The ProsenPeople

Max Wisen’s Tailor Shop

Friday, March 11, 2016 | Permalink

Christoph Kreutzmüller is the author of Final Sale in Berlin: The Destruction of Jewish Commercial Activity 1930-1945, a history of the German foreclosure of Jewish businesses before and during the Third Reich. Christoph is blogging this week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

Through lucky circumstances some would call fate I got in contact with a man named Ben. In the desperate situation after the pogrom, his parents send him and his brother out of Germany. In the moving book Ten Marks and a Train Ticket: Benno’s Escape to Freedom Ben’s daughters tell their father’s story of crossing the Dutch border illegally with his older brother in January 1939. The brothers were then lucky to be taken care of by the Jewish Refugee Committee and send to England. They never saw their beloved family again. Ben’s parents, Max and Golda Wisen, and their youngest son, Charlie, stayed behind.

Like many other Jews, Max had set up a tailor business in the house where the family lived in Fehrbelliner Strasse, north of the city centre and Alexander Square. In a family photo taken in 1936 or 1937 (pictured above), one can see that the Wisen’s also offered mending and dry cleaning. Ben remembers how he loved to watch his father working “with a tape measure around his neck and a pin in his mouth.”

Of course, I wanted to help and find out more. Checking the Berlin directory from the time period, I could at least ascertain that Max Wisen first established his business in 1929 in a cellar of a house in Kreuzberg. In 1933 he is listed as a custom tailor right in the middle of the Scheunenviertel, where many Jews from Eastern Europe lived. In the same year he and his business seem to have moved to Fehrbelliner Strasse, listed in this street in the directory for 1934. But then the traces ran dry. Ben’s father’s shop had not been registered in the commercial register, which forms the backbone of the Database of Jewish Businesses in Berlin. A company had to have considerable turnover and substantial capital to be looked at as full merchant to be registered in the commercial register; Wisen’s business was just too small for a registration, like thousands of others: statistically, there were 250,000 businesses in Berlin, but only 50,000 of them were in the commercial register. Still, we have to stick to the registries file, since all other documents related to commercial enterprises were destroyed in the war. Alas, there is no way to trace little businesses back.

A request to the archive of the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen ellucidated that Max was forced to work as a slave labourer for a factory in Berlin, and perished in 1940. In 1943, Golda and Charlie tried to escape deportation, but—according to a note I found coincidentally in the police files in the State Archive of Berlin in Landesarchiv—they were reported to the police by neighbours. Both were murdered the day they arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau, on March 13, 1943.

Christoph Kreutzmüller is curator at the Jewish Museum of Berlin. His exhibition Final Sale: The End of Jewish-Owned Businesses in Nazi-Berlin has been shown in the Leo Baeck Insitute, New York, Hebrew University in Jerusalem and at Boston University.

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Adding Dimension to the Online Database of Jewish Businesses in Berlin

Thursday, March 10, 2016 | Permalink

Christoph Kreutzmüller is the author of Final Sale in Berlin: The Destruction of Jewish Commercial Activity 1930-1945, a history of the German foreclosure of Jewish businesses before and during the Third Reich. Christoph is blogging this week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.


Since 2005, I have been studying how the German National Socialist regime systematically destroyed and looted businesses owned by Jews in Berlin, as well as the ways that Jews responded to this persecution. This research was not just to analyze the Jewish owned businesses, but also to document them. After all, the families involved have a right, and German society has a responsibility, to know exactly where they were and what happened to them. This is why a database of Jewish businesses in Berlin was set up and made available to Berlin archives as well as Yad Vashem and the Leo Baeck Institute, New York.

Among the enquiries I have received was one by Christina Craig, whose grandfather had run a stationary wholesale business S. Hilsenrath in the Neue Grünstrasse 40 in Berlin—a street I pass every day on my way to work in the Jewish Museum.

The online version of my database states only the address and that the possession (not property) was transferred to a non-Jew in 1937. The unabridged database allows a deeper look: Sigmund Hilsenrath started a limited company in 1923. During the Great Depression it seemingly ran into dire straits and was stroked off the register in March 2, 1933. However, in summer of 1935—in the midst of antisemitic turbulence leading up to the Nuremberg laws—he set up a new company under the name Szulem Hilsenrath. This company was officially transferred to a certain Oscar Winther in February 1937. That the company was Jewish according to the standards applied in my research was ascertained from the fact that it appeared as a member of the Association of Jewish Mid-tiers in September 1936.

Christina filled in many gaps to the business’ history and told me that her grandfather was born in 1895 in Kolomyja in Galicia. Like so many others, he was driven away from his home by pogroms and came to Berlin after the First World War. In the German capital, he first worked for a printer but set up his own company in Germany’s period of hyper-inflation. A year later he married Frieda, whose family ran another paper company, which was incorporated into S. Hilsenrath Ltd. in 1924. In 1932 Hilsenrath had to declare bankruptcy, and in October 1938 he was deported to the Polish border together with 17,500 other Polish Jews. Christina’s grandfather managed to return to Kolomyja, but was murdered while trying to escape a camp on June 5, 1943.

As the company was in what was to become East Berlin after the war, restitution only started in 1991. The files of this ongoing process still rest with the German restitution authority and are not yet public. The State Archive in Berlin (the Landesarchiv Berlin), however, holds the commercial register file of the second company Hilsenrath set up. According to this file, the company was initially run by Szulem (who called himself Sigmund) and his cousin Max. Applying for registration, the Hilsenraths told the commercial registry court in June 1935 that they had a considerable turnover and employed five people. Both had Polish passports, but an “unlimited permit of residence.” While the court did approve of the registration as such, it did not agree to the proposed company name, S. Hilsenrath; the Berlin registry court was in fact marking Jewish businesses long before this ever became official policy by forcing Jews using their original Polish or their religious names. After two months, Sigmund finally agreed to use “Szulem” in the company’s name. By that time Max had emigrated to Brazil, and Szulem/Sigmund thus became the sole owner of the business.

In October 1936 Hilsenrath sold the company to Winther, a Danish businessman living in Berlin. This transaction was only registered five months later. Winther bought the business for 15,200 RM, a very low price considering the companies turnover. The low price, in turn, most certainly did not provide the seller with enough funds to emigrate. He was deported almost exactly two years later.

Christoph Kreutzmüller is curator at the Jewish Museum of Berlin. His exhibition Final Sale: The End of Jewish-Owned Businesses in Nazi-Berlin has been shown in the Leo Baeck Insitute, New York, Hebrew University in Jerusalem and at Boston University.

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