The ProsenPeople

Interview: Dina Gold

Tuesday, March 22, 2016 | Permalink

with Maron L. Waxman

Amid its account of the legal battle to recover ownership—or at least the recognition of ownership—of the building at Krausenstrasse 17/18 in Berlin, Dina Gold’s Stolen Legacy is the story of her maternal grandparents’ wealthy and largely secular Jewish family, ousted from Germany and scattered to Israel and Great Britain.

Maron L. Waxman: You write that although your grandmother often said that when the Berlin Wall came down you would all be rich, it seemed like a fantasy to the family. Did anyone believe her?

Dina Gold: I believed her, but I was the only one in the family who did. My mother told me in no uncertain terms to ignore my grandmother’s tales because Nellie had always been a fantasist and she had, sadly, become mentally quite unstable in her later years. When I decided to look into whether or not the family really had owned the building, my mother strongly urged me not to waste my time and energy: as far as she was concerned, the past was the past and should remain that way and one should not look back. I disagreed.

MLW: What made your grandfather decide to emigrate to Palestine?

DG: To my mother it was always something of a mystery. She would say that after Hitler came to power, suddenly her father “found his Zionist heart.” He wanted to be with other Jews. Maybe he was affected by the way my mother was treated at her school, where she was the only Jewish child. Her classmates, mostly the daughters of German army officers, started to pick on her. On opening her desk, she would find a copy of Der Stürmer, the Nazi newspaper filled with vicious anti-Semitic cartoons, left there to taunt her; the little girls would put her on a chair and dance 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”). Shortly after the February 1933 Reichstag fire, the Gestapo raided Herbert’s house, looking for his Communist younger brother, Fritz. They finally caught him and incarcerated him in Spandau prison. Herbert saw the way things were going and left Germany. His wife and three children followed a few months later.

MLW: When you started looking into the case, you were an investigative journalist working for the BBC. Did that influence you to look into your grandmother’s story?

DG: Being a BBC journalist helped. I certainly wasn’t frightened at the prospect of taking on the German government. I had experience of investigative journalist techniques, knew how to conduct research, and was not easily put off. I tried to be as unemotional as possible because getting upset at what I discovered in the process was not going to help. The key point was that I knew from the start that I would have to prove the case, make it a legally watertight claim. Gathering all that evidence was a challenge and took several years to complete.

MLW: When you first visited Berlin, you had virtually no documents whatsoever. How did you even start your investigation?

DG: On my first trip to Berlin, in December 1990, all I had was a copy of a page from a 1920 business directory with an advertisement for H. Wolff, nothing more to link me to the property. I marched in and asked to speak to the most senior person on the premises, and when he arrived in reception, I announced, “I’ve come to claim my family’s building!” To say that he was surprised is an understatement. You could say it was pure chutzpah, and you’d be right. But bluff is often what investigative reporters have to do—and it proved useful. After phoning head office in Bonn, this man told me that his superiors had confessed to him that they knew the building had once been owned by Jews but they did not know if anyone had survived. After I told this man my story, he said something which greatly surprised me: “You must get this building back for your mother.” He was an East Berliner with a keen sense of history, and he was extremely interested in my family story. He confided in me that the people who worked there, forty five years after the end of the war, still referred to it as “the Wolff building” but claimed they didn’t know why.

MLW: How did you manage with all the German documents and lawyers?

DG: My mother and father both spoke German. It was their secret language when they didn’t want me and my brother to know what they were talking about. Of course, I picked up a little, but my mother could translate the documents for me and the lawyers acting for my mother were bilingual.

MLW: What effect has the book had?

DG: I’ve been part of the JBC Network for the past year and have been invited to speak at a number of venues. I’m often asked by people for advice on getting restitution for their long-lost family property. This is a very live issue, and so many families are still trying to get back their stolen property. I’m mindful that the Holocaust was an immense act of murder and nothing can compare with it. But it was also the largest theft in history, which hasn’t been resolved, by any means. I did my little bit, but there’s so much more still to be done.

MLW: How has this experience affected you?

DG: I don’t regret for an instant doing it. I’m now fighting to have a plaque put on the front of the building at Krausenstrasse 17/18 to attest that it was stolen from Jews. Three years ago I was promised such a plaque, but to date nothing has happened. When I first sat down to write the book, I did it so that my three children would know their heritage—having it published was a bonus. I wish other families had been so successful in their petitions, but I hope that my example will give them the courage to pursue their cases as vigorously as I pursued my mother’s.

Maron L. Waxman is a retired editorial director of special projects at the American Museum of Natural History, was also an editorial director at HarperCollins and Book-of-the-Month Club. She also leads editorial workshops.

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Passing the Buck, Berlin Style

Wednesday, October 14, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Dina Gold chronicled a difficult encounter at her first author event for Stolen Legacy: Nazi Theft and the Quest for Justice at Krausenstrasse 17/18, Berlin, a personal account of her restitution claim on a building built and owned by her great grandfather. She will be blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

Inertia is a wonderful thing if you are a bureaucrat—and perhaps especially so if you are a German one responsible for a building once expropriated by the Nazis from Jewish owners.

