04 October 2015

Legacy Reclaimed: A Review of Dina Gold's "Stolen Legacy: Nazi Theft and the Quest for Justice at Krausenstrasse 17/18, Berlin"

by Ori Z. Soltes

By now many books have appeared, focused on the voracious and systematic manner in which the Nazis despoiled their—particularly Jewish—victims of cultural property. Given the inherent aesthetic appeal (or in some cases, the inherent revulsion-producing affect) of works of art, such narratives not only capture the reader with relative ease even if they are barely well written, but they can lend themselves to cinematic representation, in both documentary and sometimes Hollywood-ized format. To name the most obvious of these: The Rape of Europa, The Monuments Men—the first a documentary (partly based on the seminal book penned by Linn Nicholas which bears that name) and the second a necessary (in making the public aware of something important of which it had been previously unaware) but horrifying rape of an essential story—and The Woman in Gold, which ended up in both formats on the silver screen.

Buildings? Blocks of stone and steel punctuated by glass rectangles? The story had better have some drama besides the shape of the doorways and contours of the windows and the writer had better have a good sense of how to convey that drama. So along comes Dina Gold’s Stolen Legacy, opening up the plunder and restitution discussion to a hefty chunk of real estate, and the book manages to do just that: keep one’s interest because there are many interesting elements to the story and because they are so effectively conveyed. This begins with the fact that a building, unlike a painting or drawing or even a sculpture, is not likely to be moved from one location to another, and the building in question ended up on the other side of the Iron Curtain, in East Berlin, just a stone’s throw from Checkpoint Charlie, waiting for that curtain to be torn down and for some family member to have the stamina and the skill to go toe-to-toe with the Germans to get the building back.

Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin, Germany

Location in this case helps underscore the intrigue, and the author is adept at drawing the reader into the layers and levels of that intrigue. There are, however, four primary elements to this narrative beyond place that make it either interesting or important or both. First, the intrepid family member who battled the post-Communist German forces of reluctance and the author of the account of that battle are one and the same, so the story is a first-person memoir of the extraordinary effort required to succeed with this large (literally) restitution project. Within that memoir, second, is interwoven an intimate family history and thus a slice-of-life account of one among the hundreds of thousands of Jewish families decimated by the Nazis. In this case the family that had been exceedingly well off by the time the Nazis rolled in, had developed its wealth through the two-generation expenditure of cleverness and hard work of Heimann Wolff (1830-1913), the founder and his son, Victor (1858-1928), who internationalized the business—even managing to stave off the collapse endured by so many others as the Economic Depression hit at the end of the 1920s—only to have it all legally stolen through the manipulative forces contrived by the Nazi machine and its willing associates. (Victor had, mercifully, died before things began to churn slowly into the abyss).

The building at the center of he claim
Third, in order to make the nature of those forces extremely clear, Gold offers a very effective depiction of the larger context in which the events that swallowed significant chunks of the family and virtually all of its material assets were transpiring. Too often, students of this era, including those focused on the deprivation of cultural and other property by the Nazis, forget how masterfully insidious the Nazis were: how on the one hand their methods of deprivation—from rights of citizenship to rights to this or that sort of property to rights to live—were gradual enough and, at least early on, so often accompanied by falsely benign expression (not on the part of Hitler, mind you, but on the part of many of his minions), that the victims could not imagine that they were being victimized, or at least not imagine the endgame intention of that victimization.

On the other hand, the insidiousness was defined by rarely doing anything illegally (for the laws were constantly be adjusted in accordance with Nazi needs). Thus the ease with which so many Jews could be and were deceived regarding—could debate and deny—their intended ultimate fate is easy to forget through the rearview mirror of time. Gold's depiction of the gentle pace at which her family was deprived of everything is an essential part of her narrative. Nazism’s rise and development and swallowing up of the German consciousness and conscience, in broad terms and with regard to the specific effect of this on the Wolff family is laid out carefully and crisply.

