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German women married to Jews
defied the Nazis in 1943,
in the only public protest in Germany
against the deportation of Jews.

They won.


Resistance of the Heart

a onetime Chambon Foundation production

photograph by Abraham Pisarek


The Chambon Foundation has regretfully abandoned plans for a one-hour documentary based on Resistance of the Heart: Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse Protest in Nazi Germany (W. W. Norton, 1996, paperback edition Rutgers University Press, March 2001), Nathan Stoltzfus’ highly acclaimed study of the demonstrations in Berlin in 1943 that defied the Gestapo and succeeded in reversing a planned deportation of Jews.

The effort, led by mainly by women--non-Jewish spouses in intermarried relationships--hauntingly suggests that direct challenges to the Final Solution were not necessarily doomed to failure.


A dozen interviews of Rosenstrasse participants were videotaped and will be made available in the future for posterity.

In Germany, according to author Stoltzfus, it is commonly believed that it was impossible for Germans to resist the dictatorship in Nazi Germany.  This has grown to constitute the ultimate alibi: “What could we have done?”

To be sure, it wasn't easy for an “ordinary person” to stand in the way of the Holocaust.  And yet, a little-known street protest in early 1943 shows that German resistance to the deportation of German Jews was not necessarily doomed.  Indeed, the gathering on Rosenstrasse—the only known public German protest against the deportation of Jews—stunningly achieved its aims.  Ordinary Germans—mostly women, as it happens—stood up to the Third Reich and won!

In Weapons of the Spirit, Not Idly By—Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust, and the upcoming And Crown Thy Good, Pierre Sauvage and the Chambon Foundation have focused on the few who cared during those terrible times, and underscored how the actions of French villagers and a few singular Americans raise the most fundamental questions about individual and national choices during that turning point in history.

Rosenstrasse: Resistance of the Heart  would have continued and deepened that approach by entering “the belly of the beast.”  Combining the Chambon Foundation's consistently challenging approach with Stoltzfus’ unparalleled scholarship on the Rosenstrasse protest, this documentary such a documentary could convey a new and fundamental understanding of the nature of German responsibility for the singular evil of the Holocaust, underscoring the individual responsibility all citizens share in the actions of their governments.

Among the questions a Rosenstrasse documentary couldl address are the following:

The basic facts are simply stated.  Up until early 1943, Jews married to Germans had been exempted from the death camp deportations.  But during what the Gestapo called the “Final Roundup of Jews,” they too were arrested and taken to a pre-deportation collection center at Rosenstrasse 2-4, in the heart of Berlin, and the key location for this documentary.

Most of these mixed marriages involved Jewish men married to non-Jewish women.  The German women quickly discovered this collection center, and began to meet each other there. Soon they began calling out in one voice, "Give us our husbands back."

As many as 600 or more gathered together that first day, and as many as 6,000 may have joined in at various times as the protests grew day after day, for a week.  Again and again, the police scattered the women with threats to shoot them down in the streets, but each time they advanced again, with increasing solidarity although they were unarmed, unorganized and leaderless.  It is hard to imagine an act more dangerous for German civilians than an open confrontation with the Gestapo, on the Gestapo's front doorstep.  Arrest seemed a foregone conclusion.

“Without warning, the guards began setting up machine guns,” Charlotte Israel recalled.  “Then they directed them at the crowd and shouted: ‘If you don’t go now, we’ll shoot.’  The movement surged backward.  But then, for the first time, we really hollered.  Now, we couldn’t care less.  They’re going to shoot in any case, so now we’ll yell too, we thought.  We yelled, ‘Murderer, murderer, murderer, murderer.’”

Joseph Goebbels, in addition to being the influential Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, also served as Gauleiter (Nazi Party Leader) of Berlin.  “There have been unpleasant scenes,” he noted in his diary.  “The people gathered together in large throngs and even sided with the Jews to some extent.”  Astonishingly, after a week of this, Goebbels suddenly ordered the release of the Jews with German spouses, for reasons that provide key insights into the nature of the Nazi regime: nearly 2,000 Jews were freed—and were allowed to survive till the very end.

Leopold Gutterer, Goebbels’ deputy, told Stoltzfus that Goebbels ordered the Jews’ release “in order to eliminate the protest from the world, so that others didn’t begin to do the same.”  Goebbels similarly decided not to arrest the protesting spouses in order to avoid the risk of further unrest from their non-Jewish relatives.

