The Women's Rosenstraße Protest in Nazi Berlin

Women's Monument by Ingeborg Hunzinger commemorating the Rosenstraße Protest

Read Nathan Stolzfus's book about the protest and see the film (click below for links to purchase)

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by Nathan Stoltzfus

Many people believe that it was impossible for the Germans to resist the Nazi dictatorship and the deportations of German Jews. However, a street protest in early 1943 indicates that resistance was possible, and indeed, successful.

Until early 1943, Nazi officials exempted Jews married to Gentiles or "Aryans" (the Nazi term for German non-Jews) from the so-called Final Solution. In late February of that year, however, during a mass arrest of the last Jews in Berlin, the Gestapo also arrested Jews in intermarriages. This was the most brutal chapter of the expulsion of Jews in Berlin. Without warning, the SS stormed into Berlin's factories and arrested any Jews still working there. Simultaneously, all throughout the Reich capital, the Gestapo arrested Jews from their homes. Anyone on the streets wearing the "Star of David" was also abruptly carted off with the other Jews to huge provisional Collecting Centers in central Berlin, in preparation for massive deportations to Auschwitz.

The Gestapo called this action simply the "Schlußaktion der Berliner Juden" (Closing Berlin Jew Action). Hitler was offended that so many Jews still lived in Berlin, and the Nazi Party Director for Berlin, Joseph Goebbels, had promised to make Berlin "Judenfrei" (free of Jews) for the Führer's 54th birthday in April. This "Schlußaktion" was, indeed, the beginning of the end for about 8,000 of the 10,000 Berlin Jews arrested in its course. Many who left their houses for what they thought would be a "normal" day of work, without turning back for even a last glance or hug, were to end up shortly in the ovens of Auschwitz, never again to see home or family.

About 2,000 of the arrested Jews who were related to Aryan Germans, however, experienced quite a different fate. They were locked up in a provisional collecting center at Rosenstraße 2-4, an administrative center of the Jewish Community in the heart of Berlin. The Aryan spouses of the interned Jews; who were mostly women; hurried alone or in pairs to the Rosenstraße, where they discovered a growing crowd of other women whose loved ones had also been kidnapped and imprisoned there. A protest broke out. The women who had gathered by the hundreds at the gate of the improvised detention center began to call out together in a chorus, "Give us our husbands back." They held their protest day and night for a week, as the crowd grew larger day by day.

On different occasions the armed guards between the women and the building imprisoning their loved ones barked a command: "Clear the street or we'll shoot!" This sent the women scrambling pell-mell into the alleys and courtyards in the area. But within minutes they began streaming out again, inexorably drawn to their loved ones. Again and again they were scattered, and again and again they advanced, massed together, and called for their husbands, who heard them and took hope.

The square, according to one witness, "was crammed with people, and the demanding, accusing cries of the women rose above the noise of the traffic like passionate avowals of a love strengthened by the bitterness of life." One woman described her feeling as a protester on the street as one of incredible solidarity with those sharing her fate. Normally people were afraid to show dissent, fearing denunciation, but on the street they knew they were among friends, because they were risking death together. A Gestapo man who no doubt would have heartlessly done his part to deport the Jews imprisoned in the Rosenstraße was so impressed by the people on the streets that, holding up his hands in a victory clasp of solidarity with a Jew about to be released, he pronounced proudly: "You will be released, your relatives protested for you. That is German loyalty." 

"One day the situation in front of the collecting center came to a head," a witness reported. "The SS trained machine guns on us: 'If you don't go now, we'll shoot.' But by now we couldn't care less. We screamed 'you murderers!' and everything else. We bellowed. We thought that now, at last, we would be shot. Behind the machine guns a man shouted something; maybe he gave a command. I didn't hear it, it was drowned out. But then they cleared out and the only sound was silence. That was the day it was so cold that the tears froze on my face.The headquarters of the Jewish section of the Gestapo was just around the corner, within earshot of the protesters. A few salvos from a machine gun could have wiped the women off the square. But instead the Jews were released. Joseph Goebbels, in his role as the Nazi Party Director for Berlin, decided that the simplest way to end the protest was to release the Jews. Goebbels chose not to forcibly tear Jews from Aryans who clearly risked their lives to stay with their Jewish family members, and rationalized that he would deport the Jews later anyway. But the Jews remained. They survived the war in Berlin, registered officially with the police, working in officially authorized jobs, and officially receiving food rations.

The implications of this protest are that mass, public and nonviolent acts of noncooperation by non-Jewish Germans on behalf of German Jews could have slowed or even stopped the Nazi genocide of German Jews. True, some six million Jews were murdered. Not many Jews were saved. Yet when the (non-Jewish) German populace protested nonviolently and en masse, the Nazis made concessions. When Germans protested for Jews, Jews were saved.

Although there were a few men in attendance, this was a protest by women; women were really the origin and the core of the protest. Women, traditionally, have felt responsible for home and family; to the women who were protesting, their families were, in some sense, their careers; to lose their families was to lose everything meaningful for them.

At the protest in the Rosenstraße there was a flickering of a tiny torch, which might have kindled the fire of general resistance if Germans had taken note of the women on the Rosenstraße and imitated their actions of mass civil disobedience. Perhaps they did not do so because they were used to thinking that neither women, nor nonviolent actions, could be politically powerful.

Source: http://www.rosenstrasse-protest.de/texte/texte_stoltzfus.html


Chambon Foundation Statement on the Rosenstraße Protest

The basic facts are simply stated.  Up until early 1943, Jews married to Germans had been exempted from the death camp deportations.  But during what the Gestapo called the “Final Roundup of Jews,” they too were arrested and taken to a pre-deportation collection center at Rosenstrasse 2-4, in the heart of Berlin, and the key location for this documentary.

