See also: Recovering Rosenstrasse,
The Day Hitler Blinked
by Barbara Ash
For more information
on this article, contact:
Dr. Nathan Stoltzfus: 850-644-9529;
Day and night for a
week in early 1943, hundreds of unarmed German women did something that
was unheard of in Nazi Germany.
They stood toe-to-toe
with machine gun-wielding Gestapo agents and demanded the release of their
Jewish husbands from Adolph Hitlers murderous grip. The men were locked
up in the Jewish community center in the heart of Berlin, victims of Hitlers
"final roundup" of German Jews.
The women's courage
and passion prevailed: As thousands of other Berlin Jews were crammed into
cattle cars and transported to Auschwitz, the Jews married to Aryan German
women were set free.
But even today, more
than 50 years after the Nazi reign of terror, few Germans acknowledge the
significance of protest on Rosenstrasse, the street where the dramatic
showdown took place. To admit that unarmed women saved 1,700 Jews from
deportation would be to challenge postwar Germany's consensus that ordinary
citizens were powerless to curb Hitler's anti-Semitic rampage.
But with his book,
Resistance of the Heart: Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse Protest
in Nazi Germany, published by W.W. Norton, FSU historian Nathan Stoltzfus
demands that Germans re-examine their collective conscience.
When the book is released
in German next year, the story of this little-known protest is likely to
unearth feelings of uneasiness over what ordinary Germans did, or failed
to do during the dozen years of the Third Reich, 1933 to 1945.
Resistance of the
Heart arrived in 1996 on the heels of Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's
Willing Executioners (Vintage, 1996). That work looks no further than
"eliminationist anti-Semitism"--nurtured by a society that for generations
viewed Jews as evil and dangerous--to explain why ordinary Germans not
only allowed, but encouraged, Hitler's genocidal pursuits.
By no means minimizing
the central role anti-Semitism played in the Holocaust, Stoltzfus, who
teaches modern European history, maintains that the deadly combination
of anti-Semitism and self-interest implicates Germans. Rewarded socially
and economically for unfriendliness to Jews, Germans enthusiastically denounced
and isolated their Jewish neighbors and colleagues.
By isolating Jews from
the rest of society, ordinary Germans made it easy for Hitler to introduce
increasingly radical anti-Jewish measures, and laid the foundation for
The protest on Rosenstrasse
was the only public German protest against deportation of Jews. It shows
what happened when German women confronted the regime and refused to abandon
their Jewish spouses. Jews whose German spouses had died or who had divorced
them were immediately sent to death camps. Jews whose German spouses stuck
by them survived. By wars end, in fact, 98 percent of German Jews who
survived the Holocaust were in these intermarriages, a fact that many Germans
The story of these
women who saved their husbands is not always the story of heroes or great
love, Stoltzfus says. Germans married to Jews remained married at great
risk to themselves for a variety of reasons, including honor and tradition.
There was no such thing as a happy Jewish-German marriage during the
Nazi terror, one man, the son of a Jewish father and a German mother,
People were driven
in despair to defend what they saw as essential to themselves, and their
acts only now appear to be acts of great courage, another man said.
The success of the
protesters on Rosenstrasse is discomfiting because it contradicts the notion
that Germans had to chose between resistance and martyrdom, Stoltzfus says.
Even toward the end of the war, during years marked by increased violence
and terror, resistance was possible. The regime backed down when even its
most basic ideology of racial purity was challenged.
Throughout the Nazi
years, for example, there was other evidence that successful and unpunished
protest was possible. In 1941, for example, outcries by the Roman Catholic
Church and victims families curtailed the regimes centralized program
of euthanasia, of which mentally and physically defective Germans were
victims. And millions of German homemakers defied Goebbelss January 1943
call for total war by refusing to be conscripted into the workforce.
Neither group suffered reprisal.
The genocide of Jews
was a Nazi imperative, Stoltzfus says, but unrest that challenged wartime
morale and secrecy had to be avoided. Rosenstrasse indicates that a relatively
small number of public protesters could exercise disproportionate influence
because of their negative effect on the general populace.
If non-compliance and
the open protest saved 1,700 Berlin Jews from extermination, Stoltzfus
asks, what would have happened if other Germans had confronted Hitler?
By early 1943, millions
of German Jews had been murdered. Only Jewish factory workers considered
irreplaceable in the war effort and privileged Jews, those married
to Aryan Germans, were spared.
however, lived precariously. Stripped of citizens privileges, subjected
to relentless torment, loss of jobs and economic hardships, and shunned
by their neighbors, Germans married to Jews paid a high price for loyalty
to their partners.
Yet for more than a
decade they defied the Reichs relentless efforts to compel them to divorce.
At least 90 percent of intermarried Germans remained with their spouses.
In late 1942, there still were nearly 30,000 of these marriages in Germany,
half of them in Berlin.
Afraid that forcing
these couples to separate would provoke social unrest, Nazi leaders had
temporarily deferred Jews in German-Jewish marriages from the final solution
that had begun two years earlier.
