Book Excerpts: Denmark
from Part II: Chapter 5 - Denmark,
the Netherlands, the Rosenstrasse: Resisting the Nazis
"Let Our Husbands Go!"
On February 27, 1943, SS soldiers and local Gestapo agents began seizing the Jews of Berlin in an operation called "the Final Roundup." They were loaded onto trucks and taken to the Jewish community's administration building at Rosenstrasse 2-4, in the heart of the city. The goal was finally to make the city judenfrei (free of Jews), necessitating the forcible collection of Jews with German spouses and their Mischling (mixed ancestry) children. For two years these Jews had escaped the jaws of the Holocaust because they or their German spouses were essential for the war effort, and the regime wanted no unpleasantness on the home front. But the stunning military defeat at Stalingrad earlier that month shattered German morale and led Hitler to call for "Total War," against Jews inside Germany as well as Allied armies.1
Word spread quickly about the abductions in Berlin, and before long a group of non-Jewish German women had gathered on the Rosenstrasse with food and other personal items for their Jewish husbands and children, whom they believed were being held inside. One of the women, Charlotte Israel, arrived and found 150 women already huddled outside. She asked one of the guards for her husband's potato ration cards, which he went to get. On the back of a card, her husband Julius wrote, "I'm fine." Other women began asking for personal effects to confirm that their husbands were inside and, soon after, began demanding their release. One woman's brother, a soldier on leave, approached an SS guard and said, "If my brother-in-law is not released, I will not return to the front." The crowds grew considerably despite the winter chill, and soon women waited outside day and night, holding hands, singing songs, and chanting "Let our husbands go!" By the second day of the protest, over 600 women were keeping a vigil on the Rosenstrasse.
This was not the first time many of these women had voiced dissent. For over a decade they and their families had challenged Nazi racial policies through letters and small demonstrations, insisting that the regime would be hurting fellow Germans by persecuting their Jewish spouses. Hitler and his circle had always tried to minimize unrest and avoid the kind of domestic opposition that German rightists saw as the "stab in the back" that had crippled the German effort during World War I. Until this point the regime had largely managed to keep the genocide against the Jews a secret. But when it affected a group who were unafraid to speak out against Nazi policies, that secrecy was jeopardized.
What gave further resonance to the wives' protest was that it was happening in the heart of Berlin, a city that had never been enthusiastic about Nazism. Cosmopolitan Berliners always saw it as a crude Bavarian aberration. Moreover, Berlin was the German base for foreign news organizations that still operated during the war. If political malcontents or the wire services were to get wind of the protest, the myth of the omnipotent Nazi state could be exposed. In fact, London radio did report on the demonstrations.
By the third day SS troops were given orders to train their guns on the crowd but to fire only warning shots. They did so numerous times, scattering the women to nearby alleyways. But the wives always returned and held their ground. They knew the soldiers would never fire directly at them because they were of German blood. Also, arresting or jailing any of the women would have been the rankest hypocrisy: According to Nazi theories, women were intellectually incapable of political action. So women dissenters were the last thing the Nazis wanted to have Germans hear about, and turning them into martyrs would have ruined the Nazis' self-considered image as the protector of motherhood.
The campaign soon expanded to include women and men who were not in mixed marriages. The ranks of protestors bulged to a thousand, with people chanting to let the prisoners go and taunting the SS soldiers. Joseph Goebbels, seeking to stop more from arriving, closed down the nearest streetcar station, but women walked the extra mile from another station to reach Rosenstrasse 2-4. By the end of the week Goebbels saw no alternative but to let the prisoners go. Some thirty-five Jewish male prisoners, who had already been sent to Auschwitz, were ordered to gather their belongings and board a passenger train back to Berlin.
Without fully realizing what they had done, the Rosenstrasse women had forced the Nazis to make a choice: They could accede to a limited demand and pay a finite cost - 1,700 prisoners set free, if all the intermarried Jewish men were released. Or they could open a Pandora's box of heightened protest in the center of the capital and brutalize German women in the bargain. For the Nazis, maintaining social control was more important than making sure every last Jew made it to the gas chambers. The regime that terrorized the rest of Europe found itself unable to use violence against a challenge on its very doorstep. The Nazis were savage but they were not stupid.
As it happened, many more than thirty-five Jewish men were eventually set free. The protest confronted Nazis officials with an unresolved question: what to do with other intermarried Jews. Goebbels wanted them deported from Berlin so he could tell Hitler the city was judenfrei. Himmler prevented the deportations, but Goebbels lied and told Hitler that it had happened - and then tried to get Jews still in Berlin to stop wearing the Star of David. A month later Adolf Eichmann's deputy in Paris wanted to know what he should do about French intermarried Jews. On May 21 Himmler's deputy released them all, everywhere, from the camps. Five years earlier Gandhi had been asked about the Nazis. "Unarmed men, women and children offering nonviolent resistance," he predicted, "will be a novel experience for them."2
In February 1943 Ruth Gross was a ten-year-old girl who went down to the Rosenstrasse so she could catch a glimpse of her father, one of the Jewish men interned there before being shipped for a time to the camps. One day she saw him, and he waved back. "This thing with Rosenstrasse," she said years later, "that was always a bond between us, my father and me." When she would visit him in the hospital at the end of his life, each time she left he would stand up and wave at her. "I have always been convinced, that he too was always thinking about this scene there on Rosenstrasse. About how he stood there and waved." When love comes to rescue life, no one forgets.
On the Rosenstrasse in 1943, in the center of the century's greatest cyclone of killing, the violence that could have been visited on protesting German women and on almost 2,000 Jews was neutralized - by a few hundred wives who refused to go home. The Nazis' will to violence was notorious. But superiority of military force did not make them invulnerable: They were frightened of protest at the seat of their power, and the cost of suppressing that with violence - while trifling in blood and time - was far too high politically to pay. So the evil they embodied was, in that place and at that moment, impotent.
War contorts the history of the nations it touches, but it also exhibits the greatness of their peoples. The Danes, the Dutch, and even dissident Germans challenged the most barbaric regime of the modern period and did so not with troops or tanks but with singing, leafleting, going home to garden, and standing in public squares. Yet the power they brought to bear in resisting the Nazis did not come only from these things. It came first from the essential decision that tens of thousands of them made, to refuse the terms they were offered by their tormentors - and it came from the movements they built and the strategy they used, to fling that decision in the face of their enemy and constrict his ability to fight.
The Danes learned how to separate the Germans from the spoils of taking Denmark. The Dutch would not be taken meekly off to Germany. The Rosenstrasse wives kept coming back, until they got their husbands. The moment and the means of refusing to be overcome are never out of reach.
1. This section relies for story elements and quoted statements on: Nathan Stoltzfus, Resistance of the Heart: Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse Protest in Nazi Germany (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996).
2. The Gandhi Reader, ed. Homer A. Jack (New York, Grove Press, 196)1, p. 334
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