What we talk about when we commemorate the Rosenstrasse Protest

by Nathan Stoltzfus

The recognition of the Rosenstrasse Protest on The European Day of the Righteous is a primary milestone. It lays a foundation for giving their due to the brave German women who risked their lives on the street by publicly uniting themselves with the fate of Jews who were marked for death by the yellow star. March 6, The European Day of the Righteous - thanks to Gariwo - marks the death of a great Good Samaritan Moshe Bejski. And by a fine historical congruence, it also marks the triumph of the Rosenstrasse Protest. It was March 6, 1943, following a week of protest, that the Gestapo released the vast majority of the ca. 2000 Jews imprisoned at Rosenstrasse, sending them home to their non-Jewish partners.

A week earlier, before a bleak dawn on February 27, 1943, a Sabbath, some 300 covered furniture trucks operated by the SS, the Gestapo and the Berlin police fanned out in a massive arrest intended to remove every person wearing the Jewish Star from Berlin. Jewish persons were grabbed from their jobs and homes, and persons seen wearing the Star were chased down and thrown onto trucks prowling the streets. It was, in fact, the beginning of the end for about 8,000 of the l0,000 Berlin Jews arrested. Most who left their houses for work that day, unsuspectingly for the last time without a special last glance or goodbye, were soon in the ovens of Auschwitz.

Bearing medals of war valor and bayonetted rifles, Hitler’s Leibstandarte, the most elite division of the SS, assisted the Gestapo and Berlin police in prodding and cramming Jews unto the canvas-canopied trucks that thinly masked the human freight as they rumbled heavily across the city for the deportation collection centers. There were broken bones, streams of blood, suicides. People jumped to their deaths, threw themselves in front of trucks, swallowed cyanide secreted away to deliver them from such a moment of horror.

When the intermarried Jews among the nearly ten thousand arrested that day did not return home as scheduled, their wives desperately began searching for them, and then arrived alone or in pairs at Rosenstrasse 2-4, a Jewish administration building which was now a deportation collecting center for intermarried Jews. The wives found themselves among a small but growing crowd that evening, and a sense of solidarity took root, Before departing for the night, several women promised to meet each other at that same spot early the next day to make a scene. Arrested Jews were customarily held for two days in collecting centers before being herded onto the trains from which no one returned, and they had to act fast.

Annie Radlauer reached the Rosenstrasse early the next morning, February 28. As she got off the train at the Börse station, she detected a chorus that became clearer and louder as she approached the Rosenstrasse: “Give us our husbands back. We want our husbands back.” It was a declaration of loyalty that would grow to at least several hundred women on the street at once, and be seen and heard by thousands of Germans not to mention foreign diplomats and journalists in the Reich capital. Day and night, for a week, Germans married to Jews continued their protest. At various moments armed guards shouted, "Clear the streets or we'll shoot!," sending the women scrambling into alleys and court yards. But soon they began streaming out again, massed together, and called for their husbands, who heard them and took hope.

This landscape of death was also marked by hubris, as one intermarried Jew imprisoned at Rosenstrasse wrote immediately following the war, many perceived only Germany’s heroic history-making: “One was at war, conquering provinces, ‘making history,’ was on intimate terms with millennia. And the public overlooked the sudden flare of a tiny torch from which the fire of a general resistance against arbitrary tyranny might have burst into flames.”[i]

Civil Courage: The Well-Practiced Capacity of Intermarried Germans

Desperation and fear hung over the German capital but one population was uniquely well-practiced in civil courage. Every day since Hitler took power in January 1933, the women of Rosenstrasse had been practicing what one called “going against the fear,” refusing to cooperate with Nazi regulations and propaganda, not to mention the rapidly nazifying social norms spreading across the Reich. They worked up their backbone one act of defiance after another, until their dramatic protest on Rosenstrasse. They made it clear day after uncertain day, that they would never abandon their Jewish partners. This created a pattern of regime concessions to accommodate this defiance, in counterpoint with regime accommodations in response.

