Seventy-five years ago, in February and March 1943, hundreds of women rescued 2,000 Jews, their husbands, from the jaws of death with a daring protest on Berlin’s Rosenstrasse.
They gathered there for more than a week, in spite of repeated commands by the authorities to “clear the streets or we’ll shoot.”
The Gestapo’s massive “de-Judaization of the Reich territory” that began on February 27, 1943, had imprisoned nearly 2,000 intermarried Jews to a pre-transportation facility at Rosenstrasse, as part of the final roundup of Berlin Jews.
For Jews and gentiles married to Jews, mundane customs became tests of strength through an ever-growing web of prohibitions and punishments.
The Nuremberg Laws of September 1935 criminalized sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews as “racial defilement.” Following the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938 the Gestapo began a campaign to threaten and cajole non-Jewish German women married to Jews into getting a divorce. By the fall of 1941, regulations required Jews to wear the Star of David in public and banned friendly relations with Jews. Many parents of women married to Jews abandoned them and once-friendly neighbors and co-workers froze them out.
Hitler conceded, temporarily, to the brave women on Rosenstrasse. To protect his claim of popular consensus, Hitler sanctioned a series of exceptions for intermarried German Jews, privileging some who thus did not wear the Jewish Star, and “temporarily” exempting all intermarried Jews – including those who did wear the star – from the genocide. This exemption, however, could end at any moment.
Hundreds of German intermarried Jews were drawn into the Holocaust on false charges and some in Berlin were deported and murdered at the time of the protest. Also, as soon as their non-Jewish partners agreed to divorce, the Gestapo deported their Jewish former spouses.
Some historians have expressed skepticism regarding this story, arguing that Hitler crushed all opposition and, irrespective of these women’s protest, his dictatorship never intended to deport a single Jew from Rosenstrasse, although they did wear the Jewish Star. This overlooks several key points including Hitler’s characteristic improvisations, consonant with using any means at hand to reach his long-term goals without alienating too many.
Protest made a scene that contradicted the official narrative and modeled dissent. More than once, Hitler chose to end such threats by appeasing street protesters. In Dortmund-Höede a few weeks after the Rosenstrasse protest, a crowd of three to four hundred women successfully protested the arrest of a soldier, according to a Nazi police report. Their “energized shouts of ‘give us our husbands back!’”echoed the exact words of the cry of the protesters on Rosenstrasse, suggesting that news of it had traveled.
In the city of Witten on October 11, 1943, according to the police, several hundred women demonstrated in Hitler Square to “force” the authorities to deliver their ration cards in their home town of Witten and not just in the civil defense evacuation sites they had been moved to. When they got their way, Goebbels worried on November 2, 1943, that the Germans were learning to protest: “the people know just exactly where the soft spot of the leadership is, and will always exploit this...
The state may never, against its better insight, give in to the pressure of the street.”
Gestapo force could certainly prevent women from returning to their home cities, but he questioned whether it was the “appropriate means.” On January 24, 1944, Hitler ruled against all forms of force in the matter, prohibiting even the soft coercion of using the distribution of food rations to control unruly evacuees. Hitler did not think terror was the best means to reach all his goals, and he became more popular and caused far more destruction because he used a range of tactics, rather than always lashing out with blind force.
From the Rosenstrasse women protesters we learn that public, cooperative protest is not just “letting off steam” but an important political tactic, when rulers turn their backs. If these women were willing to protest under threat to their own lives, how much more are we – mostly comfortable and not (yet) threatened in our very existence – obliged to stand up against early developments toward authoritarian overreach.
The journalist Georg Zivier, a Jew imprisoned at Rosenstrasse who was married to a gentile among the protesters, extolled the protest immediately after the war as a “flare of a small torch that might have ignited a general resistance to arbitrary tyranny” – if only the public had joined in. As new dictatorships like those in Russia, Iran and Turkey crush popular protests together with independent journalism, a Human Rights Watch report also identifies protesters as a powerful means for confronting tyranny and its forerunners. Within democracies, massive demonstrations that speak with one voice and remain nonviolent are the most effective means for countering the gatherings of extremist rabble rousers.
Iranian protesters proclaiming today, “We will protest, we will die” echo the resolve on Rosenstrasse, forcing Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to publicly acknowledge that they have real grievances. These are today’s flickering candles, pointing to streets that are too often silent in the face of tyranny and its inception. In retrospect, then, the Rosenstrasse protest 75 years ago was a vanguard, a lesson from last century to hold high for our own.
To honor the Rosenstrasse women protesters, the German consulate in New York is commemorating this event on the evening of February 27.
The SD reports on Witten and Hörde mentioned in this essay were reported in Der Spiegel 51, December 15, 1965, 83: “Der Führer darf das gar nicht wissen: Aus den Stimmungs-Analysen des nationalsozialistischen Sicherheitsdienstes von 1939 bis 1943.”Nathan Stoltzfus is an American historian and the Dorothy and Jonathan Rintels Professor of Holocaust Studies at Florida State University.
Mordecai Paldiel, of Yeshiva University, is former director of the Department of the Righteous at Yad Vashem.