by Barbara Ash
The story that took 50 years to
tell is a story of solid research.
Nathan Stoltzfus was in Berlin in
1985, excited about the work that lay before him. He had just earned his
masters of divinity degree from Harvard University and was in Germany as
a Fulbright Scholar to do research for his dissertation.
His topic: a 1943 street protest
staged by German women to save their Jewish husbands from deportation.
But at every turn, he was met with
skepticism, discouragement and bureaucratic road blocks from German scholars
and administrators alike. Other Germans were simply wary of an American--a
non-Jewish one at that--who wanted to dig up the Nazi past.
Despite warnings that there was little
left to be said about the protest, that all the eyewitnesses involved were
long dead, and that the protest had no influence on the Nazis, Stoltzfus
refused to be dissuaded.
The secrets of the Nazi past were
locked in the fifth-floor attic of the Berlin District Court in the form
of documents collected for the trial of Berlin's Gestapo chief, Otto Bovensiepen,
who was tried in the mid-1960s for the murder of 30,000 Berlin Jews. It
took Stoltzfus seven months to finally obtain access--and then he was given
only two weeks to find what he was looking for.
Though he was pressured on and off
by bureaucrats to wind up his work, he managed to gain entry to the court
documents nearly every day for a year. By the time he locked the door behind
him for the final time, he had what he needed.
Here was what must have been the
world's single, largest collection of documents on the deportation of Berlin
Jews, said Stoltzfus, who teaches modern European history at Florida State.
Scattered among them like afterthoughts were reports on the Rosenstrasse
The public protest on Rosenstrasse
lasted an entire week in early 1943. Unarmed German women confronted the
Gestapo, and demanded the release of their Jewish husbands. About 1,700
of these men were being held in the Jewish community center in the heart
of Berlin during what the Gestapo called the "final roundup" of German
Jews, and were marked certain death. Incredulously, the women prevailed.
Their husbands were set free, and survived the war.
Stoltzfus' dissertation focused on
Jewish-German intermarriages, civil disobedience and protest, and the regime's
hypersensitivity to popular opinion. After two years of research on this
singular act of German mass protest against the deportation of German Jews,
Stoltzfus enrolled in the doctoral program at Harvard, and completed his
investigation as an exchange student in the German Democratic Republic.
The Institute of Contemporary History
and Wiener Library awarded his work the Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary
History in 1993. In addition, his research led to several German- and English-language
documentary films, for which he was writer and consultant. Hes now under
contract as a consultant to an independent London film maker, who is writing
a screenplay based on his book, Resistance of the Heart: Intermarriage
and the Rosenstrasse Protest in Nazi Germany. Published in 1996 by
W.W. Norton & Co., the book has been highly acclaimed by the English
press and by historians.
The film will deliver a message
to the audience that even the most evil dictatorships are limited by the
power of the people, says film maker Jaemes Newton, who expects to release
the movie in 1999. Moreover, here is a young American--a non-Jew--who
delves into a period of history...and sets a fine example to all. When
we read the book, the deep impression it made reinforced our belief that
this is a story that must be told.
Though the Bovensiepen trial ended
midstream in the early '70s, the reams of evidence prosecutors had collected
were invaluable to the American historian: depositions from Gestapo men
and their secretaries, from Berlin street police, from survivors of Auschwitz
and other death camps.
Some of the statements used in the
trial were from earlier post-war trials, and confirmed critical details
of the era. Events such as the return of two dozen intermarried Jews from
Auschwitz after their deportation from Rosenstrasse were verified in numerous
testimonies, Stoltzfus says.
The large collection of documents
provided invaluable insight into the operations of the machine-like efficiency
of a bureaucracy that was only briefly interrupted by a street protest,
"This was some of the most interesting
reading I could do. The combination of pain and extremes of human experiences,
and being right there in Berlin and being able to talk with people who
were there brought me closer to the past. It was palpable for me.
"The stories of surviving Jews were
always passionate and full of detail, while the reports of their oppressors
were characteristically so lifeless as to suggest they must have been unconscious
during the entire 12 years of Nazi rule."
While the archives provided insight
into the framework in which the Rosenstrasse protest took place and its
long-term impact, interviews with perpetrators and victims would fill in
Stoltzfus made a plea on German radio
for eyewitnesses, and received calls from victims and protesters. No Nazis
came forward. A district attorney, however, supplied him with names and
addresses of Nazi witnesses he could not locate himself. Not surprisingly,
he was greeted far from cordially. Former secretaries of high-ranking officials
refused to talk except to say that they were young back then, too busy
thinking about boys and escaping bombs that the Allies dropped to know
what happened to the Jews. One wife of a former Gestapo officer whom Stoltzfus
reached grabbed the phone from her elderly husband, and screamed for him
to leave them in peace.
Leopold Gutterer, however, was willing
to relive the Nazi "glory days."
Among Gutterer's duties as Joseph
Goebbels's right-hand man at the Ministry of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment
in 1941 was to develop a scheme for marking Jews publicly with the Star
of David. After the war, he lived anonymously as a farmer in Bavaria before
being discovered, arrested and sentenced under American denazification
codes to two years of labor and lifelong suspension of his pension.
Stoltzfus spent many hours over four
years with Gutterer and his wife at their apartment in western Germany.
He was mindful of Gutterer's tendency to portray himself in the best light.
But here was a man whom Adolph Hitler called to wish happy birthday and
whom Goebbels mentioned repeatedly in his famous diary.
"I felt I should be looking at the
devil with horns and a tail, but here was a man up to his elbows in bread
dough," he said of Gutterer. "I was surprised at how his wife enthused
about Goebbels. They were looking back at the Nazi glory days. "
In all, Stoltzfus interviewed about
30 witnesses, including a Jew--now a prominent architect--who in 1943 had
been employed by the Gestapo to ferret out Jews in hiding. He talked with
a former Nazi, now highly regarded in his hometown outside the Black Forest.
He had been a chauffeur in Adolph Eichmann's office. He also interviewed
the children of Jews who had been marked for deportation from Rosenstrasse.
As someone willing to listen as
they revisited the Nazi past, I was an oddity. In some cases, the distance
I brought as an American helped, initially to open the door.
Many, however, resisted calling back
the memories, could not endure it he says.
For some protesters, now in their
late 70s and early 80s, such as Elza Holzer, memories of the event of nearly
a half century ago still were vivid, the pain of betrayal by German neighbors
and former friends, still raw. But they agreed to talk, he says, out of
a sense of obligation that the story should be passed on.
Holzer was one of a handful of protesters
who responded to Stoltzfus' radio request from East Berlin, where she and
her late husband, a Jew, had lived since the end of the war. She recounted
how she felt when she heard the chilling news that Rudi Holzer had been
arrested at his job and how desperately she tried to find him.
She remembered the fear she shared
with hundreds of other women as they faced Gestapo thugs on Rosenstrasse
and when fear turned into resolve, and the women began demanding their
husbands' freedom. And she recalled her relief when her husband came home,
as if returning from the dead.
The story was so moving, I was convinced
that my task was to stay out of the way--once the Germans allowed me access--so
as to let the events of this protest take shape in their fullest power.