See also: Recovering Rosenstrasse,

The Day Hitler Blinked
by Barbara Ash


For more information on this article, contact:

Dr. Nathan Stoltzfus: 850-644-9529; e-mail: nstoltzf@mailer.fsu.edu

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 Hitler’s murderous grip. The men were locked up in the Jewish community center in the heart of Berlin, victims of Hitler’s "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 mass murder.

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 war’s end, in fact, 98 percent of German Jews who survived the Holocaust were in these intermarriages, a fact that many Germans ignore.

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, told Stoltzfus.

“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 regime’s centralized program of euthanasia, of which mentally and physically “defective” Germans were victims. And millions of German homemakers defied Goebbels’s 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?

The Protest

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.

Jewish-German couples, 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 Reich’s 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 for all.

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 Berlin’s 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 Hitler’s propaganda minister, and one of his most trusted advisors, he faced a public relations nightmare.

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 waffled.

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 risk exposure.

This unprecedented 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 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...Now they’re going to shoot in any case, so now we’ll 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 Cover-Up

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 otherwise.

"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 Community’s 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 regime’s 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, Goebbels’s deputy at the Ministry of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment told Stoltzfus that Goebbels had one motive for freeing the men held at Rosenstrasse.

“Goebbels released 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 wouldn’t make sense to protest anymore. So that others didn’t take a lesson from (the protest), so that others didn’t 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 the relatives.

“Goebbels realized 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 Berlin.

“We wanted to show that we weren’t 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 wasn’t organized or instigated. Everyone was simply there. Exactly like me.”

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 woman’s 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 weren’t punished.

Similarly, how could the regime justify arresting or mowing down German women protesting on Rosenstrasse?

Gutterer attributed 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 “personal reasons.”

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: ‘What’s the point of talking about it? You couldn’t 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 contradictory views.

“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."