A crowd of protestors swarmed outside the Berlin Jewish community building on the Rosenstrasse. Inside, behind a police line, about 2,000 Jewish men and boys awaited processing by the Gestapo. Although it was 1943, well into the Nazi “Final Solution” to murder the Jews of Europe, these Jews had survived because of the peculiar position they occupied: the husbands and sons of German women who were not Jewish. They were therefore protected under “privileged marriages” in the parlance of Nazi law. And several hundred of those German women, terrified that the Nazi state was about to murder their loved ones, made up the majority of the protestors crowding the street outside. Some of them chanted slogans, while others remained silent as they stubbornly refused to go home.
After days of protests, the Jewish men began to trickle out of the building to return home with their families. News of the incident spread throughout the country and even internationally. Although most of the men detained on Rosenstrasse were either forced into hiding or picked up for forced labor afterward, the powerful image of hundreds of non-Jewish wives protesting for their Jewish husbands’ release remains a famous story of resistance in the Third Reich.
It’s tempting to think of every so-called “mixed” marriage in Nazi Germany in terms of the Rosenstrasse protest — that every non-Jewish wife or mother resisted the arrest of her Jewish husband or son. But the truth is much more complex. Holocaust history is shaped by the decisions that individual people made on a daily basis. In addition, it’s important to remember that being married to a Jewish spouse was financially and culturally difficult under Nazi rule, especially if a Jewish husband had his business and assets confiscated. While some chose to stay by the sides of their Jewish husbands and wives, many others sought divorce. Some divorced in an altruistic effort to protect their “half-Jewish” children, some simply ran out of money, and others divorced out of desire to be a full member of “Aryan” society. Still others acted out of either self-preservation or even racial hatred.
The case of one Austrian wife and mother, Rosa Schnedlitz, illustrates the choices that family members in mixed marriages faced.
The following story comes from the transcripts of Rosa’s postwar trial in Vienna, Austria. She stood accused of denouncing her first husband, a Jewish man named Michael Schwarz, to the Gestapo. Michael was murdered in the gas chamber at Auschwitz-Birkenau. In addition, five of Rosa’s seven children were deported to Theresienstadt after she abandoned them to the care of the Vienna Jewish community. The other two suffered harassment by employers and law enforcement.
Rosa’s Version of Events
Rosa pled not guilty to the charge of playing a part in her husband’s deportation and murder. Her defense rested on her narrative that she was a helpless victim of Nazi policy.
“I married the Jew Michael Schwarz in 1922,” Rosa testified. Upon their marriage, Rosa converted to Judaism and joined the Jewish Religious Community of Vienna, one of Europe’s oldest Jewish communities. They had seven children together, two boys and five girls, and raised them all in the Jewish tradition.
But in 1942, after 20 years of marriage, Michael was sent to perform forced labor in northern Austria — and Rosa began an affair with a man named Josef Scholz, a Nazi. Rosa testified that she had been “bothered” by the Nazi party to leave the Jewish community and her husband, since she was an “Aryan.”
“At the insistence of my life partner Scholz, I addressed a letter to my husband Michael Schwarz, might he consent to a divorce. Since he didn’t want to consent to a divorce, I wrote him a further letter at Scholz’s urging, in which I reminded him that in 1928 when the Communists hunted Nazis in the Lobau [a park in Vienna], he likewise took part and beat up Nazis. I asked Mr. Scholz to give this letter only to my husband personally. But Scholz took the letter to the police behind my back and I was summoned to the police because of this.”
Essentially, Rosa admitted to having an affair with Scholz, trying to divorce her husband, and blackmailing him with evidence that he had taken part in communist activity. In the last years of the war, the protection afforded by the “privileged marriage” was fragile, and the most trivial infractions might mean arrest, imprisonment, or deportation. And, upon divorce, even those flimsy remaining protections vanished for the Jewish spouse.
Rosa’s accusations in that letter, and the intent with which she acted, carried clear and severe danger for Michael.
But, Rosa took responsibility for none of her actions. Instead, she insisted that Scholz — who had died before the trial began — forced her to do these things. In her version of events, Scholz went behind her back to give the letter to the police instead of hand-delivering it to Rosa’s husband, as he had apparently agreed to do. And even after the letter reached the Gestapo, Rosa made no mention of Michael’s arrest and deportation, only that she was called to the police station.
Rosa claimed to have learned of Michael’s death in 1944, and it had come as a total shock. “What has taken place with my husband, I didn’t know at the time,” she insisted. “First I was informed by the Gestapo that my husband was in Auschwitz and had died there from angina and muscle inflammation.”
