This year I’ve been tweeting extracts from my Oma’s 1943 diary (follow me @MyMischlingFam). The diary is an interesting mix of harrowing wartime experiences and mundane teenage angst. I think that interacting with it on a near-daily basis has really brought me closer to my Oma, what she was like as a 16 year-old, and helped me to understand what was going on in her daily life. But it’s also meant that, when I lie awake in bed each night (I’ve never been good at falling asleep), I spend a lot of time thinking about my Oma, about what she’d been through that day 78 years ago, and how she must have felt as she tried to sleep that night. So, over the past few days, when my Oma’s family were living through their worst nightmare, it’s all I’ve been able to think about. I know I wrote a bit about the Rosenstraβe Protest in my first blog post, but I’d like to tell the story in more detail here.
On Saturday 27th February 1943 my Oma’s father, Philipp, didn’t come home from his job at the Osram factory. He had only been there, as part of the Nazi forced-labour programme, for a few months. This new job was mentioned in a rather ominous message relayed to Philipp’s sister, Liesel, who had managed to escape Gurs internment camp and seek refuge in Switzerland:
“We had a card from Marianne that Phil now has an interesting job at Osram. The card is written with the greatest caution. We would strongly advise you not to write to Berlin. There is a bitter cold wind blowing there. For Phil and his family, a letter from you could be very inconvenient to say the least”
In her diary on 27th February, Susanne simply wrote “Judenabholungen. Papa nicht nach Hause” (Round-up of Jews. Papa hasn’t come home). The next day she wrote “Papa erwartet. Kam nicht” (Waited for Papa. Didn’t come).
Siegfried Cohn, another Jewish man married to an ‘Aryan’ woman, who also worked at the Osram factory, remembered noticing “a restless pacing back and forth” when he got to work that Saturday morning. All Jewish workers were told to take their personal belongings and report to a room on the ground floor. There he found several Gestapo officials sitting at a table, and a number of SS men patrolling the room. He recalled: “After all the Jewish forced labourers, women and men, are gathered in this room (the number is, if I remember correctly, around 150 to 200 people) each one is called up and the Gestapo personally inspects them”. They were fully searched, any valuables were taken, and then they were all packed like sardines into two trucks, and driven to a barracks in Moabit.
Ruth Kittel, a Mischling a year younger than my Oma, reported that at Moabit the SS guards “randomly whipped people and shot into the crowd. [She] had no access to food, bathroom facilities, or space to lie down”. Over the next few days everybody’s ID cards were checked, and they were interrogated. Any inter-married Jews or Mischlinge were given a white slip of paper, and moved on to an old Jewish community centre on Rosenstraβe.
At first Marianne and the children must have hoped that Philipp had managed to avoid the ‘round-up’. He had previously gone into hiding during anti-Jewish ‘raids’ of Berlin, and had managed to avoid capture. One time the Gestapo had even passed him on the stairs of their apartment building, and asked if he knew which flat Philipp Schwarz lived in. He greeted them politely (I assume giving the Nazi salute) and calmly told them which floor Philipp (he!) lived on. Then he walked out of the building, and didn’t return for a week.
This time, though, the family soon learned that all Jewish workers remaining in Berlin (almost all of whom had so far avoided deportation because they worked in the armaments industry, or were ‘protected’ through inter-marriage) had been taken to several collection points across the city. This roundup of the final Jews in Berlin was referred to as the ‘Fabrikaktion’. Susanne’s family heard that those men and women who, like Philipp, were married to ‘Aryans’, or who were Mischlinge, like my Oma and her brother, were being held in the building on Rosenstraβe.
Propaganda Minister and Berlin’s Gauleiter, Joseph Goebbels, had written just a few days earlier in his diary:
“the Jews of Berlin are now being deported for good. With the cut-off date of February 28th, they should all be grouped together in camps and then be deported in batches, day by day up to 2000. I have set myself the goal of making Berlin completely free of Jews by mid-March or by the end of March at the latest”.
Around 11,000 Jews were arrested in this ‘Final Roundup’. Nearly 8000 of them – those with no ‘Aryan’ family members to protect them – were deported without delay, and more than 50% of them were gassed on arrival at Auschwitz. Adolf Eichmann, the Deportation Executive, had ordered the inter-married Jews and Mischlinge to be held separately, in the hope that this would convince their ‘Aryan’ spouses and parents that they would not share the same fate as the other Jews taken in the Fabrikaktion.
Holding the inter-married Jews separately did not, however, do anything to ease the fears of their spouses. As soon as word began to spread of where their loved ones were being held, they rushed to Rosenstraβe to try to find out what was happening. Nazi laws forbade spontaneous gatherings of people; above all, Hitler feared public protest. The police were sent to break up the growing crowd outside Rosenstraβe, who were desperately clamouring for news of the prisoners’ fate. The crowd was mostly made up of women (since those held inside the building were mostly men), and soon a 24 hour watch had been established, with food and drinks being shared. Susanne first mentions Rosenstraβe in her diary on Monday 1st March, when she and her mother, Marianne, went to find out what was happening. Marianne travelled the 7.5km from her home to Rosenstraβe every day after that.
