Holocaust Survivor and Civil Rights Attorney in Owensboro to Encourage Public Service

Sep 24, 2018

John Rosenberg
Credit Kentucky Wesleyan University

A Holocaust survivor and attorney who helped prosecute the murderers of three civil rights workers, brought to the screen in the movie "Mississippi Burning," is speaking in Owensboro on Sept. 25. 

John Rosenberg has also provided years of legal service to residents of Kentucky. Eighty-six-year-old Rosenberg was the founding director of the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund and served in that position for more than 30 years. He had a precarious childhood journey that eventually led to  that legal aid organization and Prestonsburg, Kentucky.

He was seven years old on Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, Nov. 9, 1938 when the Nazis broke windows of Jewish businesses and burned synagogues across Germany. Rosenberg says one of the synagogues that was burned was next to his home in the town of Magdeburg. 


“They rousted us out of our apartment in the middle of the night and had us come out into the courtyard and watch while they bombed the inside of the synagogue and made a bonfire outside of the holy books, " said Rosenberg. "The next day they arrested my father and took him to a concentration camp along with about 200 other men from that community in Magdeburg.” 

His father was released from the Buchenwald concentration camp after a short time and the family was sent to a detention camp in Holland for a year. In 1940 they boarded a boat bound for America. 

Rosenberg grew up in Gastonia, North Carolina and went to Duke University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry. After graduation he went into the U.S. Air Force, where he was a navigator from 1954 to 1957 and rose to the rank of captain. After military service he went to law school at the University of North Carolina on the G.I. Bill. 

He worked in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice from 1962 to 1970 as a trial lawyer in the South.

In 1970 he came to Prestonsburg in eastern Kentucky to launch the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund. Rosenberg says the legal aid organization was established to represent low-income clients in cases including housing, disabilities, and coal mine health and safety. That organization has grown to six offices providing free legal services to residents of 37 counties in eastern and south central Kentucky.

Rosenberg's presentation is hosted by the Stanley Reed Pre-Law and Politics Society at Kentucky Wesleyan College. Reed was a 1902 graduate of the college and an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1938 to 1957.

Rosenberg said he will address the topic of social justice and service to the country he came to as a young boy and a nation he is proud to serve. 

"The message I hope I can leave with the students it that a life of public service is a great way to spend your life, whether you do that in the law as I’ve done during my lifetime or as a social worker or in any of a number of helping professions,” said Rosenberg.

His presentation is Sept.  25 at 7 p.m. at Legacy Church, 3300 Frederica Street in Owensboro. The event is open to the public.