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On September 30, 2015, historian Christoph Kreutzmueller presented the new English translation of his study on the destruction of Jewish commercial life in Berlin and formally donated a remarkable database of Jewish businesses to Leo Baeck Institute.
Since 2005, I have been studying how the National Socialist regime systematically destroyed and looted businesses owned by Jews in Berlin, as well as the ways that Jews responded to this persecution. Despite the enormous concentration of “Jewish businesses” in Berlin, no comprehensive study on the topic existed before my team and I published our study in 2012. In particular, the small- and medium-sized companies that formed the backbone of Jewish commercial life had been neglected in the research.
Perhaps one reason for this is the sheer magnitude of Jewish commercial activity in Berlin—tens of thousands of Jews in Berlin ran businesses of various types, and no handbook of Jewish businesses like those for Frankfurt and Breslau was ever created for Berlin by the Nazis. The sources for our research were widely scattered (some are said to rest as far away as Tiblisi, Georgia) and challenging to interpret. One potential source, restitution files, was off limits, since many cases are still ongoing in the former East Berlin. There are also structural reasons for the lack of sources; small and mid-sized businesses rarely retained records any longer than required for tax purposes.
In order to get a handle on the available source material, we decided to combine information from disparate sources into a database that would allow us to compare a few key data points about Jewish-owned businesses in Berlin. Detailed information about most Jewish businesses might have been lost forever, but identifying the names, industries, and dates of establishment, transfer, or liquidation for a significant number of businesses would allow us to draw important conclusions.
Our approach was based on the premise that all Jewish businesses underwent considerable changes as a result of persecution after 1933. Sooner or later they changed name, legal form, owners, shareholders, or managers, or they went into liquidation. If the companies were listed in the city’s Commercial Register, these changes were relatively well-documented in one of the German state gazettes, the Deutscher Reichsanzeiger and Preußischer Staatsanzeiger. This first step of collecting all businesses that had changes in the commercial register resulted in a large list that included all the Jewish businesses, but some non-Jewish businesses as well.
The next step was to identify those businesses that were persecuted as Jewish using other sources, such as lists created by the Nazi Gauwirtschaftsberater (party functionaries who were putatively economic “advisors” but played a major role in the expropriation of Jewish business owners), the commercial tax offices, and the Dresdner Bank, all deeply involved in the transfer of Jewish business assets into “Aryan” ownership. Nazi newspapers—Der Angriff and especially Der Stürmer—were also full of details about which businesses were subject to persecution. After Der Stürmer opened a Berlin office in the summer of 1935, it compiled lists of Jewish businesses and regularly disparaged them. Jewish organizations and publications were also an important resource. We examined the membership lists of the Association of Self-Employed Craftsmen of the Jewish Faith, the Reich Association of Medium-Sized Jewish Businesses, and the Directory of the Independent Order of B’nai B’rith, which listed the members’ professions and gave detailed information about the companies of businesspersons. We also gleaned information from advertisements in Jewish newspapers, which became increasingly numerous after 1933. In ambiguous cases, the Jewish Directory for Greater Berlin proved to be a great help.
Apart from contemporary historical sources, some more recent scholarship, such as studies on Jewish life in Berlin’s various districts, provided valuable information. Uwe Westphal’s study of dressmaking in Berlin led to the identification of 1,422 Jewish businesses, while Henning Medert’s research on Jewish participants in the Berlin Stock Exchange led to 826 hits. Berlin’s Memorial Book of Jewish Victims of National Socialism was also a useful aid for learning the fates of Jewish business owners.
Today the database includes more than 8,000 Jewish businesses, 3,604 of which were identified on the strength of more than one source. In some cases identification was verified by up to nine separate sources. My cautious estimate is that the database now includes two-thirds of the businesses listed in the commercial register and persecuted as Jewish after 1933.
The database helped us put together the exhibition Final Sale. The End of Jewish-owned Businesses in Nazi Berlin, which was shown in the Leo Baeck Institute in 2010 and will be presented in Stockton College, New Jersey, in November 2015. Moreover, analysis of the identified companies forms the backbone of my 2012 study, which was published this year in English translation as Final Sale in Berlin: The Destruction of Jewish Commercial Activity, 1930–1945 by Berghahn Books.
The goal of my research is not just to analyze a period of history, but also to document it. With few exceptions, the Jewish businesses that once existed in Berlin are forgotten, and all traces of them have vanished from the cityscape. The families involved have a right, and German society has a responsibility, to know exactly where they were and what happened to them. This is why the database was made available to the archive of the New Synagogue Berlin—Centrum Judaicum Foundation, the Berlin State Archive, Yad Vashem, and now the Leo Baeck Institute, New York, where researchers will be able to access it in the reading room of the Center for Jewish History.
An excerpt of the database with reduced information is available at www2.hu-berlin.de/djgb