That there was precious little popular opposition to Nazi Germany’s anti-Semitic policies will forever be to the country’s shame. But there was, however, one demonstration in the heart of Berlin during World War II that released a limited number of Jews in Germany from captivity, and was a modest but not insignificant victory in the face of evil.
This is the little known story of a small group of German women who, in the heart of the capital of Nazi Germany, at a crucial moment in World War II, saved their Jewish or part-Jewish husbands from what they believed would be inevitable deportation and death. Known as the Rosenstrasse protest, it was the only demonstration on behalf of Jews in wartime Nazi Germany.
After Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, the country passed a series of anti-Jewish laws. There were over 400 antisemitic decrees between 1933 and the start of World War II in 1939. These included national laws passed by the German government, as well as much local and regional legislation initiated and passed by regional officials to persecute and discriminate against Jews. In other words, this was not all just Hitler’s doing—many Germans at all levels of government were actively and enthusiastically involved. Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of German people remained silent, and often willingly took jobs, properties or possessions from Jews.
Germany passed anti-Jewish laws incrementally. At the start, early antisemitic legislation limited the role of German Jews in German public life. So in 1933 Jewish doctors and civil servant were fired; Jewish lawyers were no longer admitted to the bar; and many Jewish children were barred from public schools and universities. Foreign-born naturalized German Jews also had their citizenship revoked. In 1935, laws banned Jewish teachers from public schools, and from working as veterinarians or accountants. 1935 was also the year of the “Nuremberg Laws,” which defined a Jew as anyone with three or more Jewish grandparents.
This racial definition did not care if a “Jew” practiced the Jewish religion or any other. The laws forbade Jews from marrying or having sexual relations with “Germans” or people with “German-related blood,” and barred Jews from voting or holding public office. Even dead Jewish soldiers who had sacrificed their lives for Germany—their country—during World War I were affected. The law forbade them from being named in war memorials.
While there was a succession of antisemitic laws, a small number of German Jews remained relatively unaffected—by virtue of their relatives. The “Nuremberg Laws” stated that anyone with one or two Jewish grandparents was considered a Jew if he or she was a member or a Jewish congregation, or was married to a Jew. People with one or two Jewish grandparents who were not members of a Jewish community and were married to non-Jews were classified as Mischlinge, a racial term meaning mongrel or half-breed. There were two “levels” of Mischlinge, first and second degree, depending on the number of Jewish antecedents one had.
By being married to Germans without Jewish heritage, and by being categorized as Mischlinge, a tiny minority of Jewish (or Jew-ish) Germans were for years somewhat insulated from the worst of the anti-Jewish legislation. The Germans’ plan was to defer dealing with this small group until after the war had been won. Then, the Nazi leadership agreed at the Wannsee Conference in Berlin in January 1942, these Jewish spouses and half-Jewish children and other assorted Mischlinge would be deported without the need to upset their “Aryan” German relatives during wartime. This would avert any potential for internal unrest while the country was fighting the Allies. By 1943, there were almost 9,000 Jews in Berlin who were married to non-Jews or were the children of “mixed marriages.”
Things changed early one Saturday in February 1943. In a series of dawn raids, the Gestapo arrested about 8,000 Jews in Berlin. Of these, around 1,800 were separated and herded into the Jewish community’s welfare office on Berlin’s Rosenstrasse. The majority of those sent to Rosenstrasse were Jewish husbands of non-Jewish women whose German relatives were well connected. As Germans knew that round ups of Jews led to deportations, which meant they were being sent to their deaths at extermination camps, the authorities separated this group in order to placate their families. The individuals at Rosenstrasse would just be sent to forced labor camps in Germany, the authorities insisted, not to any place more sinister.
However the Jewish captives’ German families were unconvinced. They knew that days after being arrested Jews were habitually and systematically carted onto trains and sent to the killing camps in the East. So they began to arrive at Rosenstrasse, first as individuals, then in smaller groups, to protest the treatment of their loved ones.
Within a couple of days there were some 200 women outside the cordoned off building, hoping to prevent any deportations to Auschwitz. The authorities threatened the crowd with violence if they did not go home, but the wives would not be cowed. They remained. Although few in number, this was a remarkable event. Protests of any sort in Nazi Germany were rare; protests on behalf of Jews, unheard of. The protest went on for a week, and news spread. Now the authorities had a decision to make. Should they crush the protest by force and risk more open dissent from the German public (who might care about the killing of non-Jewish Germans), or should they cede to the women’s demands?
The dilemma was made more acute by the timing. By early 1943, while Germany was “winning” its unilateral war against Jews and slaughtering them by the million, the country was seeing see its war against the Allies come start to come unstuck on the battlefield. Most notably, the German army had just suffered catastrophic defeat to the Soviet army at Stalingrad. Now for the first time many in Germany believed the country might be on course to lose the war. This meant there was greater likelihood of dissent, for populations tend not to protest wars their nation is winning or has won. Given the situation, the German authorities decided it best to release those held in Rosenstrasse back to their families. Why risk wartime dissent when they could address the issue of the few remaining Jews in Germany after victory, the determined.
In fact, according to the US Holocaust Museum, it is likely that the Gestapo never intended to deport the Mischlinge or “mixed marriage” Jews from Rosenstrasse en masse to death camps. Instead, the plan was to send them to forced labor camps within Germany, and defer their deaths to war’s end. Nevertheless, 25 of those arrested and detained at Rosenstrasse were indeed deported to Auschwitz and, thanks to the protest, were returned to Germany.
The Nazi authorities believed that the release of those interned on Rosenstrasse and the return of the 25 sent from there to Auschwitz was simply a matter of timing. It would just delay their inevitable fate. They believed, and planned, that these people would be killed after Nazi Germany had won the war. But, of course, the Germans were wrong. Germany would not win World War II. And almost every individual arrested and sent to Rosenstrasse would survive the war, deep in the belly of wartime Berlin. So it was that the women protestors at Rosenstrasse won a rare and remarkable victory over the forces of Nazi Germany.