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Jewish German Fashion Industry Flourished, Then Perished Under Nazi Rule

By Dina Gold


Attracting customers to its branches in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany, the Wertheim department stores were among the many Jewish-owned businesses flourishing for decades before the rise of the Third Reich. A souvenir book commemorating the 1927 opening of its renovated Leipziger Platz location depicted palatial interiors, enhanced with fountains, mosaics, paintings, murals and sculptures. Photo credit: John Graves Collection, Alexandria, Virginia.
It was the golden age of German fashion, created by Jewish designers and business owners and centered in the city of Berlin. But within a decade, as the Nazis came to power and implemented their platform of extreme anti-Semitism, it was gone. And, today, it is little remembered.

“It’s an absolute disgrace how today’s German fashion industry has cloaked itself in willful collective amnesia about the incalculable debt they owe their Jewish predecessors,” says Uwe Westphal, a Berlin-based journalist and author who has spent 30 years researching and writing about the Nazi destruction of the Jewish contribution to Germany’s once flourishing fashion industry.

Westphal, who is not Jewish, wants the world to know that hundreds of Jewish fashion entrepreneurs flourished in the Mitte district of central Berlin prior to World War II, influencing clothing styles far beyond the borders of Germany until they were snuffed out within a decade.

As a one-time fashion reporter for Der Tagesspiegel newspaper, Westphal has researched archives in Germany, Poland, Israel, Australia, the United States and United Kingdom, and corresponded with and interviewed sources across the globe, including Jewish designers and former business owners.

He has now published his findings in both German and English in “Fashion Metropolis Berlin 1836-1939: The Story of the Rise and Destruction of the Jewish Fashion Industry.” 
From the mid 1830s many Jewish tailors living in Galicia, in western Ukraine, and Poznan, a city in western Poland, escaped local pogroms by moving to Berlin, which had just eased restrictions on Jewish businesses. At that time, clothes were traditionally made to fit just one person, but that was about to change. Four men in particular — Valentin Manheimer, Herrmann Gerson, Rudolph Hertzog and David Leib Levin — were the first to grasp the significance of mass-producing and retailing clothing to standard sizes, and thus ready-to-wear (in German Konfektion and in French prêt-à-porter), was born — invented by Jewish Berliners.

By the middle of the 19th century, some 100 Jewish clothing firms existed around Hausvogteiplatz (literally: Square of the Governor’s Residence) in central Berlin’s Mitte district. The area soon attracted many more companies, as the location was well connected to transport, thereby enabling export all over Europe. By the 1890s the square had grown into a thriving hub for ready-made clothing manufacturers, furs, fabric and accessory suppliers. Jews dominated the industry, owning 371, or 85% of all women’s fashion businesses, reaping the rewards of soaring exports of “Berlin chic” and basking in worldwide prestige.

Berlin: A Magnet for Glamour

At the turn of the 20th century, the large, Jewish-owned department stores of Tietz, Nathan Israel, and Wertheim were established, adding to the luster of Berlin as a magnet for worshippers of sophistication and glamour. Fashion, mainly in coats and dresses, was one of the largest industries in Berlin, offering jobs to 90,000 tailors and seamstresses, many of whom worked from home.

After World War I, the “Roaring 20s” witnessed the emergence of young, modern designers whose fresh approach to design was shown off in stylish fashion magazines such as “Die Dame,” “Elegante Welt,” “Der Bazar,” “Der Silberspiegel” and “Die Neue Linie,” which together sold hundreds of thousands of copies. The Weimar Republic (1919-1933) ushered in liberal democracy throughout Germany — as depicted in Christopher Isherwood’s novel “Goodbye to Berlin.” The city reveled in its newfound freedoms. Jewish designers introduced the “reform” movement in clothing — gone were the figure-constricting corsets and in came emancipation for women with flapper dresses and raunchy, androgynous styles as worn by film stars like Marlene Dietrich. Berlin was the capital of cabaret, revue, theater, film, and home of the Bauhaus architectural movement.


Pictures from the Claus Jahnke Collection in Uwe Westphal’s “Fashion Metropolis Berlin” evidence the revolution in ready-to-wear that occurred in Germany after World War I. For its 1928 summer line, the Nathan Israel department store advertised chic apparel produced in a wide variety of materials, inspired by the latest Paris styles. Journalist Franz Hessel observed: “The spirit of fashion had become less dramatic, more democratic and therefore more elegant.” Photo credit: Roz McNulty,
The talented designer Lissy Edler worked for the firm Loeb & Levy, based in Krausenstrasse, a few blocks from Hausvogteiplatz. Her beautiful drawings of dresses and shoes were published widely.

