“I’ve come to claim my family’s building.” With that simple declarative statement—spoken to the manager of the grand, six-story ‘Wolff building’ at Krausenstrasse 17/18 in the heart of Berlin—journalist Dina Gold announced her intention obtain restitution for a piece of valuable real estate that had been seized by the Nazis more than five decades earlier.
In many regards, the Wolff family story is like that of countless other Jewish families, who lost property, livelihoods—and frequently, their lives—at the hands of the Nazis. “It is representative of what happened to so many others whose property was seized, first by the Nazis and then by the governments that followed. Some pretended to own that property; most knew its real origins; few were willing to part with it,” elaborates Gold.
In the book “Stolen Legacy: Nazi Theft and the Quest for Justice at Krausenstrasse 17/18, Berlin” (Ankerwycke), Gold—currently a senior editor at Moment and co-chair of the Washington Jewish Film Festival—chronicles the trials and tribulations of a five-year effort that, improbably enough, ended in success, thanks in large part to dogged determination and the skills she developed as an investigative journalist and television producer for the BBC.
In the following Failure Interview, Gold discusses her family’s history, how it lost control of the building at Krausenstrasse 17/18 in Berlin, and what it took to get it back.
When and why did you become interested in “claiming your family’s building?”
All during my childhood, my grandmother, Nellie Wolff, regaled me with stories of her glamorous lifestyle before Hitler came to power. It was a life I could only dream of—like a fairytale. She lived in a large house on what was an estate in Wannsee, a suburb of Berlin. She had maids, cooks, a chauffeur-driven Mercedes, and English nannies for her three children, one of whom was my mother. This grand living was funded by the family fur business—one of the largest and most successful in Germany.
But during the Nazi period the family lost all of its wealth. Nellie went from a life of luxury to near poverty but she always dreamt that one day she would recover her former lifestyle. She always said “Dina, when the Berlin Wall comes down, we can claim our building back and be rich.” She died in 1977, so she never lived to see the end of Communism. And she left no documents, no photos, not even the address of the building she had hankered after.
I never thought it would be possible to reclaim the building because it lay just two blocks from Checkpoint Charlie and a mere one block from the Berlin Wall in Communist East Berlin. But when the Wall came down in 1989 Nellie’s stories still haunted me. I wanted to see if her claim—that the family had once owned a huge, valuable building—was true. My mother told me to forget it—that Nellie may well have been mistaken. But to me it was a challenge. And telling me to “forget it” was exactly the wrong approach.
Tell me more about your family’s experience living and working in Germany.
My great-great-grandfather, Heimann Wolff, founded a fur company in 1850 and his son, Victor, took over the business and expanded it into a worldwide enterprise, with representatives spread around the globe in London, New York, Paris, Moscow, and Melbourne.
Victor was so successful that he was able to buy a large plot of land in the central Mitte area of Berlin, the heart of what was the Jewish fashion district. He hired a renowned architect, Friedrich Kristeller, to design his new business headquarters, which was completed in 1910 and featured in Berliner Architekturwelt. In recognition of his status as a prominent entrepreneur, the city awarded Victor the honorary title of Kommerzienrat [distinguished businessman] in 1915.
As for my mother and her two siblings, they lived a pampered existence—almost totally unaware that they were Jewish. Indeed, it was only after 1933 and the rise of Hitler, that my mother, then aged 11, became conscious that she was different from the other girls she went to school with. She had seen her parents dress up once a year and head off to Fasanenstrasse synagogue—probably for Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur services—but the family always celebrated Christmas and Easter in the traditional German manner. The family did not consider celebrating Christmas and Easter as religious event. They were simply doing what all other Germans did. At Easter, the servants would hide chocolate rabbits and eggs around the estate and when a child found one, he or she could eat it. I have black-and-white film footage of my mother and her siblings running around the garden in Wannsee picking up these treats.
