Between February 27 and March 6, 1943, an extraordinary event took place in a Berlin street. A group of 200 non-Jewish Germans demonstrated outside the local Jewish community building at Rosenstrasse 2-4. There, German police had incarcerated around 2,000 Jews, most of whom were married to non-Jewish German partners, and the male children of these so-called “mixed marriages”.
In the preceding weeks, German police rounded up and deported over 10,000 Jews from Berlin to Auschwitz Concentration Camp. The family members of the detainees in the Rosenstrasse believed that their loved ones could be next. Their non-violent demonstration in the freezing cold outside the Rosenstrasse community center aimed to prevent this deportation.
The arrest of Jewish spouses and Mischlinge in Rosenstrasse coincided with the last major roundup of German Jews for deportation to Auschwitz, an operation known as the “Factory Action” (Fabrik-Aktion). During this operation, the Gestapo deported some 11,000 Jews to Auschwitz in the first weeks of March alone.
From the outset, however, the Gestapo intended to spare the Jewish spouses and Mischlinge and move them into forced-labor camps around Berlin and other major German cities. There were some 8,800 Jews residing in Berlin who were spouses or children in “mixed marriages.” These Jews were categorized as “exempted” Jews and to be spared from extermination.
Before dawn on Saturday, February 27, 1943, the Gestapo initiated their deportation plans. German police herded Jews, pulled from their jobs and homes or snatched off the streets, into trucks that transported them to designated assembly points. The German police incarcerated some 2,000 people in the Jewish community building at Rosenstrasse 2-4, and began to check their papers to determine if they qualified as “exempted” Jews.
The protest begins
Family members waited in vain for their spouses to return during the day on February 27, 1943. As word spread that some of the “mixed-marriage” Jews were in the Rosenstrasse, German partners and siblings, mostly women, gathered on the street outside of the Jewish community center building. They hoped to find out information about their loved ones. The community center had been cordoned off by municipal police officers. Over the next few days, the crowd swelled to between 150 and 200 persons demanding information about their loved ones.
Hoping to prevent what they believed to be impending deportation to Auschwitz, the small crowd of civilians yelled, chanted, or remained on the street, even when threatened with lethal force. Because of the protest’s unusual character in Nazi Germany, news of the demonstration spread throughout the country and eventually, to the international press.
As the spouses and other family members held their vigil outside the building, Gestapo officials continued to review papers of each internee, releasing the first “mixed-marriage” Jews as early as March 1. The review and release process continued until March 12, 1943, well after the family members had left the street on March 6.
Fate of the Rosenstrase Detainees After Release
Release from the Rosenstraße did not end either fear or suffering for those interned there. The Gestapo followed through with its intention to deport the “mixed-marriage” Jews capable of work to forced-labor camps in Berlin and elsewhere in the Reich. German police authorities returned to pick up the released men and teenage boys on the day after their release.
Significance of the Rosenstrasse incident
The Rosenstrasse protest was unprecedented in the history of the Third Reich for two reasons:
Firstly, it represented the largest demonstration by German citizens against the racial policies of the Nazi regime. For historians, it was proof that ordinary German citizens did have limited knowledge of the Holocaust.
Secondly, the demonstration took place in a political climate where discourse and criticism of the regime were often met by the heavy-handed response of the state’s internal security apparatus. It was not uncommon for German citizens to be sent to concentration camps for as simple a crime as telling an anti-Hitler joke. In that same month, 22-year-old student Sophie Scholl, and several members of the White Rose movement were sentenced to death by guillotine for distributing anti-war leaflets at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. The demonstrators were fully aware their actions could entail such a response from the authorities.
The Factory Action occurred less than a month after the surrender of the German 6th Army at Stalingrad. For the Nazi regime, the Rosenstrasse demonstration was perceived to be a sign of public unrest that could threaten wartime morale at a time when Germany was losing the war. While the Nazis had dealt with isolated cases of dissent that involved only a handful of Germans, Rosenstrasse involved a few hundred. Fearing that protests would spread to other cities, the Nazis relented and released the detainees.
This raises important historical questions. Had there been a widespread popular revolt against the deportation of Jews, could the Nazis have ceased their genocidal plans?