Beginning in early 1933, various government measures as well as those of private associations began illustrating to intermarried Gentiles the great detriment of remaining married, especially when considered with getting a divorce as an entry ticket to the gloriously expanding expectations of life in Hitler’s Germany. Numerous regulations from official and private agencies pressured them to divorce. On June 30, 1933 a new law required candidates for the civil service to prove that their spouses' ancestors had been non-Jews (“German-blooded” or “Aryan”). Civil servants who married Jews were to be dismissed. In a separate exertion of financial and peer pressure on Germans marriedto Jews, the Reich finance minister ruled in July that the popular Nazi loans for married couples could not be extended to intermarriages. Adoptions too, the lnterior Ministry announced, would not be recognized for intermarried parents.

To the well-known Jewish lawyer and statistician who survived due to his non-Jewish wife, Bruno Blau, it seemed like a "miracle" that Germans married to Jews "withstood with utmost strength of will and resistance the temptations, insults, and threats" heaped on them by the Gestapo in its attempt to have them divorce. The diaries of Victor Klemperer, a professor from Dresden married to an “Aryan,” are a classic day-by-day record of the social scorn and privations his Gentile wife endured to protect her husband from death. In 1939 there were about 30,000 intermarried couples--almost one in 10 German Jews were intermarried.

In 1935 The Nuremberg Laws identified intermarried Jews as “full Jews,” just as it identified other Germans who had three or four Jews grandparents as full Jews. However, in response to the everyday, year-to-year defiance of the intermarried couples, the regime made a series of concessions that (temporarily) exempted intermarried Jews from some of the persecution suffered by other German full Jews. These exceptions were based in a desire not to draw attention to intermarried couples and also because of official reasoning that the Gentile partner would soon seek the relief of a divorce under the searing pressures of the Reich. Official compromises regarding the absolutes of Nazi ideology included the division of intermarried Jews into two categories in December 1938, which privileged the majority of the couples from the worst measures of Nazi persecution.

Concessions to these couples who refused to divorce culminated in the “temporary” exemption from the deportations of intermarried Jews who wore the yellow star, marking them as Jews and enemies of the people. This exemption was temporary so the regime could end it at any location and in any moment it thought expedient. The temporary exemption had in fact, ended for many intermarried Jews already before Joseph Goebbels, as the regional party leader (Gauleiter) for Greater Berlin, decided that it would end in early 1943 for the intermarried Berlin Jews who wore the yellow star--intermarried Jews who not privileged in 1938.

In response to intermarried defiance, the Regime makes temporary concessions

The regime privileged the majority of intermarried couples so it could deal with such a problematic group one step at a time. It was determined not to draw attention to German intermarriages, not least because these couples openly disobeyed the 1935 law against Rassenschande (sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews) on pain of death. Violating a a 1941 law prohibiting “friendly relations” between Jews and non-Jews could also have deadly consequences, but as intermarried couples were publicly displaying, loyalty might rescue a Jew from persecution. “Half-Jewish” children (Mischlinge) in particular were a bane for an ideology and its bureaucrats who demanded black and white “racial” distinctions.” Non-Jews who risked everything to remain married to Jews were hardly a banner the Nazis wished to wave, considering that at any time they could escape into the glories of Hitler’s national community by merely asking for a divorce, which the regime made available in 1938 merely for the asking.

Intermarried Jews were the most loathsome of all Jews and would have been deported first had it not been for the political problems this would elicit. Goebbels thought that intermarriage alone could destroy national character, and Himmler complained that it was through intermarriage that the people had developed feelings for the Jews. Goebbels wrote in November 1941 that “Whoever wears a Jewish Star is marked as an “enemy of the people.” Whoever still goes around with [a Jew] privately in everyday life belongs to him and must be valued and treated as a Jew. He earns the contempt of the entire people, whom he abandons in base cowardice at the hardest moment, by putting himself at the side of his despiser.”[ii]

But facing the threat of drawing attention to intermarried Jews and the genocide they wished to keep secret, Nazi officials chose not to deport both partners in intermarriage. Nazi “euthanasia” showed that family members of victims were the central challenge to conducting that program in secrecy and German Jews were deported family by family. Concerning intermarried Jews, Nazi policy was to immediately deport any Jew whose partner divorced. As a group intermarried Jews were temporarily deferred while the regime sought the right opportunity to dispatch them without their partners interfering, and in the meantime these Jews were deported one by one if their partners signaled through divorce that they would no longer protest or ask questions. Such a separation would signal that divorce had not been compelled.

