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Oct 2002 Journal

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A story told with pauses: Profile of Rolf Weinberg

A photograph of Rolf Weinberg shows him in his Free French officer's uniform, looking every inch the part of a noble warrior. The photo is reproduced in a finely illustrated paperback book detailing parts of Rolf's life which appeared earlier this year. 'Much of his story is left untold', Rabbi Rodney Mariner comments in a preface.

Quite so. A conversation with Rolf about his past entails numerous pauses, while Rolf considers what he may reveal - even after so much time has gone by - about his involvement in not one but two fascinating careers - as an officer in the Free French Forces and as a man keen to help lay the foundation of the Jewish State.

Rolf Weinberg was born in the Westphalian city of Herford in 1919. His father was the director of the family's chocolate manufacturing business. On the day following Hitler's accession to power, Rolf and his sister were attacked by pupils at their gymnasium, while most teachers looked on laughing. Their parents removed them from the school without hesitation. Rolf became an apprentice in a textile shop owned by a Jewish family. Here he gained experience in office administration and hated every minute of it.

In 1936 Rolf's mother took him to a knitting machine factory in Stuttgart where he became an apprentice. He began a course in textile engineering at a technical college in Reutlingen and, in September 1938, having received his engineering diploma, he moved to Hamburg following a tip-off that he was to be arrested by the Gestapo. That same month, the 19-year-old Rolf left for Uruguay, one of the few destinations then open to Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. Sailing out of German territorial waters, Rolf swore he would devote his life to helping to destroy the Nazi regime as well as to fighting antisemitism.

At the onset of the Second World War Rolf presented himself as a volunteer to both the British and French embassies, but was turned down.

In the Battle of the River Plate in December 1939, the German battle cruiser Graf Spee entered the port of Montevideo for repairs. At three in the morning Rolf was sent for by the British ambassador and asked to undertake a mission to help the war effort by spreading disinformation among the crew of the Graf Spee.

Days after the fall of France, Rolf presented himself once again at the French embassy. On this occasion, he was accepted for the London-based Free French Forces of General Charles de Gaulle. In April 1941 he met for the first time the French leader, who, not surprisingly, was curious as to why this young Jew born in Germany was so keen to fight for France.

Rolf spent 1941 at Camberley Free French camp where he underwent tough military training. He left the camp bearing the rank of Second Lieutenant. In December that year he was sent on a mission to Lebanon to investigate arrested German officers attempting to penetrate the Free French Forces. Rolf Weinberg ceased to exist: 'Henri Rovey' arose in his place.

In July 1942 'Henri Rovey' finally became a member of the 1st Free French Division, commanded by General Koenig, who after the war was promoted to the rank of Maréchal de France and became President of the Christian Jewish Association of France. The division was attached to the 8th Army fighting from El Alamein to Tunis under Field Marshal Montgomery.

Now to the second strand of Rolf's unique military career. In July 1943 he was one of 17 NCOs who transported arms captured from the Afrika Corps to the Haganah. Arriving in Rehovot, the men were blindfolded and taken to meet Moshe Dayan. Rolf's links with Israel's military leaders have lasted right up to the present day.

Also in July 1943 Rolf was appointed Major in the Free French Forces. In 1943-44 he fought on the front line in a number of battles. In 1944 Rolf played his part in the liberation of southern France, his mission being to contact resistance forces. With a half-smile, Rolf says that General de Gaulle gave orders at the time that the details of another important mission were not to be revealed until 2045. Rolf was decorated many times for outstanding battle service and awarded the Médaille Militaire - France's equivalent of the Victoria Cross.

After the war Rolf rejoined his parents in Montevideo. In 1954 he returned to Germany for four years, working in the sphere of pre-fabricated housing. In 1968 he left with his wife Sarah for Spain, where she opened a pair of men's fashion boutiques. In Spain, Rolf says matter-of-factly, he was twice the target of Palestinian gunmen. On the second occasion, a man seated at a neighbouring table in a café was shot in his place.

Sarah died in 1988. In 1990 Rolf came to London to join Ruth, the partner of his youth. He became a member of the AJR, living for five years in a flat at the association's Cleve Road Day Centre, and of Belsize Square Synagogue. One day perhaps, Rolf Weinberg's full story - without pauses - will be told.
Howard Spier

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