Berlin’s Unsung Female-Led Protest
Everyday Defiance Builds up to Heroic Action

Monument to the Rosenstrasse Protest in Berlin, Germany
Monument to the Rosenstrasse Protest in Berlin, Germany | Photo: picture alliance / Bildagentur-online/Joko | Bildagentur-online/Joko

The Rosenstrasse Protest (February 27th to March 6th, 1943) is a rare example of open resistance in Nazi Germany. Coming to power in 1933, the Nazis confidently calculated that married couples of “Aryans” (in Nazi vocabulary) and Jews would divorce as their friends vanished, their jobs were lost, their children were tossed from schools, and other opportunities to succeed faded away.

By Nathan Stoltzfus and Mordecai Paldiel

Even as the regime escalated the pressure on intermarried “Aryans” to separate from their Jewish spouses and made divorce available on request, more than 90 percent refused. Instead, they chose to entwine their destinies with Nazism’s most despised victims.

In 1935, the Nuremberg Laws condemned sexual relations between Jews and “Aryans” as “racial treason” (Rassenschande) punishable by imprisonment, which under the Nazi system usually led to death. In Nazi logic, intermarried Jews would have been the first to be deported.  But following the November 1938 Pogrom, commonly known as “Kristallnacht,” and complaints from “Aryans” married to Jews about the barbarous treatment of their Jewish partners, Hitler subsequently granted some of them a special “privileged” category. “Privileged” intermarried Jews were not persecuted as harshly as the “non-privileged” Jews who were required to wear the yellow star and were first to be eliminated. At the same time, the regime continued to make a series of concessions to non-Jewish persons who refused to divorce their Jewish spouses, right up until the end.

Also in 1938, agents summoned intermarried “Aryans” one by one to the foreboding SS or Gestapo headquarters. After a volley of threats and humiliations, Elsa Holzer — one of these “Aryan” women married to a Jew — was left sweating in fear. But she darted off without permission to find her husband, for fear that the Gestapo might have arrested him while she was gone.

As of 1939, German Jews in non-privileged intermarriages were thrown together into “Jew houses.” Professor Victor Klemperer, a Jew in a non-privileged intermarriage who survived along with his extensive diary thanks to his loyal “Aryan” wife, was forced into a house for Jews wearing the star. His wife Eva went with him, refusing his suggestion to leave if he landed in a camp. “My wife was harassed much more than I was,” said the Jewish husband of another “Aryan” wife. “They constantly insulted her.”

When the Holocaust destruction of German Jews began, Nazi leader and Hitler’s closest confidant Joseph Goebbels demanded that the famous actor Joachim Gottschalk divorce his Jewish wife or forgo all future acting roles. Instead, Gottschalk committed suicide along with his wife and son on November 6th, 1941. After a number of Gottschalk’s colleagues defied a ban by attending his funeral, Hitler instructed Goebbels to take a “forceful policy against the Jews” as the Nazi Gauleiter (Nazi term for regional party chief) of Berlin. Regarding intermarried Jews, however, Hitler recommended “a somewhat reserved course of action” to avoid “unnecessary difficulties” with the larger and still loyal German public. In the eastern territories, the regime murdered both the non-Jewish and the Jewish partners in intermarried couples who refused to separate. Within the Reich, the Nazis waited for Aryan partners to divorce or face severe consequences.

On December 6th, 1942, Goebbels received Hitler’s go-ahead to deport all “full” Jews (by Nazi racial definition) in Berlin who wore the star. On February 18th, 1943, Goebbels resolved to make the Reich capital “entirely free of Jews,” by which he meant deporting all people wearing the star. Such measures also took place in other cities. Such as a Gestapo decree two days before the Rosenstrasse Protest that required the Gestapo in Frankfurt an der Oder to send intermarried Jews to camps — but only if they could do so without drawing attention or causing riots. To intimidate public protesters in Berlin, Goebbels employed the Leibstandarte Hitler, the most elite SS group, to arrest Berlin Jews on February 27th and 28th, 1943.

Beginning the evening of February 27th, hundreds of women protested in front of the makeshift collection center on Rosenstrasse, where their husbands were imprisoned. As they protested, more than 7,000 Berlin Jews were arrested along with their family members and were crammed into freight trains en route to Auschwitz. Repeatedly, the protesters called out, “We want our husbands back!” This was greeted with shouts from armed guards, “Clear the streets or we’ll shoot!” These women were among the very few who had opposed Hitler continuously from the beginning. But they wisely did not call for Hitler’s head, instead openly communicating their demands for their Jewish husbands’ freedom. A Gestapo officer announced half-proudly to one Jewish prisoner, “Out there they are protesting for your release. That’s German loyalty!”  

On March 6th, 1943, Goebbels ordered the release of the intermarried Jews, following a visit to Hitler when he received approval for dealing with the “psychological” problem of the protest – the fear that the Rosenstrasse protest may lead others to similarly take to the streets and protest concerned issues. Both Hitler and Goebbels saw this as buying time, a mere stay of execution, as they rushed on to more pressing and attainable goals. It was a cold cost-benefit calculation, another temporary concession in a series.

Some 11,000 intermarried German Jews survived because they were married to partners who chose loyalty to their families over Hitler and the massive German movement behind him. These survivors comprised the majority of German Jews who lived on without going into hiding, wrote Bruno Blau, Jewish statistician for the Association of German Jews during Hitler’s rule.

Remembering these women is to recall a brilliant light in a suffocating darkness. Georg Zivier, whose wife protested on Rosenstrasse for his release, wrote, “Once the eyes of the entire people should have turned to the fate of these outlaws. But the public failed to take note of the blazing of a small torch, on which a fire of general resistance against tyranny might have been ignited.”