The regime waited on these couples to separate while they threatened and cajoled. The Gestapo promised one woman that in exchange for divorce her “half Jewish” Mischlinge son, Hans Oskar Löwenstein de Witt who wore the yellow star, would be sent to school to become an army officer. More commonly, jack-booted Gestapo men in puffy jodhpurs harassed and threatened the non-Jewish wives. Ordered to appear at the imposing SS and Gestapo headquarters on Berlin’s Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, Elsa Holzer, was harassed and left sitting for hours in a terrible sweat, until finally the rising fear that the Gestapo would seize her husband while she was away sent her bolting for home without waiting to be dismissed. “German-blooded” women married to Jews, including Eva Klemperer, wife of the famous diarist Victor Klemperer, moved with him into a “Jewish house,” one of the houses designated for Jews as of early 1939. Greatly vexing the Nazis, only some five to seven percent of the Reich’s intermarried couples divorced.

Goebbels referred to Jews in mixed marriages, some half of which lived in Berlin, as “delicate questions.” The delicacy was illustrated in early November 1941 following the riveting suicide of the adored stage and film actor Joachim Gottschalk, together with his wife and their son. A couple weeks later Hitler told Goebbels that Berlin’s Jews should be removed forcefully and quickly while avoiding “unnecessary difficulties.” Goebbels, as Berlin Gauleiter (regional Nazi chieftain), Nazi Gauleiters had far reaching authority to determine when to deport the Jews from their own regions, when to declare their regions “Free of Jews,” and even how to define that term. Gottschalk’s suicide was a warning: by pushing Gottschalk to divorce, Goebbels had instead caused suicides that shocked the public. This also caused open dissent when Gottschalk’s colleagues disregard an official ban on attending Gottschalk’s funeral.

During the 90-minute Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942, Rheinhard Heydrich announced plans for the murder of eleven million European Jews. Yet some fifty percent of the meeting’s minutes deal with the regime’s strategies for how to handle the tens of thousands of German Jews married to non-Jews without provoking open dissent and stirring up attention. In the interest of “the complete settlement of the [Jewish] problem,” Heydrich said, Jews from mixed marriages must also be murdered although they might be sent to Theresienstadt considering the effects deportation would have on the German relatives!”[iii] Interior Ministry Deputy Secretary Wilhelm Stuckart proposed a law that would annul all mixed marriages. But Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry objected due to “political reasons, especially in view of the stand which the Vatican could be expected to take.” Acting Justice Minister Franz Schlegelberger agreed, in early April, 1941, that “even if [compulsory divorce] would break the legal tie, it could certainly not break the inner ties . . . persons married for a long time, who have withstood long years together, are expected to hold fast to their Jewish partners.”[iv] In July, Himmler, who on June 9, 1942 had announced his determination to exterminate all of Europe’s Jews within the coming year, proscribed any law annulling marriages because they might limit his possibilities for acting with surprise at an opportune moment.

In late September 1942, Hitler instructed Goebbels to wrap up the deportation of Jews in Berlin only after the end of war on the eastern front, which Germans thought was imminent . Speer recalled that Hitler ordered Fritz Saukel, Plenipotentiary for Labour Deployment, to “deport all Jews who are still working in armament factories in eastern locations. By this, [Hitler] meant mostly the Berlin Jews."[v] ‘Five weeks later, Heinrich Himmler issued a decree for the “Elimination of Jews from the Reich Territory.” Even imprisoned Jews and Mischlinge were now to be expunged from the German-blooded body politic. Himmler’s men planned a series of arrests in different German cities which they called the “Arrests for the Elimination of Jews from Reich Territory,” which after delay were unleashed without warning in German cities on February 27, 1943. Berlin was the main target, and to hound the last Jews from Berlin, Goebbels, like Hitler, awaited the triumphant relief that would sweep the people following victory in the East. Stalingrad would provide the triumphal mood and approval of the regime to rid Reich territory of all Jews, including the hardest cases, those married to non-Jews.bBut German went down to perhaps the greatest debacle in military history at Stalingrad,.

