“Wir wollen raus!” (“We want out!”)
As East Berliners streamed toward the bright lights of West Berlin, childhood memories flooded back to my grandmother Nellie and the stories she had told. She was long dead, but I vividly recalled trips to art galleries and museums in London with her—usually ending our day in a patisserie opposite Harrods department store. Over coffee and cream cakes, she reminisced about her glamorous life in prewar Berlin, telling me, “When the Wall comes down, and we get back our building in Berlin, we’ll be rich.”
The building she longed to reclaim had been the commercial headquarters of the H. Wolff fur company, founded by my great-great-grandfather Heimann Wolff in 1850. By the early 1900s, it had become one of the largest fur companies in Germany. As a child, my mother was allowed to bounce up and down on the piles of pelts stored in the basement. “You can jump on the rabbit, but you mustn’t jump on the ermine and you mustn’t jump on the mink!” her father warned.
My mother’s childhood had been opulent. The family had lived in a grand villa, at Conradstrasse 1, in the upscale Berlin suburb of Wannsee. Their home was a 10-minute walk from the mansion where, in January 1942, Nazi bureaucrats had held what is now known as the “Wannsee Conference” to coordinate plans for the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.”
In summer 1933, not long after Hitler came to power, Nellie fled with her husband, Herbert Wolff, and three children—my mother being the eldest—to the British Mandate of Palestine. From a life of luxury in prewar Berlin to near penury thereafter, she never gave up hope of one day reclaiming “the building” and being able to live in comfort again. In 1936, aged 14, my mother had been sent alone to high school in England. When war broke out, needing a roof over her head, she became a nurse and worked through the Blitz, the German bombing in 1940 and 1941. Later she went to university, got married, had two children and made a new life for herself.
The stunning events of 1989 captivated the world. Who would have thought the Soviet grip on Eastern Europe would collapse so fast? Nellie died in 1977, leaving no documents, photos or even an address of the building she had longed for. I asked my mother what she knew. “Forget it,” she’d say. A firm believer in living in the here and now, she had no time for Nellie’s stories—which she viewed as mere fairy tales.
But who was I to “forget” my family history? Had Nellie been a fantasist, or did the building really exist? Was Nellie right saying it had belonged to the family and had the Nazis stolen it? I needed to find out.
It helped that I was a BBC investigative journalist. Finding information was second nature. I talked about it with my husband, Simon, a foreign correspondent with the Financial Times, and we both agreed as journalists, this was a great story.
As luck would have it, in 1990 I was assigned to a small BBC team covering the first post-reunification German elections. A young German researcher was hired to help. Within days, he found a 1920s equivalent of the Yellow Pages with an entry for the H. Wolff fur company and an address—Krausenstrasse 17/18, Berlin.
In early December 1990, I was in Bonn for the BBC’s live broadcast of the election. Following Helmut Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union party’s win, I took a few days leave and flew to Berlin.
After a night in a small hotel, I hailed a cab and gave the address to the driver. Two blocks beyond Checkpoint Charlie, the former main crossing point between the American and Soviet sectors, we stopped in front of a huge building with the German flag fluttering in the wind. Large plaques on the wall declared it was the Berlin office of the Federal Ministry of Transport. It was six stories high and stretched back to Schützenstrasse, the parallel street behind it. Despite its grubby exterior, it was impressive with its distinctive architectural design, including delicate little carvings around the archway at the back.
It was starting to snow, but my red duffel coat and black woolly hat kept me warm. I marched in and asked to speak to whoever was in charge. A senior manager was summoned and asked me what I wanted. “I’ve come to claim my family’s building,” I declared. The man laughed at me! But then I showed him the page from the business directory with the entry “H. Wolff,” who, I explained, was my great-great grandfather. He told me to come inside and wait while he phoned the head office in Bonn.
Twenty minutes later, he returned a changed man. An official at the Transport Ministry in Bonn had told him it was known the building at Krausenstrasse 17/18 had once belonged to Jews, but no one knew if anyone had survived the war. Those who worked there still called it the “Wolff Building” but claimed they didn’t know why. So I told him my story. When I finished, he said: “You must get this building back for your mother; you must.” I then confessed to him that I had no documents to prove ownership, but he replied: “Oh, these documents exist. You have to find them, but they exist.” It was the impetus I needed to get started.
And that’s how my six-year legal fight for restitution began. I worked on many stories during my career at the BBC, but this one was personal. The way I saw it, this was my heritage. I was about to make some startling discoveries.
I was fortunate that my husband supported me wholeheartedly in my quest; the rest of my family was far from enthusiastic. My father asked who I thought I was to think I could take on the German government and win.