Two years ago, then German Minister of Transport, Dr. Peter Ramsauer, asked one of his civil servants to write to me promising that he would arrange for a plaque to be affixed to the wall of a building once owned by my family.

“(Minister Dr. Peter Ramsauer) asked me to respond to your question. We are awake to the history of our office building at Krausenstrasse 17 – 20,” he wrote. “The historic events connected with construction and utilization of the building have been imparted by us to all our visitors… I do support your concern, to document the historical background outside for all visitors and pedestrians by a plaque fixed on the building. Especially, the remembrance to the expropriation of the Jewish owner Victor Wolff should be brought attention for the general public. Therefore, I’ll arrange for the plaque to be produced and affixed to office building. I hope I could satisfy your reasonable demand.”[sic]

Victor Wolff was my great-grandfather. The magnificent building, which in 2013 was part of the Ministry of Transport, had been the Wolff family fur business headquarters. They had lost possession in 1937 when the mortgage was foreclosed upon and the property handed directly to the Reichsbahn. In 1996 the German government restituted the building to my mother and her siblings and promptly bought it back off them, this time at the fair market price. A plaque commemorating the building’s history seemed a small token of recognition for what the family had been through. And Dr. Ramsauer appeared to agree.

But, despite the promise, nothing happened.

In June 2014, after asking what progress had been made, I had another email, this time from a different civil servant, with the paltry excuse that the reason for the delay was that “responsibilities for the office building Krausenstrasse 17 – 18 changed. The new owner is the Bundesanstalt für Immobilienaufgaben (Federal Authority for Real Property Administration), Fasanenstrasse 87, 10623 Berlin. So the new owner has to decide the matter. Hopefully they support your reasonable demand so we did and the plaque will be placed on the building as soon as possible,” she cheerfully added.

Still no action followed. So I wrote again asking for an update. In August 2014 I received a response from a third civil servant, saying he was aware of my request, and that“the Institute for Federal Real Estate (Bundesanstalt für Immobilienaufgaben) - are responsible for the management of that building since July 2014. We will review your request and inform you as soon as we have new information available.”

In order for justice to be done, it must be seen done. So what is this endless prevarication? Why am I still waiting?

Dina Gold is a former BBC investigative journalist and television producer. She is on the board of the DC JCC and currently serves as co-chair of the Washington Jewish Film Festival. She is a senior editor at Moment magazine.

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Don't Rain on My Parade

Monday, October 12, 2015 | Permalink

Dina Gold is the author of Stolen Legacy: Nazi Theft and the Quest for Justice at Krausenstrasse 17/18, Berlin, a personal account of her restitution claim on a building built and owned by her great grandfather. She will be blogging here all week as a Visiting Scribe for The ProsenPeople.

“Will the law that applied in your family’s case for restitution in former East Berlin equally apply to the Palestinians, whose homes have been stolen by Israel?”

The opening question at my very first book presentation to a packed out, standing room only, event hosted by Washington DC’s premier bookstore was so brazen, so angry, so out of place. I was at an author event talking about my new book, in which I describe tracking down a building stolen by the Nazis from my family in 1937 Berlin and how I launched a bid to reclaim it after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. And now I was in an ambush.

I paused. How to assuage the searing fury? I am not a legal expert. I am a journalist. I wrote about my experiences and my family history. I am in no position to make statements on international property law.

But the questioner was having none of it. As other members of the audience lined up behind her at the microphone, all wanting to ask me a question, she came back at me. Standing her ground, she launched into a veritable tirade of pronouncements, revealing more about herself than she realized. This was all about her. She was staking her claim as a seeker of justice and she wanted attention. She was a heroine in her own eyes, and she sought accolades for her bravery. And her whole demeanor suggested she saw me as her enemy.

At the time it was not an appropriate moment to engage in this discussion, but I have my own private thoughts about the issue this woman raised: What about exiled Cuban-Americans, and their descendants, whose properties were stolen by the Communists after Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959? These lost assets amount to a reported $100 billion at today’s values, none of which have been restituted. How about the more than 800,000 Jews from Arab countries who hail from all over the Middle East and North Africa—including Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco—who had lived in these lands for over 2,500 years and yet left in fear of their lives or were kicked out? No compensation or restitution for them, either. And while we are at it, what about the failure to sort out property claims of those refugees who lost everything from places as far afield as Cyprus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Iraq and South Africa? Or the Uighers who have had their properties confiscated by the Chinese? And the refugees fleeing Syria today who are leaving everything behind? I could go on and on. So many people, so much property, such injustice around the globe—what will happen to all these people’s assets?

But there are plenty outstanding legal minds more qualified than I to discuss restitution claims and cases. If someone is genuinely concerned about the property rights of Palestinians, rather than grandstanding at a book event, why not address their questions to an appropriately qualified person? I can guarantee that someone trained in international law will be far more erudite on the subject than an author targeted on the subject simply because they are Jewish.

Dina Gold is a former BBC investigative journalist and television producer. She is on the board of the DC JCC and currently serves as co-chair of the Washington Jewish Film Festival. She is a senior editor at Moment magazine.

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