Niskayuna

Remarkable journey ends at 93 for tenacious survivor and engineering pioneer Carl Rosner

General Electric researcher Carl H. Rosner demonstrates the power of supercooled superconducting magnets in 1965 at the GE Research lab in Niskayuna. Rosner, who played a key role in their development, died April 16, 2022, shortly after his 93rd birthday. (PHOTO PROVIDED BY MISCI)

General Electric researcher Carl H. Rosner demonstrates the power of supercooled superconducting magnets in 1965 at the GE Research lab in Niskayuna. Rosner, who played a key role in their development, died April 16, 2022, shortly after his 93rd birthday. (PHOTO PROVIDED BY MISCI)

NISKAYUNA Before Carl Rosner recorded the achievements that marked his long life, he had to pass the toughest test of all: surviving his childhood and moving forward from its horrors.

On April 16, his remarkable journey ended, 77 years almost to the day after U.S. troops liberated the concentration camp where he’d been hiding in sewers amid a last-ditch roundup of prisoners by Nazi guards.

The longtime Niskayuna resident was recalled this week for his pioneering work in the field of superconductivity, his success in business and his devotion to family, the community and his Jewish faith.

His children said, though, that one of his greatest satisfactions was sharing his story and the message that one could not just overcome setbacks and obstacles but emerge stronger from them.

“He felt very fortunate, very, very lucky to be alive,” daughter Elizabeth Rosner said. 

“He was very committed to telling his story,” daughter Monica Brettler said. “He wanted to encourage young kids. Not just the ‘Never again,’ but ‘You too can survive and thrive.'”

“The word that comes up when people talk about him is that he was a very inspirational person,” Elizabeth said. “He was trying to show by example what was possible. We’re getting a lot of beautiful notes and messages.”

Rosner is known in the engineering community as one of the “wizards of Schenectady,” part of the team that pioneered supercooled superconducting magnets at the General Electric research lab in Niskayuna in the early 1960s.

He also met with success in the business world. In 1971, he formed Intermagnetics General Corp., a GE spinoff that grew into a leading supplier of magnetic resonance imaging components. Royal Philips Electronics N.V. bought the Latham-based firm in 2006 for $1.3 billion.

Rosner’s daughters said he was always interested in the practical applications of science, and recall their father emphasizing the value of practical skills even as he encouraged them to pursue advanced degrees.

The emphasis on the practical, on doing for oneself, quite possibly kept him alive through the Holocaust, they said. And it helped him to bluff his way into college at war’s end without having attended high school.

“He had very strong memories that the people who survived in the camp were people who knew how to do things with their hands,” Elizabeth said. “That was a lesson I remember telling me from a very young age.

“I think he probably didn’t like people to know about these gaps in his education,” she said. “But really, he was self-taught. He had a seventh-grade diploma, basically.”

Rosner is survived by his children, Elizabeth, Monica and Raphael; his brother Joseph; six grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

SURVIVAL

The story of the Rosner family in the 1930s and early 1940s is one of missed chances and chance survival — “forks in the road” is the term Rosner would use. But they all made it through the Holocaust alive.

Carl Heinz Rosner was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1929. When he was just a few years old, his parents divorced and his father, David, left for his native Romania. His mother, Rahel, unable to support her three children, placed them in orphanages.

When Germany’s persecution of Jews began to devolve toward genocide, his mother shipped her youngest son, Eliot, to Sweden on a Kindertransport and then smuggled herself there to be with him.

Rosner would later learn that she tried relentlessly to secure passage to Sweden for her two older sons, but was unsuccessful until 1943, shortly after sustained Allied bombing had damaged Hamburg to the point that she couldn’t contact them from Sweden.

Remarkably, Rosner and his brother Joseph remained out of Nazi clutches for most of the Holocaust. When the Jewish orphanage was shut down in 1942, the other children and the staff were deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

The Rosner boys were citizens of Romania, then a German ally, so they remained free, sheltered first in an elder-care residence, then by a local couple who had shipped their own child to England on a Kindertransport.

When Romania switched allegiance to the Allied side, Rosner and his brother lost their last protection. They were shipped to the Buchenwald concentration camp in June 1944.

But even in this, fate favored the boys: Buchenwald was a work camp. It was a brutal place were tens of thousands of prisoners were murdered or worked to death, but it was not a death camp, a place of industrialized slaughter such as Auschwitz was.

Rosner relied on his wits, he seized opportunity, and he had critical help from a political prisoner who also was a Jew from Hamburg.

“My father’s life was saved a few times by intervention,” Elizabeth said. “He was this tremendously resilient, tenacious person.”

A close call came in the form of lung infections that put him in the infirmary twice that winter. Those who couldn’t work didn’t get rations and those who became too sick were executed or used for medical experiments. So not only was he severely ill, he was starved and once more at risk of death.

“We never heard him talk about his physical condition in any detail,” Elizabeth said.

