When I was a child, my grandmother, Nellie Wolff, used to take me to a patisserie opposite Harrods department store in London and reminisce over coffee and cakes, which she could scarcely afford, about her life in prewar Germany. Often she would say, “Dina, when the wall comes down, and we get back our building in Berlin, we’ll be rich.” Her story of an enormous, immensely valuable building that was rightfully ours was like a fairy tale.
I couldn’t imagine that there really was such a building or that when I grew up, I would fight for years to try to win it back for our family.
On the afternoon of Dec. 4, 1990, after a night in a small hotel in what was then West Berlin, I hailed a cab and gave the driver the address of a building I had never seen, Krausenstrasse 17/18. As we left the prosperity of the western sector, the apartment blocks and offices —even the people — became grayer and grimmer, like a scene from a Cold War spy movie.
We passed the remnants of the Berlin Wall, battered and covered in graffiti. Checkpoint Charlie was to my right as we drove into what had been, until only a year earlier, Communist East Berlin. Off to one side, was the area where Hitler’s bunker once was located. The cab turned a corner in the opposite direction, and there, ahead of me, loomed a huge edifice. It looked even bigger because there was a vacant plot beside it, the remains of one of the many buildings reduced to rubble by Allied bombing during World War II. We stopped near the German flag flying at the front of the building, and I climbed out.
Several large, gold plaques were on display at the main entrance. One plaque, in German, declared the address to be the Berlin outpost of the Federal Ministry of Transport that, at the time, was still headquartered in Bonn.
The afternoon was bitterly cold. Wrapped in a red duffle coat with a hood and a wool hat, perhaps I didn’t look like someone about to claim ownership of a vast and valuable government building. But, by then I was an investigative reporter with the BBC, and since the Berlin Wall had come down, there had been talk of the new, united Germany returning property stolen from thousands of Jews in East Berlin and East Germany. I had resolved to win back my family’s property, even though almost everyone close to me thought I was wasting my time.
I forced back my fears and told myself, “I’m here and I have nothing to lose.” I marched through the double doors, across the marble entrance hall, and up to the receptionist — a heavy, middle-aged woman knitting inside a glass booth. I asked, in my imperfect German, if she spoke English. She looked back at me blankly and picked up the phone.
A few minutes later, a portly man in an ill-fitting brown suit appeared; he introduced himself as Herr Münch and asked what I wanted. I guessed the worst that could happen now was he would call the police and charge me with trespassing.
“I’ve come to claim my family’s building,” I told him.
Herr Münch looked nonplussed, perhaps even slightly amused. “This building is owned by the German railways. What are you talking about?” he replied in a somewhat belligerent tone.
With all the self-confidence I could muster, I delved into my coat pocket and took out the only evidence I had connecting me to this building.
“Take a look at this,” I said, and handed him a copy of the page from a 1920 business directory with this listing: H. Wolff, Berlin W8, Krausenstrasse 17/18.
“H. Wolff — Herbert Wolff,” I told the man. “He was my grandfather.”
In truth, I was bluffing, as investigative reporters learn to do. I could show that my grandfather had been in the fur business and once had an office in that building — but I had nothing to prove that my family had actually owned the building. I believed we had, and my grandmother Nellie had believed it, but, in a legal sense, I had nothing.
Still, my assertion of the name Wolff was enough to make Herr Münch turn pale. “You’d better come in,” he said. He led me through the security turnstile and down the long corridor that led to the staff canteen, where he asked me to wait while he went to telephone his superiors at the head office in Bonn.
Alone in the canteen, sitting on a plastic chair surrounded by ugly, flowered wallpaper and row upon row of white metal tables, I felt I had stepped back in time. Although only a short cab ride from the bright lights and glittering shops on Berlin’s main street, I was back in the drab Communist East Germany of the 1950s.
My emotions were overwhelming. I was in the Wolff family building — our building —which none of us had entered since the 1930s. I walked to a window and gazed out at the courtyard. Towering above me, I could see all six stories rising to the sky. The red brick exterior was covered in grime and looked as if it had been untouched for decades.
This was not the magical place my mother remembered from her childhood when she visited her father, Herbert, and her grandfather, Victor, at their offices here. By then, Victor had built one of the most successful fur businesses in Germany. His agents circled the globe, buying the finest animal pelts to be made into fur coats to adorn women of wealth in Europe and the United States.
After 20 minutes, Herr Münch returned. He beckoned me over, and we sat down at a small square table. Immediately, I detected a change. He grasped my hand and said, “I have spoken to head office. I know now that you are telling the truth. We have been waiting for this to happen. This place has always been known as the ‘Wolff Building’ but no one really knew why. 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. Tell me your story.”
