Jewish Owned Businesses in Nazi Berlin — an introduction

After five years of work, the data collected by the research team shows that in 1933 some 7,000 businesses registered in the commercial register were identified as Jewish — i. e. owned or run by businesspeople that were Jewish and/or that were persecuted as being Jewish.

Samples gave evidence that only two-thirds of all the businesses were actually identified. Therefore, we can assume that there were around 10,000 Jewish owned businesses in Berlin in the Handelsregister. However, since the majority of commercial enterprises were not listed in the register, the figure of 10,000 does not reflect the total number. A study by the Berlin Statistical Office in 1933 put the total of nonagricultural commercial establishments at 275,000, suggesting that less than one-sixth of all commercial enterprises were registered. Yet, even if we assume that every fifth Jewish business was officially registered, that still leaves around 50,000 Jewish owned companies in the German capital in 1933.

Avraham Barkai (s. A.) estimated that in 1933 there were around one hundred thousand Jewish businesses in Germany. If that is correct, it would mean around half of alls Jewish owned businesses were in Berlin.

However, the large number of businesses in the capital should not necessarily be interpreted as a sign of economic strength or dominance but as a symptom of economic desperation. The steep increase in the number of small sole-proprietor businesses was, on the one hand, a result of the Great Depression and, on the other, of anti-Semitic ostracization, attacks, and pickets elsewhere. Nevertheless, there was also a wealth of first-rate mid-sized companies that had been in the Berlin commercial register for decades and had played a formative role in the city’s economic development. While there was an especially strong Jewish presence in traditional economic sectors such as textiles and clothing, leather and shoemaking, tobacco, and banks and insurance companies, Jewish business owners could in fact be found in every sector. Although attacks on Jews and their businesses were nothing new, the destruction of Jewish business began to take a systematic and sinister turn in 1933. Bureaucratic and violent antisemitic measures went hand in hand, to search, mark and destroy.

The entries of the database show that Jewish business people managed to fend off the attacks for a remarkably long time. This was due to four factors:

Firstly, Jewish economic assistance institutions had been established in Berlin as early as the 1920s. Based on its experience, the Jewish community was able to react rapidly to the changing circumstances and, in March 1933, founded the Central Office for Jewish Economic Assistance, which served as a blueprint for similar organizations all over Germany. The economic assistance services of the Jewish community and the Reich Association of Jews in Germany were supported by numerous petitions submitted by the likes of the Central Association for German Citizens of the Jewish Faith. These petitions were somewhat successful up until 1935.

Secondly, the city itself afforded Jewish businesspeople some scope to assert themselves in ways that proved effective for individuals. The result was a plethora of complaints and petitions to courts and authorities. With almost a quarter of Jews in Berlin not holding German citizenship, those affected by persecution were well placed to enlist consular support because the Reich capital was home to all embassies and diplomatic representations. Changes to business and legal form were undertaken in order to avert anti-Semitic attacks, blockades and embargos. Structural adjustment through the appointment of non-Jewish partners — partly with rules of succession in mind — were also common. What’s more, although most businesses did not aim to completely reposition themselves, almost all of them adapted the range of their services and products to the changing circumstances. Some businesses sought to boost their overseas ties and bolster their exports in order to obtain foreign currency. Since foreign currency was in short supply, these businesses remained relatively protected until late 1938.

Thirdly, the relatively constant support of non-Jewish customers until 1938, especially in the inner-city highstreets, also helped Jewish businesses remain afloat. Bystanders were potential customers and their behaviour could ultimately make or break a Jewish business. Even window shopping amounted to a statement of inclusion or exclusion within the so-called “Volksgemeinschaft”, a heavily- propagated “people’s community”, that was defined along racist lines.

The fact that the international press was concentrated in the German capital served as a fourth factor protecting Jewish businesses—as long as the Nazi regime needed relatively stable trade relations and cared about the world’s opinion. Given the many opportunities it offered to make a living, the German capital — seen as the heart of darkness from afar — served as a haven of refuge for Jewish businesspeople with some one thousand new Jewish businesses entered in the commercial register between 1933 and 1938. The consequences of persecution in rural areas could be felt in almost all major cities with sizeable Jewish populations. The trend had begun to subside in Breslau (Wrocław) and Frankfurt by the mid-1930s, but Berlin remained a major destination as a place of refuge, even absorbing businesses from other large cities after 1935/36.

The Nazi authorities responded with extreme violence to the fact that Jewish businesspeople fought back against the destruction of their livelihoods. Because the number of Jewish-owned businesses had hardly shrunk in his city, Goebbels (Gauleiter for Berlin) pushed for a violent “solution” in 1938. In this respect the pogrom — still often referred to as “Kristallnacht” — is cynically connected to the success Jewish business people had in asserting themselves against the ongoing process of destruction of their livelihoods. Evidence shows that the police and Gestapo had great difficulty in putting a stop to pillaging in Berlin and that, despite the November Pogrom having started on the 9th, it was still continuing on 12 November 1938 — the day, the consequences of the devastation were discussed in the Ministry of Aviation. The promise of spoils was most certainly a determining factor in the extraordinary aggression displayed by members of the public against their Jewish neighbours — including many who previously had no hand in the destruction of Jewish commercial activity. Against this backdrop, Berlin’s Gau economic adviser developed an accelerated procedure for transferring possession of Jewish businesses in mid-November 1938, leading some to argue that the culmination of the destruction of Jewish commercial activity actually occurred after the pogrom.

