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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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.
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.
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
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.