London, Saturday, September 27, 2003
Film casts doubt
on the women who defied Hitler
By Roger Boyes
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
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.
"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
"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
Nine days after the protest began, the Nazis
relented. The unshaven, unwashed prisoners filed
out of the house and the protesters melted
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
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
"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
Our Auschwitz index
Irving: "Goebbels. Mastermind of the Third
Reich" (free book download)