A near neighbor on Krausenstrasse was the H. Wolff fur company, founded in 1850 in Pomerania, an area on the southern Baltic Sea shore split between Germany and Poland. Initially trading in rabbit furs used in collars, sleeves and hats, the company became one of the largest fur fashion businesses in Germany.

Modernity, emancipation of women and homosexuality were all detested by the Nazis. Very quickly, the fashion industry fell under the scrutiny of those who scorned such individualism; nationalistic agitators wanted what they called “Aryan fashion.”

“It’s no surprise that the Nazis focused their attention on the fashion industry, and very soon after they came to power they embarked on a program of expropriation,” explains Westphal. “With 2,700 Berlin-based Jewish fashion companies, the fashion trade was, besides Paris, the largest exporter in Europe. These companies also occupied prime central Berlin real estate.”


“Fashion Metropolis Berlin” includes rare behind-the-scenes photos of the models, cutters, seamstresses and salesmen employed at Leopold Seligmann Company, another retail concern that controlled all aspects of design and fabrication, from procurement of materials to the manufacture and sale of the finished goods. Part of its operations moved to England in 1934, some years before Seligmann established a new business in Albuquerque, New Mexico, specializing in Western wear. Photo credit: “© Uwe Westphal”
Decades to Build, Six Years to Destroy

It took Hitler’s Third Reich a mere six years to destroy an industry that had not only enjoyed a stellar global reputation for style and innovation but had also been one of the largest profit centers in the German economy. The Reich accomplished this through the early enactment of anti-Semitic laws, the “Aryanization” program, the ruthless state-organized expropriation of Jewish companies and their properties, and the way banks and insurance companies willingly collaborated with the National Socialist authorities to strip Jews of their assets.

The building at Krausenstrasse 17/18, which had once housed the H. Wolff fur company, was foreclosed on by the Victoria Insurance company and sold below its market value to the Deutsche Reichsbahn (German Railways). (The writer of this article is the great-great-granddaughter of founder Heimann Wolff and contributed a chapter to Westphal’s book.)

The firm of Leopold Seligmann had been one of the largest clothing manufacturers, located at Hausvogteiplatz in the late 1920s. Under Hermann Göring, the Nazi Ministry of Economic Affairs systematically expropriated the buildings at Hausvogteiplatz and the surrounding streets, turning them into Nazi party offices.

From May 1933 ADEFA — the Association of Aryan Garment Producers — played a major role, especially after 1936 when membership of this organization became obligatory for all textile processing businesses. ADEFA created its own label, denoting that garments were made by “racially pure” Aryan workers.

During this period 2,000 Jewish Berlin fashion companies were handed over to Nazi party members or loyalists. Thousands of sewing machines seized from once Jewish-owned manufacturing firms were sent east where they were put to use in the forced labor factories established in ghettos and concentration camps, including Lodz, Sachsenhausen, Dachau, Stutthof, Lublin, Lemberg, Buchenwald and even Auschwitz. Looted fabrics from across Europe, especially from Paris, were sent to these workshops, which made not only German army uniforms but also high-end fashion items for the wives and girlfriends of Nazi leaders and SS members.


A rayon and cotton day dress made in Germany, c. 1940, in the Claus Jahnke Collection. Its ADEFA label indicates that the maker belonged to the Association of Aryan Garment Producers, a trade group established in 1933 to exclude Jews. Photo credit: Tanya Goehring, Photographer;
Collective Amnesia

“How many people today are aware,” asks Westphal, “that Hugo Boss, C&A and Joseph Neckerman — all household names” used profits from producing Nazi uniforms to “establish industrial scale production lines using forced laborers under quite dreadful working conditions? Do they realize that when those workers fell ill and could no longer work, they were inevitably deported to the death camps?”   

A few former Berlin fashion entrepreneurs who fled abroad did manage to pick up again in their adopted countries. Norbert Jutschenka, who left Berlin in 1938, set himself up on New York’s Seventh Avenue, Americanized his name to Norbert Jay and became a highly sought-after and celebrated dress manufacturer. Perhaps the most uplifting story is that of the firm Leopold Seligmann, whose owners emigrated to Albuquerque, New Mexico, changed the family name to Sullivan and launched a company called Pioneer Wear — making cowboy and Western style outfits. The Marlboro Man advertisements of the 1950s, featuring a rugged-looking man sporting a cowboy hat and sheepskin lined jacket, used clothing made by Pioneer Wear.

