— by David H. Weinstein
A new book, Stolen Legacy: Nazi Theft and the Quest for Justice at Krausenstrasse 17/18, Berlin documents how the Nazis deprived a once-prominent Jewish family of a huge commercial building, and the battle to reclaim it.
If you ask someone what the Holocaust was, the answer will likely be “the Nazis’ genocide of the Jews.” The systematic extermination of one-third of World Jewry surely is the most horrendous, shocking aspect of the Shoah. Yet, from the Nazis’ perspective, the Final Solution was intended to be as much an economic program, designed to strip the Jews of their labor and material wealth, thereby “Aryanizing” the German economy and funding both the war effort and the Nazis themselves.
For one limited example, it has been estimated that before 1933, of the 1,200 buildings in Berlin’s city center, at least 225 belonged to German Jews.
Through the seizure of their bank accounts, businesses, property, and goods, the Jews collectively were forced to pay for their own murder. In sum, wholesale theft was an essential component of the Final Solution.
In the seven decades since World War II ended, the impulse for justice has led to numerous actions by governments, Jewish organizations, and individual victims and their descendants. The Nuremburg military tribunals, the trial and execution in Israel of Adolph Eichmann, and the denaturalization, deportation, and criminal prosecutions of John Demjanjuk and other death camp guards and workers are a few examples of governmental efforts to achieve justice. In addition, the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany has represented the organized Jewish community’s efforts to secure compensation directly to individual Holocaust survivors and grants to social welfare organizations serving survivors. The Conference has funded these efforts through negotiated settlements, first with West Germany, and later with Austria, Swiss banks, and certain industries.
Apart from the communal efforts to achieve some measure of justice, some individuals have, in one manner or another, pursued their families’ claims for justice by way of restitution or compensation. These efforts have not, however, always been very successful. For example, in June 2015, the federal court in Los Angeles denied a claim for restitution or compensation where a family’s painting (on the right) had been seized by the Nazis. (The court found that, under the applicable Spanish law, the museum holding the painting had acquired legal ownership despite the original theft of the painting.)
East Germany refused to provide any relief at all to victims of Nazism, and even following German reunification in 1990, heirs of the original property owners generally received minimal, if any, payment for seized buildings; Jewish families were often repaid only 10 percent of the properties’ market value. In its recently adopted constitution, Hungary has apparently disavowed any responsibility for compensation or restitution arising from the Holocaust.
Still and all, there have been successes. The recent popular movie, Woman in Gold, is a fictionalized version of a true story in which a prized painting (Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I) was recovered by the true owner’s niece.
After a 15-year legal battle, in 2007 the Claims Conference recovered $118 million, or about two-thirds of market value, on behalf of the Wertheim family that before the Nazi era had owned a major department store and five acres in downtown Berlin. And in 2000, after more than 11 years of various judicial proceedings brought by New York State and federal officials, the federal court in Manhattan ruled that Egon Schiele’s Portrait of Wally was stolen property; following that ruling, the heirs of the original owner accepted $19 million as compensation in exchange for allowing the painting to remain on display at the Leopold Museum in Vienna. (See the documentary film Portrait of Wally for more details.)
Stolen Legacy opens with an event in December 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when Dina Gold, the author, arrives at the building in the former East Berlin and informs Herr Münch, the English speaker summoned to greet her, “I’ve come to claim my family’s building.”
After a 20 minute consultation with his superiors, Herr Münch returns and says, “We have been waiting for this to happen.”
When Gold then recounts her family’s story to him, Herr Münch assures her, “Yes, you must get this building back for your mother.”
With a focus on this building and the effort by her mother and herself to reclaim it, Gold, the great-granddaughter of Victor Wolff, the business scion who originally built the building in 1908-09, has applied her experience as an investigative news reporter to chronicle a case study of her family before, during, and after the Holocaust and the different ways the Holocaust affected the lives of the various members of her once-very privileged family. All but one of them, her great-uncle Fritz, escaped Germany during the ‘30’s; Fritz refused to leave and was later murdered in Auschwitz.
The book is much broader than just a study of the family’s claim of ownership of the Wolff Building. Indeed, that aspect of the story consumes only about one-third the length of the book. Although Gold describes the fruits of their efforts, the book provides scant information—and no footnotes to sources—about the numerous hurdles faced and overcome by her mother’s lawyers and experts in their investigations aimed at documenting her family’s right, as heirs, to reclaim the Wolff Building. Nevertheless, as Ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat observes in his Forward to the book, Stolen Legacy “tells us much about how difficult property restitution is even today” in 2015.
Moreover, unlike the claims mentioned above, the administrative process appears in this case to have been relatively expeditious. Dina Gold’s mother, Aviva, asserted her claim before the German Federal Office for the Settlement of Property Issues just before the October 13, 1990 deadline, after which individual claims were barred in deference to a comprehensive claim by the Claims Conference for all victims. By March 1, 1994, the family and its experts and attorneys had completed their investigation and had presented the details and evidence to support the claim. In November 1995, the bureaucrat considering the case rendered her draft decision, favoring compensation to the family. On December 14, 1995, the German Transport Ministry, which occupied the building, agreed to purchase it from the Wolff family descendants for DM 20 million (about $14 million). The administrative process had taken just over five years from start to finish.
Stolen Legacy is much more than a recounting of the claims process. Rather, in her sometimes-too-dry, straightforward reporter’s style, Gold provides a detailed and informative description of the Wolff Fur Company, the very successful family business that enabled her ancestors to live in the wealth and grandeur of Wannsee. Ironically, that elite Berlin suburb would years later become infamous for the formal adoption there of the Nazis’ Final Solution. Gold documents the family’s plush lives in Wannsee after World War I, the increasingly harsh anti-Semitic laws of the Third Reich, and the 1937 foreclosure by the Victoria Insurance Company on its mortgage on the Wolff Building, leading directly to the forced sale and direct transfer of ownership to the Reichsbahn, Hitler’s railways. To supplement her written story, Gold provides us with a varied collection of 43 photographs, the overwhelming majority of which are of family members or of the estate in Wannsee.
It would be natural if, after the claim was resolved, the Wolff family descendants had moved on to other matters. But a quest to know the details of her great-uncle’s life in Germany after the rest of the family had escaped and his subsequent murder in Auschwitz in 1943 led Gold to resume the investigation of the story more than a decade after the claim was resolved. At the same time, she uncovered significant information about the nefarious co-opting by the Nazis of the Victoria Insurance Company. Before 1933 that company had been headed by a Jewish executive and had catered to financing German Jewish businesses. The Victoria was well positioned, then, when its new “Aryan” executive assumed control, to foreclose on Jewish-owned properties.
During the war the company was also part of a consortium that insured the buildings at the Auschwitz death camp. The Victoria remains one of Germany’s leading insurance companies today, but it has never fully acknowledged or made amends for its role in the theft of Jewish property and the destruction of Jewish lives in the Holocaust.
Stolen Legacy is about one family, a quite privileged and exceptional one before the rise of the Nazis to power. But the book’s title is somewhat misleading, since the story of achieving compensation for the Nazis’ theft is really just the vehicle for conveying the much broader story of Gold’s family. In the process, the book allows us to see the resilience of these Holocaust survivors and their families even as they strive to overcome the horror and injustice they have endured.
David H. Weinstein is a member of the Center City Philadelphia law firm, Weinstein Kitchenoff & Asher LLC, and among other things, is one of four lawyers appointed by the court to serve as interim class counsel for the class of Hungarian Holocaust survivors and descendants in Simon v. Rep. of Hungary, dismissed and appeal pending. He is also Chair of the Board of Governors of Gratz College in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania.