps, not just in the U.S., but around the world, including attending Olympic Games in several countries with his sons.
He also began collecting mail from ghettos and concentration camps. He primarily exhibited mail from the ghettos of Poland. In 2002, he showed his exhibit, “Ghetto Post and Labor Camps in German-Occupied Europe With Emphasis on Ghettos in Poland 1939-1944.”
He later sold his collection of ghetto mail to Dr. Justin Gordon, an APS Life Member and frequent writer and speaker on the topic. Justin and Morris first met at Ameripex in 1986, where they connected on the topic of the Holocaust. Justin showed Morris a cover from the Dąbrowa ghetto and Morris recognized the young lady who sent it as one of his neighbors. “Morris was a wonderful person. He was very giving with information,” Justin shared with me. “He was what I consider a gentleman.”
Locally, Morris joined the Baltimore Philatelic Society in 1960, serving as its president from 1987 to 1993. At the time he joined, he was either the first or one of the first Jewish members of the club, recalled Phil Sager of Geezer’s Tweezers stamp shop in Maryland. When the clubhouse was downtown, Morris put his talents to work, redecorating and repainting the interior. Not long after joining the BPS, Morris joined the APS, becoming a member in October 1965, membership number 47550, reaching Life Member status.
Sager remembers Morris for his talks at the club, showing his ghetto collection and photos from the Holocaust. Morris would stop by the stamp store three times a year, browsing material. Though he would occasionally pick up an item or two, Sager offered, “He seemed to prefer the European market.”
Morris and Justin Gordon in the exhibits.
Morris began speaking with community groups, schools, and using his philatelic collection to help illustrate his story. In time, Morris got more involved in Holocaust education, preservation, and tracing survivors to reconnect families separated during the war. When the American Red Cross moved its Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Center to Baltimore, Morris volunteered there as well. In 1990, when a request came in looking for survivors from Dąbrowa, Morris was called on to translate and pronounce the name. He immediately recognized the name of a boyhood friend, Harry Nordon, who had been living in New York City. They reunited in 1991, embracing in tears and sharing memories of home.
Morris also became a reliable volunteer for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. He would travel by train from Baltimore to Washington several times a week to work in the translation center translating Polish to English. He spent more than three decades in service to the museum “to honor the memories of his brothers.” That work gave him a chance to meet some impressive people, like Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, who like Morris, had resided at Buchenwald. Wiesel and Morris would remain friends until Wiesel passed in 2017, calling him “dearest friend Morris.”
In 2009, Morris helped lead the prayer during a Holocaust Remembrance Day in the U.S. Capitol. After the event, he got to meet newly elected President Barack Obama and even got a hug. Morris’ son Jake shared, “When they hugged, Dad said to him, ‘Good luck, you’ll need it’,” leaving the President laughing and smiling. For those who knew him best, that’s Morris.
Ed Rosen (no relation) of House of Zion Stamps knew Morris for 30 years, beginning when they both lived in Baltimore. They kept in touch when Ed moved west. “I just enjoyed his company. He’s a typical survivor. He was so enthusiastic about everything.”
Philately is full of remarkable people and remarkable stories. Morris Rosen is proof that our mission is not a simple or unimportant one.
Morris wasn’t just a friend; he was also a customer. In fact, Morris’ most amazing find didn’t come until 2020. Ed had a postcard for sale from a young man to his sister from a camp in Poland. Morris came across the postcard in a catalog for an upcoming sale and wanted to buy it. He called Ed and identified the postcard for him, saying, “I’d pay any amount of money to buy that.”
Ed, intrigued with the statement, asked why. Morris responded, “Because I sent that post card to my sister and I’d like to have it back.”
Without hesitation, Ed told Morris he couldn’t buy the postcard, but he could have it. He pulled the postcard from the sale and shipped it off to Morris, completing one of the most impossible journeys in philately. Not only did that postcard survive from war-torn Europe but made it into the hands of a dealer and friend in the U.S., who put it up for sale in the last year of Morris’ life.
Philately is full of remarkable people and remarkable stories. Morris Rosen is proof that our mission is not a simple or unimportant one. Many people served as keepers of that postcard until it could return back to the person who had sent it as a young man. Our purpose is to be more than just collectors, but also protectors of history.
On April 8, 2021, we mark another Holocaust Remembrance Day. In a recent poll of under-40 Americans, nearly two-thirds of the respondents did not know that six million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust. Ten percent did not believe the Holocaust even happened. As time passes, fewer Holocaust survivors remain with us. We can all help in some way to make sure the stories and the lessons of the Holocaust are not easily forgotten.
The APS has sponsored three education programs in schools to help young people collect 11 million stamps, representing the death toll brought on by the Nazis. We are completing an exhibit of the first Holocaust Stamps Project in the American Philatelic Center. Several members have offered scans, material, and research to assist with the project. We’d welcome any expertise or material on the topic so that we can build a lasting legacy in the hobby to carry on the mission that Morris started. If you’d like to help, please contact the APS Education Department at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When Morris spoke, he closed with a simple request and I’ll share it on his behalf: “You can see what hate can bring. Be friendly to each other.”
Our Story is reprinted from the April 2021 issue of The American Philatelist, The Member Recognition Issue Issue. If you are interested in joining the American Philatelic Society to gain access to members-only benefits such as this highly acclaimed monthly magazine, visit Together We Grow today!