‘Give us back our men!’
You could hear them three streets away—a large and angry crowd of women—and as we turned the corner of Rosenstraße I felt my jaw slacken. I hadn’t seen anything like this on the streets of Berlin since Hitler came to power. And whoever would have thought that wearing a nice hat and carrying a handbag was the best way to dress when you were opposing the Nazis?
‘Release our husbands,’ shouted the mob of women as we pushed our way along the street. ‘Release our husbands now.’
There were many more of them than I had been expecting – perhaps several hundred. Even Klara Meyer looked surprised, but not as surprised as the cops and SS who were guarding the Jewish Welfare Office. They gripped their machine pistols and rifles and muttered curses and abuse at the women standing nearest to the door and looked horrified to find themselves ignored or even roundly cursed back. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be: if you had a gun, then people were supposed to do what they’re told. That’s page one of how to be a Nazi.
— Philip Kerr, A Man Without Breath
Today’s Rosenstraße is not very attention-grabbing. For those on the main tourist highway from the Brandenburg Gate along Unter den Linden to the TV Tower and Alexanderplatz, it appears as just a gap between the tall, concrete GDR buildings that line Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse, functioning as an entryway for delivery vans and UberEats drivers.
Behind that gap is a really short street, more of a lane in fact, that runs down to Anna-Louisa-Karsch-Street and is lined by restored nineteenth-century Gründerzeit buildings that now house digital agencies and offices on one side, and a small park and more Plattenbauten on the other. Only the notably red Litfaß column on Karl-Liebknecht-Street gives any indication that the nearby street was once the site of the largest public protest against the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.
Before the war, Berlin’s Jewish community was the biggest in Germany—160,000 according to the 1933 census—comprising more than 30 percent of all Jews in the country. Some of the most important Jewish sites in the city were located in and around Rosenstraße, including the Old Synagogue on Heidereutergasse, which was consecrated in 1714, and a mikveh ritual immersion bath. The Jewish Welfare Office, where social work according to synagogue districts was coordinated, could be found at Rosenstraße 2-4.
In the face of increased Nazi persecution after 1933, many Jews emigrated in the years following, and their number fell to about 80,000 by 1939. The first deportation from Berlin occurred in October 1941, when 1,000 Jews were transported to the ghetto the Nazis had created in Łódź. By January 1942, about 10,000 Jews had been sent from Berlin to ghettos in eastern Europe, mainly Łódź, Riga, and Minsk, with elderly Jews deported to the Theresienstadt camp in occupied Czechoslovakia. Also beginning in 1942, Jews were deported from Berlin directly to extermination camps, primarily to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
At the beginning of 1943, 35,000 Jews were still living in the capital, about half of them working as forced labourers. All of them were then targeted in what the Gestapo euphemistically named the Große Fabrik-Aktion (Large Factory Action), part of a plan by SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt—the Nazi security office and planning centre of the Shoa—to deport and murder the remaining Jews in Germany.
The roundup began on February 27, 1943. Gestapo and SS organised manhunts across the city, often arresting people at their places of work, and interned about 11,000 Jews at makeshift prison camps, among them the Clou Concert Hall (formerly Markthalle III), the Jewish retirement home on Große Hamburger Straße, and the Jewish Welfare Office on Rosenstraße.
Those incarcerated at Rosenstraße, around 1,800 people, were Jewish men married to German women, brought here because they were in a “mixed marriage”. The Nazis, however, had underestimated the wives of those kept in Rosenstraße: as soon as they learned where their husbands had been sent, they turned up to protest the arrest with increasing numbers of women gathering each day; in the end, around 600 protesters gathered in front of the building every morning, loudly demanding the release of the men.
Ruth Gross-Pisarek was eleven in 1943:
“On that Saturday, 27 February 1943, our father, Abraham Pisarek, did not come home from the factory in Frankfurter Allee where he worked as a stoker. From the father of my friend Erika Hecht, who as a World War I veteran had not yet been deported, we learned that the men from the mixed marriages were possibly locked up in the house of the Jewish community, Rosenstraße 2-4.