“That he was gassed, I knew nothing about that,” she concluded. Her turn of phrase (in German, “davon habe ich nichts gewusst”) was common among Germans and Austrians seeking to disavow any knowledge of the Holocaust in the early years after the war.
Rosa then went on to defend herself against complicity in her children’s deportation, imprisonment, and harassment. It “evaded her assessment” how five of her children came to the Theresienstadt ghetto from a Vienna orphanage, but she insisted that she “contributed nothing towards it and made no charges against them.”
Rosa admitted to turning her middle daughter, Hilde, over to the police, but explained that it was a parenting decision. Hilde refused to wear the Jewish star, as was mandatory for Jews under the Nazi regime, so Rosa decided involving law enforcement was the best way to show her the consequences of her actions.
“I didn’t mean it badly,” she insisted. “I just wanted to show her a lesson through the police, since she didn’t want to listen to my admonitions.”
In her closing statement, Rosa remained defiant. “I stand by my existing response. I denounced neither my husband nor my children, nor brought them into a concentration camp. I was always good to my children. I have worked for them and would not burden my conscience in the stated way.”
Despite Rosa’s assertion that she was always good to her children, three of them testified against her during the trial: Hilde; another daughter, Bertha; and her middle son, Erwin.
Erwin Takes the Stand
Erwin Schwarz was 23 when he took the stand to testify against his mother. He related the story that, in late 1941, when he was working at a Persil (soap) facility, one of his superiors, Anton Krogner, pulled him aside. He told Erwin that his mother, Rosa, had contacted the management to tell them that Erwin was half-Jewish.
“I had explicitly shared that with the company,” Erwin explained, so he anticipated being able to keep his much-needed job even though he had a Jewish parent. Originally, that was true. But then, in January 1942, he was fired.
“I was let go from FA Persil because of my parentage. The grounds for the firing were shared with me by Anton Krogner,” he said. He began searching for a new job — difficult for a half-Jewish man in Nazi Vienna — but found employment by the time summer came.
In June 1942, Erwin was hanging out with some friends when word reached him that the SS was looking for him. They had shown up at a friend’s door and searched the apartment. Immediately, Erwin knew that he had to hide, so he sought shelter with a Czech friend in her apartment. He suspected that his mother was the one behind the manhunt.
“The next day, I told my mother that I was at the police station to make myself available to the SS. I wanted to catch my mother with this question,” he said.
“My mother said that she had denounced me to the Gestapo because I came home late in the evenings and had socialized with Aryan girls. With this, she admitted that she initiated the SS search.”
Just like when she informed on Hilde, Rosa couched her betrayal of her son in the letter of the law. She put the blame on Erwin for having allegedly stayed out late and conducted illegal relationships with “Aryan” girls.
While he testified, Erwin also provided a broader sense of what kind of environment Rosa had created in their home after the Anschluss. She had come to view her children no longer as family, but only as Jews. “The accused said the expression ‘Der Jud muss weg’ (‘the Jew must go’) in the time from 1938 through 1942, in the family circle and [in front of] our acquaintances,” he stated. “She often said this expression to me and my siblings.”
Finally, his choice to call his mother “the accused” indicates just how completely their relationship was destroyed by her actions. After 1942, when Rosa reported him to the SS, Erwin left the family home for good and dropped contact with his mother. “As long as I lived with my mother, she threatened me… that she would throw me out of the apartment,” he explained.
In light of the testimony against her, the Viennese court found Rosa guilty of denouncing Michael Schwarz to the Gestapo and sentenced her to five years in prison. The court cited Rosa’s racial hatred of her Jewish husband as the reason for her actions.
But, given Rosa’s obstinance, we will never truly know what motivated her to repeatedly turn her own family over to the Nazis.
Was Rosa trying to rid herself of her Jewish family in order to fully join the “Aryan” utopia Nazi Germany promised? Was she trying to remake herself as a single woman in order to entice Josef Scholz? Did she genuinely hate her husband and children for being Jews, or was she simply looking for a way to shed the family she no longer wanted?
When we consider marriages between Jews and non-Jews during the Holocaust, we can still think of the Rosenstrasse protesters. We can remember their courage and moral fortitude as they raised their voices against the Nazi regime. But, to be true stewards of this complex, uncomfortable history, we must also remember people like Rosa Schnedlitz.
Rosa’s choices during the Nazi era illustrate the complexity of human nature and the many factors that influence our behavior. Self-interest and altruism are two sides of the same coin. Either one can determine how we act in any moment, let alone in extreme, unprecedented circumstances. What motivates us to choose one course over another?
Abigail Hartley is a social media producer in the Levine Institute for Holocaust Education at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.