With the expected triumph turned on its head, as the last Germans surrendered on February 2, 1943, Goebbels wrote that Sepp Dietrich “even offers to possibly place a company of the Leibstandarte [Hitler] at my disposal once, so that I can reach my goal with brute force, which is not exactly the appropriate means by which to prevail under the current circumstances.” Losing at Stalingrad as the Allies greatly stepped up their bombing of German cities did not provide the best context for forcing compliance, Goebbels thought, since winning victories granted increased license to use force. In the wake of Germany’s stunning victory over France in spring 1940, he told the Gauleiter they were now free to crack down with greater vigor against the churches.

Nevertheless, on February 18, 1943, the day he performed his infamous “Total War” speech exhorting Germans to fight to their death, Goebbels wrote that "The Jews in Berlin will now once and for all be pushed out. With the final deadline of February 28 they are supposed to be first collected in camps and then deported, up to 2,000, batch-by-batch, day-by-day. I have set for myself a goal to make Berlin entirely free of Jews by the middle or end of March at the latest.” Goebbels expected Leibstandarte SS troops, known for sensational victories on the East Front, to intimidate any uprisings of workers and Jews. Goebbels intended, finally, to pressure non-Jews into abandoning their Jewish partners, considering that the vast majority had remained, year after year, as pressures of neighbors and colleagues all around them combined with increasing propaganda and sharpened official economic and other measures to isolate Jews.

In line with Goebbels’ decision to make Berlin free of all persons wearing the yellow star, the Berlin Gestapo referred to the massive arrest that began there on February 27. 1943, as the Final Roundup of Berlin Jews. But the arrest of their Jewish family members brought out their Gentile wives for their demonstration on Rosenstrasse. Georg Zivier, one of the Jews imprisoned, wrote in 1945 that the "accusing cries of the women rose above the noise of the traffic like passionate avowals of a love strengthened by the bitterness of life." A Gestapo man, impressed by the display of protest, was forced to see his unquestioning loyalty to the regime in a new light. "Your relatives are out there protesting for you," he told Rita Kuhn, a young girl. "They want you to come back--this is German loyalty."

The regime worked with deceptions to minimize resistance, trying to maintain as little evidence as possible that intermarried Jews wearing the star were to be sent off this time. Dr. Margaret Sommer, the Director of Bishop Preysing’s Catholic Relief Office, wrote on March 2 that this was an “evacuation of a magnitude and severity never before seen.” This time no special consideration was given to those persons living in an intermarriage, “this time partners were separated.” A week earlier, Sommer had been told that “the mixed marriages would not be affected by the planned raid,” but now, she realized that “the opposite is the case.”[vi]

The churches were not consistent allies of intermarried Jews. In preparation for this massive arrest to make Berlin “free of Jews,” in fact, Protestant and Catholic churches across the city had sent reports to the Gestapo identifying which of their members were “non-Aryan,” Jewish by ancestry. Well meaning church officials stood behind the frontline of intermarried defiance. As an example of how the church helped "non-Aryan" church members, Walter Adolph confidant to the conscientious Berlin Bishop Konrad von Preysing, recalled that to save one intermarried Jew he had persuaded his non-Jewish wife not to divorce. To save his “'Aryan' wife trouble, the Jewish man had moved into his own apartment and now he was to be deported. Having convinced the partners to move together again, Preysing’s office proudly declared that the threat to his life had been reversed. Sadly, church leaders refused to get behind Bishop August von Galen’s effective tactic of dissenting from the pulpit, fearing to cause open scenes of dissent like the women of Rosenstrasse.

