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Posted Saturday, Sept 27, 2003
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London, Saturday, September 27, 2003


Film casts doubt on the women who defied Hitler

By Roger Boyes

THOUSANDS of Germans thought their single protest forced a Nazi climbdown. Our correspondent hears another story GISELA MIESSNER, full of anger and swirling memories, is ready to talk.

THE doughty 78-year-old Berliner is one of the last surviving participants in an extraordinary revolt against Nazi power: the Rosenstrasse protest, in which thousands of ordinary German women forced Hitler to back down and release their Jewish husbands and fathers.

Now, as controversy flares over the 1943 rebellion, Frau Miessner is distressed to learn that her bravery may have counted for nothing.

A new film has cast doubt on the significance of the rebels and their act of defiance. Rosenstrasse, which won honours at the Venice Film Festival, contends that Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister, allowed the men to walk free only after one of the Rosenstrasse women, an aristocratic piano-player married to a Jewish violinist, agreed to a one-night stand with him. "I just don't believe it!" Frau Miessner says, displaying the raw energy that gave her the strength to face down the machineguns of the SS. Yet the question lingers: is she a newly discovered wartime heroine or an accidental bystander, a historical footnote?

Frau Miessner was a Mischling - the Nazi word, loosely translated as mongrel, denoting a child of German-Jewish and German-Aryan parents. There were some 35,000 mixed marriages in the early 1930s, but, from 1935, new marriages between Germans and Jews were forbidden.

Many couples buckled under the pressure and divorced. Those who stayed together were stripped of their assets. But the Jews in these marriages were spared deportation to the concentration camps; instead, they were forced to work in munitions factories. They survived thanks to the partial immunity granted by a German wife in a society that made a cult out of German womanhood.

The situation changed in February 1943. The Germans had been crushed in Stalingrad and morale was low. Goebbels decided to prepare a birthday present for Hitler, to cheer him up: a Berlin entirely free of Jews. The previously shielded Jewish husbands were herded into the Jewish community charity offices in Rosenstrasse, the Street of Roses. Destination: unknown.

"My father, Joseph Mannheim, was among them," Frau Miessner says. "He was Jewish, my mother Erna was Christian. We used to celebrate both the Jewish and Christian holidays."

Joseph had been a successful grain trader. The Nazis closed his family business, put him to work in a factory, stamped a letter J in his passport and made him wear the yellow star. Gisela, who had been a bright grammar school girl, went to work as a skivvy.

"In school, I had to sit alone on the Jews' Bench and then, after the pogroms of 1938, they simply threw me out of school altogether," she said. On February 27, 1943, her father disappeared. The previous evening Gisela had become engaged to her boyfriend, a soldier in Potsdam, and she had hoped to break the news. Instead, with her mother, she went to police headquarters, the Gestapo and the hospitals. They tracked Joseph Mannheim to the Street of Roses.

Gisela's face crumples when she remembers bringing a parcel with clean underwear to the detention centre. "I was 17, freshly in love, and my fiancé said: 'Look, I'm part of the family now, your father is mine and we'll go there together'." The parcel was accepted, a sign that her father was being held and still alive.

Gisela and her mother joined a knot of women standing in the street across from the detention centre. Police guarded the entrance. Sometimes a prisoner would stick his face to the window. It was frosty, but the women remained. The rumour mill began. The vigil of a dozen women became 100, then 300, then more than 1,000.

Women came and went through the day and the total number could have reached 6,000. "My mother worked in the mornings and then came straight to the street," Frau Miessner says. "Then I would come with my younger sister."

The crowd grew more surly by the day, shouting out the names of their husbands and fathers, then chanting: "Give us back our men!" An SS unit was brought in and they pointed machineguns at the women, who stood their ground. A carload of SS men sped down the street, shooting in the air: then the imprisoned men went wild, too, scrambling for the windows to see if their wives and daughters had been shot.

Nine days after the protest began, the Nazis relented. The unshaven, unwashed prisoners filed out of the house and the protesters melted away.

Yet it is this moment of liberation that is now at the heart of the controversy. If the film, directed by Margareta von Trotta, is an accurate portrayal of the events, the street protest was an irrelevance.

The film has proved popular with audiences, but academics urge caution. Among the fiercest critics is Wolfgang Benz, the respected historian [Director of the Centre for the Study of Anti-Semitism]. Goebbels, he said, had nothing to do with the decision to free the prisoners; it was not in his jurisdiction. In any case, the prisoners were never destined for the gas chambers. They were being held with the aim of being used as a reserve labour unit, to fill the gap left by other deported Jews.

There had been no change of policy: Hitler was still ready to give a measure of protection to Jews with German wives. "That does not reduce the astonishing courage of the women," Professor Benz says.

So, where does that leave Frau Miessner? If the prisoners were to be freed anyway, or if a sexual sacrifice played a role, then her commitment, those frightening days and nights, served no real purpose.

"I really don't believe that," she says. "This was after Stalingrad and we frightened the regime, they were worried that the mood would turn." The film has a happy end. Gisela's life has been less straightforward. Her father, though freed, had to work in the Jewish hospital and, in the final days of the war, dug trenches.

He was wounded and died a week after the end of the war. "It broke my mother and so I had to look after her and my sister," she says. Her fiancé died on the Russian front.

Historical accounts of the Second World War have mostly ignored the Rosenstrasse episode. East Germans prefer to emphasise communist resistance to Hitler; West Germans were embarrassed by the moral questions opened up by the female protest. Why did not more members of the civilian population revolt? Only now has Rosenstrasse returned to centre-stage, and scratched open a few wounds.



Reader's Letter on this topic: Gerhard Rohringer of California corrects misapprehensions about Mischlinge and half Jews
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David Irving: "Goebbels. Mastermind of the Third Reich" (free book download)

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