“We acted from the heart,” said one of them, the still feisty Elsa Holzer.  “We wanted to show that we weren’t willing to let them go.  I went to Rosenstrasse every day before work.  And there was always a flood of people there.  It wasn’t organized or instigated.  Everyone was simply there.  Exactly like me.”

Though they are elderly and dwindling in number, there are still eyewitnesses to tell the story, and Nathan Stoltzfus knows them all and has already conducted audio-taped interviews with more than two dozen possible participants in the documentary: women who protested, Jews who were imprisoned and released, Jewish officials in charge of guarding the collection center.

Stoltzfus, who grew up in a Mennonite home and attended Harvard Divinity School before becoming a Harvard-trained historian and a Holocaust scholar, will himself be a major figure in the documentary.  When he began researching the story, there were only a small number of short, anecdotal reports on the protest, which historians had tended to overlook as an oddity without significance.  "Nobody knew about it, it was like a non-event," says Berlin sculptor Ingeborg Hunzinger, who was forced to flee Nazi Germany because of her art.  The octogenarian, who has memorialized Rosenstrasse in a stirring set of sculptures, credits Stoltzfus for being the first to shed light on the protest.

The documentary will be shot mainly in Germany, notably at such key locations as the Rosenstrasse collection center, at the offices of the “Jewish Bureau” of the Berlin Gestapo, right around the corner in the Burgstrasse, at the Putlitz train station from which many Jews departed Berlin for Auschwitz, in the former barracks of the SS Body Guard of Adolf Hitler, which played a major role in the Feb. 27, 1943 round-up.

In addition to eyewitness reports and scholarly analysis and debate, the documentary will draw on photographs, newsreels, documents and artifacts to visually tell the story: police release certificates for Jews set free as a result of the protest; photographs of prisoners before and after their ordeal; a chess board which a prisoner fashioned from a mattress cover, on which he played with pebbles, to pass the time; pages from the Stürmer publication, graphically illustrating the identity of half Jews; a report from the main SS office of economics, announcing the arrival in Auschwitz of 25 Jews deported from Rosenstrasse—who twelve days later, following the protest, were returned to Berlin and released!

The documentary would have aimed to provide the necessary historical context for the Rosenstrasse protest and its improbable outcome: the German defeat at Stalingrad, the heavy air attack on Berlin by the Royal Air Force, the declaration of “Total War” by Goebbels and other top officials just the week before.  Goebbels’ decision will be explored in terms of Hitler’s theory of power: many viewers will be surprised to realize that in Germany, terror was not at all the main tool in the Nazi arsenal, though there is, in fact, a growing consensus about this among historians.

Most movingly perhaps, the documentary would have probed the startling and effective loyalty of many Germans married to Jews.  The story of the Rosenstrasse Protest thus begins before that climactic event, with the stories of those who protested, and how they came to marry Jews. It poignantly demonstrates the courage—and the compromises—of their self-protective resistance, charting the lives of intermarried couples in the context of Nazi persecution and social harassment, as they are drawn slowly closer together, tighter and tighter, until they meet at Rosenstrasse.

Despite the mounting and intense pressures on all sides, the overwhelming majority of these mixed marriages continued.  At war’s end, no less than 98 percent of German Jews still alive in Germany and registered with the police were married to non-Jewish Germans.

There are other examples that successful protest was possible in Nazi Germany, and the documentary will touch on them, underscoring that citizens everywhere bear responsibility for the actions of their governments.

The documentary would have been designed for a broad P. B. S. television audience, as was the Chambon Foundation’s very successful first undertaking, Weapons of the Spirit, which was introduced by Bill Moyers.  While maintaining high historical standards,  the film will aim to make its points in ways that will be accessible to many viewers, drawing on the inherent drama of the events in question and the bittersweet consolation of the success that was achieved at Rosenstrasse.

The foundation, founded in 1982 by Pierre Sauvage, has established itself as a growing media resource and archival facility focused on the Holocaust and especially on its “necessary lessons of hope.”   The Chambon Foundation’s boards include many major historians and other scholars, and its projects draw on their expertise and advice.

Comments on Nathan Stotzfus' Resistance of the Heart
Foreword by Joschka Fischer, then Foreign Minister of Germany
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