Opinion

The Nasty Women Who Changed Jewish History

As the backlash grows against Donald Trump’s slur on Hillary Clinton, meet the 'nasty women,' also vilified as 'whores' and 'witches,' who resisted the Nazis and the post-war whitewashing of the Holocaust from German history.

Protesters rally against Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a 'Nasty Women Protest' outside of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, October 26, 2016 in New York City.
Drew Angerer, Getty Images, AFP

His name may be mud  — Macy’s is dropping his line of dress shirts, ties and cuff links after of pressure from 700,000 customers who signed a MoveOn.org petition, his new hotels will bear nary a trace of his imprint and the one he reopened two days ago in Washington to no fanfare could barely sell rooms at half the price of its luxury competitors, residents of his Manhattan apartment complexes have petitioned to remove those tacky, gold-plated letters from their buildings’ façades, and so toxic is any affiliation with him, shoppers are even boycotting his daughter’s line and stores that sell it.

Last week, a marketing strategist started the #GrabYourWallet movement, urging a boycott of Ivanka Trump’s duds and the stores that sell it after her father was caught on tape boasting of sexually assaulting women. Fortune reports the consumer pressure is working: fewer than one in four women would consider patronizing her line, which she touts as empowering of women, the antithesis of what the name Trump now stands for.

But don’t dismiss beleaguered Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s branding savvy just yet. In the greatest of ironies, the man best known for the catchphrase “You’re Fired,” has inadvertently christened a new slogan – “nasty woman." The comment, intended as a slur at his presidential rival, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, has backfired in a big way, igniting a feminist firebrand. Though it trended on social media within minutes of last week’s debate, #NastyWomen shows no signs of abating. There are baseball caps touting “Make America Nasty Again,” team Hillary buttons, stickers, mugs and pillows, hailing “Nasty Women Vote,” perfumes and pantsuits for “your inner nasty woman.” Even Russian protest group Pussy Riot rushed back into action, just dropping a nasty, new video.

Call it the year of the Nasty Woman.

And I, for one, am thrilled.

As Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) warned the Donald: “Nasty women have had it with creepy guys like you.”

Amen, sister.

I was awoken to the womanly power of nasty 25 years ago, when I saw Oscar-nominated German movie, “The Nasty Girl.”

I’ll admit it. The title alone piqued my interest. Was it a blue movie? We women get called “nasty” a lot and often to humiliate us by somehow conflating our desires with being undesirable to men. If you think that sounds oxymoronic, some would imply any woman who dares make a man accountable for allegations of sexual assault is “nasty,” which is exactly what Newt Gingrich meant when he accused Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly of being “fascinated with sex.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “nasty” in various ways. It is “very bad or unpleasant,” “repugnant to the mind,” “behaving in an unpleasant or spiteful way,” “annoying or unwelcome,” and “damaging and harmful.” Shakespeare used it in “Hamlet” to connote filth in reference to a pig: “Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love/Over the nasty sty.” In the 1980s, Prince protégé/lover Vanity meant it in the physically sinful manner, as she confessed to like “to do it like a real live nasty girl should” in her anthem “Nasty Girl,” owning the notion that women can be sexual.

Director Michael Verhoeven used it in the “unwelcome” and “damaging” way, as his film’s protagonist, a teenager named Sonja, based on the real life Anna Elizabeth Rosmus, gets vilified for airing uncomfortable truths.

In its original German, the film’s title is “Das Schrekliche Mädchen,” which means the frightful or terrible girl. The word “schreckliche” is also rooted in “schrecklichkeit,” which means “frightfulness” and was a term associated with the campaigns of terror Hitler waged on civilians to coerce them into obedience.

But it didn’t work for Rosmus, who was called “nasty” or “frightful” for resisting the terrifying taunts and threats of others. Raised a Catholic, Rosmus was 16 years old when she entered a high school writing contest, choosing as her topic her hometown’s past during the Third Reich. Growing up, she had heard that her native Passau, a Bavarian idyll on the Austrian border, where the Danube, Inn and Ilz rivers meet, had resisted the Nazis unlike the rest of her country. Her intention was to write a glowing portrait of a town whose past she thought was as peaceful as it looked. But as she began to dig through newspaper clippings, she learned the opposite was true.

The mayor, who had been the only one accused of being a Nazi, had in fact bucked the SS threats and hid Jewish families. All of Passau’s Jewish residents eventually had been driven out. After the Allies liberated the town, its inhabitants paid lip service to its Jewish victims, building a memorial bearing the names of those killed. But they covered the names a year later, attempting to bury their wartime guilt. It didn’t take long for Rosmus to discover that her native Three Rivers City, as it’s dubbed, was hardly the utopia she had once believed.

The town, she discovered, was truly “schrekliche” and deeply rooted in Nazi party affiliations. Heinrich Himmler’s father had been a professor at her school. Adolf Hitler had grown up just across the Danube, and he, along with Himmler and Adolf Eichmann had resided in Passau at one point, city files revealed. Himmler was so close to the community, he had even maintained contact with locals until May 1945.