In a tragic twist of fate, the Fabrikaktion happened to coincide with a particularly heavy bombing of Berlin by the RAF. In a diary entry on 2nd March, Susanne wrote “Air-raid warning from 7-10 o’clock. Big fires everywhere. Lay awake until 3 o’clock. We were scared that our roof would catch fire too”. Of course, the Jewish men and women being held at Rosenstraβe weren’t provided with any means of protection – Jews were banned from public bomb shelters anyway. The sirens would have been heard at Rosenstraβe, not to mention the drone of the planes overhead and the crash of falling bombs. I can’t imagine the panic that must have taken over in the over-crowded, already anxious building. Berlin burned that night (and my Oma’s school was “wrecked”) but luckily Rosenstraβe wasn’t hit.
By all accounts the conditions in the building at Rosenstraβe were horrific. Many of the prisoners took their own lives. Siegried Cohn wrote:
“In the room, in which about 40 to 50 people are supposed to sleep, there are perhaps 10 sacks of straw, so that the majority of the occupants have to lie on the bare earth. The toilets are in an indescribable condition … you have to queue for about 3 hours, and the most degrading part of it is that men and women have to use the same toilets without it being possible to close the door”.
Susanne’s memoir tells a similar story:
“My father had had a nervous breakdown in the Rosenstrasse and had been lying on a stretcher in the cellar for the last few days. The conditions had been intolerable, with about 60 men sharing a small room night and day, without being able to sit down. The hallucinations he had there, while lying on the stretcher, left a deep impression on him for many years”.
Ruth Kittel was given turnip soup daily at Rosenstraβe, but I’m not sure if all the prisoners were fed even this small amount. Marianne tried to take food to Philipp every day that he was held at Rosenstraβe. In her diary on Thursday 4th March, Susanne lamented that “It was no use. While she was in Oranienburg Strasse, they were accepting packages in Rosenstrasse until 8 o’clock”. In her memoir she recalled that “My mother took a little package for my father every day for over a week, leaving home very early in the morning while it was still dark, but only once was she able to hand anything over to a guard, and even then my father never got it”. At a time when food was so scarce – Marianne instructed the children to bring their crusts of bread home from school to make into breadcrumbs, which could be used to extend their meals at home – this must have been a hard loss to take.
My Oma doesn’t mention the intensity of the protests outside Rosenstraβe, but she, or at least her mother, must have witnessed them. Charlotte Israel, whose husband Julius was also being held, remembered that the chants of “Give us back our men!” could be heard from streets away. Eventually, as the protesting women gained courage and grew more outspoken, SS guards were sent to Rosenstraβe with machine guns. They pointed their weapons at the crowd, and ordered them to disperse. There seems to have been some debate amongst Nazi party leaders as to how the protest should be handled, but in the end it was clear to Hitler and Goebbels that massacring hundreds of ‘Aryan’ women – who weren’t protesting Nazi policy, exactly, but just worrying about their loved ones – would not have been a popular choice. The protest went on.
On top of being worried for her father, Susanne and her brother were also scared for themselves. The family knew that other Mischling children were being held at Rosenstraβe, and they spent the week waiting in dread for the moment the Gestapo knocked at their door. Susanne’s diary from Friday 5th March says: “Mutti out from 10-4 o’clock. Talked on the phone with Tante A. Was scared … Mutti’s scared that we (children) will be taken away too. It’s been heard of”. ‘Tante A’ was Anneliese, Marianne’s older sister. Her husband, Hans, was a Nazi party member, but they stayed close to my Oma’s family throughout the Nazi regime, even taking them into their home for a while.
On Saturday 6th March, at about 6 in the morning, the family’s doorbell rang. My Oma recounts in her memoir: “We thought straightaway that now we children were going to be deported, since such fears were going around at the time, and so in fear and trembling I quickly packed my toothbrush and put on an extra pair of knickers!” It hurts my heart to think of her grabbing those bare essentials, desperately trying to protect herself against what she feared was coming. She goes on to write: “But it was my father, unshaven and looking so grey and ill that I could hardly recognize him at first”. As they were being released the prisoners were given “a grotesque little speech” and “were even promised some sort of rosy future” which, Susanne reflected, her father had tried to believe.
In the end, the Nazis had no choice but to back down. To continue with these deportations in spite of the protests, now that so much attention had been drawn to them, would only have led to more troubles. These wives would continue to ask questions about where their husbands had been taken, and further protests could have sprung up. In his diary on 6th March, Gobbels lamented the “unagreeable scene” outside Rosenstraβe. Publicly, he declared:
“I will commission the security police not to continue the Jewish evacuations in a systematic manner during such a critical time [a reference to the defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad]. We want to rather spare that for ourselves until after a few weeks; then we can carry it out that much more thoroughly”.
As the war steadily turned against the Nazis, there was little time for Goebbels to follow through with this threat. In 1945, when it was clear to everyone that Hitler would soon be defeated, there was one final push to kill the last remaining Jews in Germany. My great-great uncle, Fritz was one of many supposedly ‘privilleged’ Jews who was deported right at the end of the war, even after Auschwitz had been liberated.
There was a lot more to come for the family, and Philipp was in a bad state, but in her diary the day her father came home, my Oma was clearly happy: “Papa released at 5 o’clock. Great happiness everywhere. Phoned Frau Dr V. … Papa bath and 3 hours sleep. Terribly dirty. Herr Vermey to lunch. Very nice … Hermann baked a cake”.
Gruber, S. 2017. Germany: Berlin’s Dramatic Rosenstrasse Monument. Samuel Gruber’s Jewish Art & Monuments
Schlott, R. 2018. Frauenproteste gegen Deportation. Spiegel Gescichte
Stolzfus, N. 1996. Resistance of the Heart: Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse Protest in Nazi Germany. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press