Grandma was right all along

Grandma was right all along

By Jenni Frazer for The Guardian family section, published August 29 2015

As a schoolgirl in west London, Dina Gold was often taken out for cultural treats – visits to the ballet or art galleries, followed by coffee and cakes – by her grandmother Nellie Wolff.

Nellie was living in Putney, south London, at the time. But her former life could not have been more different, and Dina would eagerly listen to the many stories about her family in prewar Germany, and the luxury lifestyle enjoyed by the Wolffs.

Dina’s mother, Aviva, however – who had also enjoyed this rich life until she was 11 – brushed aside many of Nellie’s stories. The biggest fantasy, said Aviva, was Nellie’s talk of the Wolff family owning a building in the centre of Berlin, Krausenstrasse 17/18. It had been the headquarters of the family fur business but was taken by the Nazis and then swallowed up by the East German regime after the war.

The Wolff family building, which was forcibly sold under the Nazis and reclaimed by Dina Gold. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
The Wolff family building, which was forcibly sold under the Nazis and reclaimed by Dina Gold. Photograph: Heinrich Hermes
“Dina,” enthused Nellie, “when the wall comes down and we get back our building in Berlin, we’ll be rich.”

“She might as well have been telling me about Jack and the beanstalk or castles in Spain,” says Dina today.

But sometimes life is stranger than fiction. Nellie died in 1977, long before the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, but she had been right about ownership of the building.

Dina, who had subsequently become a BBC investigative journalist, began a mammoth research task after the wall fell, resulting in a claim for Krausenstrasse 17/18.

But Nellie had left no documents or photographs, not even an address, for the building she had so often reminisced about. Even so, after a six-year struggle, the German government finally paid £8m in restitution to Aviva and the other heirs to the Wolff building. It is an extraordinary story, now told for the first time in a book – and the more remarkable because Dina had had only Nellie’s coffee-time memories when she began her quest.

Krausenstrasse is in the centre of Berlin and the building that had belonged to the Wolffs ended up on the eastern side of the wall, very close to Checkpoint Charlie, the crossing point between the city’s eastern and western halves. No 17/18 encompasses an enormous property, six floors high and stretching back an entire block.

It is unsurprising that such a building, owned and occupied by Jews, should have attracted the greedy eyes of the Nazis. Before the war, the Nazis expropriated thousands of Jewish-owned properties, commercial and private. Forced sales were the rule, rather than the exception. After the war, if the owners had survived, restitution was mired in legal arguments if the properties were in the west. If the buildings were on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall, or elsewhere in East Germany, they were often re-expropriated by the communist regime.

In either case, documentation and fierce determination were the keys to restoring rightful ownership. Dina Gold had none of the first, but plenty of the latter. But even she might not have been prepared for the long fight for justice that ensued after her first visit to Krausenstrasse 17/18.

On 4 December 1990, a bitterly cold day, Dina, in a red duffle coat and woolly hat, walked into the building, which had become the HQ of East German Railways. “I’ve come to claim my family’s building,” she said.

Her only proof at that stage was a 1920 business directory in which there was a listing for H Wolff. “H” was Dina’s great-great-grandfather Heimann Wolff, who had started the fur company in 1850 on which the family fortunes were founded. As a child, Dina’s mother, Aviva, had come to visit her father, Herbert, and grandfather Victor in Krausenstrasse, and remembered being allowed to play on piles of furs. “You can jump on the rabbit furs, but don’t you go jumping on the mink and sable,” Herbert warned.

Dina was fortunate that the manager of the building, Herr Münch, did not dismiss her out of hand. Instead, he went to make a phone call and returned to tell her that “head office” had been waiting for this to happen.

“Head office has just informed me that they knew this building was once owned by Jews, but the person who I spoke to didn’t know if anyone had survived,” he told her.

So Dina sat with Münch and began to tell him what she then knew of her family’s story. Her grandfather, Herbert, had uprooted his family from Berlin not long after Hitler came to power. Herbert, Nellie, and their three children, Aviva, Heini and Marion, went to live in Mandate Palestine. Herbert’s brother Fritz was an idealistic communist who had refused to flee the Nazis.

The Wolffs were like so many of their friends: well-off assimilated Jews who thought of themselves as Germans. By 1933, Aviva suddenly found herself isolated at school and the target of antisemitic attacks in the wake of Hitler’s rise to power. For the first time, the 11-year-old girl asked her parents to take her to synagogue, arguing: “They say I’m a Jew, so I want to know more about being Jewish. I want to go to the synagogue.”