Most of these mixed marriages involved Jewish men married to non-Jewish women.  The German women quickly discovered this collection center, and began to meet each other there. Soon they began calling out in one voice, "Give us our husbands back."

As many as 600 or more gathered together that first day, and as many as 6,000 may have joined in at various times as the protests grew day after day, for a week.  Again and again, the police scattered the women with threats to shoot them down in the streets, but each time they advanced again, with increasing solidarity although they were unarmed, unorganized and leaderless.  It is hard to imagine an act more dangerous for German civilians than an open confrontation with the Gestapo, on the Gestapo's front doorstep.  Arrest seemed a foregone conclusion.

“Without warning, the guards began setting up machine guns,” Charlotte Israel recalled.  “Then they directed them at the crowd and shouted: ‘If you don’t go now, we’ll shoot.’  The movement surged backward.  But then, for the first time, we really hollered.  Now, we couldn’t care less.  They’re going to shoot in any case, so now we’ll yell too, we thought.  We yelled, ‘Murderer, murderer, murderer, murderer.’”

Joseph Goebbels, in addition to being the influential Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, also served as Gauleiter (Nazi Party Leader) of Berlin.  “There have been unpleasant scenes,” he noted in his diary.  “The people gathered together in large throngs and even sided with the Jews to some extent.”  Astonishingly, after a week of this, Goebbels suddenly ordered the release of the Jews with German spouses, for reasons that provide key insights into the nature of the Nazi regime: nearly 2,000 Jews were freed—and were allowed to survive till the very end.

Leopold Gutterer, Goebbels’ deputy, told Stoltzfus that Goebbels ordered the Jews’ release “in order to eliminate the protest from the world, so that others didn’t begin to do the same.”  Goebbels similarly decided not to arrest the protesting spouses in order to avoid the risk of further unrest from their non-Jewish relatives.

“We acted from the heart,” said one of them, the still feisty Elsa Holzer.  “We wanted to show that we weren’t willing to let them go.  I went to Rosenstrasse every day before work.  And there was always a flood of people there.  It wasn’t organized or instigated.  Everyone was simply there.  Exactly like me.”

Though they are elderly and dwindling in number, there are still eyewitnesses to tell the story, and Nathan Stoltzfus knows them all and has already conducted audio-taped interviews with more than two dozen possible participants in the documentary: women who protested, Jews who were imprisoned and released, Jewish officials in charge of guarding the collection center.

Stoltzfus, who grew up in a Mennonite home and attended Harvard Divinity School before becoming a Harvard-trained historian and a Holocaust scholar, will himself be a major figure in the documentary.  When he began researching the story, there were only a small number of short, anecdotal reports on the protest, which historians had tended to overlook as an oddity without significance. "Nobody knew about it, it was like a non-event," says Berlin sculptor Ingeborg Hunzinger, who was forced to flee Nazi Germany because of her art.  The octogenarian, who has memorialized Rosenstrasse in a stirring set of sculptures, credits Stoltzfus for being the first to shed light on the protest.


Discussion Questions about the Protest

  • Who were these people who dared to protest against one of history's most ruthless regimes?

  • What was source of their determination to overcome?

  • Why did the Nazis “blink”?

  • Was resistance to the massacre of the Jews indeed possible, even in the heart of Germany?

  • Could it be that the Nazis did pay scrupulous attention to popular opinion within Germany, contrary to what has often been assumed?

  • Was the social isolation imposed by fellow Germans on the Jews a major factor in making the Holocaust possible?

  • What are the timeless implications for citizens of all nations?

Adapted from the Chambon Foundation statement: http://www.chambon.org/rosenstrasse_en.htm


Works about the Protest
 

Resistance of the Heart by Nathan Stoltzfus (Rutgers University Press, 2001)

"The Rosenstrasse protest . . . shows that a great number, probably a great majority . . . of the Aryan partners in mixed marriages did not forsake their Jewish spouses, despite often overwhelming pressures to do so. . . . What happened in this small and ordinary Berlin street was an extraordinary manifestation of courage at a time when such courage was often sadly absent."--from the foreword by Walter Laqueur

"Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners created a furor with his sweeping and sensational claim that 'ordinary Germans' in Hitler's Reich were anti-Semites who had been longing for decades for the chance to kill the Jews. This timely new book by another young American historian presents another side to the picture. Stoltzfus is a careful and subtle historian and the result of his labors is no less sensational and thought-provoking."--Richard J. Evans, The Sunday Telegraph

Stoltzfus (...) shows, very convincingly, how extraordinarily sensitive the Nazi leadership, especially Joseph Goebbels and Hitler, was when it came to popular opinion. This is new and noteworthy. (...) These utterly brutal men could be swayed by the power of public protest--public protest, however, which was not forthcoming as far as the deportation of Jews was concerned.  (...) In its exceptional quality this is a most telling story about the Third Reich."--Michael Geyer, Journal of Church and State

 

Rosenstrasse (2004), Director: Margarethe von Trotta; Running time: 136 minutes.

In the cold Berlin winter of 1943, hundreds of women stood, and waited, in defiance of the Nazis. While countless Jews were being sent to concentration camps for execution, Jewish husbands of Aryan wives suffered a different fate; they were separated from their families and imprisoned in a factory on a street named Rosenstrasse. On that street these women stood in protest, in the name of love until they were reunited with their men. This is the striking story of Rosenstrasse: where the power of the human will stands inconquerable - for hope, dignity and love.