There is in fact—this is part of the emotional drama that drives the story forward—a dynamic and poignant fleshiness within this insidious historical carapace where the Wolff family is concerned. One brother (Hermann, 1890-1974, Victor’s older son and the author’s grandfather) presciently and rather abruptly moves his family to Palestine before the full force of the storm hit in the aftermath of Hitler’s 1933 appointment as German Chancellor, but loses all his wealth in the Holy Land in a swindle achieved by fellow Jews, his marriage ultimately collapsing without the financial glue to hold it together. The other brother (Fritz, 1891-1943, the author’s uncle) stubbornly remains in Germany, the country that he loves so passionately and that his brother had served in the previous war, ultimately to be spat out by the Fatherland into the trash bin of Auschwitz and murdered there by Germany’s determined exterminationist technology.

Then—fourthly—of course, there is the account of how the author eventually came to take on the German state to retrieve the building built by her great-grandfather to house what was the most important fur business in Europe back in 1910—and ultimately succeeded. It was (and still is) in fact, a magnificent structure, both with regard to sheer size and with respect to the fine architectural detail imposed upon it by its highly regarded architect, Friedrich Kristeller. Indeed the building was featured in an article in the April, 1910 issue of the magazine, Berlin Architectural World. The fact that, a century later, it bore on its front facade, over the door, the reminder of who had commissioned the building, and that it was still commonly enough referred to as the Wolff Building adds a stunning curlicue to the historical narrative—of her family, of Berlin architecture, of the story of the Jews of Berlin, and the story of the Jews of Germany and Europe in general.

The building’s post-Wolff ownership narrative is overrun with wonderful ironies, such as the fact that when it was forced into sale (as opposed to merely being confiscated), its intended use was to house part of the army of architects and their associates commanded by Hitler’s own star architect, Albert Speer, so he would have sufficient lebensraum in which to redesign the Fuehrer's new Berlin. Specifically, it would house (and ultimately remained in these same hands until Gold came along sixty years later) pass into the hands of the German railroad transport authority’s building authority (Reichsbahnbaudirektion) that, under Speer’s leadership, was redesigning and expanding the city’s new stations and railroad lines. That is: this is the same institution whose trains so famously ran on schedule to destinations like Sachsenhausen and Auschwitz with their doomed human freight (including members of the author’s family) was now, in a later 1990s iteration, lodged in and in possession of the edifice when Dina Gold came knocking on the door to ask for the building back.

Or the fact that the Victoria Insurance Company that pressured the family into disposing of the building in 1936 at a forced-sale fraction of its value had been distinctly philosemitic—its CEO in 1932-5 was in fact a Jew, Emil Herzfelder—before the rise of Nazism. It became connected to the Nazis through its CEO, Kurt Hamann (1898-1981), an important member of the Party, as the politics of Germany metamorphosed. The VIC was one of the major insurers of the buildings on the grounds of the Auschwitz extermination camp! The company still flourishes, in offices in Duesseldorff, its wartime record effectively buried. Hamann lived on for decades after the war—and was (as of this writing, still is) honored by Germany’s important Mannheim University with research grants in the field of insurance science established in 1979 in his name as well as a Kurt Hamann prize for outstanding dissertation and diploma theses.

Dina Gold as a young woman and her grandmother
In the midst of and the aftermath of the bureaucratic struggle that followed in the decade and more after Ms. Gold first showed up at the Wolff building and announced her intention of seeing it restituted to her family, further complexities presented themselves, such as the questions deriving from the wills of the family members from the generation of the building's creation forward—complicated further by the range of interest and location (Israel, England/the United States) of the potential heirs. Adding further significance to the narrative is the account of the author's dogged quest to find out precisely what had been the fate of her uncle Fritz: was he indeed destroyed at Auschwitz and precisely when? The ostensively main story with its ultimate victory with regard to the building forms, in the long run, a backdrop to the more personal story of the endless effort to bring the family history to resolution.

In the end, there is no absolute resolution to this last quest, although the author comes as close as anyone can. There are, it turns out, more details still surfacing and more developments still taking shape as the book’s last pages are turned. Like the larger story of the Holocaust, there are yet other epilogues even after one thinks that the book is closed. This volume opens a whole chapter in the story of plunder and restitution, as a subset of the story of the Holocaust that is likely to offer significant further pages in the years to come.