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 Rosenstrasse

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 on film.

“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?” I insisted.

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 Jewish experience.

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 represent!

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 knees:

“You two have been here so long, I’m going to get separation anxiety when you leave!”

“Marvelous place!” Margarethe exclaimed.

 

Based on a true story, director/co-writer Margarethe von Trotta offers a moving tribute to a handful of Aryan women in Berlin during 1943, including the aristocratic Lena (Katja Riemann), who secured the release of many Jewish husbands, saving them from deportation to the East and certain death. Shuttling from present-day New York to past and present Berlin, von Trotta frames her story around one young woman's (Maria Schrader) attempts to understand her mother's (Jutta Lampe) seemingly erratic behavior after her beloved husband's death, and comes to understand the terrible events which shaped her mother's life.