The Rosenstrasse protest, when German women saved their Jewish husbands by confronting the Nazi regime

In 2003 the German Margarethe von Trotta, director, scriptwriter, actress and wife of the famous writer Volker Schlöndorf, won the David de Donatello Award (the most important in the Italian film industry) in the category of best European movie with her film Rosenstraße. It is a German-Dutch co-production whose protagonist also won the award for best actress at the Venice Film Festival and tells the story of an unusual historical episode that took place in Berlin in the middle of World War II: the demonstrations held by Jewish gentile wives for the imprisonment of their husbands.

As it is known, the rise to power of the Nazi regime in 1933 meant a turn of the screw to the secular anti-Semitism that had been growing in the country, especially since the 19th century and that the NSDAP was in charge of spreading in its programs, shaping it when it acceded to the government in the Nuremberg Laws of 1935. This legislative corpus was written by jurist Wilhelm Frick with the help of ideologist Julius Streicher and presented during the annual congress of the party. Its aim was to separate the Jewish population (considered gemeinschaftsfremde or residents, along with gypsies, the disabled and others) from the aria (the Volksgemeinschaft or popular community), depriving them of German nationality and prohibiting them from holding public office or other professions.

1935 Nazi Chart with Blood Purity Classification/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

For this purpose it established a racial taxonomy that classified Jews by the degree of purity of their blood, so that there were pure or mixed, and the latter, in turn, were divided into degrees: Those of the first degree were those who had only two Jewish grandparents, which opened up the possibility of retaining or regaining citizenship, holding certain jobs and marrying someone of German blood; the mixed ones of the second degree had only one Jewish grandparent and would enjoy more rights; finally, there were those whose Jewish condition went back further than their grandparents, the latter being already German, which made them the least discriminated against group. Although the Nazis sought to divorce mixed couples, those who were Jewish and German, most refused and the government preferred not to repress them to prevent the spread of such opposition.

While the first provisions postponing Jews to minor jobs began to be enacted as early as 1933, the situation worsened the following year when Hindenburg died and Hitler had absolute power. Jews were banned from the Wehrmacht, were removed from liberal professions, and their status was noted on identity papers, while children could not attend normal schools and businessmen were excluded from public contracts. In 1938, after an attack on the German embassy in Paris, Goebbels promoted anti-Semitic demonstrations that culminated in the so-called Night of Broken Glass, a pogrom carried out by the SA (Storm Troopers of the party) against Jewish stores, synagogues and properties in general.

Fire at the Frankfurt Synagogue during the Night of Broken Glass/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

This action resulted in a hundred deaths and 30,000 people arrested, who were later deported to the newly created concentration camps, where their property was expropriated; they were joined by tens of thousands of others who emigrated to escape from danger. But this was only the first step towards something more serious, since in the autumn of 1941, with the country at war and the Jewish population of the occupied countries confined in ghettos, the so-called Final Solution was initiated, a plan of extermination that coincided chronologically with Operation Barbarossa (invasion of the Soviet Union): the Jews would become forced laborers and those who were not in a position to do so would be executed.

Adolf Eichmann, Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich were in charge of implementing it, using the Einsatzgruppen (operation groups) formed by the SS (Party Protection Squads) and the SD (SS intelligence service), as well as the extermination camps. The unfortunate Jews were joined by gypsies, homosexuals, Slavs, communists and, in general, any group that did not conform to Nazi ideals. And that was the situation when the war took a turn and the German army crashed in Stalingrad, causing the so-called Großaktion Juden (Major Action on Jews) plan to be unleashed in February 1943, aimed at replacing, for reasons of internal security, the approximately seventy-five thousand Jews who were still working in the arms factories.

They were to be deported by train to the concentration camps in Riga and Auschwitz. However, some were classified as mixed and therefore excluded, at least for the time being: the Geltungsjude (those living with Aryan relatives), those over sixty-five (unless they had partners under that age), decorated World War I veterans, some considered special for various reasons, and those married to Mischlingen (women of pure German blood). However, even if they were not deported, they would not be able to keep their jobs.

From February 26, they were summoned to the police stations to review their work papers, but at the same time, in some places the Gestapo and the SS began to arrest them. In two days the work was done except in Berlin, where the number of Jews was higher (about eighteen hundred out of six thousand) and it lasted a week. This meant that, just in case, rapid and coordinated raids were carried out, mostly in the factories themselves, hence the name given to the operation in the post-war period: Fabrikaktion.

First transport of prisoners to Auschwitz in 1940/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

The Berlin Jews thus went from the continuous but minor harassment -depending on the whim of each officer- that they suffered until then to being locked up for inconcrete and predictably much worse reasons. They were locked up in various places, from garages to auditoriums, through stables and even buildings of their community (synagogues, asylums, etc.), but the most prominent place was the social welfare headquarters in Rosenstraße street. This time, the intention was to set them apart while they were looking for replacements in their jobs by fully-fledged Germans.

However, given the time taken, the authorities were unable to make the arrests discreetly, as they claimed, nor did they later provide the relevant information, so rumors began to spread that these Jews would be deported as well. As a result, their wives began to gather in front of the building on Rosenstrasse, first waiting for news and then improvising protest demonstrations that gradually grew in intensity and number of attendees, ignoring the order received to dissolve.

Another scene from the movie

Within a week, six thousand people had gathered, putting the government in an awkward position because this action led to others like the one in Dortmund-Hörde in April 1943 (the people prevented the arrest of a deserter, shouting “Revolution! Give us back our boys! “) or that of the women of Witten in October of the same year (they rebelled when the local party leader wanted to leave them without a ration card to prevent the collapse of the transports when they returned to the city, from which they had been evacuated, to join their husbands).

Throughout the time that the demonstrations lasted there was only one interruption: it was the night of March 1, 1943, due to a bombing by the RAF. The authorities hoped that this would deter the Mischlinge to stay in their homes but it did not; they returned and in greater numbers, dialectically confronting the SS officers who threatened to open fire (they even placed trucks with machine guns).

The peculiar monument of Rosenstraße/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Finally, Goebbels himself forbade firing on them because a massacre in the capital would have been catastrophic from the point of view of propaganda and the morale of the people, perhaps inciting a revolt; he probably also had in mind, as did Hitler, how the Revolution of November 1918 that toppled the Kaiser was unleashed. On March 6 he personally ordered the release of the detainees but, despite the efforts of his ministry to keep the episode secret, word of mouth spread, first through Germany and then beyond its borders, forcing him to declare that the demonstrations were due to a protest against the Allied bombing.

Thus, thanks to the courage and determination of their wives, the Jews of Rosenstraße survived the Holocaust (a few were sent to Auschwitz by mistake but were soon repatriated). It has often been speculated what would have happened if such public opposition to the regime’s policy towards the Jews had been more widespread; it is difficult to know, obviously. In any case, those women did, and their memory is honored today with an on-site monument (the building no longer exists because it was destroyed by another allied air raid) and a sculpture installed in a nearby park.