The protest by ordinary Germans succeeded in reversing Gestapo plans. As public demonstrations often do, it divided the leadership on the matter of how to respond. Had there been no protest, the Jews would have been dispatched. As it was Goebbels decided to release the Jews on March 6, as he wrote in his diary entry for that day, and as dozens of release certificates verify. "The SD considers this exact moment to be right for proceeding with the evacuation of the Jews,” he wrote. “ The people gathered together in large throngs and even sided with the Jews to some extent. I will commission the security police not to continue the Jewish evacuations during such a critical time. Rather we want to put that off for a few weeks; then we can carry it out all the more thoroughly. One has to intervene all over the place, to ward off damages . . . The basic malady of our leadership and above all of our administration consists in operating according to Schema F [carrying out orders as given regardless of shifting circumstances]. [vii] Goebbels stated that those pursuing the deportation of these intermarried Jews were following orders but that they should have to adjusted their timing to avoid a confrontation with the protest.

Three days later Goebbels added, "I discuss the news about Berlin with [Leopold] Gutterer [Goebbels' Deputy at the Propaganda Ministry and for the Berlin Gau/region]. . . The Führer has the greatest understanding for the psychological questions of the war and expressed himself very sharply about the tactical imprudence of prominent persons as well as their wives. . . In the Jewish question he approves of my actions and specifically gives me the mandate to render Berlin free of Jews . . . I describe my actions to the Führer as generous toward the people, hard toward the wrong doers. The Führer also considers this completely correct." In a postwar interview, Gutterer said that Goebbels released the Jews in order to get rid of the protests. Shown Goebbels’ reference to him in his diary, Gutterer added that Hitler backed Goebbels’ decision but emphasized that he still had to remove all Jews from Berlin.

Goebbels rationalized releasing the intermarried Jews because he would later make a clean sweep. But he did not do this, complaining on April 18, 1943 that "The Jewish question in Berlin is still not yet completely solved. . . . I do not want Jews with the Jewish star running around the Reich capital. Either one must take the Jewish star away and privilege them, or on the other hand once and for all evacuate them from the Reich capital.” Without further deportations, however, Goebbels declared Berlin “free of Jews” the following month. The intermarried Jews released from Rosenstrasse 2-4 survived, officially registered and living on official rations.

These women who rescued lives appeared to be the least powerful, the furtherest outsiders... but they did not achieve their rescue in one protest. Each move the regime made to pressure them into divorce, they defied, and the regime kept making exceptions to allow for their marriages in turn. Over a succession of years, they evolved tremendously. Day after day they faced uncertainty and challenges –well beyond their capacity. Every day prepared them for more resistance. Yet little if anything looked or felt heroic in their everyday lives.

Significance of Rosenstrasse challenge

On Rosenstrasse, these women showed outstanding humanity. To talk about the Rosenstrasse protest is to talk of a brilliant compassion in a suffocating gloom. Their Protest is like a Zen Koan or a biblical parable. It provokes doubt about what we are already so sure about, if we allow it to. It’s an abrupt reversal of—expectations turned upside down.

Let’s presume for the moment that their protest was just a nuisance to the busy Gestapo, getting in the way of conscientious bureaucrats in downtown Berlin. This is what director of the Berlin Gestapo's Jewish Desk, Walter Stock testified shortly after the war. Let’s suppose then, that the Gestapo did not intend to harm a single one of those imprisoned Jews, as some have said. The question would still hang in the air: where else during this war do we see such compassion? Where else can we turn for nobility like this?

The protesters had every reason to think that their Jewish family members were about to be sent away never to be seen again. They had every reason to think they were placing their lives at risk on Rosenstrasse. But they took action to rescue others. They took action publicly for state and society’s number one outcasts. They came to Rosenstrasse to show their captured Jewish partners that they would not abandon them, and as the guards made threats of shooting them down, but did not, they took hope that maybe they could get their husbands back.

The Rosenstrasse Protest is a challenge to common wisdom and popular perceptions. A friend once compared the Rosenstrasse story to that 1970s comedy-horror film, “The attack of the Killer Tomatoes.” A a threat to the Nazis as credible as oozing tomatoes on a rampage. After all, wasn’t the Gestapo a steam roller, crushing even every sign of opposition? Terror and deadly force was applied without limits against Jews and war enemies, but within the Reich incentives were used to attract persons to Nazism and terror was carefully targeted. After all, Hitler saw the “German-blooded” population collectively as the power he needed to achieve all of his goals. The Führer could not have exercised nearly as much power or caused nearly so much destruction had he known no tactics other than terror and force, lashing out with the Gestapo every time opposition arose at home.

