Dina Gold is a senior editor at Moment and the author of the upcoming book Stolen Legacy: Nazi Theft and the Quest for Justice at Krausenstrasse 17/18, Berlin. In it, Gold tells the story of how she set out to reclaim the Berlin building once owned by her German-Jewish family before the Nazis took it.
Interview by Deborah Kalb
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.
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 surprised you most 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).
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.
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… and I am still waiting.
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.
If there are any new developments I will post them on my website.
For more book Q&As with Deborah Kalb, visit her website.
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