This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It is also the 70th anniversary of another event, great and tragic in its own way, but little known outside of Germany.
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Even as Jewish ghetto freedom fighters began throwing their first Molotov cocktails, German university students Alexander Schmorell and Willi Graf, members of the White Rose anti-Nazi resistance, were being tried in Munich for high treason and condemned to death. Their crime: Daring to rouse the consciousness of their countrymen in the face of Nazi Germany's wholesale destruction of civil rights and its mass murder of European Jews.
In early June 1941, Schmorell and Graf, along with the now more-famous Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans, both former Hitler Youth leaders, began issuing a staccato burst of six impassioned anti-Nazi leaflets. Cranking out thousands in their secret headquarters over a nine month period, they made dangerous train trips throughout Greater Germany to spread their message. With leaflets turning up in 16 different cities – among them Stuttgart, Vienna, Frankfurt, Hamburg and Berlin – they managed, for a time, to mislead the Gestapo into thinking theirs might be a broad-based movement and not just a handful of students. Willi Graf – a devout Catholic who, unlike Pope Benedict XVI, had refused to join the Hitler Youth – even smuggled a duplicating machine to Saarbrucken in hopes of establishing another resistance cell there.
"Since the beginning of the war, 300,000 Jews have been murdered in the most bestial manner," the White Rose students declared in their second leaflet in June 1942. "This is a crime unparalleled in human history – a crime against the dignity of Man. But why do we tell you these things when you already know them? Everyone wants to be exonerated, but you cannot be, because everyone is guilty, guilty, guilty."
In their fourth leaflet, they wrote: "We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!"
Serving as medics during the summer of 1942, Alexander, Hans and Willi visited the Warsaw Ghetto, whose cemetery was a "tourist spot" where German soldiers brought their girlfriends to watch corpses being dumped. The White Rose students, sickened to their souls, return to Munich determined to step up their resistance.
In January 1943, the boys took giant stencils, slashing them through at night with green tar-based paint, so that students would see “Hitler the Mass Murderer!” the next morning as they entered the university.
On Feb. 18, 1943, Sophie and Hans Scholl climbed a high gallery in the University of Munich's vast atrium. From there they dropped hundreds of leaflets on the heads of astonished students below. It was the lone public protest against Nazism ever staged by Germans.
Spotted almost immediately, they were arrested by the Gestapo and subjected to a grueling interrogation. Just four days later, on February 22, they were condemned to death in a show trial in Munich by Hitler's "Hanging Judge," Roland Freisler, and summarily beheaded by guillotine. Hans was 24; Sophie just 21.
In the days that followed, the last two White Rose members, Willi and Alexander, were seized by the Gestapo – but not before Alex attempted a desperate escape through the Bavarian Alps to Switzerland, only to be stopped by an impenetrable wall of snow. Returning to Munich, the exhausted 24-year-old crawled into a bomb shelter where he knew he’d find a girlfriend who could help him. She promptly summoned the Gestapo.
On April 19, Alex and Willi were taken by paddy wagon to Munich’s “Palace of Justice.” Tried again by Freisler, they, like Sophie and Hans before them, were condemned to death.
Today, the White Rose students are icons in Germany. In a nationwide TV competition to choose the Top Ten most important Germans of all time, German voters chose Sophie and Hans Scholl for fourth place – beating out Goethe, Gutenberg, Bach, Bismarck, Willy Brandt and Albert Einstein. Hundreds of streets and schools have been named for them. They have also been the subject of three German films: one was nominated for an Academy Award in 2006. They have even been the subject of operas.
Despite all this, the story of the White Rose resistance – and its relevance today – remains barely known by the general public outside Germany.
Yet individuals whose activism resembles the White Rose’s humanitarian, non-violent and direct-to-the-people actions continue to emerge around the world. Take the example of Chinese dissidents struggling in isolation, not least Liu Xiaobo, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2010 but still languishing in a Chinese prison. Surely the youngest “White Roser” is Malala Yousafazai, who began advocating girls' rights to education in Pakistan at the age of nine, was shot in the head by the Taliban last year, but vows to fight on; she, too, has been nominated for a Nobel. Perhaps the White Rose’s legacy might even inspire Israelis and Palestinians to join together in new, non-violent ways to break their deadlock.
"Somebody had to make a start," Sophie Scholl told Hitler's "Hanging Judge," looking him straight in the eye.
In the 70 years that have passed, we still need that somebody.
Dr. Jud Newborn is co-author of "Sophie Scholl and the White Rose," (Oneworld, 2007; Hebrew edition: Penn Publications, 2013). He served as the founding historian of New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage, and lectures widely on the White Rose movement.