I would not, however, go so far as to say that there was no anti-Semitism in Germany before the rise of Nazism. Victor Wolff’s brother in law, Alfons David, had risen through the legal ranks to become a senior judge at the Imperial Court of Justice [the supreme civil and criminal court of Germany], located in Leipzig. He was a tall, aristocratic-looking man, but his professional standing at the pinnacle of German society did not shield him from anti-Semitism. My mother told me that on one occasion, when he was walking past several lawyers, one of them said to the others, “There goes a true Aryan.” Alfons stopped, bowed, and announced, “Gentlemen, I am a Jew.”
What about after Hitler came to power? It’s interesting how the book brings to life how your family experienced Nazi policies that we often hear about in the abstract.
Indeed. Let me begin by telling you what happened to Alfons. In March 1933, shortly before he was forced from office as a Supreme Court Justice, he was quoted as saying “I am deeply mortified that I am to leave office before I reach the mandatory retirement age, under such humiliating circumstances, after I have felt and acted my whole life like a ‘real’ German. Loyalty can be found in every religion and every race. I think statesmen should preserve loyalty like a holy flame, regardless of where they may find it.”
It is to the German legal establishment’s eternal shame that they allowed their fellow professionals to be treated so disgracefully. The American Bar Association has a traveling exhibit about this period of history called Lawyers without Rights and I would urge people to contact the ABA and see if it can be displayed in their town.
As for my mother, early in 1933, suddenly she came face to face with outright anti-Semitism by her classmates at school. At that point she said to her parents “They say I’m a Jew, so I want to know more about being Jewish. I want to go to the synagogue.” And so they took her.
She was only 11 years old but the other little girls at her school had picked up on the prevailing mood. Opening her desk, she would find a copy of Der Stürmer, a Nazi newspaper filled with vicious anti-Semitic cartoons, left there to taunt her. She was made to stand on a chair while the girls danced around her singing, “Wenn das Judenblut vom Messer spritzt, dann geht’s nochmal so gut.” [“When Jewish blood spurts from the knife, then things are twice as good.”]
The teachers were often just as bad. My mother told me how they changed from being perfectly pleasant, normal human beings who, as soon as Hitler came to power, took the swastika badge they’d worn under their lapels and put it on the front. Suddenly they became proud Nazis.
At school, all the children were made to bring in a copy of their family tree [Stammbaum]. If you wanted to join the Hitler Youth movement, you had to be of pure Aryan stock. There was no question of my mother ever joining because the Wolff family tree showed that the family had been Jewish for the previous six generations. But some of my mother’s tormentors faced a devastating surprise. Even though they had aristocratic names and lifestyles, they discovered, to their horror, that they had a Jewish grandparent.
Between the Franco-Prussian war and the First World War, many upper class Prussian families, whose fortune was in land, did very badly, and they were happy to see their sons marry rich Jewish girls with a big dowry, and the girls were delighted to be accepted into the aristocracy. They got the new name with ‘von’ in front of it. Both sides felt they had a bargain. But now these little girls in an exclusive school discovered that they had a Jewish grandmother and suddenly began to lose their friends. There were floods of tears and hysterics.
My grandparents initially thought the Nazi demagoguery and violence of its hoodlums was directed at “those poor Polish Jews” who kept arriving in Germany. Life had been so sweet for the Wolff family for so long that it was hard to consider it ever changing. But when my grandfather’s brother Fritz was arrested, the sinister truth could no longer be ignored. Fritz was an ardent Communist who had married a non-Jewish woman and eschewed my grandparents’ luxurious lifestyle.
On February 27, 1933, less than a month after Hitler took office, a fire destroyed much of the Reichstag, the German parliament. Hitler blamed the fire on Communists and used it as an excuse to pass harsh laws against them and to arrest thousands. Fritz was eventually arrested and taken to what the family referred to as “Festung,” literally “fortress”—the Spandau prison. This was a grim citadel in Berlin where many Communists were held. My grandfather and Fritz’s wife, Charlotte, searched for him for two weeks before they discovered where he was being held.
