Public Engagement … unplanned and spontaneous via a history of Berlin’s Rosenstrasse

It’s been a while since I last posted a blog. Two publication submissions, one conference deadline in the space of a week and one successful job interview later, I now plan to get back to writing here more frequently. This blog post is the first in a series relating to my research. Grab a cuppa and sit down for a longish read that will take you all the way from public engagement and higher education, to Berlin in the 1700s and back again.

Sharing research can be joyous, and all the more so when it is entirely spontaneous – talking, listening, learning from one another. US academic Kathleen Fitzpatrick advocates this in her book Generous Thinking: A Radial Approach to Saving the University (John Hopkins University Press, 2019), arguing universities should reach out to the communities that they serve, building relationships, practising effective listening, learning from each other and sharing knowledge. Public engagement has been a part of the UK Higher Education landscape for some time already, and it is one of the metrics by which research projects are assessed. There is a risk though that, in this context, public engagement becomes little more than a tick box exercise, the unintended consequence of which is that we stop listening properly, and exclude if not also patronise our audiences. If we do this, as Fitzpatrick suggests, we also limit our own research creativity and learning.

Public engagement done well is immensely enjoyable. I find joy in sharing knowledge – it can be as if you are revealing long hidden treasures – but the real satisfaction is found not in the showing alone, rather it is in the responses you get, the enthusiasm others have for your subject, no matter how difficult a topic. Reciprocal relationships can emerge, with others keen to contribute ideas, anecdotes, to ask a question that may set you on a whole new train of thought. I’ve done a fair amount of public engagement activities through the various institutions I have worked for. These events are meticulously planned and prepared. Yet, there is something about the unplanned, about spontaneous public engagement that has the edge, those occasions when you do not have prompts, giveaways and university merchandising to hand, but you do have that buzz of relying on your knowledge and your ability to convey it. That is captivating. At least this was my experience early this year.

In mid-January I squeezed in a research trip to Berlin in the only week I had available. Whilst my students sat their exams, I headed to the archives to lay the groundwork for our exhibition – Weimar 1919-1933: Dancing on a Volcano. Public engagement was not even in my mind as I went from archive to one meeting after another. So, I was not expecting to give a spontaneous talk to a group of teachers taking part in Goethe Institut training, and nor were they expecting to find a German speaking UK academic wandering around Rosenstrasse who could tell them all about the events of February/March 1943 and the memorials to them, but that is exactly what happened.

Rosenstrasse (roughly translated to Rose Street) is a seemingly insignificant side street in the eastern part of the capital’s central district, Mitte, just off of the far more famous Alexanderplatz. The street itself has a long history stretching back to the 1700s. Back then it was known as Hurengasse, which could be translated -with all the implicit and intended irony of the original as Whores’ Passage – given that at that time the street was linked to the city’s sex trade. The street’s later re-naming was itself a tongue-in-check reference to the street’s links to prostitution, in an example of Berlin’s ironic take on its own gentrification – the idea of the roses lending beauty, hiding what went on there, whilst simultaneously alluding to it for those in the know. The renaming was less rose and more fig leaf, but it is a little nugget of history that has largely been lost over the centuries.

Setting aside the sex trade history, Rosenstrasse, and the adjacent Heidereutergasse, has a long connection to Berlin’s Jewish heritage as well. In 1714 Berlin’s first synagogue, located on the corner of Heidereutegasse and Rosenstrasse, was consecrated.

Information Display Board, Heidereutergasse, Berlin. Image copyright, H Potter, 2016

It was renamed die Alte Synagogue once the more famous, larger synagogue on Oranienburgerstrasse was built in the 1860s but it served as a place of worship until the early 1940s. It was damaged in bombing in the latter stages of the Second World War. The ruins were eventually torn down in the 1960s, along with the neighbouring office building on Rosenstrasse, their significance – which we’ll come back to – entirely overlooked. By the early 1990s, this part of the cityscape was long forgotten, concreted over and surrounded by GDR era architecture. It was only as the events in Rosenstrasse in 1943 began to gain wider public interest, and the land that had once belonged to Berlin’s Jewish Community was returned to them in the 1990s, that the street itself began to change appearance once more. Now, where the synagogue once stood is a memorial sculpture Block der Frauen by the late Ingeborg Hunzinger, surrounded by the synagogue’s foundations, which were excavated in the early 2000s.

