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How a German insurer helped Nazis rob Jews

Tom Barfield · 7 Dec 2015, 16:45

Published: 07 Dec 2015 16:16 GMT+01:00
Updated: 07 Dec 2015 16:45 GMT+01:00

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December 1990 saw the first elections to the Bundestag (German parliament) open to voters from across the newly-reunited country.

Dina Gold was a BBC journalist in Bonn – then still the capital of the Federal Republic – covering the news.

But she took a few days off for a one-of-a-kind personal mission to Berlin, where there was a building with a special link to her family at Krausenstraße 17-18.

Until 1990, there had been no chance of even visiting the building, much less laying claim to it as her lost birthright, as it lay a few hundreds metres inside East Germany and behind the Berlin Wall that divided the city from 1961-1989.

Berlin Krausenstraße 17-18, pictured in 2009. Photo: Beek100/Wikimedia Commons

"I marched in and said I've come to claim my family's building, and initially they all laughed at me," Gold told The Local.

"But then the guy went and phoned the head office in Bonn, and he came back and said they'd been waiting for this to happen."

The 'Wolff building'

Officials working in the former factory during the years of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) had always known it as the "Wolff building", although no-one knew why.

The rear entrance of the Wolff factory at Krausenstr. 17-18 pictured in an issue of Architecture World magazine from 1910. The sign reads "H. Wolff. Manufacture of fine fur goods". Photo: Dina Gold

That day in December 1990 was only the beginning of Gold's quest for reparations for her family, who had fled to British-controlled Palestine in 1933 after they saw the writing on the wall.

All she had by way of proof of her family's claim was a business directory from 1920, listing the factory as the property of one H. Wolff.

Dina Gold's grandfather Herbert Wolff (seated on right) pictured in the uniform of the Imperial German army during the First World War, when he fought on the eastern front. Photo: Dina Gold

The family had no documents left that could prove how the Victoria Insurance company had foreclosed on the building's mortgage in 1937 and taken it out of the Wolff family's hands.

But in typical German fashion, everything Dina would need to prove her claim was exactly where it was supposed to be – even documents that hinted at the shameful past.

An image from a pre-war Wolff clothing company catalogue. Photo: Dina Gold

"We found all the documents in archives. I had nothing, but the Germans do not throw things away," Gold said.

"They charted the horrors they inflicted. There were land registry documents that charted what had happened."

It took a long time to put together everything needed to prove the family's claim, but in 1996 they were awarded 20 million Deutsche Marks - equivalent to around €10 million today.

Gold was happy to have disproved her mother, who had initially told her she was "quite mad", saying she "couldn't take on the German government and win".

But as a child growing up in 1960s London, Gold had eagerly drunk up her grandmother Nellie's stories about the family's past riches – and their claim to the building in Berlin – over coffee opposite Harrods department store.

Dina Gold pictured with her grandmother Nellie outside the British Museum, London. Photo: Dina Gold

She was glad to have fulfilled Nellie's dream and secured the family's victory over the Nazis - but that turned out to have been just the start of a decades-long campaign for justice.

Death of a Jewish industry

What the documents Gold unearthed in the German archives showed was that the Victoria insurance company had been the key agents of her family's dispossession.

Victoria foreclosed on her grandfather's factory building before handing it over to the Reichsbahn – the Nazi railway company – in 1937.

But the Wolff building was just a small part of the Berlin fashion industry, which before the Nazi period was mostly run by German Jews.

"By June-July 1939, the entire area [around Hausvogteiplatz] was basically in the hands of Victoria Insurance, or the banks, or those of the successors who profited from this 'Aryanization'," Uwe Westphal, a journalist and friend of Gold's who has written a history of the expropriations, told The Local.

"Victoria Insurance was acting on behalf of the Interior Ministry. All Jewish properties and businesses got confiscated, and they all had to emigrate."

Decades later, while working as fashion correspondent for Berlin's Tagesspiegel newspaper, Westphal met many of the people who lost their homes and livelihoods during this period - which until then was rarely discussed.