By now, my grandmother found that many of her Christian friends would no longer visit her home or invite her to theirs, for fear of offending the Nazi elite and causing problems with the Nazis for their husbands or sons. My grandfather grasped the new realities far more quickly than many other Jews. In May 1933, even before his brother Fritz was released from Spandau, he left Germany. His first stop was Switzerland, where he collected funds from his bank account. Although he could have gone to the United States or Great Britain, where he had business connections, my mother says, “he found his Zionist heart” and headed for Palestine. Four months later, his wife and three children joined him.
How did your family lose control over the property?
Since the late 1920s, the property at Krausenstrasse 17/18 had been rented out as office space to many well-known—and mostly Jewish—clothing and textile companies. Starting in April 1933, the Nazis passed laws that barred Jews from the civil service, from the legal and medical professions, and from teaching in schools and universities. They also sponsored boycotts of Jewish businesses, forcing many to close. The Nuremberg Laws of September 1935 stripped Jews of their rights as citizens, and made it increasingly difficult for a Jew to own or operate a business.
The Wolff family had taken out a standard mortgage on Krausenstrasse of RM [Reichsmark] 1.2 million [about $285,000 in 1929 and $3.7 million today]. Despite the harsh business environment for Jews, this mortgage continued to be serviced and, when rental income was insufficient to meet payments, Fritz sold parcels of the Wannsee estate to ensure continuity of funding. Then, in the summer of 1936, the Victoria Insurance Company abruptly demanded payment in full on the balance of the loan. The Wolff family lawyers protested that the quarterly mortgage repayments were being made and would continue. That did not satisfy the Victoria; its lawyers went to court and petitioned for a forced sale of Krausenstrasse 17/18. The Victoria’s lawyers made clear that they were not prepared to give the Wolff family any alternative. They certainly knew, as the Wolff lawyers did, that such payment terms were impossible and the family would be forced to surrender the property.
Court and legal documents chart the process by which the Victoria foreclosed on the property. Despite putting up a spirited case that the family should be allowed to retain the building, it passed out of the Wolff family’s possession and straight to the Reichsbahn [Hitler’s railways] in 1937.
Despite all the evidence that the Wolff building had been a viable concern, the family was left with virtually nothing from its glory days. The Wolff family, like so many others, was a victim of what the Nazis called Entjudung, the removal of Jews from the German economy. The bottom line was the building had been taken from its owners by the Nazis, like countless others, in a legal process that was a travesty of justice.
When you began pursuing your case, what reaction did you get from the building’s occupants?
In December 1990, a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I marched into the building and announced, “I’ve come to claim my family’s building.” The manager was slightly amused by my chutzpah. I was wearing a red duffle coat with a hood and a wool hat, and hardly looked like someone about to claim ownership of a valuable piece of prime real estate, which was by now a government building. “This building is owned by the German railways—what are you talking about?” he replied in a somewhat belligerent-sounding tone.
I pulled out of my coat pocket a copy of a page from a 1920 business directory with the listing “H. Wolff, Berlin W8, Krausenstrasse 17/18.”
“H. Wolff—Herbert Wolff,” I told the man. “He was my grandfather.”
“You’d better come in,” he said. He led me through the security turnstile and down the long corridor that led to the staff canteen, where he asked me to wait while he went to telephone his superiors.
After 20 minutes the manager returned. Immediately, I detected a change. I have spoken to head office, he said. I know now that you are telling the truth. We have been waiting for this to happen. This place has always been known as the ‘Wolff Building’ but no one really knew why. Head office has just informed me that they knew this building was once owned by Jews, but the person I spoke to didn’t know if anyone had survived. Tell me your story.
So I sat and told him what had happened to the family since Hitler came to power in 1933 and when I finished he said something very brave for a long-time East German official: “You must get this building back for your mother.”