Of course this protest and its outcome has contexts that makes it comprehensible. Too often it is screened out because it is a narrative of a minority. It gets in the way of politics that serve mass constituencies. There are also critical contexts for understanding this protest and its outcome. First, the Gestapo did not always swat down acts of open defiance at Hitler’s bidding In this case, in fact, the Gestapo waited on the Gentiles married to Jews to abandon their partners. This was its plan – to scare and intimidate these intermarried persons into divorce. The regime kept increasing the pressure on German aryans to divorce, but only a fraction did. The pressure to cave was turned up to the maximum when the Gestapo imprisoned the full Jewish partners at Rosenstrasse.

But the wives let the Gestapo know that they were still not ready to agree to separation. Goebbels with Hitler’s agreement dispelled the demonstration to silence it, and so others would not learn from it. Such a concession was an anomaly for the regime. This is partly, however, because so few people pushed back. Consider, for example, the Munich appeasement settlement in 1938, or the Pact with Stalin the following year. Hitler got the appeasements he wanted from the mightiest foreign powers around the globe, not just from Germans.

So these defiant protesters were extraordinary. They were unusual, utterly unique. They stand on their own. No one else was like them. There were other Germans who never found anything to like about Hitler. This was a small fraction. But few if any others defied the regime openly and continuously since the beginning of the Third Reich, like intermarried non-Jews did. This is why the fate of intermarried German Jews is such an exception. More than 160,000 German Jews perished. Only some 13,000 of the Germans the regime identified as Jews survived openly in the Reich. But approximately 98 percent of these survivors were intermarried. Jewish- gentile intermarriage is the immediate and longer term context for comprehending this history

No doubt It was tremendously hard not to go along with the masses. It is important to note, at this point, that intermarried couples had motivations for defiance that other Germans did not share. These families were after all a unit of the non-human and the super-human, in Nazi eyes. But as one intermarried woman told me, her family was the very essence, the precise meaning of her life. They practiced their way into resistance because, as Elsa said, they acted from the heart.

Other Germans were likely pressured to go along by their families. If was hard to know where to draw the line. Sebastian Haffner in a memoir Defying Hitler recalled a series of family and situational pressures that led him into taking one seemingly innocuous step after another. In the end, however, he was in formation marching lockstep with the SA,-intimidating the opposition he wished to be part of.

These non-Jewish intermarried Germans who protested did not set out to be heroes, or even political. They had resistance thrust upon them. They had to become political because the dictatorship attacked their personal lives. Nevertheless, the story of these women and their protest displays a rare dimension of what was possible in the Third Reich. We would all think that such behavior was impossible-- protesting for the release of Jews publicly, day after day--except they show that it was not impossible, if one practiced going against the fear, every day for ten years going against the terror, for the sake of saving a life.

The more society turned its back, the more these intermarried persons were pressured to show the face of commiseration, the exact opposite. This is a critical context for understanding the Rosenstrasse protest. Each wife was forced to the opposite extreme of abandonment, one person giving everything possible to counteract the weight of an entire society. Masses of Germans all around had become calloused by going along, getting used to exclusion and persecution as the new norm, pressing headlong toward Armageddon.

And this too is what we talk about when we talk about Rosenstrasse. It is precisely the possibilities of action these intermarried couples display, that gets them into trouble. It has done this ever since 1933, and still today. Their actions, if unintentionally, continue to represent a reproach to the vast majority who say such defiance was never possible. With the overwhelming majority against them, it is easy to screen this handful of women out. It is easy to spread doubt and call for more studies when tens of million Germans know for sure that such a protest was impossible--only a handful, a drop in the pond, say something different, as millions upon millions say, ‘no, that was impossible.’