Which may be because he was too incoherent at the time to remember it.

As Rosner turned 16, on April 4, 1945, the situation drew to a head: American forces were closing in on Buchenwald and the Germans were anxious to flee, taking with them as many of the prisoners as they could.

When the guards ordered Jews to assemble separately for roll call, which they hadn’t done before, Rosner’s benefactor advised the boys to hide in the sewer, concerned that slaughter might be imminent. There he remained for more than a day.

Rosner would call it the worst part of the entire ordeal.

There was not a wholesale slaughter of Jewish prisoners but there was a relocation that accomplished the same thing: Thousands would die on the forced march.

Troops of the U.S. Third Army liberated Buchenwald on April 11, 1945, encountering the stench of cremated bodies and the appalling sight of hundreds of walking dead, prisoners who would soon succumb to sickness or starvation.

The U.S. Holocaust Museum has preserved the report that American war correspondent Edward R. Murrow transmitted after visiting the camp. Among his words:

“There surged around me an evil-smelling horde. Men and boys reached out to touch me. They were in rags and the remnants of uniforms. Death had already marked many of them, but they were smiling with their eyes.”

The two Rosner boys were not among the doomed. They survived to live long lives.

Carl and Joseph were reunited five months later in Sweden with their mother, who thought they had been killed, and brother Eliot.

Also in Sweden, he met Freida Zeidshnur, a Holocaust survivor from Lithuania. The two were married for 49 years until her death in 2000.

Years after the war, Rosner was reunited with his father but never reconnected with him, Monica said. “He left us and I don’t really think about him very much,” she recalls him saying.

SUCCESS

The drive and determination that helped Rosner survive his childhood segued to ambition and motivation in young adulthood.

Working to support his family by day and attending classes at night, he earned a degree in engineering from the Stockholm Technical Institute in 1950.

He also looked abroad for a new home, in a nation of immigrants where he wouldn’t feel as conspicuous as in a homogeneous Scandinavian country.

It came down to Israel or the United States for Carl and Frieda.

Frieda didn’t like that Israel was a new nation just starting to build itself. Carl liked the idea of the United States, having been liberated by the U.S. Army and having learned a little English from a U.S. airman held at Buchenwald.

The couple married in Israel and in 1952 they settled in America.

“He loved being an American,” Elizabeth said, and would fly the American flag at his home.

Rosner earned degrees at what was then the Newark College of Engineering and at RPI, and he went to work for General Electric for a 16-year stint.

“When he started at GE, he got into the research group that was working on superconductivity,” said Chris Hunter, vice president of collections and exhibitions at MiSci.

In 1963, GE announced the first 100,000-gauss magnet, winning a friendly competition with Bell Labs in New Jersey.

“Ultimately that work led to the MRI and new types of magnetic imaging,” Hunter said.

GE apparently didn’t see the commercial applications for it, however, and allowed Rosner to spin off the technology into what became Intermagnetics General.

“I took about a dozen GE employees with me and we were a very successful spinoff,” Rosner told The Daily Gazette in 2017. “It was kind of a funny relationship with GE, but I think they were sort of sorry they let us go.”

Fifty years later, General Electric is deeply competitive in the medical imaging industry through its GE Healthcare business.

GE said this week that the research by Rosner and his colleagues in the 1960s laid the groundwork for technology being developed in the 2020s.

“Carl was a pioneer in advancing superconducting magnet technology and in promoting the superconducting industry as a whole,” spokesman Todd Alhart said. “We’re proud to have GE scientists and engineers continuing to build upon the great work of Carl and other innovators before them, as we look to expand the reach of superconducting magnets from the healthcare industry to new industry spaces such as offshore wind.”

The sale of Intermagnetics General allowed Rosner to concentrate on his followup venture, CardioMag Imaging, which hasn’t seen the soaring growth that Intermagnetics enjoyed.

It also allowed him to support causes close to his heart with both time and money, his daughters recalled.

One goal that he never reached was to create a foundation to assist single Jewish mothers, Elizabeth said.

“That was absolutely linked to his own mother,” she said.

REMEMBRANCE

Amid all the trauma of the Holocaust and the Allied bombing of Hamburg, Rosner did carry some fond memories.

He spoke of the couple who’d sheltered him, of the scarce rations that were conserved to bake a cake for his Bar Mitzvah, of his friends at the orphanage.

A highlight would be breakfast each day with the director of the orphanage, who as a World War I veteran got an egg as an extra daily ration. When he boiled the egg and broke it open, he would give the top part to a different boy each day.

He and his brother would be the only ones in that little crowd of boys to survive the Holocaust.

“He always said, ‘I have an obligation to live on behalf of them,'” his daughter Monica said.

A 2021 family video shows him recounting the orphanage breakfast ritual. Time and age had slowed his words but the scene they painted was vivid.

Almost every morning, all these years later, he would eat a hard-boiled egg.

“I do it now in memory of that,” he said.

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