Arts & Culture

Jews and Germany: We’ve Got Roots On Rose Street

We were a group of Jews that had come on an organized tour of Berlin with an organization funded by remnants of the Marshall Plan; the official goal was to brush up on our German and German-Jewish history, but most … Read More

By / November 12, 2008

We were a group of Jews that had come on an organized tour of Berlin with an organization funded by remnants of the Marshall Plan; the official goal was to brush up on our German and German-Jewish history, but most of us came with the loftier objective of attempting to reconcile the conflicting information that we’d received from our grandparents and the questions that the passage of time forces us to ask regarding the relationship between contemporary Jews and Modern Germany. On one of many beautiful, rainy days in Berlin, we stood on Rosenstrasse (Rose Street, if you must) with Dr. Dagmar Pruin, the program’s director and German academic specializing in Hebrew Bible studies; she told us a rather fantastic story. In early 1943, somewhere between 1700 and 2000 Jewish men were taken to a welfare office on Rosenstrasse. The men were to be brought to the Auschwitz death camp, but because their wives were non-Jewish Germans from prominent families, the SS brought the men here first in order to try and trick their families into believing that they were receiving special treatment and that they would likely be taken to labor camps rather than death camps. Eventually, the wives and other members of their families caught on. Although they were without leadership, unarmed, and completely unorganized, they staged a protest. Throughout the entire week that these men were being held on Rosenstrasse, somewhere around 6,000 Germans peacefully protested by standing in the streets and screaming "let our husbands go!" Although Goebbels, Gauletier of Berlin, was on a mission to racially cleanse the city, he was also responsible for the nation’s public morale and thus the protesters were of great concern to him. For that reason, they didn’t shoot into the crowd like they did when Jews had attempted to protest. Both Goebbels and Hitler agreed to free the men on Rosenstrasse– and they even ordered the return of 25 men that were already on their way to Auschwitz– making the assumption that this would only delay their inevitable fate, which was to be murdered. They were wrong, however– the large majority of these men survived the war, rendering the Rosenstrasse Protest the most successful civilian protest during the Holocaust. How could it be that a group of Jews who have been learning about the Holocaust from a very young age were first hearing about Rosenstrasse now? How could it be that if not for this trip, this professor, and this unremarkable memorial, that we may have never learned of such triumph? Apparently, a documentary about Rosenstrasse entitled Resistance of the Heart (Pierre Sauvage, 2003) was marketed to English speaking Jewish schools and organizations abroad and according to Dr. Pruin, the director of the film had no luck. Jewish communities didn’t take a liking to it due to the fact that it could potentially promote intermarriage. The Germans aren’t too keen on discussing the protest either, mainly because it begs the obvious question that Jews and non-Jews alike have been asking for years– could the Germans have stopped the Nazis in their tracks? Surely if one non-violent protest saved over 1,000 lives, more lives could have been saved if more prominent Germans had committed to staging protests. The German reluctance to tell this story, while cowardly and generally inexcusable, makes sense. The Jewish communal reaction to the film and their refusal to talk about Rosenstrasse is not only disgraceful, but based on faulty logic. Yes, the Jews of the world are a people bound by history and for some, statehood, values, and/or religious beliefs– but despite this fact, it may be worth restating the obvious fact that we share the world with gentiles. Jewish history is a complicated sequence of events that cannot be explained or understood thoroughly without true examination of our interactions with others, in addition to the fact that oversimplifying our narrative underestimates our ability to understand its complexities and frankly, it’s insulting. Attempting to shelter young people from the idea and reality of intermarriage simply does not help secure the future of the Jewish people and Jewish educators, professionals, and parents need to rethink their priorities and their approach. The only way to instill the value of people hood is to create Jewish communities that educate a generation of young Jews who intimately understand both their history and the potential merits and challenges of being a Jew. People who assimilate or essentially leave their Jewish communities do so because they’ve run out of good reasons to associate themselves with that community. It’s plainly ridiculous to assume that learning about something such as the Rosenstrasse Protest would cause anyone to question an already established commitment to marry Jewish. If the older generation of American Jews is worried about assimilation and intermarriage among younger generations of Jews, they need to give young people real reasons for feeling an attachment to their Jewish identities while still maintaining the ability to understand, accept, and celebrate the relationship between Jews and the rest of the world. Judaism and Jewish life have enough to offer such that this could be accomplished without force-feeding ideas and manipulating the understanding of our history. It’s dishonest, short-sighted, and shows little to no faith in the ability for our story, in its complete form, to inspire.