Despite the havoc wreaked and the extensive bans, Jewish business evidently continued to operate in Berlin even after 1939. Its destruction in the Reich capital lasted well into the Second World War and overlapped with the genocide. Because the Holocaust was based on division of labor and involved bureaucracy, it is also reflected in the commercial register files. This makes tragically clear that the destruction of Jews’ economic existence — as Raul Hilberg concluded more than fifty years ago — was an integral part of the process of their persecution and murder.

Christoph Kreutzmüller

Edited and abridged by Bethan Griffiths

Contextualising Data: Case Studies

A database is an incredible tool – a digital space whose sole purpose is to organize huge amounts of information. That information can be made accessible, or it can simply be kept in its recepticle for safe keeping. However, as its name makes quite clear, a database deals with ‘data’. It is not space for the presentation of the data’s meaning. Storing data, the stories behind the data often are lost. Without contextualisation, the potential for data remains unlocked.

But how do you make the stories the data tell accessible on a technological platformfor those outside specific research groups? How can we prepare the data in a way which ‘breathes life’ back into the digits and equasions?

We decided to try to open the data up by writing ‘Miniaturen’ – short “biographies” of companies and the people involved in it. Of course, theses case studies cannot possibly do justice to the complexity of development that comes with any enterprise, let alone a life. However, the ‘Miniaturen’ aim to shine a light on something or someone that no longer exists, with the hope that this light helps create some sort of shadow of that which was systematically and aggressively destroyed by the Nazi Regime. At times the miniatures are “special” cases that caught our eyes; but quite often we were asked about a company by the families of their owners who then provided us with extra material such as photographs.

The database is a research tool, but research in itself stems from many motivations. In our case, where the data relates to persecution and murder, the motivation to research is rooted in the need to understand the intricate relation between violence and bureaucracy, and how segregation worked in economy – and in city space. Another important motivation, and one often expressed by descendants of the affected, is to create a face and a space for those who the perpetrator (in this case the Nazi state) tried to erase.

It is unfortunately impossible for our small research team to create these ‘miniatures’ for every affected person and business in the database, but by creating as many as possible we hope that not only will these lives be given face and space, but also that other researchers will be able to use the database as a tool to shine a light on the many other Jewish businesses in Berlin which suffered the consequences of National Socialist antisemitism.

Bethan Griffiths

A Word on the New Project

Compiled by a team of ten at the Humboldt University in Berlin in the years 2006 to 2011, the database was originally set up as the core of a research project on Jewish owned businesses in Berlin between 1930 and 1945. As a intermediary report the team set up the the exhibition “Verraten und Verkauft”, shown amongst other places in the Leo Back Insitute in New York and the Hebrew University in Jeruslem with the help of the Aktive Museum, Berlin. When team leader, Christoph Kreutzmüller, had concluded the project with the acclaimed study “Ausverkauf. Die Vernichtung der jüdischen Gewerbetätigkeit in Berlin 1930-1945” (“Final Sale in Berlin. The destruction of Jewish commercial activity”), an extract of the database was published online in 2012. Full copies were made available in the reading rooms of the Landesarchiv Berlin, Leo Baeck Intitute New York, Yad Vashem Jerusalem and Wiener Library, London. 

The database has since become an important research tool for family research as well as economic and social history.

screenshot of the original database

Still, the database had an increasingly outdated and unstable basis. Funded by the ROTHSCHILD FOUNDATION HANADIV EUROPE Foundation it was our primary goal to save the data, capture and publish not just an extract but all the existing information in a web-based format and a more accessible design. We also aimed to enrich the database by adding more information (and more identifications). To add density to the data, we also conducted deeper research into a few dozen companies of the database – and wrote short biographies of them.

In so doing, the database will become a central access point to the widely scattered sources and materials of the history of Jewish businesses in Berlin – with emphasis on the years of Nazi persecution. It will be open for new content, identifications, and links.

We hope the new database will then be a tool for evaluating current technologies for developing databases to access scattered sources.

The new database of Jewish businesses in Berlin will go online later this year!

Christoph Kreutzmüller

Database of Jewish-Owned Businesses in Nazi Berlin

This is the blog of the Database of Jewish Businesses in Nazi Berlin. The database was set up between 2005 and 2012 as part of a research project at the Humboldt University in Berlin. It is the basis of both the study “Final Sale in Berlin. The destruction of Jewish commercial activity 1930-1945“ and the exhibition “Final Sale. The end of Jewish owned businesses in Nazi Berlin”. The foundation of the database is a complete indexing of all relevant entries of the Berlin commercial register, published in the German state gazette, the “Deutsche Reichsanzeiger und Preußischen Staatsanzeiger”. It includes information collected from many different primary sources, contemporary newspapers, handbooks and directories and other printed material. The database contains key information on more then 8 000 companies that were regarded as Jewish and therefore persecuted from 1933 on. This includes the name of the company, its address, legal form, economic sector, the date of the entry of a company into the commercial register, the date of its deletion, changes of the owners or managers and all references. The database also holds the raw data of another 44 000 companies that could not be identified as Jewish.

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