In fact, early that morning my father had been taken on an open truck with all the other Jewish forced labourers from the factory, first to the ‘Clou’ and then here. Here, in front of the house on Rosenstraße at the corner of Heidereutergasse, we, my mother Berta Pisarek, my then 13-year-old brother Georg and I, an 11-year-old child, met our first companions of fate in the evening of the same day. There was a man in civilian clothes in front of the door, obviously a Jewish steward, who refused us entry, but later that evening we were able to force a packet of sandwiches with our names on it through.
The Litfaß column that stood here at the time became my strategically placed regular spot for a week. On Sunday I had already spotted my father behind a window on the third floor. He was waving his hand cautiously behind the pane, holding a small white piece of paper; so he had received our sandwich parcel, in which we had put a love letter. Of course, this place by the window was coveted, the men who stood cramped in the rooms all hoped to discover their wives outside. I stood down there often and for a long time so that I could wave to him at least once every day.”
The women turned up every morning for a week, vocally protesting against the increased attempts of Nazi authorities to disperse them by means of coercion and threatening violence, until all of the men were released. The Nazis finally relented, and returned the captured men to their families from March 6 onwards, making the protests one of the most significant and successful—instances of public opposition during the entire Nazi regime.
As Ruth remembered: “Early in the morning of March 6, another Saturday, our father actually came home with a discharge note, completely exhausted, hungry, tired, stubble-bearded. At 2 p.m. […] He had to report to our local police station every Tuesday, I still have the list. Tuesday March 2, 43 is missing, but Saturday, March 6 and Tuesday, March 9 are entered instead. The last report was made on Tuesday, April 17, 1945. He went back to forced labour in the factory, was once again summoned to the Gestapo in Burgstraße—possibly after a denunciation by a woman living in the house—and sent for further forced labour, but in Berlin, no deportation.”
After the war, Ruth’s father, who had worked as a photographer before the Nazis came to power, became one of the first licensed press and theatre photographers in the Soviet occupation zone, and would go on to document both GDR politics and the cultural life of Berlin in the East. He died in 1983.
Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, made a reference to the events in his diary, writing on March 6 1943 that “Unfortunately there have been a number of regrettable scenes at a Jewish home for the aged, where a large number of people gathered and in part even took sides with the Jews. I ordered the SD [security forces] not to continue Jewish evacuation at so critical a moment. We want to save that up for a couple of weeks. We can then go after it all the more thoroughly.”
Right up until the end of the war, Jewish partners from “mixed marriages” lived in growing social isolation and under the constant threat of deportation if their “Aryan” spouses should die. As late as the beginning of 1945, the Reich Security Main Office again decided to deport all Jews living in such marriages to Theresienstadt. However, the deportation failed due to a lack of transport capacity, so that overall 4,000 Jews from “mixed marriages” survived in Berlin.
Today, the building of the welfare office is gone, destroyed in the war, but the events that happened in front of it remain a dominating feature of Rosenstraße. There are two information columns detailing the protests at each end of the street and an information board in the small park, behind which sits a sandstone sculpture ensemble called Block der Frauen (Block of Women), created by East German sculptor Ingeborg Hunzinger (1915 – 2009). Erected in 1995, the phrases “Here Women Stood” and “The Power of Civil Disobedience” can be found inscribed into the base of some of the sculptures.
While the Rosenstraße memorial might seem like a long-standing consequence of the culture of memory supported by politicians and the wider society, as with so many other memorial sites across Germany, this is not the case. It was in fact only in 1992 that a small local group of activists calling themselves the “Rosenstraße Project Group” began commemorating the protest, as a consequence of the first public article to be published about it in the Die Zeit newspaper in 1989, by US historian Nathan Stoltzfus.
In 2003 the film Rosenstraße, directed by German actress and director Margarethe von Trotta, fictionalised and romanticised the story, and English author Philip Kerr also described the protest in his 2013 noir novel A Man Without Breath, which is set in 1943. There was even a board game inspired by the women’s resistance efforts published in 2017.
Today there seems to be some disagreement among historians about the actual number of protesters, and whether their actions really led to the release of the men or if the Nazi authorities had potentially already considered releasing them due to the unclear status of their marriages. But it remains clear that, regardless of the number of women involved and the exact machinations of the protect, civil resistance was not only possible but could be successful, even in 1943. Unfortunately, most people in Germany at the time chose not to do it.