"[My book] was the first time someone wrote about the industry in Berlin – unfortunately, the fashion industry had been ducking the subject for 30 or 40 years," he said.

The Auschwitz connection

It was a sensitive subject because of the eventual fates suffered by people like Gold's great-uncle Fritz Wolff.

He refused to emigrate – even after briefly being interned in Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1938, and despite the family securing papers for him to join them in Palestine, where they had fled in 1933.

"He was a devout communist, he said 'this madness will pass and I'm not leaving'," Gold explained.

"I've got details of the transport he was on, going to Auschwitz in 1943, with his last address in Kreuzberg."

Fritz Wolff, younger brother of Dina Gold's grandfather Herbert, who was sent to Auschwitz in 1943. Photo: Dina Gold

In June 2015, Gold was present for the laying of a Stolperstein – a "stumbling block" memorial plaque on the ground – for her uncle outside his last known address in the capital.

"Some of the locals turned up, people we didn't know, and some of them were openly crying, it was incredible," she recalled.

But the trail to Auschwitz also leads back to the Victoria insurance company.

While researching her own book about her family's story, Gold came across a mention of a consortium of companies who took up the insurance contract for the buildings and plant at Auschwitz – valued at 1,535,100 Reichsmarks by 1942.

Along with Allianz and a slew of other companies, Victoria Insurance had a ten percent stake in the consortium.

The same company which confiscated her family's livelihood in Berlin had insured the building in Nazi-occupied Poland where her great-uncle died.

A whitewash foundation?

And the trail didn't end there.

Gold looked into Dr. Kurt Hamann, the man who had been general manager of Victoria during the Nazi period.

As it turned out, after the war Victoria had endowed a foundation in his name at the University of Mannheim – "to support research in the whole area of insurance economics, especially insurance business operations, insurance law and insurance mathematics".

"I thought, my God, this man has a foundation named after him. I emailed, they said they would launch an immediate investigation and get back to me," Gold said.

Story continues below…

"Two years later, they still hadn't got back to me, so we published."

The appearance of Gold's book about her family's story on shelves in summer 2015 seems to have been the prod the university needed to address its questionable foundation.

"The rector [Professor Ernst-Ludwig von Thadden] did write to me. He said these were evil people and evil times, that he would look into it, that he was shocked," Gold said.

Matters have now come to a head, with the foundation's board set to meet on Tuesday December 8th to decide on the future of Hamann's tainted legacy.

"Victoria, now owned by ERGO, is putting up a spirited fight," Gold said. "They might tough it out. They argue that the [post-war] US military government largely exonerated Hamann.

"He was not a member of the Nazi party – although most of his senior management appear to have been."

She believes that von Thadden, for his part, is keen to put the Hamann headache behind him.

"I can understand he's in a very awkward position – obviously universities want funding, and if they shut down the foundation they'll lose the money," Gold said.

"We're not sure what will happen tomorrow," Mannheim University spokeswoman Katja Bär told The Local on Monday.

Even if the board, composed of three professors including von Thadden and two representatives from ERGO, can come to the required unanimous decision, they might not be able to rename the foundation even if they wanted to, she explained.

"Under the law governing foundations, the founder's instructions are paramount," Bär said.

The university has suggested doing further research into Hamann's life to see whether he really did bear personal responsibility for the expropriation of Jewish business owners as chairman of the Victoria Insurance company.

But with funds short, ERGO would have to pay for the study itself if it agrees.

When contacted by The Local, ERGO pointed out that Hamann was allowed to remain chairman of Victoria after 1945.

He was recommended to the US Office of Military Government (OMGUS) by his Jewish predecessor as chairman, Emil Herzfelder, as "politically reliable and outstanding in [his] field" and remained at the head of Victoria until 1968.

But Gold's opinion is clear.

"As chairman, Hamann was ultimately responsible for whatever the company did," she argues.

This article was updated with information provided by ERGO about Kurt Hamann on December 7th 2015.

For more news from Germany, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

Tom Barfield (tom.barfield@thelocal.com)

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