Stolen Lega­cy: Nazi Theft and the Quest for Jus­tice at Krausen­strasse 17/18 Berlin

By – May 19, 2015

This metic­u­lous­ly researched and pow­er­ful­ly pre­sent­ed sto­ry exam­ines how a promi­nent Berlin com­mer­cial build­ing was tak­en from its Jew­ish own­ers, the Wolff fam­i­ly. The build­ing, which housed the family’s high­ly suc­cess­ful fur busi­ness, was a notable struc­ture from 1910 onward. In 1937, Nazi efforts led to a forced sale of the build­ing, after which it became head­quar­ters for the Ger­man rail­way sys­tem. The Sovi­et Union’s vic­to­ry over Nazi Ger­many in 1945 com­pli­cat­ed legal mat­ters regard­ing own­er­ship sta­tus, and even after Germany’s reuni­fi­ca­tion the sta­tus of such prop­er­ties was mired in red tape.

Gold’s orig­i­nal text puts most of the pieces togeth­er. It also tells sev­er­al sto­ries at once. One is the back­ground his­to­ry of Jew­ish life in Nazi Ger­many; anoth­er is the engag­ing yet chill­ing fam­i­ly his­to­ry; and yet anoth­er is the sto­ry of the author’s valiant inves­tiga­tive enter­prise that had the ulti­mate goal of unearthing the truth and push­ing for a just res­o­lu­tion of this par­tic­u­lar and yet pow­er­ful­ly sym­bol­ic Nazi crime.

The new infor­ma­tion height­ens the third sto­ry and elab­o­rates on the first two, pay­ing par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to impor­tant pieces of pre­vi­ous­ly unfin­ished busi­ness. Far more detailed infor­ma­tion about the role of the Vic­to­ria Insur­ance Com­pa­ny is put into play. Did the com­pa­ny have oth­er than ordi­nary busi­ness motives in fore­clos­ing on the fam­i­ly for fail­ure to meet its oblig­a­tions? The answer is unearthed because of Gold’s abil­i­ty to tap pre­vi­ous­ly unavail­able archives. These include not only the Victoria’s own records, but also sub­stan­tial sources of infor­ma­tion about two influ­en­tial employ­ees: Dr. Kurt Hamann and his pre­de­ces­sor, Dr. Emil Herzfelder. Fol­low­ing Jew­ish Herzfelder into the lead­er­ship of Vic­to­ria, Hamann was con­sid­ered a leader of Nazi Ger­many. He and Herzfelder man­aged to manip­u­late deci­sions that ben­e­fit­ted both of them at the expense of Victoria’s Jew­ish customers.

Curi­ous­ly, Hamann — whose name uncan­ni­ly echoes that of the Purim sto­ry vil­lain — was hon­ored in 1979 by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mannheim with an endow­ment in his name that fund­ed prizes for out­stand­ing dis­ser­ta­tions. Once Dina Gold uncov­ered and report­ed the true nature of Hamann’s ear­li­er Third Reich career, she chal­lenged the uni­ver­si­ty to change its mind about hold­ing him up as a role model.

Her recent research also sheds pen­e­trat­ing light on the mys­te­ri­ous Fritz Wolff, the author’s great-uncle who renounced Judaism and had a com­plex rela­tion­ship with oth­er mem­bers of the Wolff fam­i­ly. Dina Gold man­aged to have a memo­r­i­al stone set in a pub­lic place that rec­og­nizes his birth, impris­on­ment, depor­ta­tion, and even­tu­al mur­der in Auschwitz.

Beyond its unique focus and deter­mined exca­va­tion of facts and under­stand­ings of this Nazi crime, the updat­ed ver­sion of Stolen Lega­cy illus­trates the chang­ing nature of research in the com­put­er age. Ever-expand­ing elec­tron­ic data­bas­es allow skilled inves­ti­ga­tors access to mate­ri­als that would nev­er oth­er­wise be dis­cov­ered or accessed.

The chain of dis­cov­er­ies seems end­less; absolute clo­sure seems an illu­sion. Nonethe­less, this book is a grand exam­ple of dogged inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism. Gold is nev­er sat­is­fied, and she nev­er backs off.

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Dina Gold

  • This book focus­es on three strong female char­ac­ters. Grand­moth­er, moth­er and daugh­ter. Which do you think is the strongest? Nel­lie, who left Ger­many with her chil­dren? Annemarie/​Aviva who grew up far away from her fam­i­ly? Or the author who reclaimed her fam­i­ly’s stolen property?

  • Many Holo­caust sur­vivors do not want to talk about the past and what they went through. Dina Gold writes that her moth­er also felt that way. Was the author’s moth­er right to tell her to for­get about reclaim­ing the build­ing? Why did she say this and why do you think the author chose to ignore her and pur­sue the case?

  • In the book’s fore­word, Ambas­sador Stu­art E. Eizen­stat writes there are sev­er­al impor­tant lessons we dis­cov­er from this impres­sive book” and he lists three of them. What oth­er lessons can be learned?

  • Fritz Wolff felt more Ger­man than Jew­ish. He was incar­cer­at­ed in Span­dau prison in 1933 and Sach­sen­hausen con­cen­tra­tion camp in 1938. Yet on May 31, 1939 Fritz sent a let­ter to his broth­er Her­bert in which he wrote I main­tain that this whole quar­rel is a love quar­rel between nations … If there is ever any ques­tion about which nation I belong to, the only answer is Ger­many.” Can you imag­ine what made him think this way after all he had been through? Can you empathize with him for not leav­ing Ger­many when he had the chance?

  • Dr. Kurt Hamann, chair­man of the Vic­to­ria Insur­ance Com­pa­ny, which fore­closed on the Jew­ish-owned build­ing at Krausen­strasse 17/18, has a Foun­da­tion named in his hon­or. What do you think the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mannheim and ERGO insur­ance should do about the Foun­da­tion? (Does this echo with cur­rent events on cam­pus­es which are remov­ing stat­ues and names of con­tro­ver­sial his­tor­i­cal fig­ures e.g. Woodrow Wil­son and Cecil Rhodes?)

  • There are annu­al Holo­caust remem­brance ser­vices. These focus on the indus­tri­al scale mur­der of the Jews dur­ing the Third Reich. But how well known is the sto­ry of the grand theft of Jew­ish prop­er­ty? And should it, too, be remem­bered? If so, how?

  • The book’s title is Stolen Lega­cy.” Apart from the build­ing, what else was stolen from the Wolff family?

  • Is Stolen Lega­cy pure­ly a Jew­ish sto­ry or does it have greater universality?

  • Ambas­sador Stu­art E. Eizen­stat writes about how Euro­pean coun­tries ben­e­fit­ted from seized Jew­ish prop­er­ty. Have these coun­tries been suf­fi­cient­ly trans­par­ent and active in deter­min­ing what should be done to rec­ti­fy this injus­tice? When should the strug­gle for com­pen­sa­tion end?

  • To date, the build­ing at Krausen­strasse 17/18 that was seized by the Nazis has no plaque rec­og­niz­ing its for­mer Jew­ish own­er­ship. The author has been cam­paign­ing for one to be placed there. Should one be affixed to the wall of the build­ing, even though com­pen­sa­tion has been given?

  • This is the first book about the suc­cess­ful resti­tu­tion of a build­ing (as opposed to art­works). Why do you think this is the case?