The Rosenstraße Protests

Ellie Midwood

The novelist discusses the inspiration behind The Woman Who Risked Everything.
The Rosenstraße memorial. Credit: Creative Commons.
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When I first read about the Rosenstraße protests, the only successful event that lasted for several days and resulted in the protesters’ victory, I just knew I had to write the story of these incredible women. Yes, it was mostly women who gathered in front of the Rosenstraße holding center daily and defied the Gestapo themselves with their chants, “release our men!” until their voices won over the state’s oppression.

Life for the Berlin Jews hadn’t been easy ever since Hitler came to power in 1933. What began as harassment by the SA thugs gradually turned into full-blown state oppression, with persecution cemented in laws aimed at all but erasing German Jews from the professional and private life of the “Aryan” German society. First came laws purging Jews from multiple professions including education, banking, journalism, theater and film industry and of course, government. This is precisely what happened to Jochen, Margot’s husband, who had immediately lost his position as a set decorator in Germany’s leading film studio located at Babelsberg. His character is inspired by many German Jews who found themselves in the same helpless position, having to rely on their wives for financial support, their only other alternative being trying to make a living as traveling salesmen or leaving the country altogether.

But it was when the Nuremberg Laws had been passed in 1935 that the life truly became not only unbearable, but outright dangerous not only for German Jews, but their “Aryan” spouses as well. Now, for the first time in German history, gentile spouses were strongly encouraged to have their “mixed” marriages dissolved and in case of refusal, they were punished by yet another series of laws directed at them this time. It was due to such laws that Margot, a gentile German, had lost not only her job as a seamstress at Babelsberg but also discovered that it was impossible for her to rent an apartment to her name just because she was married to a Jew and most of the buildings in Berlin, much like cafés, restaurants, pools, parks, movie theaters etc. were “Aryan establishments only.”

Persecuted, harassed, penniless and eventually pushed into all but unbearable living conditions, many gentile Germans succumbed to the pressure and eventually divorced their Jewish spouses in late 1930s-early 1940s. But it was wives like Margot, who were ready to endure all kinds of suffering imposed on them by the state to stay with their beloved ones that inspired The Wife Who Risked Everything.

When the war was raging on all fronts, when the extermination of Jews was gaining force, when the SS soldiers, having lost their patience with the obstinate German wives, raided their crowded dwellings and took away their husbands, women didn’t relent even then. In subzero temperatures, constantly harassed and threatened by the Gestapo and the SS, risking their very lives under the bombs raining from the sky, Berlin women gathered in front of the Rosenstraße holding center and marched and chanted their demands with a fearlessness of those who had nothing else to lose. In the end, it was them who stood between their husbands and concentration camps in the east, to which the men were destined to be shipped had it not been for their brave spouses.

There’s something truly inspiring in this story of ordinary women standing up to the formidable Nazi power machine itself and coming out as winners in the end. As I wrote this story, the events unfolding in our present-day political climate kept reminding me just how important such stories are and how important it is to stand up for one’s rights and refuse to back down until the victory is ours. Historical fiction invariably has parallels with currents events and women are a true powerhouse. It was my honor writing the story based on their courage to remind their present-day sisters just whose banner they are carrying. The Wife Who Risked Everything began as a rousing story of love and devotion, but turned into something much bigger in the end, and that’s one of the reasons why I’ll never stop telling such stories. After all, if we don’t learn from history, we’re doomed to repeat it. But this one has a good ending; the one that will make you want to raise your voice as well. Just like Margot, don’t give up and keep making your voice heard. Never forget and never again!

Ellie Midwood is the author of The Wife Who Risked Everything, published by Bookouture.