We had some lucky breaks. Most significant was that the building survived the war intact. Many in central Berlin were flattened by Allied bombing or so badly damaged they had to be knocked down. (The next-door neighbor, Krausenstrasse 16, had taken a direct hit and, in December 1990, was a mere pile of rubble. Today it is a parking lot.)
There were three key legal issues in mounting a claim for restitution:
Had the building been owned by the Wolff family—as Nellie had always claimed—or had it been rented? Secondly, was the building, in legal terms, forcibly sold during the Nazi era? Thirdly, was my mother an inheritor?
I found a 1910 edition of a German architectural magazine with photos and an article about how, in 1908 my great grandfather Victor Wolff (Nellie’s father-in-law) bought land in central Berlin, in the heart of the once-thriving Jewish fashion district, and built the new headquarters of the H. Wolff fur business.
There were plenty of adventures in the course of digging up evidence. One of the most exciting was speeding across East Berlin in a taxi to track down a young lawyer living in a dirty tenement block who, acting on behalf of a New York property developer interested in bidding for the building, had a copy of the land registry document charting ownership of Krausenstrasse 17/18. In those days, ordinary members of the public could not access records in the Grundbuch (Land Registry)—only lawyers could. Spotting a chance to make some easy money, he demanded $200 to part with the precious notarized papers. Simon handed him the cash and we made a swift exit from his apartment. The money had bought us decisive evidence. We were elated. Nellie had been right.
The documents revealed that the Wolff family had indeed owned the property and that in 1937 the Victoria Insurance Co., claiming incorrectly that mortgage payments weren’t being made, foreclosed on the mortgage and handed the building straight to the Reichsbahn (German Railways) without putting it up for auction to the highest bidder. This was all too common and yet perfectly legal given Nazi anti-Semitic laws. That this was blatant persecution became crystal clear when I discovered that the owners of Krausenstrasse 19/20 (immediately next door) had received over 40 percent more per square meter after defaulting on their mortgage. These people had been Prussians—not Jews.
In November 1948, the Communist Soviet authorities had put an addendum to the Land Registry document stating unequivocally that the building had been taken from Jews and should not be sold until its ownership was clarified. Indeed, in 1948, the Soviet occupation government actually classified the Victoria insurance company as “Nazi and war-criminals” (Nazi und Kriegsverbrecher). From the end of the 1940s until 1990, this had been the headquarters of the East German Railways.
The British National Archives held a 1944 War Office booklet, marked “Confidential” and entitled “Who’s Who in Nazi Germany,” listing the Victoria’s chairman, Kurt Hamann, as one of the key personalities in Hitler’s regime.
The political gymnastics of Hamann were extraordinary. Under his leadership, the Victoria had deprived the Wolff family of the building so that the Reichsbahn could have it for a particular reason. Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, was redesigning central Berlin, and the Railways needed somewhere to house the architects enacting his plans to make Berlin the Führer’s grand capital. Other parts of the Reichsbahn later transported millions of Jews to the death camps.
I discovered much more about Hamann and the Victoria Insurance Company. During the Nazi era, the Victoria had been complicit in Nazi crimes, foreclosing on multiple Jewish-owned properties across Berlin. Even worse, it was part of a consortium insuring SS-owned slave labor workshops at Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Stutthof concentration camps. The Victoria omits any mention of such unsavory details from its published histories. Hamann continued as chairman of the company until 1968, and, we discovered, in 1953, he was awarded West Germany’s highest civilian honor—the Federal Cross of Merit.
Hamann was such a respectable figure that, in 1979, the Victoria established a foundation in his name at the University of Mannheim in southern Germany. The Victoria is now a wholly owned subsidiary of the ERGO Insurance Group, itself owned by Munich Re, one of the world’s premier reinsurers.
Proving whether my mother was a legal inheritor meant finding birth, marriage and death certificates and, crucially, wills. The German reputation for punctilious record keeping proved correct. Although it took time and effort, all the necessary documents could be found in various local courts, proving, yet again, that Nellie had been right all along. She was a named inheritor, as was my mother in her own right.
In 1996, the German government conceded that the 1937 so-called “sale” would not have occurred had the Nazis not come to power. Legally, it was ours again. By then, it housed the new German Ministry of Transport, and the government wanted to retain ownership. My mother and her siblings accepted payment of the full market value, $14 million.
After reading “Stolen Legacy” and learning of my discoveries, Mannheim University President Ernst-Ludwig von Thadden told me in June 2016 that he was considering shutting down the foundation. That hasn’t happened, yet. But in February this year, he informed me he had commissioned an historian—at a cost of $21,000—to investigate Hamann’s life. That report, due in August, will inform the university’s decision on the future of the foundation.
Today the building is home to the German Ministry of Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety. Last July I achieved a long-held ambition—to have a plaque affixed to the front entrance. The back archway to the building on Schützenstrasse is still adorned with the original carvings, dating to 1910.
edition published November 2016