Excavated foundations marking out where the synagogue once stood. Image copyright, H Potter, 2016

Going back in time once more, as Berlin’s Jewish community expanded in the 19th century, so too did their administrative needs, including office space. They purchased property on Rosenstrasse when the buildings neighbouring the synagogue became vacant in the late 1800s. Redeveloped into one property, Rosenstrasse numbers 2 and 4 became administrative and social welfare offices, up until they were seized by the Nazis. They repurposed repurposed the building in early 1943, turning it into a makeshift detention centre. Here, in the very centre of Berlin they detained up to 2,000 intermarried German-Jews and so-called Mischlinge (whose parents were intermarried) during late February – March 1943 (actual figures vary). Their arrest and detention was not an isolated incident, rather it was part of a wider ‘round-up’ in which the Nazis attempted to purge Berlin of all Jewish life ahead of Hitler’s birthday in the April.

In early 1943, records indicate that there were approximately 8,000 intermarried Berlin-Jews registered in the capital. As a persecuted group the Nazis treated them with marginal difference to those they termed ‘Volljuden’. German-Jewish intermarriage, legalised in the 1870s following German unification, was a source of division amongst the Nazis. They persecuted intermarried German-Jews, but supposedly exempted them from the most extreme measure – deportation. That is not to say the Nazis did not try by all means necessary to deport them – they did. For example they tried encouraging the non-Jewish partner to divorce their spouse thereby removing the protection their marital status afforded them. Having forced the Jewish partners out of their professions the regime used them, together with other Jewish Berliners, as forced labourers. In Berlin many were sent to work in the armaments factories from where many were to be deported.

When this round-up, known as the Fabrik-Aktion or Factory Action, began in the early hours on 27th February 1943 many were taken directly from the armaments’ factories. Intermarried Berlin Jews were separated from the others and detained in the repurposed Jewish Community Building on Rosenstrasse. As to why around one quarter of Berlin’s intermarried Jewish population were arrested on 27th February and in the days that followed remains disputed to this day. As a direct consequence, their spouses – and as some accounts indicate other relatives as well – found their way to Rosenstrasse and what developed there has become known as the Rosenstrasse protest, and sometimes the women’s protest in Rosenstrasse. Accounts of the protest vary, as do interpretations of its significance, to which I’ll return, but what is known is that there was a gathering on the street to such an extent that it cause the trams to be re-routed to avoid attention being drawn to the mass crowds. This protest lasted for approximately one week – ebbing and flowing throughout the day and night. Given that public demonstrations were prohibited in the Third Reich, that these individuals gathered together in open defiance of that prohibition is remarkable in itself, irrespective of any impact it may have had. Some accounts claim that the protesters chanted, demanding their spouses’ release. Some even suggest their lives were threatened as protesters – mainly women – defied the Nazis to shoot them, facing them down in stoic silence. However, others suggest it was all far more banal, that they merely gathered, talked amongst themselves, brought clothing and provisions for their spouses, and that they were there because they just wanted to be close to their loved ones, to know what was happening.

The protest in Rosenstrasse, whatever form it actually took, was not the only one. Smaller ‘gatherings’ were also to be found at detention sites across the city where intermarried German Jews were detained, including at Grosse Hamburger Strasse (as even noted in Joseph Goebbels’ diaries). These gatherings were notable not only for their comparatively smaller size to the one in Rosenstrasse but also because it was predominantly non-Jewish German men protesting for their Jewish German wives; to this day these smaller protests remain under-researched.

Returning to Rosenstrasse, what is also known is that all but 25 men detained there were released over a period averaging seven days but ranging anywhere between 1-2 days and up to six weeks (which was long after the protest had concluded). The 25 intermarried men, together with 12 from the aforementioned Grosse Hamburger Strasse, were deported to the labour camp at Auschwitz but swiftly re-transported to the forced labour camp, Gross-Beeren on the outskirts of Berlin where they remained for the rest of the war. That intermarried German-Jews were ‘released’ from Rosenstrasse neither meant that they were free nor safe. They remained forced labourers but were removed from the armaments’ factories. Most survived the war, although there were attempts to deport some individuals but never as a group en masse. Whether their ‘release’ and survival resulted from the protest, i.e. whether this was a successful act of resistance defying the Nazis, remains a source of contention and dispute.

Generally, there is more support for the interpretation of the protest as a successful act of resistance that saved at least 2,000 Jewish lives and potentially more in the longer term, even though historical research around the turn of the millennium cast doubt on this, offering a new argument. That argument posited that the protest, whilst a heroic act of resistance in which those involved risked their lives, did not in fact affect the outcome, rather the Nazis intended to exploit intermarried German-Jews further in facilitating the Holocaust, intending to deport them at a later date but this was prevented by the course of the war.