Touched by his decency, I confessed I had found none of the official documents we would need to prove ownership. “Oh, the documents exist,” he said. “You have to find them, but they exist.” It was his words of encouragement that led to my embarking on the quest for restitution.
How did your experience as a journalist help or impact your ability to pursue the case?
By the time the Berlin Wall fell, I had been a BBC TV and radio investigative reporter and producer for several years. The skills I had acquired proved invaluable. You cannot do that kind of job if you are a shrinking violet. You need determination, strong nerves, focus and the ability to persevere in the face of obstacles. I enjoy researching, pursuing leads and of course in this particular case it was personal. I was driven by a desire to find out the truth about my family stories.
What made your case different from the typical individual or family that seeks compensation for Nazi-confiscated property?
I realized early on that there was a deadline to register a claim for property and I persuaded my mother to do so. Unfortunately, I am now being contacted by many people who have read my book, and who say they want to claim on property in Germany stolen from their families by the Nazis. But it is too late. The deadline to register a claim passed long ago. That makes me sad. My mother was not keen to look back in life and initially was hesitant to claim or have anything to do with her past in Germany. My being second generation, not born until well after the end of the war, I did not have the emotional baggage that she carried and for me it was a straightforward case of trying to correct an injustice.
This case was also different in the sense that my husband and I did almost all the necessary chasing of proof to stand up a claim. We hired lawyers to frame the case in legal language, but they asked us to dig up all the required evidence—and we were in the fortunate position of being willing, able, and energetic enough to do so. Most people who lost property either have to be rich enough to hire private investigators or have retained all the paperwork and documentary evidence necessary. How many Holocaust survivors fall into one or other of those two categories?
In January 2013, I met Ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat in Washington D.C. He served as Special Representative of the President and Secretary of State on Holocaust-Era Issues during the Clinton administration and had been Special Advisor on Holocaust Issues under Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and reappointed to that role by Secretary John Kerry in December 2013. I told Ambassador Eizenstat about the saga of the claim on Krausenstrasse 17/18 and he said that he had never come across a book about a successful restitution of a building. He suggested that I should write one.
For victims of Nazi aggression, what are—or were—the biggest barriers to obtaining restitution?
There are many hurdles. I can tell you what we had to prove to make a claim in Germany. I am not an international property lawyer and there are different requirements in each European country where property is being sought for restitution. I can only comment on what we had to prove:
First, that the family owned, rather than rented, the building. The way to prove that was to acquire land registry documents charting ownership. In Germany these were obtainable but in other European countries, I fear no pre-war documentation is likely recoverable. In all likelihood, particularly in Eastern Europe, these would have been destroyed during the war.
Second, that the claimants [my mother and her three siblings] were rightful inheritors, so we had to provide relevant wills in order to get an inheritance certificate. Luckily, the renowned German penchant for bureaucracy meant that even my great-grandmother’s will, written in the early 1930s, was still in the Charlottenburg district court archives.
Finally, that the seizure was discriminatory, or “Nazi driven.” This was the most challenging aspect of the case. Our family had had a perfectly standard mortgage on the building, taken out in 1929, and the Victoria Insurance Company had foreclosed in 1937. We had to prove that this action would not have occurred had the National Socialists not come to power.
Are you satisfied with the way things turned out?
Yes. Although it seemed like a long, drawn-out process at the time, it was in fact just over five years from the start of the claim to its resolution. The German government wanted the building for the new Ministry of Transport and offered to buy it from the family.
Are you surprised that there are still new findings and discoveries being made when it comes to stolen property?
No. There is more and more coming out—information that should not have taken 70 years to emerge. It has taken far too long for Holocaust survivors and their heirs to discover the truth of what happened to their assets. We must never forget that the Holocaust, the project of exterminating Europe’s Jews, was a grotesque act of mass murder. The murder was by far the greater crime.