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Keeler: Germans who stood up for the Jews

Cover of

Cover of "Sophie Scholl & The White Rose" by Annette Dumbach and Jud Newborn Credit: see caption/see caption

The idea that brought Jud Newborn to Munich at the start of the 1980s was to use the tools of cultural anthropology to try to explain the utterly inexplicable: the Nazi death camps.

He spent three years in Germany, interviewing former SS guards and visiting the death camps, toward his dissertation for the University of Chicago. But early in his stay, a chance moment in the great atrium of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich shaped his life in a way he didn't expect.

In the atrium was a white rose carved into the wall: a memorial to Hans and Sophie Scholl and others in the Nazi-fighting resistance movement known as the White Rose.

What Newborn learned, as he looked into the group, was that Hans was a leader in Hitler Youth. His sister Sophie was a leader in its young women's wing. But they and their friends came to see the Nazi regime as evil, and they decided to resist.

Their weapon was leaflets. Starting in 1942, they produced and distributed them widely. One decried the murder of Jews and added: "The German people slumber on in their dull, stupid sleep and encourage these fascist criminals."

On Feb. 18, 1943, they went to the University of Munich and left copies of their latest anti-Nazi broadside. From the top of the atrium, Sophie Scholl let some of them flutter down on the milling students below -- a rare public act of resistance that got them arrested. The Scholls and Christoph Probst were "tried," and on Feb. 22, they were beheaded.

Learning the history of the White Rose changed Newborn's plans. "To encounter a story of German young people who rose up at home and, despite their isolation and the incredible peer pressure to conform, resisted Hitler in the most daring fashion, that gave me an extra morale boost," said Newborn, 59, of Plainview. "I resolved that not only would I do my scholarly work on the form and meaning of Nazi genocide, but I would also, in a more accessible form, write about the White Rose."

The result was his 1986 book, "Shattering the German Night," updated in 2006 in connection with the film, "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days." But Newborn has never left the White Rose behind. He lectures on the movement often to synagogue and college audiences.

"Whenever I speak to college students," he said, "they invariably come up to me afterwards, deeply moved, and say, 'Hans and Sophie Scholl are the same age I am now, and I wonder what I would have done.' "

Newborn, a Holocaust expert, served as the historian for the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan and gives regular "Lions of Judah" lectures about the story of Jewish resistance. But he never stops giving his White Rose lectures, because he sees real links between the acts of resistance by the Jews themselves and this tiny band of German young people who saw a regime drenched in blood and decided to dissent.

In the White Rose, as in the Warsaw Ghetto Jewish uprising the same year as their arrests, Newborn sees a real commonality: the human capacity for struggle against wickedness.

"That gives us all a kind of hope, even for today," he said. "That actually is why the story of Jews surviving the Nazis and the White Rose resisting is relevant today, compelling today."

Survivors of the Shoah are nearing the end of their days, but fortunately, interest in and study of the Holocaust is growing stronger. This Thursday, Yom Hashoah -- Holocaust Remembrance Day -- is a moment for all of us to remember not only the millions murdered, but also all the Jewish resisters and the too-few German resisters. It's a time to recall that, along with the dark human embrace of evil, there's a strong, undying will to fight it.