As a cultural historian it is the dispute over the protest itself that I find interesting. The explanation for the protest’s success is, for me, too simplistic, and appears to be anchored not so much in the actual events but in the first post-war publication detailing what happened in Rosenstrasse. That publication was Sie: Eine Zeitschrift für Frauen und Menschenrechte. The first known account of the protest appeared in the second edition of the magazine in December 1945, in an article by journalist Georg Zivier. Historian Wolf Gruner suggests, however, that that article was influenced by the magazine’s co-editor, Heinz Ullstein, himself one of the men who was detained in Rosenstrasse (Gruner, Widerstand in der Rosenstrasse: Die Fabrik-Aktion und die Verfolgung der “Mischehen” 1943, Fischer, 2005). If we look at archive files, and his own testimony we find an account of the that differs from the article and from what we have have since learned about the majority of those detained. Ullstein was one of the minority detained for longer and released once his wife had halted divorce proceedings. However, the story of the protest, arguably made for good journalism, especially to a defeated readership. A remarkably similar account appears a few years later in the diaries of journalist Ruth Andreas-Friedrich, published in English as Berlin Underground 1938-1945. This might seem insignificant but Ruth Andreas-Friedrich was also a co-editor of Sie in its first days, making the likelihood of the original article impacting on Andreas-Friedrich’ own account all the more possible. Yet, both Zivier and Andreas-Friedrich’s accounts have often been cited in support of the theory that the protest successfully brought about the detainees’ release. Look closely, however, and the very foundations of the protest’s success, or at least the historical narrative on which the idea of the protest’s success is predicated, appear to be rooted in post-war journalism rather than the events themselves.

Historical debate up to now has thus been restricted by a binary division over whether the protest was – or was not – a success. Yet, this precludes the possibility of more nuanced interpretations, of a middle path between the two lines of argument. Moreover, it also renders the notion of success a mere metric of perceived value – unintentionally perhaps but nevertheless diminishing the trauma of the detainees and the protesters, the courage and the sheer despair they must have felt, whilst rendering the narrative both reductive and susceptible to manipulation by the populist right who could take up the mantle of these ‘honourable German women’ whose ‘heroic efforts’ are supposedly not being given due recognition (they have but arguably it is the male protesters who have been written out of the historical narrative), whilst those for whom they were protesting are often overlooked or put in a secondary position in how the events are remembered. For more on this see my article in German Life and Letters, free to download here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/glal.12273

Back to January this year, and the spontaneous public engagement. It was not Rosenstrasse that I, and my partner Mark, had gone to Berlin to research. Nevertheless, I’m drawn to visit the street whenever I go, to see what has changed in the street, particularly around the memorials – but that’s a whole other blog post. This time I wanted to show Mark the street I had already told him so much about and which he could bring his photography skills to. As we wandered around Ingeborg Hunzinger’s memorial sculpture we were joined by a group of people, teachers from around the world, who were in Berlin for some training at the Goethe Institut. As part of that they were visiting various historical sites, Rosenstrasse included. Spontaneous public engagement had not been my plan – in fact my natural inclination is to hang back, not to impose and assume people want to talk to me. So, even though I was eager to talk about the protest, its history, the politics of its representation, including the memorial sculpture they were looking at, I hesitated. Enter stage left, Mark, the man with the camera, who struck up a conversation with them in which he offered up my expertise before I had chance to shy away. What followed was a glorious conversation – oscillating back and forth between German and English, all the while buzzing with interest. There was a mutual joy in learning and engaging with one another. They certainly learned more than they were expecting that day, and they got me thinking, too. For that I’m really grateful.

Image copyright Mark Epstein, https://www.marke.photography/ January 2020

To bring this blog back to where I started, with Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s observations about public engagement, about listening and opening up potential avenues for our own learning as well as those to whom we are talking, what would I say I gained from this encounter? On the subject of Rosenstrasse, I learned that the protest about which I have written so much, is increasingly gaining traction within educational institutions – and therein lies more potential research that I would not be thinking about were it not for this encounter. I learned that the protest continues to fascinate people around the world, and they come to Rosenstrasse with an open mind rather preconceived ideas about it. What I also learned is the deep satisfaction in sharing my research expertise, unplanned, unscripted and unexpectedly. This was not just engagement for the sake of it, a tick box exercise, rather it was engagement for engagement’s sake, for being generous with my knowledge. It made want to engage more, to re-engage with my original research topic. I came away feeling reinvigorated and that my research has a value no metric can measure.  

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