Wednesday 23 November 2011


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.


Stephanie said...

Thank you for posting that story. I had heard about that at a Holocaust conference I attended. Since I live in the US, I will have to look for that movie. I find these kind of stories to be so inspiring.

Sue Purkiss said...

I hadn't heard of this before - it's an extraordinary story. No matter how much you hear and read about the Holocaust, its brutality always comes as a shock - it's good to see a little gleam of light. Thanks, Lesley.

Gill James said...

I recognise the problem of having so much interesting information! I'm encountering a similar problem in a similar area. However, part of my brief is to create also a web site for KS4 with a sections also for Higher Education and teachers. I'm finding this a real handy sapce to tuck in the other interesting pieces of information I couldn't use but somehow are connected with the story.
I'm also inserting "deleted scenes".
Could you do something like this?

alberridge said...

I hadn't heard it either - and it's a wonderful story. Thank you, Leslie, for posting this little bit of light in all the horror.

Another is in Christopher Browning's 'Ordinary Men', which I'd thoroughly recommend. It's about Police Reserve Battalion 101 - men who were ordered to murder Jews and refused.

H.M. Castor said...

What a fascinating post & what a moving and challenging story (as with so many stories of bravery in the face of Nazi brutality I find myself asking 'could I have had that amount of courage?'). I'm another who hadn't heard about this episode. Thank you, Leslie.

Leslie Wilson said...

'ordinary Men' is an amazing study of how humans react to being asked to commit atrocities - because of the insight into the policemen's thoughts. Also a chilling account of how they were groomed to murder, many of them in the end. Everyone should read it, I think - partly because it shows the mechanisms that make such things acceptable at the time - the rationalisations - which are all part of everyone's psyche.

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

Interesting and heart warming story, Leslie, to think that these women were so courageous. Your comment on people being groomed for murder reminded me of the scientific experiments which were carried out not too long ago with amazing results showing how 'ordinary people' could be persuaded to carry out dangerous acts. Perhaps the women in your story had 'leaders' who were able to persuade them to fight for a better cause.

Alex said...

I have always thought the women of Rosenstraße were so courageous. The film by von Trotta is an excellent depiction of that event (but she is a wonderful film maker anyway.) I love stories of ordinary people acting so bravely in extraordinary times.
I am definitely going to have to read and review Saving Rafael.
Thanks for this wonderful post.

Leslie Wilson said...

I don't get the impression that there were leaders - having been in CND, done Greenham etc I have experienced how people can get together and things just happen.. But probably one or 2 women started to shout and the others joined in? Leslie

Emma Barnes said...

What a beautiful and moving post, Leslie. I had never heard of this episode either and I was fascinated to read it. Did those Jewish partners survive the rest of the war, or were there other round-ups subsequently?

adele said...

I think this is a wonderful post, Leslie and thank you for your sterling work in translation. Fascinating.

Leslie Wilson said...

Many of the men did and there were no more roundups - but of course the hazards of bombs and the terrors of the last battle in Berlin

Miriam Halahmy said...

What has always deeply troubled me about this incredible story is that it clearly shows that the Nazi regime was not as solid as it seemed and that a strong challenge like this caused it to melt away quite quickly. A shame there were not more large scale protests - although we know that there were many brave individuals and small groups.
I also want to say out loud how utterly appalled I am by the treatment of you and your parents and how glad I am that we are friends. But as you know, I believe we would have been best friends in the 1950s if we'd been at school!! ( with love)