Uwe Westphal is the author most recently of the novel Ehrenfried & Cohn. His other books include The Bauhaus and Berliner Konfektion und Mode. He is a journalist and TV producer, the founder of the Uwe Westphal Collection at the Leo Baeck Institute in New York, and managing director of Newest Productions, Ltd., of London and Berlin.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for your novel, and how did you research the book?
A: After my factual book on the Jewish Berlin fashion industry (1836– 1939) was published, I received hundreds of letters, photographs and eyewitness accounts from former Jewish fashion designers and business owners in the U.S., Great Britain, Holland and Israel.
Besides the very moving accounts given by the families, and how they lost their fashion stores and firms due to Nazi confiscation, the letters revealed the lifestyle and cultural connections the Jewish fashion designers once had in Berlin.
Extensive research on the historical records of financial authorities in Berlin and local archives revealed the full scale of the state-organized theft against Jewish fashion company owners. I decided to condense these individual experiences into a single story about one fictional firm.
Ehrenfried & Cohn is representative of thousands of others which had existed in real life. It took me about 12 years, with a few breaks in between, to complete writing it.
Q: Can you say more about why you decided to write it as a novel rather than a work of nonfiction?
A: The literary form of a novel gave me far greater opportunity to shape a full picture of the life-threatening circumstances Jewish fashion designers and garment firms had had to live under. A novel enables an author to delve far deeper into the emotional layers of the story.
Ultimately, I decided to narrow the focus of the book to a time span of 10 months within the year 1935, shortly before the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. During this time, a conglomerate of criminals, banks, insurance companies and Nazi officials ganged up on thousands of Jewish garment businesses, who were supervised by the Nazi Ministry of Economics.
Nevertheless, Jewish fashion designers visited Paris fashion shows until 1936, and copied Haute Couture garments displayed at shows in New York, Paris, Rome and London. Back in Berlin they turned these ideas into Prêt à Porter, wearable day-to-day fashion.
The entire Berlin fashion industry was incredibly creative, mostly gay, with outstandingly talented designers and close connections to composers and musicians such as the internationally renowned, all male, German close harmony ensemble known as the Comedian Harmonists, who performed between 1928 and 1934.
Others associated with the fashion industry included people working in musical theatres, expressionist painters and glamorous actresses such as Marlene Dietrich and Josephine Baker. World-famous movie directors of the likes of Fritz Lang and F. M. Murnau also mingled amongst the entourage around this industry.
Ken Adam, the German-born British motion picture production designer, who rose to fame in the 1960s and 1970s with his set designs for many James Bond movies, came from a family from this very world of high fashion in Berlin.
Q: How did you blend the actual historical events of the time period with the fictional aspects of the book, and what did you see as the right mix of historical and fictional?
A: When writing an historical novel you’re bound to follow certain facts. I began by thoroughly researching contemporary street maps, banking terms, Nazi laws and travel schedules as well as fashion shows in Berlin and Paris during that era.
I was keen to portray the atmosphere of the time as accurately as possible. Alongside my in-depth research, I also consciously wove certain artistic and fashionable styles and trends of the time into the script.
My aim was to draw a picture for the readers of what actually happened and reflect the descriptions given to me by eyewitnesses; exactly how it felt to be racially persecuted for what you are.
The lasting psychological effects of the blackmailing of Jewish businesses and arbitrariness of the Nazi bureaucracy against the Jews were not hard to find.
The main character in my novel, Kurt Ehrenfried, was torn between leaving Germany quickly, or staying put in Berlin because he could not believe that “…a nation with so much culture can do without us…”.Emigration was forced upon him, it wasn’t an act of heroism or foresight.
The novel is not a precise mirror image of what happened historically, although I didn’t invent anything in the book. Ehrenfried saw himself as “…a proud German, a modern 20th century reformed Jew…” married, two children, a successful honest Berlin businessman.
In 1934 he hopes Nazi politics could work in favor of his business, ignoring the obvious and raging anti-Semitism. The fast deterioration of law and order turns his life upside down. He tries to comply, like others did.
Later he realizes he is part of a greater plot against Jews in fashion and loses nearly everything. Within all the turmoil his Jewish humor creates ironies and helps him and his family to survive.
My novel is about how Nazis corrupted people morally; historically correct and still fiction. A psychological drama based on what happened. That was my approach for the right mix of historical facts and fiction.
[In terms of special connections between Berlin fashion businesses and New York,] the main character and successful fashion business owner in the center of Berlin, Kurt Ehrenfried, visited New York City in the late 1920s and was enthused by what he witnessed: modern clothing factories, industrial production which he wanted to introduce to Berlin's outdated manufactory methods.
He admired the highly successful U.S. garment production, its marketing and vast output as much as he esteemed Paris couture. By 1930, Berlin's fashion industry had grown to the same size (an estimated 80,000 employees) as New York’s or Paris’s.
Q: Will your book be translated into English?
A: One chapter and the synopsis have already been translated. I am now looking for a publisher in the U.S. Reviews of my novel in Germany stressed the attractions of turning the book into a movie, comparing it to Christopher Isherwood’s “Goodbye to Berlin.” Currently German public broadcasting is considering a TV adaption.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Early stages of writing a second sequel of the novel which begins in 1959 when Kurt Ehrenfried, who now lives in Los Angeles, and his designer Simon Cohn, from Israel, return to Berlin. They appeal for compensation and for the return of their property in a now-divided city, which makes things even more complicated.
Besides, in real life, some Jewish fashion designers who emigrated from Germany rose to great success abroad. One of them created a men’s fashion factory in Texas. All that is part of my new research.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: In the 1950s and '60s, during the Cold War, glamorous fashion shows and firms in West Berlin, most of them former Jewish businesses, earned a fortune with the “New West-Berlin Fashion Style.”
What most people don’t know: A lot of the high quality fabrics they used for their fame came from storage places filled with confiscated French textiles from the Nazis’ occupation of France.
It’s time to get the message across to Germany’s garment industry
associations. Get real and compensate. Reveal the truth of how German insurance companies, banks and fashion firms profited from the Nazi years.
My sequel novel sees Ehrenfried & Cohn appeal for compensation and for the return of their property, which was expropriated when the Victoria Insurance Company foreclosed on the mortgage. Instead, they get a hostile reception from those who had cashed in on Ehrenfried & Cohn's former business in 1936.
One thing I’ve learned during my novel: the confiscation of Jewish fashion companies and property was one of the most unknown Mafiosi-style, Nazi robberies in history. A chapter that is certainly not closed.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb