Rosenstrasse (Germany 2003, 136 min, dir: Margarethe von Trotta, cast: Katja Riemann, Maria Schrader, Jutte Lampe)
You open your morning newspaper in 1943 and read, “Gestapo Frees Jews.” You take a gulp of coffee. This is startling but you also remember a headline back in 1938, “Goebbels cancels annual anti-Jewish Kristallnacht: glassmakers protest.” If you were a German citizen at the time and could still afford coffee, both stories were true.
Americans view of the Nazi era, propagandized by the franchising of Holocaust museums and Quentin Tarantino movies; is of relentless, depraved evil. We make no allowance for what historian Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.”
What happened at Number 2-4 Rosenstrasse (Rose Street) has never been forgotten among Berliners, but it took the bravery of director Margarethe von Trotta to finally film it 60 years later. Starting in January 1943, the Gestapo rounded up all the remaining 6000 Berlin Jews for deportation and death. The rumor was that Joseph Goebbels, head of propaganda, wanted to have them all gone by Hitler’s birthday in April. (This kind of sentimentality is exactly what made Goebbels such a highly paid PR exec.)
At first they spared Jewish men married to Christians (called: geltungsjuden). The Nuremburg laws of 1935, outlawing marriages to Jews, also exempted existing marriages. Therefore the husbands could not be counted as Jews for deportation. But in March 1700 geltungsjuden were arrested and housed in the Jewish Community Hall at 2-4 Rossenstrasse to await deportation. It was a convenient place to store them since Gestapo headquarters was nearby.
As soon as word got out about where the men were imprisoned, their wives began to gather in the street below. For a week the women stood, their numbers growing to over 1000. They were threatened by the Gestapo. Police aimed guns at them. Sometimes they would run and disperse for a few minutes, only to return in stronger numbers. The wives called out the names of their husbands, hoping for a yell back from the windows above.
At the end of a week, Goebbels realized he had created a public relations nightmare.Good Aryan German women were standing in the street defying threats, pistols, and machine guns in solidarity with their husbands imprisoned inside. It confirmed the suspicions of more and more law-abiding citizens that the government respected no laws.
This was not the first time. Kristallnacht was a big blowout in 1937 that had also backfired. On the pretext of retaliation for a German diplomat’s assassination in Paris, Goebbels had ordered his thugs to go out and beat up Jews, break windows in Jewish businesses (Kristall=glass), and trash property. You can see pictures of it in any of the dozens of Holocaust museums. It’s chapter one in the time-line for the Holocaust.
So if it was such a big success, why didn’t Goebbels make it an annual event? There were no more Kristallnachts because a large segment of the German public, especially the more educated, disapproved of it. It gave them an uneasy feeling that the Nazi government was capable of going beyond the law. In ’37 this was enough to call off future Kristallnachts celebrations. In 1943, the war was going badly. The Battle of Stalingrad was lost, people were on rations, Army generals were questioning tactics and strategy. What the Nazis didn’t need was more tsuris (Yiddish=aggravation) on the streets of Berlin.
Over a thousand women were standing day and night, shoulder to shoulder. If Kris Kristofferson had been born they would have been singing: “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose” (he didn’t write that until 1969). Inside Gestapo headquarters something had to give. After a week, Goebbels ordered the men released. They poured out of the building into the arms of their wives.
This is a powerful film detailing the complex relationship of several generations of women, ending in a moment of joy and tears. But don’t look in the Holocaust museums for references to Rosenstrasse or to references to historians like Tzvetan Todorov who noted the negative impact of Kristallnacht. It doesn’t go along with the neatly packaged mythology of doom. If evil is banal, there are always good people who see a way to challenge it: and sometimes they win.