It was my choice to meet at Barney Greengrass—a legendary Jewish
restaurant on the Upper West side of Manhattan. Margarethe von Trotta
was in New York and she wanted to talk to me about her next script.
I had always admired the films of von Trotta and was thrilled by the
prospect of working with her. But her brief description on the phone
had me worried. She was working on a historical story—and she
wanted to see it through the eyes of a young Jewish woman from New York.
For the sake of authenticity, she felt the need for a co-writer who
fit this description. Oy.
It is difficult to explain why someone like me—the daughter of
a German Jewish émigré—of two parents who
were raised Orthodox, a kid who had grown up on the Upper West side
of Manhattan—why was I suddenly doubting my Jewishness?
Hadn’t I read the novels of Philip Roth on this very subway line?
Didn’t I have a very noticeably Jewish sense of humor?
But my parents had turned their back on formal Judaism, and I was given
no religious training. I had barely read the Bible, and “only”
as literature—we celebrated Chanukah and Christmas, Passover and
Easter. Given all that, would I be Jewish “enough” for a
director looking for authenticity?
That’s why I suggested Barney Greengrass. I was already trying
to be a little “extra” Jewish so I qualified for the job.
Margarethe loved the place. We ordered bagels, lox, cream cheese, and
whitefish salad. I was nervous—still feeling like an impersonator,
but when she began to tell me the story of her next film, I finally
forgot about myself.
The historical part of the film takes place in 1943 Berlin. This was
a first for Margarethe von Trotta, a political director who had made
definitive films about terrorists, Rosa Luxemburg, as well as covering
the gamut on female politics—but not the Third Reich, not yet.
But then again, she had a completely unknown story—one that turns
our vision of the Holocaust upside down.
She told me about the brave women of the Rosenstrasse. In the winter
of 1943, Goebbels decided to give Hitler a “Jew free” Berlin
as a birthday present. He rounded up the Jewish husbands of Aryan wives—who
had up to then been protected by their mixed marriages—and imprisoned
them in a building on the Rosenstrasse. Deportation was the next step.
In the icy cold, hundreds of women protested day and night outside the
makeshift prison. When the stunned policemen turned their guns on these
upright and loyal Aryan wives, they simply looked down the barrel and
began to shout in unison: “Give us back our husbands!”
This remarkable protest against the Nazis was aptly named the “resistance
of the heart.”
By the time we were munching on our bagels, Margarethe had already
met and interviewed many of the Rosenstrasse women who were still alive.
She had been struggling for years to find the money to tell this story
“How can it be that no one knows about such an amazing story?”
I asked. Margarethe smiled wistfully. Didn’t I know that stories
about so-called “good Germans” are taboo? “But why?”
The answer is complex. The fear was that trying to honor the few brave
civilians was an attempt to whitewash Germany’s awful past. A
few thousand “good Germans,” one could argue, were no excuse
for the hundreds of thousands of “willing executioners.”
Quite recently, however, several German intellectuals have finally and
forcefully made the opposite point: the example set by these few makes
the guilt of the collaborators and bystanders even worse.
Roughly 10,000 Jews lived out the war in Germany, and a rough estimate
would indicate that for every Jew who survived, at least seven people
must have intervened. Do the math. Clearly, obedience was not the only
option—resistance WAS possible. And Rosenstrasse proves that point
with spectacular poignancy. As this new approach to history was gaining
momentum, Margarethe seized the moment to bring this story to the screen.
Margarethe had learned about the Rosenstrasse through her intensive
interviews with surviving women—now she wanted to authenticate
the woman who takes the film on its journey into the past. The Jewish
New Yorker. That’s me, remember? (Double oy.)
We began to work together and a funny thing happened: Margarethe started
to educate me about Jewish rituals! And in my ignorance of
my own religion, she came to understand the true nature of the secular
She asked me about the stools for the Shiva sequence in the beginning.
“Stools?” I asked her.
“I read in a book that the mourners sit on stools.”
“I never knew that,” I admitted. “We like to eat
a lot of food and stay in large groups when someone dies—the rest
is up for grabs. We are not observant—we are neurotic.
The “real” Jews kept hounding us—Margarethe was warned
by one such “expert” that no “real” Jewish person
could “inter-marry” without a severe reaction from her family.
I did not agree. Because this theme played an important role in the
screenplay, I promptly had ALL my Jewish friends, and both my sisters,
send her emails about their very different “mixed marriage”
experiences. “Oh please,” my sister wrote me, “we
don’t say ‘mixed’ anymore!”
In some way, our working experience brought to life the familiar story
of the assimilated Jews in Germany before the Third Reich. Those who
were unaware of their religion until the Nazis came to power. My “authenticity”
consisted of giving Margarethe a first-hand encounter with a deeply
“assimilated” New York Jew. THAT was a group I could truly
But I must admit that I also experienced a personal revelation similar
to that of the New York woman we had created. Without becoming religious
(God forbid), she learns about her own Jewish past. Like me,
like so many of my generation, it was a heritage she had always ignored.
Learning the truth about her mother’s childhood in Nazi Germany,
she broadens her own sense of identity. So did I.
We were very full after the enormous portions at Barney Greengrass.
When we finally stood up to leave, our theatrical waiter fell to his
“You two have been here so long, I’m going to get separation
anxiety when you leave!”
“Marvelous place!” Margarethe exclaimed.