A small ray of light in the darkness

In 1943 in Nazi Germany, a small group of German women took to the streets and, in one case, to the settee, to save the lives of Jewish prisoners awaiting transportation to the death camps.

'Rosenstrasse' recalls a tiny triumph amid the horrors of Nazi Germany

"One death is a tragedy," observed Joseph Stalin, an expert on the subject, "a million deaths a statistic." The Nazi success at exterminating 6 million Jews defies the imagination of anyone but a statistician. Auschwitz converted its inmates into corpses, and it is far too easy for historians to reduce them to numbers. How to convey the enormity of the atrocity without slighting the humanity of individual victims?

Though criticized for focusing on an island of decency and courage within a vast sea of horror, Schindler's List depicts the Holocaust through a few endangered Jews and a Gentile protector who refuses to let them be statistics. In Rosenstrasse, German director Margarethe von Trotta recounts one unusual episode in the Nazi genocide. On February 27, 1943, up to 2,000 German Jews were interned at 2-4 Rosenstrasse, a former Jewish welfare center, to await deportation to the death camps. Because they were either the offspring of mixed marriages or married to Aryans, these prisoners had been spared some of the hardships suffered by other Jews.

As news of their situation spread, hundreds of wives, mothers, and daughters assembled on Rosenstrasse to try to save the detainees. These Aryan women were persistent, defying efforts by the police and the SS to disperse them. They were victorious when, on March 6, the Rosenstrasse prisoners were released. Like Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the women who demonstrated in a public square to force Argentina to account for "disappeared" sons and husbands, the Rosenstrasse protesters offer an inspiring lesson in feminine tenacity.

Von Trotta tells their story as an extended flashback. The film begins in contemporary New York when 60-year-old Ruth Weinstein (Lampe) shocks her worldly, grown-up children by performing Jewish rituals and opposing her daughter Hannah's engagement to a Nicaraguan Gentile. Hannah suspects her mother's behavior has something to do with childhood secrets never divulged.

Writ. & dir. Margarethe von Trotta; feat. Katja Riemann, Maria Schrader, Doris Schade, Jutta Lampe, Svea Lohde (PG-13)
In Berlin, where her mother was born, Hannah interviews 90-year-old Lena Fischer (Schade), who recounts her role in saving 8-year-old Ruth, whose Jewish mother was arrested after her Gentile husband divorced her. In 1943, Lena (Riemann) was a vivacious pianist who had been disowned by her aristocratic family for marrying a Jewish violinist. Desperate to find her husband when he disappears one day, she pleads with officials for information. "We don't give information to Jew-loving whores," one replies. Learning that her husband is at Rosenstrasse, she joins the crowd of women demanding release of their men.

Lena also uses her aristocratic connections and abundant charm to beguile a government minister. In what seems a parody of the strategy of personalizing mass experience, von Trotta suggests that Lena's willingness to offer herself to a Nazi lecher might have been more consequential than the actions of all the other - mostly anonymous - women of Rosenstrasse. "It was only a small ray of light in the darkness," Lena recalls of the rescue of these fortunate Jewish men. Like Schindler's List, Rosenstrasse finds consolation amid brutality. It is a fascinating German take on Germany's distinctive contribution to the history of infamy. In contrast to American movies that present everyone everywhere speaking English, Rosenstrasse has all the world speak fluent German, even in New York, even a Nicaraguan. "The past can be so exhausting," sighs Lena to Hannah. It can, at least for one moment, also be exhilarating.

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