Wednesday, 23 November 2011
WE WANT OUR HUSBANDS BACK, by Leslie Wilson
When you're writing historical fiction, there are many stories you have to reluctantly edit out, because they might distort or clutter the plot. This is particularly the case when economy is crucial, as it is in Young Adult Fiction. One story I did really want to include in 'Saving Rafael' but couldn't, is the story of the German women who demonstrated in Rosenstrasse, Berlin, for the return of their Jewish husbands.
This happened in February -March, 1943, when the remainder of Berlin's Jewish population were being taken away to the extermination and concentration camps in Poland - to give Hitler a birthday present of a 'Jew-free Berlin'.
It was called the 'Fabrikaktion,' the Factory Action. The Jews, who'd been working in munitions, textile work, refuse disposal, and other industries, were to be replaced with slave labourers from the occupied territories. The 'Final Solution', which had always been Hitler's aim, could now be properly implemented.
Jews from 'mixed marriages' and some children of these marriages who were over fourteen and thus working in forced labour, were also caught up by the Factory Action and held in Jewish synagogue offices in Rosenstrasse (which means Rose Street). Most of these were men, since, during the Twenties - before the Nuremberg Laws put a stop to marriages between 'Aryans' and Jews - a quarter of all the Jewish men who married married non-Jewish women.
What happened next was the astonishing thing, and I want to use the words of one of the courageous wives, Charlotte Freudenthal. The translation is mine.
'When he (her husband Julius) hadn't come home and it was hours already, I went to the police station and asked what was wrong. One of the policemen told me: 'Go to Rosenstrasse.' I had no idea where that was, but he told me the way.
I saw many people in Rosenstrasse. Most of them were women. SS men were standing in front of the building.. naturally they didn't let anyone in. They told us to go home. We didn't do that. Only later we went, because it was cold. But we agreed: 'We'll come back.' The next day.
On the next day there were more people in Rosenstrasse. We kept crying out, over and over again, every day: 'We want our husbands back!' We knew what would happen to them if we didn't get them out… We handed things into the building.. clean clothes.
We weren't afraid. Well, maybe some were afraid. It goes without saying.
Then.. they set up machine guns. They said: 'If you don't go home, we'll shoot! Just a few people ran away. Well, you could hardly expect everyone to stay.. but the rest of us called out.. 'Don't go away! Don't go away!'
I was pushed forwards. I was standing right in front of one of the machine guns. I saw the belts in the machine gun. I'd had no idea what they looked like till then. They screamed something at us, but we screamed louder: 'Murderers! Cowards!' Then I wondered what would happen if I was shot. I thought mainly about my husband. 'I won't be able to save him,' I thought. 'It's all finished.' It was terrifying how loud it was, and how loudly we shouted. Then an SS man shouted something I didn't understand. And then - they withdrew. They took the machine guns away. Then it went really quiet, everything was quiet.'
And they succeeded. The men were released, and throughout Germany, the lives of the Jewish partners in mixed marriages were spared. A small gleam of light in the darkness of Nazi Germany. A pity, only, that more Germans didn't stand up and protect their friends, their relations, their work colleages.
There were other people in Germany who saved Jews who weren't their spouses or their children - so maybe you could say their actions were more praiseworthy. But the women who demonstrated in the Rosenstrasse came out in public and faced up, publicly, to a brutal regime. And faced it down. It's been pointed out that the massacre of a lot of German women would have been a stunning own goal for the regime - and it would have got out, no doubt about that. Maybe the machine guns were never intended to be used. The women didn't know that, though.
They'd already put in years of quiet heroism. There was enormous pressure on 'Aryan' spouses to divorce their Jewish partners. Many did. Those who refused had to share the misery of the Jewish population; miserly food rations, no clothing coupons - they had to buy second-hand clothes, or nothing - no radios, no pets, no pictures on the walls, even, no soap or razors for shaving. Maybe their love and obstinacy toughened them up for those days and hours in the cold of Rosenstrasse.
There's a wonderful film, directed by Margarethe von Trotta, called just 'Rosenstrasse.' Unfortunately, the English-subtitled version is only available as a Region 1 dvd - I've checked it up. It's really powerful and moving, well worth viewing if you can.
Though I didn't include the Rosenstrasse protest in 'Saving Rafael,' it was nevertheless part of the inspiration for the book, which is also about faithfulness - to love, not just between a boy and a girl, but between friends and neighbours.
I guess it also means a lot to me because I am the child of a 'mixed marriage', not confessionally mixed, but between members of two nations who'd only just been at war. I was called a 'mongrel' when I was a child; British people disapproved of my father marrying my mother, and in Graz, where my parents met, the local Nazis sent my mother threatening letters and wanted to shave her head, or worse, for 'prostituting herself with the enemy.' Of course neither of my parents was threatened with murder in a concentration camp, but their love did require a lot of fortitude and loyalty from them. The still greater strength and courage of the Rosenstrasse women gets to me, moves me immeasurably.