In early 1933, Fritz Wolff was arrested and sent to Spandau prison. Though he was released in May that year, his brother Herbert, Dina Gold’s grandfather, read the signs of the gathering storm facing Germany’s Jews. He recognised that it was not going to matter to the Nazis if you were a good Jew, an assimilated Jew, or even a communist Jew. It was time to leave.

Fritz Wolff, Dina Gold’s great uncle, who was murdered in Auschwitz, and left with $400 after the forced sale of the family business building.
Fritz Wolff, Dina Gold’s great uncle, who was murdered in Auschwitz, and left with $400 after the forced sale of the family business building.
But Fritz stayed in Berlin. Herbert wrote from Palestine in August 1934, giving Fritz power of attorney over his affairs in Germany. The increasing anti-Jewish laws soon resulted in the forced sale of Krausenstasse 17/18: it became the property of the Reichsbahn (Hitler’s railways) on 26 May 1937. Poor Fritz, after all the legal deductions, was left with just under $400.

He was sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1938; and in March 1943 was “evacuated” by the Gestapo to Auschwitz, where he was murdered. Nevertheless, during the fight to win back the building, the family was asked for Fritz Wolff’s death certificate. “He was killed in Auschwitz, where they most certainly didn’t issue death certificates. We thought that reeked of repellent officialdom,” says Dina.

By now, Dina was determined to try to get the building back for her mother, who had retired, and to honour the memory of her great uncle Fritz.

Münch, Dina recalls, was kind and reassuring. And, crucially, he told her that it was possible to prove entitlement to the building. “The documents exist. You have to find them, but they exist,” he said.

It was the longest of shots that Dina even had the 1920 business listing. Earlier in 1990, she had spent time in Israel when her husband, Simon, was on a two-month fellowship at Tel Aviv University. There she got to know her cousin, Leor Wolff, then a journalist on one of the biggest Israeli newspapers, Yediot Ahronot.

Kibbutz-raised Leor had a suitcase full of photos and old papers to show Dina. “Leor and I hunted for any scrap of information that might lead us to an address for the building. Finally, we found a singed, ripped, yellowed letterhead: H. Wolff, Berlin W8. Krausenstrasse 17/18.”

Dina was amazed by what she discovered. “But my mother was more astounded than I was, she didn’t expect Nellie’s stories to be true. She was ruthlessly straightforward, always looking at the here and now, rather than the might-have-been.

“[Initially] she was extremely concerned about the potential cost [of making a claim], while I wanted to see if Nellie’s claims stood up.

“What really made her mind up was an advertisement in the newsletter of the Association of Jewish Refugees inviting people to contact a law firm if they thought they had potential claims. We went to see [lawyer] Hans Marcus for a chat, though at that point [my mother] was still balking at the potential cost. But she was persuaded to register her claim. Then the rules changed and lawyers were allowed to act on a contingency basis.

“I really knew that it was going to happen when our lawyers wrote the statement of claim, which meant that we had managed to convince them that we had a strong case.” When the case was settled, Aviva was relieved. She had thought that because of the wording of her father’s will, she might not have been entitled to inherit. Dina says: “When she was finally vindicated as a true heir, I would say she was quietly gratified.

“For myself, I was never going to give up and I wasn’t going to let my mother give up. We had to see this through to the bitter end.”

The settlement made Aviva’s life much more comfortable. Dina says: “My mother’s greatest fear was having to go into a nursing home in her old age. Instead, she was able to pay for a live-in carer. She helped me and my brother financially and was generous with funding her grandchildren’s education.”

Aviva Gold died in January this year. But, says Dina, her mother’s fingerprints are all over the book. “My mother helped me hugely, from reminiscences to translations of documents. As I uncovered more details about what had happened to her uncle Fritz during his last days in Berlin, my mother would tell me that she couldn’t sleep at night for thinking of him and what he had gone through. She left Germany aged 11 and remembered her father saying, ‘I can get him [Fritz] out, why won’t he come?’”

As for her grandmother: “Nellie was extremely glamorous, but she was a dreamer and always lived in the past. If she had still been alive to see the settlement, she would have definitely said, ‘I told you so.’”

• Stolen Legacy: Nazi Theft and the Quest for Justice at Krausenstrasse 17/18, Berlin by Dina Gold, is published by Ankerwycke

  • 29 August, 2015