Thus began an extraordinary half hour. Brimming with emotion, I told him about my mother’s father Herbert Wolff who, soon after Adolf Hitler took power in 1933, had taken his wife, Nellie, and their three children to live in safety in the British-controlled Holy Land, known then as Palestine. And I mentioned Herbert’s brother, Fritz, an idealistic German who had refused to flee the Nazis. Herr Münch listened intently. I told him that it was for my mother, who at that time was retired and living in London, and for the memory of her Uncle Fritz, that I was determined to win back our building. When I finished, he said something I thought very brave for a longtime East German official, “Yes, you must get this building back for your mother.”
Touched by his decency, I confessed I had found none of the official documents we would need to prove ownership.
“Oh, the documents exist,” he said. “You have to find them, but they exist.”
A lawyer specializing in restitution cases against Germany advised my mother that she needed to register a claim as soon as possible. A deadline had been set after which any potential claimant was presumed either dead or not interested. Any entitlement to compensation or restitution would instead devolve to the Claims Conference. He was eager to represent her, but said that the family would have to find all the supporting documents to enable him to frame a legal case. My mother was overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge, the potential risks and costs, and she hesitated. But I persuaded her that I would do the research as long as she signed the documents to proceed. On that basis, she agreed.
It wasn’t going to be easy, of course. We were claiming a building which, since 1937 had been occupied for over 50 years, first by the Nazis, then the Communists and finally a united Germany. Governments do not willingly surrender such valuable real estate.
The Holocaust was an unspeakable crime of genocide. The murder was, of course, the greater sin. But the Holocaust was also an immense act of theft. Property was stolen and passed on, by the Nazis at first and then by subsequent governments. Of course, most knew the origins, but very few were prepared to give it up to its rightful owners.
I wanted to reclaim the building as a matter of principle. I believed it had been stolen from my family, and I was not going to let this theft go unchallenged. As we now know, thousands of people are still struggling to recover what was seized from them during the Nazi period. But we had the chance to do something about it.
My husband, Simon, had read The Odessa File in his teens and had always wanted to hunt Nazis. He threw himself into the project with alacrity. But not everyone in the family was as supportive. My father’s attitude was, “You can’t take on a government and win. Who do you think you are?”
Defining the legal challenge was easy enough: I needed to prove that the family had actually owned the building rather than rented it, that my mother was a legal inheritor and that the property had been sold under duress.
For the next six years, Simon and I delved into archives and gathered whatever evidence we could to prove the case. Demands for documents and proof kept coming from the Berlin authorities. Sometimes they struck us as insensitive in the extreme. For example, we were asked to supply a death certificate for my mother’s uncle who, we knew, had been deported at the age of 52 in 1943 to Auschwitz.
The German penchant for bureaucracy is legendary. Simon and I obtained paperwork from the Land Registry charting ownership of the building from the Wolff family through to its forced sale in 1937 to the Reichsbahn — Hitler’s railways.
We found birth, death and marriage certificates. My mother needed what is known as an Erbschein, a certificate of inheritance, and for that she had to find a copy of her grandmother’s will. She naturally feared that vital documents had long gone. It turned out she was wrong.
In April 1992, she phoned the district court in the Berlin suburb of Charlottenburg and, in her impeccable German, asked the woman who answered if it would be possible to obtain the will of her grandmother Lucie Wolff, who died on Feb. 25, 1932. To her astonishment, the woman calmly replied, “Would you like to stay on the line or would you like to phone back?” My mother said she’d call back.
After 10 minutes, she called again. The woman said nonchalantly “Yes, I have the will of Lucie Wolff. I’ll mail it to you.” My mother was triumphant.
My father, proud of his British Royal Air Force service during the war, commented, “Obviously, we didn’t bomb them enough.”
Her grandmother’s will proved that my mother was, indeed, a named legal inheritor.
But had the sale been “Nazi-driven” or a perfectly legal transaction? That was the crucial issue.
If the price had been the market rate, then any claim we might have would be null and void.
Our research turned up the court documents and legal letters for the years 1935 to 1937 during the foreclosure proceedings. The Wolff family lawyers had fought valiantly to retain the property, arguing that the mortgage was secure despite vicious anti-Jewish persecution. Nevertheless, the Victoria Insurance Co., which held the mortgage, had foreclosed on the property and sold it to the Reichsbahn. But, as it turned out, the building next door had sold for 40 percent more because the owners had been a good Prussian family.
While we were busy researching, we felt that we were in a race against the clock. It was the early 1990s and reunited Germany was moving its capital from Bonn to Berlin. The German Ministry of Transport, which now occupied Krausenstrasse 17/18, was moving into our building. The ministry even attempted to register itself as the legal owner in the Berlin Land Registry.
But, the bureaucrats in Berlin finally conceded that the sale had been “Nazi-driven.”
I have learned it is indeed possible to take on city hall and win.
This article is adapted from Stolen Legacy: Nazi Theft and the Quest for Justice at Krausenstrasse 17/18, Berlin published by Ankerwycke, an imprint of the American Bar Association. The book is available at bookstores, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Shop ABA.