But now, Jews in intermarriages
were seen as the remaining obstacle to ridding Germany of Jews once and
So, in Berlin on February
27, 1943, no Jew was safe.
In the pre-dawn hours,
hundreds of police, Gestapo agents , and the Leibstandarte Adolph Hitler--the
SS division created for his personal protection--swooped down upon Berlins
last Jews. The victims were plucked from factories, snatched from the streets,
and torn from their homes and families. Others, summoned to pick up new
ration cards, walked into ambushes planned months before.
They were forced with
whips and bayonets into waiting trucks, and taken to collection centers
around the city. Of the 10,000 Berlin Jews arrested in the final roundup,
8,000 were deported to Auschwitz, where they were murdered.
But the Jews married
to Aryan Germans were separated from the rest, and locked up at Rosenstrasse
2-4, the Jewish community center in the heart of Berlin.
As word of what happened
spread, the German wives of these Jews began descending upon Rosenstrasse,
gingerly at first, and only with the intention of finding their husbands.
But as one day stretched into the next, and their desperation and numbers
grew, the women became more courageous. Give us our husbands back, they
shouted over and over in unison.
Despite attempts by
SS thugs to intimidate with machine guns and threats of arrest, the women
refused to leave without their husbands.
As head of the Nazi
party in Berlin, Joseph Goebbels, should have been delighted that his city
would be among the first to be free of Jews. But as Hitlers propaganda
minister, and one of his most trusted advisors, he faced a public relations
The two leaders would
have liked nothing more than to rid Germany of intermarried Jews. These
people had tainted Aryan blood and were offensive to the Nazi sense of
racial purity. But Hitler was so sensitive to public sentiment that he
He was afraid that
deporting intermarried Jews would trigger an uprising among their German
relatives and endanger not only the domestic unity especially necessary
during war, but also the secrecy the regime tried so hard to maintain about
the fate of deported Jews. Millions had perished since the first trial
deportation in October 1940, but neither Hitler nor Goebbels wanted to
protest presented a political quagmire. By now, the protesters had been
on the street for a week and had been joined by thousands of others, including
people without imprisoned relatives.
Charlotte Israel was
among the women who waited in freezing temperatures outside Rosenstrasse
2-4, desperate for news of her husband. She had been coming each day, since
the police arrested Julius Israel. When Stoltzfus spoke with her in 1990
in Berlin, she clearly recalled the protest and the moment it turned more
political, more daring.
Without warning, the
guards began setting up machine guns, she said. Then they directed them
at the crowd and shouted: If you dont go now, well shoot. The movement
surged backward. But then, for the first time, we really hollered. Now
we couldnt care less...Now theyre going to shoot in any case, so now
well yell too, we thought. We yelled, Murderer, murderer, murderer, murderer...
The protest exasperated
Goebbels, who on March 6 wrote in his diary: There have been unpleasant
scenes...The people gathered together in large throngs and even sided with
the Jews to some extent.
The same day, he ordered
the release of intermarried Jews, promising, however, to finish the job
more thoroughly in a few weeks. Meanwhile, as these intermarried Jews
were being returned to their families, other Berlin Jews were being torn
from theirs as the final roundup continued.
The Nazi lies began
immediately. Goebbels insisted the protesters were civilians left homeless
after British bombings of Berlin.
He blamed the arrest
of intermarried Jews on overzealous local Gestapo leaders who had overstepped
their authority. And he downplayed the influence of the protesters on his
decision to free the Jews, claiming the release was the corrective measure
to the unauthorized arrests.
But Stoltzfus found
"These Jews at Rosenstrasse
were supposed to be put on a train, and then no one would have heard from
them again, Siegbert Kleeman, the Jewish Communitys personnel director
who had organized the Jewish task forces to help the Gestapo during the
Final Roundup, said.
They were separated
to make it seem that they would not share the same fate as other Jews.
There may have been a plan to take them to labor camps, from which they
could be retrieved if complaints warranted it, but from which they were
never supposed to return, Stoltzfus says. Because German wives had repeatedly
opposed the regimes efforts to deport their Jewish spouses, Goebbels expected
opposition. He hoped that deception would throw the women off balance until
their husbands had been shipped out.
Leopold Gutterer, Goebbelss
deputy at the Ministry of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment told Stoltzfus
that Goebbels had one motive for freeing the men held at Rosenstrasse.
the Jews in order to eliminate the protest from the world, Gutterer told
Stoltzfus. That was the simplest solution: to eradicate completely the
reason for the protest. Then it wouldnt make sense to protest anymore.
So that others didnt take a lesson from (the protest), so that others
didnt begin to do the same, the reason (for the protest) had to be eliminated.
There was unrest, and it could have spread from neighborhood to neighborhood...
Goebbels was sure that
the Rosenstrasse protest would end with the release of the Jews and that
the regime could then proceed with the enormous program of genocide elsewhere,
where there were no protests.
