On April 1, 1943, the American Legation in Bern sent this dispatch to Washington: “Action against Jewish wives and husbands on the part of the Gestapo … had to be discontinued some time ago because of the protest which such action aroused.” The protest to which this dispatch referred had been a street demonstration a month earlier in Berlin. The demonstration was remarkable for the courage of the people who participated in it, for the sheer fact of its occurrence, and above all for its outcome. For it marked the single instance of group protest by Germans of the Third Reich in behalf of fellow citizens who were Jewish—and it worked. This article, which is based on more than two years of research and interviews in the former West and East Germanys, seeks to tell the story of that protest, and two others of other kinds. The story, known to only a few close students of the Third Reich, raises a question that goes far beyond it: If nonviolent mass protests by Aryan Germans worked in Berlin in 1943, could it have slowed or stopped the destruction of German Jewry?
The question, of course, is provocatively abstract. Whether or not it could have, history shows only that the mass of Germans either did nothing or supported the Nazi regime. It is important to say this at the outset of an article about why a handful of Germans protested.
On the Rosenstrasse
Until early 1943 the Nazi regime had exempted from the Final Solution Jews married to Aryans. But during a mass arrest of the last Jews in Berlin, beginning on February 27, 1943, a change was made. Unannounced, the SS burst into Berlin’s factories at daybreak that Saturday morning and arrested all Jews. Simultaneously the local Gestapo, assisted by the municipal police, kidnapped Jews from their homes. Anyone on the streets wearing the Star of David was carted off without explanation and taken with other Jews to huge “collecting centers” in central Berlin, in preparation for large-scale deportations to Auschwitz.