Remembering Rosenstrasse

Rosenstrasse protests by ‘gentile’ women against Nazi Germany to save their Jewish husbands should inspire ‘safe’ sections of population to stand for the ‘targeted’ ones

Remembering Rosenstrasse

In mid-February 1943, Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany, set himself the goal of making Berlin “entirely free of Jews” by the middle or end of March. At that point, most other Jews had already been deported to concentration camps, where over six million Jews were killed by the Nazi regime. The few Jews still living in Berlin were men married to gentile, or non-Jewish, women. On February 27, 1943, the Gestapo arrested over 2,000 of these Jewish men. Within hours, the wives of these men gathered outside the building at Rosenstrasse or Rose Street, where the men were imprisoned. Thus began a week-long mass protest in which thousands of women camped at Rosenstrasse, shouting, “Give us our husbands back.”

The women knew that if their husbands were not soon released, they would be sent to death camps like Auschwitz. The Gestapo repeatedly threatened the protesters that they would be shot if they did not disperse. At times the women did scatter and seemed to move away, but every time they reassembled, regrouped and continued to demand the release of their husbands. Eventually, on March 6, Goebbels gave in and released the arrested men. This was largely possible because the protestors were “gentile” or “non-Jewish” women who were part of the people that the Nazi regime claimed to represent. These women were part of the demographic group that was supposed to be the beneficiary of Nazi Germany. And yet these particular women had defied the rules of “racial purity” established by the Third Reich. In 1935, the Nuremberg Laws, enacted by the Nazi government, forbade marriage and extramarital relations between Jews and Germans. These laws also deprived Jews of citizenship rights.

Even before 1935, gentile women married to Jews had been under pressure to divorce their husbands. Yet thousands of such women had refused because they knew that if they gave in to this pressure, it meant certain death by execution for their husbands. Now there is a Rosenstrasse Foundation, based in the USA, which seeks to “commemorate, encourage, and educate about civil courage — concrete acts in opposition to injustice and human rights violations that defend the values of a pluralistic society.” The Foundation celebrates the potential of ordinary people in everyday life to stand up against injustice. Since most writing about the Nazi period magnifies Hitler and the forces of hatred, “the Rosenstrasse Foundation strives instead to elevate the voices and actions of resistors and rescuers, giving them the last word”.

In doing this, the Foundation honours the principle elucidated by Czech statesman Vaclav Havel — that each one of us can be “attempting to live in the truth” without holding any formal position of power or influence. The 80th anniversary of the Rosenstrasse Protest is being marked by the Foundation with several events in Berlin, Washington DC, and New York. One of these is a gathering on March 6 near Rosenstrasse in Berlin. For some years now, the European Parliament has observed March 6 as the European Day of the Righteous “to commemorate the moral courage of those who defied tyranny to stand up for those targeted for persecution and murder.”

The story of Rosenstrasse was overlooked for a long time before historians gave it serious attention. 'Resistance of the Heart: Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse Protest in Nazi Germany' by Nathan Stoltzfus is perhaps the most authoritative account of this episode. Stoltzfus, who is the Dorothy and Jonathan Rintels Professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Florida, has addressed key questions such as “Who were these intermarried German women and how did they dare to disobey a ruthless regime? Why did Hitler and Goebbels give in to the protesters and release two thousand Jews?”

The Rosenstrasse protest is relevant for us here in India today because it highlights the dangers of dividing society based on identity — be it race or religion or caste. The growing demand for “anti-love-jihad” laws is essentially a way of building higher and higher walls between Hindus and Muslims. But it is important to note that this trend has been preceded by sporadic reports of so-called “honour killings” — cases where members of a family kill either the son or daughter who has defied them to marry someone of another caste or religion.

If such individual acts of rage and revenge are supported or sanctioned by laws that forbid inter-faith or inter-caste marriages, then Indian society would have crossed a dangerous threshold. Rosenstrasse is being commemorated even 80 years later because a painful question remains unanswered: If more non-Jewish Germans had protested, could the mass annihilation of Jews have been slowed or even stopped? Even if a society has no similarities with Nazi Germany, this question is universally valid. In societies across the world, the future depends on how many of those who feel safe and who are not being targeted are willing to rise in defence of those who are being targeted. Recently, there have been a series of rallies across Maharashtra by those objecting to “love jihad.” This is a catchphrase for opposing any romantic relations or marriage between Hindus and Muslims. Ironically, these events coincide with the 80th anniversary of the Rosenstrasse protest of 1943, in which non-Jewish women married to Jewish men struggled to save their husbands from being sent to death camps. Let us not make simplistic comparisons between very different cultures and historical moments. Important values and lessons can still be gleaned from the success of the Rosenstrasse story to make us better and more rational.

Views expressed are personal

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