Hitler directed the nation toward Nazism, cutting down opposition with terror, achieving seemingly magnificent feats for Germany. Most Germans went along day by day, step by step. This might be visualized as a dance—a clumsy metaphor to be sure. Hitler resolved to teach the “German-blooded” people the Nazi dance. He was well aware that he had to begin where the people were to lead them all the way across the dance floor, and he was willing to pause if the people stumbled on the way. He did not imagine that he could lead witout the people following, or that he could beat them into learning the dance.

From day one, however, intermarried Germans, were defiant, moving in a different direction. In the beginning it was clear that the regime was intent on destroying their families. The vast majority was developing a personal capacity for going along, while these couples waltzed in an opposite trajectory, against the stream.Year after year, they practiced noncompliance --with state and society, building up their resistance muscles, working on their capacity for nonconformity, pushing the regime to make way as it kept ratcheting up the threats and promises to get them to divorce voluntarily—without making a scene and drawing attention to intermarriage.

These women practiced civil courage, day by day. You could not see it growing on the spot any more than you can see immune cells developing day by day with the naked eye. The notion of agency and the image of it often presumes dramatic action that reverses fortunes right then and there. No one was there to notice the abject misery of Elsa Holzer upon returning home after her family expelled her and told her never to return. Instead the neighbors spat on her, placing excrement on her doorstep. Or as in the case of Wally Grodka, another intermarried protester, the neighbors celebrated the death of her newborn. Yes, they celebrated together. After the war, the neighbors who had harassed Elsa and worse wished to act like none of that had ever happened: ‘Ach, hello Elsa, how nice to see you!’

This brings up another point on what we are talking about when we talk about Rosenstrasse. We are talking about the way societies work. Not just Germans, of course, but humans generally. Under the condemnation of world opinion and a sense of human decency, very few Germans, following the war, wanted to hear about any possibilities for defiance in everyday life of the Nazi years. Rather than greeting the intermarried women as heroes, they turned on them for representing a reproach about what really was possible. These women of Rosenstrasse became like the family in Jedwabne Poland, outcast for generations because during the war they had helped to rescue Jews.

After the war, government changed, people fitted their ambitions within capitalist democracy in the Federal Republic. But the stigmas against protest and non-conformity continued. Anyone who told a story that unarmed civilians had openly, if collectively defied the Gestapo was a kind of “black sheep,” repudiated by the many, many millions of contradictory testimonies—many millions who grew up hearing that such a thing was impossible.

Still unwelcome after the war was Dr. Gerhard Lehfeldt, who warned the Vatican and other church authorities about the Nazi genocide during the war. In March 1943, he connected a public street protest with the release of intermarried Jews. In September 1946, a year after the war, Lehfeldt wrote a letter to Bishop Theophil Wurm pointing out the dire situation of church members who during the war had been persecuted as non-Aryan Christians—persons of Jewish heritage who had converted to Christianity but under Nazi rule were said to be Jewish. Six days later, Bishop Wurm reacted with a letter to Eugen Gerstenmaier, who was soon to became president of the West German Parliament, saying Lehfeldt was to be viewed with skepticism (mit vorsicht zu geniessen).

Illustrating continuing postwar prejudices against intermarried Germans, Der Spiegel in the late 1990s reported on persons who received pensions for losses during the war ("Wirklich Perfide," D e r S p i e g el 6 / 1 9 9 7, p. 37). A German court reproached a woman who had been married to a Jew for seeking a pension: why had she not simply gotten a divorce from her Jew, the court wanted to know. She had a choice! She did not really need a pension because she could have gotten a divorce. Meanwhile, the widow of Roland Freisler, who kept eleven guillotines around the Reich slashing with his condemnations of Germans for treason, was awarded an unusually high pension on the speculation that had he lived, Herr Freisler would have made a fat salary indeed, in the new Germany.

The commemoration of the Rosenstrasse protest represents a new stepping stone for interpreting the history of Nazi Germany in a way that takes account of popular protest, a force so present that Nazi propaganda mastermind warned later that year against any more concessions to street protests. Cases of social dissent and mass noncompliance so bold the regime could not ignore them were not common.