Perhaps even more shocking was her discovery that her town had been home to three concentration camps – subcamps of the infamous Mauthausen-Gusen Koncentration Lager. And there were a dozen more just on its outskirts. The townspeople, outraged at her findings, tried to thwart her efforts to research further, blocking her rights to the archives, suing her for defamation, calling her “Jewish whore” and the “witch of Passau” – if “nasty” doesn’t work, just reach for “witch” or “whore.” Passau began hosting an annual far-right rally by the German People’s Union (DVU), often inviting Holocaust deniers like David Irving (whose defamation suit against Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt was the subject of the recent film “Denial”). 

Undaunted, Rosmus refused to back down, uncovering more lies the town had perpetrated, publishing books, exhuming names, crimes and files long buried, and exposing the very scary reality that the ouster and extermination of Passau’s Jewish population wasn’t so much the work of one man, but of all of its residents – the grocer, the teacher, the postman, the family next door. To quote Hillary Clinton, it takes a village.

But it only took one girl, undeterred by those who branded her “nasty,” to stop. In fact, the more locals tried to thwart her efforts, the more determined she became. Eventually, Rosmus’ marriage fell apart under the strain of constant threats, and she felt she had to leave Passau for the safety of her children. She moved to Washington, D.C., eventually settling in the Chesapeake Bay, where she continues to probe and publish numerous books and papers on the culpability of ordinary Germans during the Holocaust and many other topics, from the forced sterilization of foreign slave workers during the Third Reich to searching for her family’s Jewish roots.

For years, Rosmus had tried to get the town to restore the Jewish names missing from its Holocaust monument. But they ignored her. So in typical nasty girl fashion, she brought veterans and survivors back to Passau to commemorate the 50th anniversary of liberation and rewrote the names on the monument with charcoal, adding the stars of David, which had also been cemented over.

Rosmus’ unofficial ceremony coincided with an official one city leaders had planned, only theirs, which was billed as honoring Holocaust victims, included honoring S.S. members. “It’s worse than disgusting,” Rosmus told “Sixty Minutes” reporter Morley Safer at the time. “I can’t just stand by and do nothing.”

That’s what nasty girls do.

And there were many of them during the Holocaust, too.

Take Franciska Mann, dubbed the dancer of Warsaw, a Polish Jew who was the star of the Melody Palace Nightclub in Warsaw before World War II. When the Nazis invaded, she was sent to the Warsaw ghetto but managed to pay her way out, obtaining a foreign passport that she thought would secure her departure to South America. But the Nazis seized her and 600 others and put them on a transport to Bergen-Belsen, and then to Auschwitz-Birkenau along with 1,700 Polish Jews.

According to eyewitness Jerzey Tabau, a Birkenau prisoner who managed to escape and whose testimony was entered into the Nuremberg Military Tribunals, none of those who arrived on October 23, 1943, had been registered. Rather, they were immediately sent to the showers, where they were told they needed to be disinfected before boarding trains to Switzerland.

Supervising them was S.S. Sergent Major Josef Schillinger, who upon noticing the beautiful dancer, ordered her to undress for him completely. Franciska, noting his lecherous glances, threw her shoe at his face, and as he reached for his holster, she grabbed his gun and shot him twice in the stomach, wounding him so badly he died on the way to the hospital, and fired a third round at his cohort.

Then all hell broke loose, according to witness David Wisnia, a survivor from Warsaw who had been sorting clothes near Crematorium 4. Mann’s shots served as a signal for the other women to stage a riot, which they did. One woman tore a guard’s nose off. Another one scalped an S.S. man. Eventually, camp commander Rudolf Höss stormed in, flanked by guards carrying grenades and machine guns, and fatally shot Mann on the spot, and then had his men mow down the rest of the women.

They died heroes – or rather as sheroes.

It took a whole fleet of armed and loaded S.S. men to take out a group of naked, nasty women. If that isn’t power, I don’t know what is.

We don’t know their names, except for Mann’s.

History hasn’t been told by and about women, particularly nasty ones. But with the election of a first woman U.S. president, it’s time for that to change.

Nasty women don’t only dance, vote, shout the truth, take no prisoners, refuse to back down and rule. They also write their own nasty endings.

For the original nasty girl that means no longer being persona non grata back home.

“Most of my strong-headed opponents have either died or they are no longer in office, and the general perception is finally catching up as well,” Rosmus wrote to me via email. “Nearly 35 years of persistent add-ons do have an impact, after all.”

Call it the perks of being nasty.

Or to borrow another Trumpism: stamina. 

Marisa Fox-Bevilacqua is a New York based freelance writer and editor who has written for the New York Times, Haaretz, Elle, Billboard, InStyle, Cosmo and Redbook. Follow her on Twitter: @MarisaFox