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The Berlin Zoo and Its Jews


In the Cage of Forgetting

Steffi Kammerer

Translation of "Im Gehege des Vergessens," Süddeutsche Zeitung, October 12, 2000, © Süddeutsche Zeitung, 2000


"In the fall uncle Julius even went to the Zoo after work. His whole life now revolved around animals. And then, shortly before Christmas, came the blow. Uncle Julius received an official letter revoking his free admission pass to the Zoo. The fact that he had a Jewish grandmother sufficed. After this Uncle Julius changed. He could not sleep and did not eat properly. One day Uncle Julius was found dead next to an empty tube of sleeping tablets." (From Judith Kerr: Als Hitler das rosa Kaninchen stahl).


In March of this year a letter arrived at the Berlin Zoo from Brooklyn, New York. The sender was Werner Cohn, a retired sociology professor. As an old "Zoo child," said the now 74 year old, he often thinks of his visits to Hardenberg Street. He and his sister Hilde stood almost daily in front of the cage of Roland, the sea lion. Their father owned a share of stock in the Zoo, so they were admitted free. Now, nearing the end of his life, he writes that he wants to know what happened to this share which his father had bought in 1926. He was never able to ask his father, who had killed himself in 1940, two years after he was able to save his Jewish family to America. The photo over Cohn's desk shows his father in the uniform of the Kaiser, decorated with the Iron Cross.

For more than 150 years the Zoo has been owned by its stockholders. Now as ever, a Zoo share is counted as a status symbol in Berlin society. There are only 4000 of these shares and generally they get passed on from generation to generation. Very rarely is it possible to purchase one of these collector's items. Priced at over 7000 Euro, a Zoo share is today one of the most expensive of German securities.

So Werner Cohn wrote to ask some questions: Was his family's share actually sold ? If so, was it done voluntarily ? Was it legal ? How much money did his father receive for it ? Was this sum consistent with the market value at the time ? The Zoo reacted immediately. The share, which bore the registration number 1114, was sold to a certain Ferdinand Kallmeyer on August 13, 1938. Nothing further is known. Unfortunately, neither the sales price nor the circumstances of the sale can now be recovered. Cohn probed further. In April 2000 he received another letter from Berlin. Upon instructions from the Zoo, the lawyer Richard F. Lehmann now wrote from the beautiful Fasanen Street.

Mr. Lehmann informed Cohn that no expropriation of Jewish stock shares ever took place, that when his father's share was transferred there had been "neither pressure, nor compulsion, nor duress." He could "personally assert with absolute certainty that I have never found any sort of anti-Jewish placards or instructions. In any case, the Zoo does not care to which faith its stockholders may subscribe. For this reason, no special treatment of any sort was ever applied to Jewish stockholders, not even during the Nazi period."

The Real Problems

Werner Cohn is a thoughtful and pleasant person. But after receiving this rather stony missive he decided to force the Zoo to confront its past. He inserted advertisements and began to search the internet for others similarly affected. So far about twenty elderly people have responded, from the USA, Latin America, Israel. They report that their parents, too, had been owners of Zoo stock shares. Cohn estimates that until the end of the 1930's almost half of the Zoo stock shares were owned by Jews. "The Jews of West Berlin had very close ties to the Zoo," he recounts. "In our circles it was something that was expected, to be involved with the Zoo." After this property was mostly "aryanized", there would be something of a moral debt of more than ten million dollars. After all, argues Cohn, these shares were not available to the Jewish owners for 60 years. He does not claim this sum for the individual Jewish stockholders but rather for the benefit of the Zoo in Tel Aviv.

Cohn no longer contemplates litigation. It would be futile, he says. The statute of limitations expired as early as the 1950's. But the claim of Lehmann, the Zoo's lawyer, is cynical. "In all business transactions involving Jews after the Nuremberg anti-Semitic 'racial' legislation of 1935, the presumption is that they occurred under compulsion" says Peter Heuss, a historian at the Jewish Claims Conference in Frankfurt. This presumption would hold, absent proof to the contrary by the purchaser. In any case there was indirect pressure because most of the persecuted could not finance their emigration without selling their property.

More recently the Zoo has attempted a softer tone. After all, the Zoo's director Hans Frädrich had to endure questions from his colleagues at the Los Angeles Zoo, last August, about his failure to do something. "The truth of the matter," he instructed Cohn in his next letter, that someone has been busy for weeks, going through the old stockholder records. Some 180 clearly Jewish names have already been found. And he admits: "A conspicuously large number of stock sales did indeed take place in 1939. This suggests forced sales." The Zoo board, said Frädrich, will meet in October to decide how to react to such findings. "The Zoo and its leadership have nothing to hide."

A few days ago this meeting did in fact take place. Nothing much happened. It was decided, according to the Zoo's CEO Hans-Peter Czupalla, to enter the names into a computer and to give the data to a scholar. No more can be said at the moment. But he does reluctantly agree to a conversation in his office, which is also attended by the Zoo's director Frädrich.

I was grateful that Werner Cohn, who lives in far-off Brooklyn, could not hear how these Zoo functionaries, seated as they were in front of their colorful safari photographs, expressed themselves. Billions have already been paid to the Jews, says Czupalla. He, Czupalla, has had to suffer his whole life because of German guilt. "And now, when even the forced laborers are paid for damages, this Mr. Cohn, who has nothing better to do in his retirement, feels called upon to chime in with demands."

But he, Czupalla, has a great deal to do. He has real problems to work on. For example, the subsidies for the Zoo are constantly being decreased. He even had to abolish the horse-drawn cabs. We finally have to put an end to the past, says Czupalla. "I want to look ahead, not always backward. Even for the crime of murder there is a statute of limitation." After all, he himself went hungry during the war and had to make sacrifices. "My family had to exchange a valuable carpet for a sack of potatoes. I can't go to the farmer now and retrieve our carpet."

He welcomes Jews just as much as the 200,000 "Mussulmen" who live in Berlin, says Czupalla. But he does not understand what kind of claims the Jews could have. "The Zoo that you see today, no Jewish citizen has contributed anything to it." Everything was destroyed in 1945. "It was rebuilt by the new generation. I say this without pathos and without pride. It is simply a fact."

A "half-Jew" as Witness

The letter from lawyer Lehmann ("a decent man who fought in the trenches during the war"), well, both men now consider it "clumsy." Lehmann had underestimated certain sensitivities. And that there were no placards forbidding Jews to enter the Zoo, that too can no longer be ascertained with any certainty. Even considering a "half-Jewish" woman who had testified that she had gone to the Zoo regularly well after 1938.

Wolf Gruner of the Berlin "Zentrum für Antisemitismusforschung" (Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism) insists that Berlin Jews were barred from the Zoo at the latest after the November pogrom of 1938. He has a document according to which the Zoo director at the time, Lutz Heck, had suggested as early as the beginning of 1938 to bar Jews from all German zoos.

Werner Cohn hopes that his letters will cause the Zoo to at least come to terms with its own past. The old man often takes his grandchildren to the zoo in the Bronx. Sometimes, when they watch the feeding of the sea lion, he talks about the past. He would have liked it if the Zoo had volunteered to send him a free admission pass even though he might never be able to use it. It would have been a gesture.


Translated by Werner Cohn


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