Although every option
of police force had been a possibility, Gutterer said, Goebbels did not
have the protesters arrested because there would have more unrest from
he could not murder all the people he wanted to murder--the Jewish relatives,
spouses, sympathizers, Stoltzfus says. At some point the Germans would
have begun to identify with one another rather than with a government that
kept demanding ever more human victims.
Within months of the
release, the Gestapo made its final sweep of German Jews. This time, Jews
working in the armaments industry were among those arrested. Intermarried
Jews were not.
In fact, Heinrich Himmler,
the SS chief, warned Nazi officials that protective custody arrests and
deportations of intermarried Jews could only be made for real offenses.
He ordered them to release any intermarried Jews who had been deported
on general grounds--solely because of their Jewish identity.
On May 19, 1943, though
intermarried Jews remained in Berlin, Goebbels declared the capital free
of Jews, preferring, Stoltzfus says, to ignore their presence and lie,
rather than risk another protest.
Why it Succeeded
The protest erupted
because the regime attacked an important tradition. Germans could sympathize
with women trying to hold their families together. It was successful because
women, such as Elza Holzer, were so deeply motivated that they risked their
lives even though there was no central organization, Stoltzfus says.
We acted from the
heart, and look what happened, Holzer told Stoltzfus nearly half a century
after she protested the arrest of her husband, Rudi. She still lives in
We wanted to show
that we werent willing to let them go...I did what was given to me. When
my husband needed my protection, I protected him. I went to Rosenstrasse
every day before work. And there was always a flood of people there. It
wasnt organized or instigated. Everyone was simply there. Exactly like
By January 1943, German
women in general were particularly influential in any collective effort
to oppose the Nazi regime.
They were beginning
to grumble over the sacrifices imposed on them during three years of war.
Not only had they lost husbands, sons, brothers, but they also were expected
to cut back on food and material consumption and abstain from light-hearted
activities. And now, with little hope of German victory following the epic
battle at Stalingrad, Goebbels was calling for total war and demanding
even more of them..
Although Hitler fully
supported the Nazi tenet that a womans place was in the home, and their
primary purpose to support their men and raise children of the so-called
master race, Goebbels convinced him that the only way to win the war
was to put them to work.
By the thousands, women
ignored the call to work. The widespread refusal was not viewed as opposition
to Hitler, but as standing up for family traditions that the regime had
encouraged for a decade. Thus the women werent punished.
Similarly, how could
the regime justify arresting or mowing down German women protesting on
the success of the Rosenstrasse protest to its openness and contrasted
it with conspiratorial resistance, which the regime could more easily portray
as a treasonous act against the people and state. This protest was for
Protest ignored in post-war Germany
Until Stoltzfus began
researching the Rosenstrasse incident in 1985, the protest had received
little attention, aside from a handful of brief newspaper articles.
Nobody knew about
it, it was like a non-event, said sculptor Ingeborg Hunzinger, who lives
in the former East Berlin. The 82-year-old sculptor, who is half Jewish,
credits Stoltzfus for being the first to shed light on the protest.
In the late 1980s,
Hunzinger proposed to the city councils of East and West Berlin that she
build a monument honoring the women of Rosenstrasse. Though the councils
agreed to offset a portion of the cost of constructing the seven-foot-high
stone monument, Hunzinger bore most of the expense herself.
This was such an important
fact of history of Berlin, but the only monuments were to commemorate Communist
victories, Hunzinger explained.
She offers two explanations
for the silence surrounding Rosenstrasse. Some Jews themselves preferred
not to discuss it, she said, because they are opposed to mixed marriages,
afraid that Jews would be assimilated into extinction. But mainly no one
spoke of the Rosenstrasse protest for another reason, Hunzinger said.
People say: Whats
the point of talking about it? You couldnt do anything against Hitler.
How could you stop him? But these women did stand up to him.
Stoltzfus says that
part of the reason for the post-war silence could be that the women at
Rosenstrasse had no political constituency to put their story forward as
a symbol of German resistance, as did the men who were put to death after
their failed assassination attempt on Hitler in July 1944.
That event is among
several others commemorated in the German Resistance Memorial Center, charged
in 1983 with documenting the entire extent of German resistance. The center
has published scores of brochures and books on a wide range of incidents,
but nothing on Rosenstrasse.
And leading contemporary
German historians have dismissed the protest as local history, a fluke
that could not have had anything to do with the release of Jews at Rosenstrasse.
Stoltzfus is convinced otherwise.
The notion that an
ordinary German could do nothing against the Holocaust, that a handful
of crazed Nazis were responsible for the murder of Jews, has been the official
accepted wisdom in Germany since the war. While this takes ordinary Germans
off the hook for not trying to stop Hitler, Stoltzfus says, it also stifles
Without these German
partners, mostly women, these Jews would have certainly been killed like
other Jews, he says. The one reason these people survived was that their
spouses didn't divorce. This was one incident that showed how far they
would go not to divorce."