Against all Odds

Every winter and spring and summer break, my desk looks like I robbed a library (in actuality, my kids’ fines for Curious George and Dora the Explorer videos helped to redo the circulation desk at our local branch last year!). I read every spare moment of these vacations, and none of it is directly for class, although I try to find reading that satisfies my curiosity about something or aids my critical thinking…elements that I always try to bring into the classroom.

This break, I was kind of on a European kick–post-Communist Eastern Europe, Czarist Russia, and Nazi Germany. I think that some of this interest comes from my reflection, prior to the start of this semester, about the importance of teaching community building and group development in the context of social justice, because of the very dangerous consequences of movements absent a commitment to social justice.

I wasn’t expecting, though, to find within this reading one of the most stunning inspirations of the power of collective action that I can remember. But here it is. I’m taking this as my new, “no excuses” motivation, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on how it resonates with you. Even better, what are your best stories, lived or heard, of how organizing and activism made a difference? Let’s inspire each other to take on Goliaths because, as this story clearly illustrates, we’re the only chance of defeating them.

The setting is Berlin, February 27, 1943, in front of the Rosenstrasse office building, where Jewish men were being held, awaiting deportation to concentration and death camps, where, at this point in the war, almost all would certainly have been killed. But this story, you might guess, doesn’t end that way.

Instead, in the only open demonstration in Germany against the deportations of German Jews during the Holocaust, more than 1000 demonstrators, most of whom were Aryan wives of the Jewish men being held, chanted “Give us back our husbands,” and “Murderer”. The demonstrations continued until March 6th, when propaganda minister Goebbels decided that the demonstration posed a great danger to public opinion and, so, ordered the release of the 1,700 men being held. And not only were these individuals’ lives saved, but the public pressure resulting from the demonstration changed the Nazis’ plans to deport more individuals from these mixed marriages, saving the lives of many thousands.

Two lessons from this weigh on my heart. First, the obvious and stunning realization that, as this demonstration had such a powerful and positive effect (with no retaliatory action against demonstrators, either), it opens the sobering truth that many, many more lives could have been saved with concerted, vocal, organized opposition to the mass murders carried out with the silent complicity of so many around the world (including, of course, in the U.S.). After all, Goebbels certainly didn’t abandon the annihilation of the Jewish people after this protest, just those whose fates were directly linked to the protestors’. We cannot afford to be silent in the face of today’s injustices.

And, second, and perhaps less obvious: if collective action can save the lives of Jews already taken into custody and scheduled for deportation and eventual death, in the context of one of history’s most brutal, repressive, and murderous regimes, then what can it accomplish in our climate, which is so dramatically less dire and so tremendously more open to change? What possible excuse do we have not to take action, with these women’s success as our example?

And, perhaps there’s a third lesson, too, that organizers for social justice can find inspiration anywhere, even in some of the most bleak and cruel moments we can imagine. The English language sometimes fails me at times like this, because all it makes me think is, Sí se puede.

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