The courageous women of Rosenstrasse
This time, I’ll finish the story of my recent posts about the Jews, who were married to “Aryans” and considered “privileged Jews”, but nevertheless arrested on February 27th and 28th 1943. Were they eventually deported and murdered like the thousands of other Jews, who were also kidnapped on Berlin’s “Day of Inferno”?
After the day’s initial chaos, as the Nazis realized that these Jews were also among the new prisoners, they were taken to a specific detention center at a former Jewish welfare establishment, located in Rosenstrasse, a small, quite narrow and otherwise insignificant street in Berlin’s historical center. In other words, the “privileged” Jews were separated from the other Jews, who were taken to the “black transports” to Auschwitz on the following days.
In spite of their efforts, the Nazis couldn’t really keep this a secret. As their spouses — usually German wives of Jewish husbands – heard the rumors, they began to show up at Rosenstrasse. The first ladies didn’t really know what to expect. Since they were “Aryans”, the Nazis didn’t allow them into the building. Were they hoping for a last glance at their husbands before they disappear forever?
On the following days, more women came. The narrow street gradually became crowded. Now the Nazis had a problem: The last thing they wanted, was this to become a spectacle. The deportations were supposed to be a “non-issue”. Their watchmen were urging the women to leave. Yet the women were there, enduring the freezing winter outdoors. They did so for a week, basically blocking the street – sometimes even with their “mixed” children, who couldn’t be left alone.
Eventually, the Nazis brought some soldiers with machine guns. This happened on March 6th 1943, exactly 74 years ago. “Gome home or we’ll shoot!”, they were warned. But their reaction surprised the Nazis: The women remained there and began to shout back at the Nazis: “Murderers! Give us our husbands back!”
For the very first time in the 10 years that the Nazis had been in power, a public protest was unfolding before their very eyes. Germans — civilians, women! — were practicing civil disobedience for the sake of Jews.
A short while later, the soldiers left. The street became very quiet. Once again, the women didn’t know what to expect. And then, the Nazis began to release their prisoners. After a week of waiting for their death, husbands returned to their wives, fathers to their children.
Indeed, some of them died later on: During the Allied air raids, Jews were not allowed to use the shelters and were sometimes among the thousands of local civilians who lost their lives (nobody can tell how many, the estimations range from 20,000 to 50,000 people). And if the German spouse died, they lost their privileges as “Jews in mixed marriages”. But three years later, at the end of the war, most of them were still alive.
Yet this was a particular event, an episode – the exception to the rule. No similar protests ever took place, before or after this event, during the deportations of about 170,000 Jews from Germany. Later on, it wasn’t known to many outside of that very local German-Jewish circle. The division of the city put Rosenstrasse in East-Berlin, the capital of the GDR. During the next four decades, the communist regime was very eager to emphasize the bravery of communists as (supposedly) the only ones who opposed the Nazis. The protest of the Rosenstrasse women didn’t really fit into this paradigm. In fact, it contradicted it. Their story almost sank into oblivion, escaping the attention of the public – as well as of historians – for two generations.
On my tours, I take my guests to Rosenstrasse. For many, the story seems like a miracle. And there is, admittedly, something very miraculous about it. But in the last two decades, a debate began. The main question historians have been dealing with is: Why did the Nazis release the prisoners – was it really because of the protesting women? My next post will be about that and also about artistic representations of the events.
Yoav Sapir is a guide with Jewish Berlin Tours. He studied German-Jewish history in Jerusalem, Vienna, Heidelberg and Berlin.