Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Rosenstrasse Protest - Myth and Reality

Today is the 70th anniversary of the Rosenstrasse Protest - one of the most fascinating and poignant episodes in the grim history of the Holocaust.

On this day in 1943, the Nazis rounded up the remaining 8,000 or so Jews who were living legally in the German capital.  In the so-called "Fabrik Aktion", or 'Factory Action', the unfortunate victims were intercepted as they arrived for work in Berlin's myriad factories.  Rounded up and put into trucks, they were processed and transported to various holding centres around the city - including a former music hall - to await deportation.

In the days that followed, some 6,000 of those Berlin Jews were duly deported to Auschwitz and a most uncertain fate.  Yet, curiously, one group of prisoners was spared.  The 1,700 that were taken to the Jewish community building on Rosenstrasse in Berlin-Mitte were not deported.  They were held there, in horrific conditions, as their wives and families gathered on the pavement outside, chanting, protesting and demanding the return of their menfolk.   In due course, after around 5 days, the captives were released.  Even the 25 that had been 'mistakenly' deported to Auschwitz-Monowitz were returned.

So much is clear.  The controversy arises with the interpretation that has subsequently been applied to these events.  Some - quite understandably - have sought to make a causal connection between the facts of the families' protest and the prisoners' release: suggesting that the prisoners were released because their families had protested against their deportation.  If only it were that easy.

The truth - as ever - is rather more complex and rather less romantic.  The protests at Rosenstrasse were certainly brave; the women present there risked their own lives for those of their loved ones and took part in one of the very few examples of popular mass protest against the Third Reich.

Yet, I would argue that there is no causal link between the actions of the families and the release of their menfolk.  The prisoners were primarily those Jews in mixed marriages - the women outside, therefore, were Aryan (in Nazi eyes).  These prisoners, therefore, belonged to a liminal category and had already been selected out of the main body of prisoners - hence their incarceration together at Rosenstrasse.  There is every likelihood that these Jews would have been deported in due course, but it appears that they were not scheduled for deportation in March 1943.  Regardless of the brave actions of their womenfolk, therefore, it seems that they would have walked free in any case.

Rosenstrasse, then, was most certainly a heroic, romantic episode, but it is not quite the heroic, romantic episode that some think it was.

If you are interested in reading more on this - I can recommend my book "Berlin at War" :-)

No comments: