Why Read Abandoned in Berlin? – A Message from Hilda.
This unique novel tells the story of my family who were upper middle class, living in the Wilmersdorf District of Berlin before the war. They had everything taken away from them by 1936 under the direction of a Nazi Guardianship Court who supposedly controlled the well-being of my mother who was a teenager at the time. Since her father had died and her mother could not be legally trusted to look after her, the Court was in charge of her welfare. Several years previously she had inherited a significant portion of the family property under German inheritance rules, and I believe the Nazis were intent on taking ownership of the building.
This is the story of how my family lost their livelihood to the Nazis, as revealed to me from materials I found in my garage and legal and real estate documents provided by the German authorities. It describes what happened to my family afterwards, both during the war and subsequently when the fighting was over.
As I hear of new experiences from World War II and Hitler’s treatment of the Jews, I find it hard to believe that one man could have done so much harm. My story illustrates how the German government, even after the war, treated Jews unfairly, and it’s important to “never forget”.
(This is apartment block I found June 2016, that suffered little damage during WW II)
TOPIC 1 FOR ABANDONED IN BERLIN: WAS JUSTICE SERVED?
You will reach your own conclusions as you read the book. However, evidence collected indicates that the Nazi Guardianship Court, from late 1933 to 1936, increasingly controlled the financing of the apartments under the disguise of taking care of an under-age (less than 21year-old) daughter. By late 1935 a conspiracy appears to have existed where new loans would not be approved, the original mortgage was recalled by the lender and a Nazi-sympathizer was found as a potential purchaser.
The German system of justice aligned quickly with Nazi goals after Hitler assumed power, following the March 1933 elections. During April 1933, Hitler passed one of his earliest anti-Semitic laws, purging Jewish and Socialist judges, lawyers and other court officers from their profession.
Restitution of the family’s property was considered using new West German laws passed in the early 1950s, when the courts treated any exchange of property that occurred for a reasonable price and where the seller had access to the funds, as having been legitimate.
But if you think beyond the facts that are described in Abandoned in Berlin, and are willing to consider alternative scenarios, a different explanation might emerge? You are invited to debate the alternative story speculated in the attached.
DISCUSSION POINTS FOR TOPIC I OF ABANDONED IN BERLIN
- What caused Hilda’s grandmother to mortgage the property for 90,000 RM in November 1933 when the apartments provided regular income and most units were occupied? The apartments were valued at 150,000 RM and were not subject to significant loans. The value exempt from the mortgage was similar to Hilda's mother's ownership, worth 56,250 RM. For what was the mortgage needed? Did the remaining value amount represent Hilda's mother's piece of the property?
- The loan coincided with her eldest daughter marrying; were the mortgage proceeds needed as a dowry? Suggestions are the future-son-in-law intended to establish a book-selling business. This was concurrent with the student book-burning campaign that began during May 1933, and a few months later, documents indicate 5 of the 6 shops on the ground floor of the property were operating, but the one that had closed was the bookstore.
- It can reasonably be assumed that the transaction prompted the authorities to place Ellen under the protection of a Guardianship Court on December 4, 1933. She owned three-eighths of the property following the death of her father and her mother legally was not allowed to act as her guardian. She was aged 15. Thereafter, any financial matter affecting the property needed Guardianship Court approval.
- Guardianship documents suggest that by late 1934 the property required essential maintenance and some of the apartments had to be remodeled so that they could be rented to single people instead of families. Jewish families were leaving Germany. There were insufficient funds for these changes, the Court disliked the idea of more mortgages and talks begin to sell the property. The son-in-law took charge of these negotiations, despite his mother-in-law's preference to hold on to the property. By year-end 1935, she changed her min, and when the life insurance company called in the loan and the Guardianship Court declined to approve a new mortgage the sale became unavoidable. How the Court’s action served the interests of its charge at the time is difficult to understand.
- It seems the son-in-law found a potential buyer and took charge of the sale negotiations in early 1936. A price of 214,000 RM was approved by the Court and a sales agreement reached that set the price at 208,000 RM because of the condition of the apartments. (The price appears reasonable price compared to the 150,000 RM valuation given 30 months earlier.) Indications are the sale was voluntary because the family was unable to repay the 90,000 RM mortgage.
- Strange things then happened involving the purchase transaction. The buyer took over the 90,000 RM loan and separately disbursed 78,000 RM to the family. However he deducts past property taxes that he says he has to pay and goes to court to successfully demand repayment of 27,000 RM because of the condition of the property. Simultaneously, a similar amount appears to be assessed as owing to the authorities because of inheritance taxes. The exact amount the family receives is unclear, as is their financial situation, although notably they are allowed to remain living in the property until they move to Austria in late 1937. At this point, it appears that Hilda’s mother has lost her inheritance.
- The one source of funds remaining available to the family is the 40,000 RM payment from the purchaser, deferred for 5 years (until April 1941). Why such an arrangement was agreed if the family was planning to emigrate is undocumented. However, early in 1937 the son-in-law sells the promissory note to a private bank. What happens to the money afterwards is unknown.
- The 1950s Restitution Court shows little sympathy towards the family and concludes that the property was mismanaged, that the sale was legitimate, the purchase price was reasonable based on conditions in 1936 and the purchaser released the necessary funds. It declined to accept that a conspiracy existed to cheat the family out of their business that was caused by National Socialism.
- Hilda’s mother, in her deposition to the Holocaust Museum, makes only brief mention of the property (that she was “cheated out of ownership”). Few further details are provided and she makes no mention of the restitution claim that she and her sister pursued in West Germany during the early 1950s.
- Neither family had access to financial resources after the war, and no member was prepared to travel to Berlin to appear in the Restitution Courts in person. The Courts concluded that the the loss of property was caused by National Socialism by the family's mismanagement.
- What are your interpretations of what happened?
TOPIC 2 FOR ABANDONED IN BERLIN: DISCOVERING AND REMEMBERING YOUR ANCESTRY
It was never supposed to be written, but as the story unfolded it became important to record what happened for future reference. It might appear like a memoir but it is a biography of Hilda’s mother from her Berlin birth in 1918 to arriving in San Francisco from Shanghai 29 years later. Losing her Berlin home and escaping to Vienna during late 1937, and then onwards to Shanghai in early 1941, saved her life.
What follows are experiences from our research and why we believe it was important to narrate what we discovered and not to adorn the characters with personalities and behaviors that we did not know about. Hilda and I apologize if the book could have been more exciting but we think it’s important to remember what really happened and be certain that it never happens again.
Our experiences may give encouragement to others who might be considering researching their past and may also keep alive the memories of those terrible deeds committed by the Nazis against the Jewish people.
DISCUSSION POINTS FOR TOPIC 2 OF ABANDONED IN BERLIN
- Among the 400 pages of restitution materials from the Landesarchiv Berlin (Berlin State Archives) that ended our research during 2018 was a 1954 booklet written by Siegmund Weltlinger titled “Hest Du es schon vergessen?” (“Have you already forgotten?”). He was the founding member and first Jewish President of the Society for Christian Jewish Cooperation in Berlin 1949-1970. His call to never forget determined that Abandoned in Berlin should be written.
- The research began with the efforts of Frau Frey at the Amstericht Charlottenburg who diligently investigated the office’s land registry files to confirm ownership of Guntzelstrasse 44 (on the corner of Holsteinischestrasse 19) with Hilda’s family from 1919 to May 1936. On November 23, 1933, it was recorded that, after the death of the family patriarch, the property was inherited as follows:
- One quarter to his wife
- Three eighths to his eldest daughter, now married
- Three eighths to Hilda’s mother, then aged 15.
- The value of the plot was given as 150,000 Reichmarks (approx. US$60,000 in 1933)
- That’s when our research stumbled across its first significant obstacle. We wanted to obtain financial records and discover more details about the purchaser, Captain A.D. Mr. Hugo von Bonin. No further information could be found and the Amstericht claimed it did not keep financial statements. In response, on November 14, 2016, we visited the Consulate of the Federal Republic of Germany in San Francisco to present our problem. Its representative was sympathetic and assured us that the Amstericht did hold financial records, for at least the past 100 years.
- Frau Frey once more confirmed her original response and referred us to the Bundesverbank deutscher to see if they could help us. Web research discovered nothing additional about the von Bonin family, and so began the most difficult part of our investigation - to find out how the property was lost and what happened to any purchase payments. We had fulfilled the purpose of our original research - to discover the ownership details of Guntzelstrasse 44 - now we wanted to know what happened to the sales funds.
- Other German and Holocaust organizations were contacted, including with the Federal Office for Central Services and Unresolved Property Issues. We were told that banking records had been lost because of the war and monies deposited during the 1930s would have either suffered from serious devaluation or might have been confiscated.
- The breakthrough came in July 2017 when the Federal Office notified us that they had found a letter from June 1953 indicating that a claim for reimbursement involving Guntzelstrasse 44 had taken place between the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization (JRSO) and Hugo von Bonin. It recommended that we contact the Landesarchiv Berlin (the Berlin State Archives). A month later the Landesarchiv announced it had located a file containing details of a legal claim for reimbursement and would transcribe and send us a copy of the materials. Eventually, in early February 2018, over 400 pages of German text arrived for translation and analysis. As we continued our investigations we were disappointed to learn that new property claims in West Berlin had been banned after 1958, and despite what we discovered, there would be no legal recourse for compensation.
- Additionally, we researched the JRSO; apparently Hilda’s family property lay in the British sector of West Berlin but the US Jewish Restitution Successor Organization had acted on behalf of the British Jewish Trust Corporation in Berlin. It appeared its files were sent to the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem after its work was concluded. The university could not locate anything related to this particular claim but referred us to the German State Agency for Civil and Regulatory Affairs (LABO) where it said details of compensation paid to Hilda’s mother would be available. The Dusseldorf office referred us to the Berlin office which, after receiving evidence of who we were, confirmed the details of monthly payments and lump sum awards paid to Hilda’s mother beginning January 1960, but none related to Hilda’s her part-ownership in Guntzelstrasse 44.
- Assuming files had been retained by the JRSO there was a chance that a copy of these documents had been sent to the Harvard Law Library and had become part of its digitalization of the US Court of Restitution Appeal Reports from West Germany. Contact was made but nothing was traced.
- At the same time, Hilda discovered a box of correspondence in her garage that contained letters between the two sisters written during the 1950s when the restitution claim was active. These materials, that exchanged opinions on what was taking place, plus the mass of documents from the Landesarchiv Berlin, became the basis for our last segment of research and completion of Abandoned in Berlin.
- There were other steps we could have taken but we decided against these because we concluded they would not alter the results of our research. Included were:
- Contacting Onnasch Baubetreuung GmbH & Co, the firm that took ownership of Gunzelstrasse 44 in the early 1990s
- Continuing to try and contact the von Bonin family
- Pursuing Friedrich Wilhelm, the Life Insurance Company that called in its loan during early 1936, precipitating the sale
- Seeking the original Guardianship Court records to see exactly what they said and to find out who attended the Court hearings during the prewar years, and to assess the accuracy of the legal depositions made by the defendant during the restitution hearings
- At the end of the day, we were satisfied with our discoveries. With a smile, Hilda returned to managing her rental properties, wondering if this was an occupation she had inherited, and the author completed Abandoned in Berlin!!
TOPIC 3 FOR ABANDONED IN BERLIN: LIFE IN SHANGHAI
Although not part of Abandoned in Berlin, the reader may be curious to know what happened to Hilda’s parents after they arrived in Shanghai during early 1941. Discussion material is provided below that gives a sense of their life in Shanghai before sailing to freedom and San Francisco in the summer of 1947. These extracts are based on Hilda’s mother’s account of life in the city, provided by her during a January 1995 interview retained by the Holocaust Museum.
Abandoned in Berlin Topic 3
DISCUSSION POINTS FOR TOPIC 3 OF ABANDONED IN BERLIN
- Arriving in Shanghai during March 1941, we lived very nicely in a boarding house in the French Quarter. We brought money with us and planned to move to the United States through the Dominican Republic. It was a noisy city with lots of screaming and shouting, but my husband and I were young and could adapt to this new environment. Then Pearl Harbor happened on December 7, 1941.
- Soon we were moved by the Japanese with other Jews to live in the Ghetto where 4 or 5 people occupied a single room. Fortunately the Jewish Committee found us a small room for ourselves but without a toilet. We did our best to exist and the Red Cross provided a daily hot lunch which we always accepted. Mosquitoes and bugs ate us daily but we stayed in good health.
- At first we peddled eggs. A Chinese farmer provided these until he changed his mind and withheld future supplies. Then my husband worked for a Russian Jew in a bakery making Kaiser rolls (a crusty, round bread roll from Vienna).
- There was frequent fighting in the Ghetto; people lost their manners and behaved like animals; it was very unpleasant and we were often hungry; we had no money; our friends were other German refugees. We brought with us a cookery book and would often flip through its pages imagining that we were eating what we were looking at. For some reason, my husband loaned the book and it was never returned.
- There was a regular curfew that everyone had to comply with. We attended a Russian wedding and needed to be home on time. There was a nasty little Japanese soldier who would stand on a chair and hit people who he considered had done something wrong, including ignoring the curfew.
- By August 1945, the war with Japan was coming to an end and we would scream with delight as we heard B 59’s overhead dropping bombs. No one seemed concerned that there was no air raid shelter. We were ecstatic and no longer afraid of Japanese soldiers.
- Until President Truman allowed us to travel to San Francisco during summer 1947, I found work in the PX (commissary/military retail store), thanks to speaking some English. Regularly, I brought home chocolate. My husband made bread and sold it house-to-house.
- And thus we became Americans and enjoyed a very happy life until death-do-us-part.