But by November 2, 1943 they had occurred often enough to prompt Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels to fret that the people were already sure that they could use the street to successfully assert their will against the regime: “‘The people know exactly where to find the leadership’s soft spot and will always exploit it,” he wrote. This was prompted by another successful protest by hundreds of women, in Witten during October 1943. “Currently we are on the best path to bending the will of the state to the will of the people,” Goebbels continued. “Giving in” to the people was more and more dangerous, wrote Goebbels, since each time it happened the state lost some of its authority—and in the end could lose all power.. [viii]

When we talk about the Rosenstrasse Protest, we talk about a story that has been pushed to the side since it does not fit standard narratives, grounded in postwar paradigms before history from below or gender history was considered. One historian has argued that the dismissal of the protest is because it is about women, the heroes were women. Commemoration of the Rosenstrasse protest hardly depends on further research as much as on increased receptivity. The Christmas truce on the western front in 1914 might be illustrative. A google Ngram indicates that the story of Germans meeting western allies between the front line trenches was barely mentioned until 1997, when suddenly the appearance of it in books spirals upwards in a continuing trend that shows continuing, increasing interest still today. This was not a story easily believed or readily made into dominant narratives following the war. Despite multiple letters from those who were there, the story of soldiers on oppositing sides calling a truce to celebrate a common Christmas mostly lay dormant for almost a century.

What we talk about when talk about Rosenstrasse is the interest of the majority and their institutions. For decades no one commemorated or wrote about the protest at all. Then private persons on their own initiative took the trouble to research and reveal it. At the turn of the century, the Gerhard Schroeder government created a call for commemorating and encouraging civil courage. One might think that the intermarried women on Rosenstrasse would make a fine exhibit. Under the title of quiet heroes, the German Resistance Memorial dug deep to find out about all those who hid Jews and then repeatedly put on an exhibit about them, and of course these were heroes who risked everything. But the Rosenstrasse events are not mentioned at all. Germans have made exemplary strides in coming to terms with the Nazi past and the reception of the Rosenstrasse protest suggests that this process is not yet complete. Rather it appears in one slight volume as local history, or fable, on the history of a Berlin district.

On Rosenstrasse, however, women caused the regime to fear that others would follow their example precisely because they acted openly. There are different types of civil courage, and because they have a chance of being imitated, or joined, open opposition should be held up in particular. In 2020, following a year that many have called the year of civil protest, we see the women who protested now as avant-garde. As protests against tyranny multiply around the world, let’s finally discard the reproach that these women could have divorced their Jewish partners, which comforts the majority. It is more fitting, I submit, to celebrate the twelve years of these women under Nazi rule as one of the greatest displays of noble compassion in human history, a rescue fittingly honored now, finally, by GARIWO, Gardens of the Righteous Worldwide.

[i] Georg Zivier, Sie, December 1945, „Der Tag ging weiter, man war im Kriege, eroberte Provinzen, »machte Geschichte«, war mit den Jahrtausenden auf du und du. Und es entging der Öffentlichkeit das Auflodern einer kleinen Fackel, an der ein Feuer des allgemeinen Widerstands gegen Tyrannenwillkür sich vielleicht hätte entzünden können.“

[ii] Joseph Goebbels, “Die Juden Sind Schuld!,” in Das Eherne Herz (Munich: Eher Verlag, 1943), 85 -91, here 87, 91.

[iii]ND, NG-2586 (G), Record of the Wannsee Meeting.

[iv]Schlegelberger to Bormann, April 5, l942, Nuremberg Tribunal, Doc. 4055-PS..

[v]Albert Speer, Der Sklavenstaat [Stuttgart, 1981], 346.

[vi] Sommer’s report, March 2, 1943, in: Volk, Akten, vol., VI, 19-21. Bertram also received a report on March 1, 1943 ”concerning questions about the evacuation of Geltungsjuden.” Sommer to Bertram, March 2, 1943, in: Volk, ed., Akten, vol. VI, 20;

[vii] Goebbels Diary, March 6, 1943.

[viii] Goebbels, Tagebücher, part II, vol. 10, 2 November 1943, 222.

Nathan Stoltzfus

Analysis by Nathan Stoltzfus, historian and professor of Holocaust Studies at the Florida State University

11 February 2020

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