“At war’s end in 1945 the injustice continued,” Westphal says. Jews who had escaped were often denied access to records they needed to pursue restitution or compensation, and it was hardly possible to launch legal claims in what was then East Germany. Those who profited from the wholesale confiscation of Jewish companies under the Nazis simply ignored the legacy of their predecessors in the industry.

Today, a handful of public memorials recognize this tragic history.

The steps at Hausvogteiplatz subway station now bear the names of the long-gone Jewish-owned companies that once graced the square.  

In 1994, Westphal, his publisher and the Berlin Jewish community established a memorial on Hausvogteiplatz in honor of those who once worked there. It consists of three large mirrors, 8 feet, 2 inches high, reminding one of a clothing shop. Inside the installation are three tablets at the base of each mirror, with text describing the fates of the square’s personnel engaged in the clothing companies, tailors’ shops and fashion houses.


In the Westphal book, Dina Gold documents the history of her family’s business, H. Wolff A.G., internationally known for fur and fur-trimmed coats and accessories. The photo of the ensemble seen above was among the many designs featured in a special advertising catalogue,
c. 1910. Wolff’s opulently appointed six-story Krausenstrasse headquarters contained offices, storage and sales rooms, as well as workshops where the coats were made. Photo credit: © Dina Gold, Washington, D.C.
In 2016 a plaque was affixed at the front entrance to the former H. Wolff headquarters at Krausenstrasse 17/18 stating that this was the site of one of Berlin’s oldest fashion firms and that, during the Nazi era, ownership was forcibly transferred to the German railways. Today the building is part of the Federal Ministry of the Interior, Building and Homeland.

In October 2018, a plaque was placed on the wall at Wallstrasse 16, a building seized by the Nazis in 1938 and used during the Third Reich to produce a million Judensterne (Jewish yellow stars) and swastika flags.

It was not until November 2018 that two memorial columns were placed in front of the building that was once the Herrmann Gerson fashion store and which now houses the Federal Foreign Office.

The Fashion Council Germany has not responded to a request for comment on the industry’s failure to recognize the Jewish contribution to Germany’s fashion history.

The Holocaust is widely taught in German schools and universities. There are museums and institutes where academics and researchers devote their lives to its study. And yet, an integral part of the story is the pivotal influence of Jews in the fashion industry, and how the Third Reich destroyed that legacy. That aspect has largely been overlooked. Perhaps, with the publication of “Fashion Metropolis Berlin 1836-1939,” that will now change.  

Dina Gold is the author of “Stolen Legacy: Nazi Theft and the Quest for Justice at Krausenstrasse 17/18, Berlin” published by the American Bar Association.



B’nai B’rith Active in Reparations Cause

By Cheryl Kempler

From the beginnings of negotiations in 1952 between West Germany and a consortium of international Jewish agencies over reparations, B’nai B’rith, a founding member of what is now known as the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference), has continued to play a major role in obtaining support for Jews who endured World War II persecution.

During the first year, presidents Frank Goldman and, later on, Philip M. Klutznick were members of the Claims Conference Presidium, involved in forging agreements to provide direct compensation to victims and to procure funds to build and restore Jewish communities in Western Europe, the United States and Israel, all of the places where Holocaust survivors had relocated.

As Daniel S. Mariaschin, B’nai B’rith International CEO and present-day Claims Conference board member, noted in a 2014 article, B’nai B’rith’s magazine published several features about the role played by Goldman in fulfilling “a basic principle of justice.” Later, in 1954 in Washington, D.C., Goldman was among the delegation that urged Austrian Chancellor Julius Raab to settle claims with those whose assets had been taken by his government.  

Benjamin Ferencz, noted war crimes investigator, attorney and B’nai B’rith member, advocated for survivors throughout his career. In 1966, he successfully prosecuted Rheinmetall, a Nazi arms maker that denied enslaving men, women and children in its factories. His 1979 book “Less Than Slaves” credited B’nai B’rith for its determination to shine the light on the case with the media and government leaders. Ultimately, Rheinmetall paid 2.5 million Deutsche Marks (the equivalent of $1.426 million in today’s dollars) to 1,500 claimants.

In May 1973, B’nai B’rith called on East Germany, then applying for admission to the United Nations, to do the right thing. Its International Council was included in State Department consultations with that country’s government, while presidents David M. Blumberg and William A. Wexler continued to fight for survivors as Claims Conference board members. At the same time, individual lodges around the world met the basic needs of former camp inmates in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and Romania.

In 1992, B’nai B’rith helped found the World Jewish Restitution Organization to help forge agreements with countries no longer under Soviet control. Later in the decade, B’nai B’rith launched an organization that assisted researchers of Nazi-looted art.