Monday, October 19, 2015

Q&A with Dina Gold

Dina Gold is the author of the new book Stolen Legacy: Nazi Theft and the Quest for Justice at Krausenstrasse 17/18, Berlin. She is a senior editor at Moment magazine, and worked as a reporter and producer for the BBC. Born in London, she now lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: You write that as a child you would hear stories from your grandmother about the building in Berlin your family had owned. What ultimately made you decide to search for that building?

A: I really loved my grandmother Nellie. She would weave wonderful stories of her life in Berlin before Hitler came to power that were very tantalizing to a young girl. Nellie’s daughter, my mother, had also enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle up to the age of 11.

My mother always discounted Nellie’s stories, saying she was a fantasist, was probably mistaken about the family ever actually owning the building and we should look to the future, not the past. I had a very different attitude. Yes, Nellie might have been wrong but perhaps she wasn’t. I absolutely had to find out!

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, my parents were totally set against my starting a restitution claim. Nellie had died 12 years earlier, leaving no documents or photographs relating to the building, not even its address.

My father would say, “You can't fight the German government, forget it.” The only person who supported me was my husband, Simon.

Q: How did you feel when you started doing some research and realized your grandmother’s stories could be true?

A: It was exciting and gratifying that my hunch seemed to be right - Nellie had not been telling fairy stories. I couldn’t give up now!

I found the building in what had been the Soviet sector, just behind the Berlin Wall, two blocks from Checkpoint Charlie.

It might sound like an exaggeration to say that I was driven by “the burden of history…” but actually it is not. The Holocaust was a heinous act of genocide aimed at exterminating Europe’s Jews and murdering millions of people was an incomparably greater crime than the wholesale theft of people’s property.  

But just as the movie Woman in Gold is about the fight to reclaim a Klimt painting, Stolen Legacy is my contribution to the history of Nazi robbery.

Restitution of Holocaust-era assets is now a live issue. The Holocaust was an unforgiveable act of genocide. But it was also the largest instance of organized looting, particularly of Jewish property, in history.

Stealing was a central part of the Nazis’ war effort. All over Europe, there are still formerly Jewish-owned land and buildings which were seized by the Nazis, and often then taken over by the Communist regimes which followed, which have never been returned to their rightful owners or their heirs.  

H. Wolff brochure
Only last week a new coalition, the European Alliance for Holocaust Survivors, was formed in Brussels at the initiative of the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO). Its purpose is to now try and reclaim Jewish properties in all countries, other than Germany and Austria, seized during the Holocaust.

Thirty-six members of the European Parliament have urged Parliament President Martin Schulz to focus on the need to restitute Holocaust-era property.

Q: How long did your effort take to obtain restitution?

A: The case was settled in January 1996. In round terms it took five years. It felt like a drawn out process at the time, but it actually was not that long although German bureaucrats put up many obstacles.

Q: What are some of the things that surprised you as you learned more about your family?

A: During the investigation for the claim, I discovered just how successful the international H. Wolff fur company had been. 

The family had tried desperately hard to hold onto the building, which had been the company headquarters. The paperwork I found revealed exactly what had happened, the process of the forced sale to the Reichsbahn (German railways), how the property had been used during the war and what the Communists did with the building when it was inside the territory of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

A charming fresh revelation has emerged about the long-lost glorious Berlin fashion house H. Wolff, which my great-grandfather operated from Krausenstrasse 17/18.

I was in the New York Public Library recently and discovered some old editions of a publication called “Fur Trade Review.” I looked at three years’ worth – from 1908-1910. This magazine is no longer published, but these issues offer a vivid portrayal of the once vibrant fur trade that flourished across North America in the early part of the last century. European dealers would visit the United States and establish business links here. 

To my amazement I found many H. Wolff advertisements and photos of my great-grandfather’s latest designs all through the magazines…not only coats but also stoles, muffs, hats and assorted accessories – all made from fur. And I discovered that Victor Wolff’s Berlin telegraphic address, all those years ago, was “SELFMADEMAN.” 

The librarians at the New York Public Library were perfectly happy for me to take photos.

Q: In addition to the historical aspects of the story, this is a very personal book. How did you balance your roles as journalist and family member as you worked on the book?

A: It’s interesting you ask that because a colleague who read the draft said to me, “I would have written the story with much more emotion.” But I am not like that. Being gushing and sentimental is not my style. I’m trained as a journalist and to a large extent I have to put my feelings to one side.

By the time I came to write Stolen Legacy, it was several years after the claim was settled. However, I was haunted by the terrible discoveries I made last summer while doing research into the fates of some of the people I wrote about. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and other, newly opened, archives in Eastern Europe have a wealth of fresh material for historians.    

The Wolff family was comparatively fortunate. Not everyone in the family survived, but my grandparents, my mother and her two siblings did. I never forget that the theft of a building cannot be compared with losing family, friends and indeed entire communities.

Q: At what point did you decide to write a book about your family’s experiences?

A: I kept talking about it all through the claim. But I had a full-time job at the BBC, and three young children. Simon was working for the Financial Times and traveling extensively. I was too busy, and I just couldn’t do it.

What prompted me was that, in 2008, I left the BBC and came to the USA on a green card because my husband had been offered a job in Washington, D.C. There was a limit to how much I could clean the house and do laundry! I needed something to do.

I had brought all the case papers over. Simon said “the children need to know their family history, so sit down and write,” and that is what I did. A friend, who is a literary agent, kept asking me to show her my draft.  She really liked the story. And that is how ABA’s new imprint, Ankerwycke Books, came to publish Stolen Legacy.

H. Wolff advertisement
Q: Anything else we should know?

A: This is not just a history. Stolen Legacy has ramifications right up to the present day. There are some revelations that could prove quite embarrassing to German institutions and even the federal government. 

I found a very prestigious German university with a Stiftung (foundation) named after the chairman of the insurance company that foreclosed on the building in 1937. The mortgage had been withdrawn and the building handed straight to the Reichsbahn. I have found out what an inglorious past this man had. Two years ago I contacted the university for an explanation…

Things are moving there. The president of that university has personally been in touch to inform me he has called a full board meeting to discuss what should be done. I await a decision. If there are any new developments I will post them on my website.

I have tried to get a plaque placed on the building, denoting it was forcibly taken from its Jewish owners. In December 2013, on behalf of then Transport Minister Dr. Peter Ramsauer, an official e-mailed me: “I’ll arrange for the plaque to be produced and affixed to the office building.” To date nothing has happened. 

I cannot understand why not. Is there anyone reading this who can put pressure on the German authorities to get their act together? It is a disgrace that they are ignoring my pleas. What are they waiting for? I have copies of all the correspondence.

The last person I heard from was Lutz Lange of the Bundesanstalt für Immobilienaufgaben (the Federal Authority for Real Estate) the body now responsible for the building. On August 21, 2014, he wrote me saying he had received my request “to put a (memorial) plaque on the building” and “We will review your request and inform you as soon as we have new information available.”  How long does it take? I am not going to go away!

Will there be a German-language edition of Stolen Legacy? I wish. I have had e-mails from people in Germany asking me when it will be available in their native language and I am afraid that I have no good answer. It is up to a German publisher to snap it up. My publisher and I are waiting to hear from anyone who is interested!

And will there be a movie? The BBC has contacted me from London asking me if they could make a documentary with me, but so far no feature film producer. Again – I am happy to hear from anyone. Someone wrote in an online Amazon review that I am the Erin Brockovich of Holocaust restitution. That has a certain ring to it!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Dina Gold is my distant relative, through our mutual cousins. For a previous version of this Q&A, please click here. Dina Gold will be appearing at the Hyman S. and Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival at the Washington DCJCC, which runs from Oct. 18-28, 2015.

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