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In Tucson talk, author details how modern Germans helped, hindered quest for lost legacy

Author Dina Gold, left, with J. Edward Wright, director of the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies, at the Tucson Jewish Community Center on March 6 (Korene Charnofsky Cohen)
The building on Krausenstrasse that once belonged to the Wolff family (Heinrich Hermes)

In December 1990, Dina Gold marched into a government building at Krausenstrasse 17/18 in the formerly Soviet-controlled East Berlin, and announced that she had come to claim her family’s property. She was bluffing. At that point in her quest for justice, she had no evidence.

Gold showed an official, Herr Münch, a 1920 business directory listing “H. Wolff, Berlin W8, Krausenstrasse 17/18,” and told him that her maternal grandfather, Herbert Wolff, owned a fur business. She could claim that he had an office there, but had no proof that the family owned the building. While Gold waited, Münch telephoned the head office. He surprised Gold by saying that his superiors knew the place was called the Wolff Building and had been owned by Jews, but they weren’t aware of any survivors. Gold said that because her family was Jewish they lost the building to the Nazi government through a forced sale. She wanted justice for their loss. Her second surprise of the day — Münch encouraged her to pursue the claim.

“The process was a roller coaster of frustration alternating with elation,” Gold told an audience of about 140 people on March 6 at the Tucson Jewish Community Center. Her talk was part of the Shaol & Louis Pozez Memorial Lectureship Series offered by the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Arizona. Her book, “Stolen Legacy: Nazi Theft and the Quest for Justice at Krausenstrasse 17/18, Berlin,” documents her six-year battle for restitution. It also provides details of Gold’s family history, their lifestyle in pre-Nazi Germany, what happened to various family members, and what life was like for Jews under Nazi rule.

“This was more than a quest for justice for mere bricks and mortar, it was to discover and preserve my lost family history,” she said. “Although my story is not about genocide, some members of my family were victims.” This included her great-uncle, Fritz Wolff, who was murdered at Auschwitz in 1943.

The back of the building at Krausenstrasse 17/18 in 1910.

Gold’s desire to find her “lost” family history was inspired by her grandmother Nellie Wolff’s stories of wealth and luxury. She spoke of a life filled with parties and plays, a magnificent red-brick mansion surrounded by park-like grounds, nannies for her three children, and the family’s huge, commercial building built in 1910 in Berlin. Born in Britain, Gold often spent time with her grandmother, who divided the year between England and Israel. Her grandmother talked about winning back the property stolen from their family, but Gold’s mother, Aviva, said this was just a fantasy and urged Gold to ignore her grandmother’s “tall stories.” 

Proving a restitution claim requires perseverance, investigative skills and travel. As a journalist who worked for the BBC as an investigative reporter and television producer, Gold had an edge in terms of research skills, professional colleagues and determination to find the truth. Initially her parents were not supportive. They believed that the records and documents to file a claim did not exist, and they wanted to leave the past alone. But Gold said, “I owed it to Nellie to find out if her stories were true.”  Her husband, Simon, turned out to be her staunchest supporter.

In 1990 the German government set a time limit for filing restitution claims for property, and Gold convinced her mother to file a claim. “Once the claim was filed, we had to prove that the Wolff family owned the building, and that they lost the building because of Nazi persecution,” Gold said.

Along with her own enquiries, Gold hired researchers and lawyers. Sometimes government workers were helpful, and other times they threw roadblocks in the path.

The evidence included a 1910 article in Berlin Architecture World featuring the Wolff building, with photographs showing the building stretching back a whole block, two interior courtyards, and the main hall with marble flooring and carved wooden ceilings. A little luck led Gold and her husband to an East German lawyer who sold them a notarized copy of a land registry document showing that the building was owned by Gold’s great-grandfather Victor Wolff until his death in 1928, and then it passed to his wife, Lucie Wolff, who died in 1932. A crucial part of the case was the line of inheritance. In April 1992, Gold’s mother called a district court in the Berlin suburb of Charlottenburg and was able to get a copy of Lucie’s will. The will named Victor and Lucie’s sons, Fritz and Herbert, as heirs, but attached to the will was a declaration by Herbert renouncing his share in favor of Nellie and their three children.

Documents regarding ownership and inheritance were not enough. Gold had to prove that the building was taken through a forced sale and was a result of persecution of Jews. In 1933 the Nazis passed laws that barred Jews from several professions, and the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 stripped Jews of their rights as citizens, making it difficult for Jews to own or operate a business. In 1929, Lucie Wolff obtained a mortgage loan on the building through the Victoria Insurance Company, which provided coverage for many Jewish businesses. But in 1936, the Victoria abruptly demanded payment in full for the balance of the loan. The family’s lawyers protested, but the Victoria’s lawyers went to court and petitioned for a forced sale, which went through on May 31, 1937. The land and building were sold to the Reichsbahn, the German national railway system, which was central to the mass deportation of Jews to the death camps. While Gold said that to her knowledge none of the planning or operational control for the deportations were conducted from the building, the Victoria Insurance Company was closely connected to the Nazi party and was one of the insurers for Nazi-owned slave labor buildings and equipment.

“The German government thought we would go away,” said Gold. “They thought that they could drag the case out long enough and perhaps my mother would die and the family would not continue to pursue the matter.”

In 1996 the German government finally admitted that the sale of the building at Krausenstrasse 17/18 was forced on the Wolff family because they were Jewish. The government paid the family $14 million, which was shared between Gold’s mother and her mother’s siblings. In July 2016, a plaque was placed on the building briefly commemorating its history in German and English.

Korene Charnofsky Cohen is a freelance writer and editor in
Tucson.

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