The Berlin Zoo and its Jews

A Report to Former JewishBerliners with Claims Against the Berlin Zoo

Dear Fellow Jewish Stockholder(Aktionär) of the Berlin Zoo,

You may wonder why I don't say "former Jewish stockholder"here. Our Zoo stock was confiscated and transferred to new "aryan"owners in the late 1930's or early 1940's. But this transfer wasillegal and therefore invalid. So in fact we are still ownersof this stock, not "former owners."

Outline of Facts

I am now in touch with about twenty former Jewish Berliners, allof whom remember visiting the Berlin Zoo in their childhood asAktionäre, i.e. owners or children of owners of Berlin Zoostock shares. On the books of the Zoo corporation, all of us appearto have been stripped of our property. Moreover, we twenty areobviously a very small portion of all those similarly affected.

The most important dates for the confiscation of our Zoo propertyare the following: November 12, 1938, when Jews were barred bythe government from entering public places like the Zoo, and December1938, when Jews were no longer allowed to own stocks and bondsin Germany.

I do not know the precise mechanisms by which our parents weredeprived, although I have repeatedly requested this informationfrom the Zoo. But the basic facts are clear: 1) our property wasconfiscated during the latter years of the Nazi regime; 2) theconfiscation proceeded under cover of a "sale" of thestock to non-Jewish individuals; 3) these "sales" weremade under duress and are therefore invalid; 4) the "aryan"pretenders to our property were wrongfully registered by the Zoocorporation; 5) The Zoo knew, or should have known, that these"sales" were invalid; 6) the Zoo was in collusion, thedetails of which are not yet clear, with this illegal "aryanization;"and, finally, 7) we, the lawful owners of this stock and theirheirs, demand that we be restored to a position equivalent toone that would obtain if the illegal dispossession had not occurred.

Our continuing ownership of Zoo stock has not been recognizedby the post-war management of the Zoo. These people have in factrebuffed all our inquiries for several decades. In this attitudethey are unfortunately not alone. They have acted, and continueto act, very much like the Nazi-generation managers and executivesof many other German enterprises.

We, who are now in our seventies and beyond, are the last generationof former Berlin Jews to have had Zoo experience before the Holocaust.I think that the time has come to solve this matter in a mannerthat will be acceptable to us, to the new generation of youngerGermans who are slowly taking up the relay, and to the Germanpublic.

The Background

In what follows, I try to present a concise but fairly completepicture of the Berlin Zoo and its Jews, at least insofar as thispicture affects us, the Jewish Aktionäre.

The Zoo dates from the middle of the 19th century and was incorporatedin 1845. The enterprise was conceived as a quasi-public corporationthat sold shares of stock in order to raise money from the public.This stock was sold, from the beginning to now, with the understandingthat the stockholders' benefit was cultural and recreational ratherthan financial: each stockholder, Aktionär, would receiveunlimited free admission to the Zoo for himself and his familybut little if any hope of financial gain.

There are many reasons to believe that Jews in particular wereapt to become Aktionäre. First, the neighborhoods aroundthe Zoo Charlottenburg, Wilmersdorf, and Tiergarten had a relativelyhigh percentage of Jews. (In 1935, Jews made up 8.02% of the populationof Charlottenburg, 13.77% of Wilmersdorf, and 5.12% of Tiergarten).Second, the Jews in these areas unlike those of the eastern partaround Alexanderplatz - were relatively assimilated, well-to-do,and educated. Third, Jews were known to be very much over-representedin institutions of culture, education, and the like. Finally,we have much anecdotal evidence suggesting that among the Jewisheducated and professional classes, it was common to meet in theZoo for breakfast and social get-togethers, to consider the Zooa meeting place of like-minded friends and family.

In brief, the Zoo was an institution in which Berlin Jews feltat home and which they supported financially and otherwise. TheZoo, in turn, owed much to the Berlin Jews. I find it amazingthat the current leadership of the Zoo has chosen to ignore thismoral debt, as indeed it also tries to ignore its legal responsibilities.

With the coming of the Nazis, there is no doubt that the Zoo becamepart of the Nazi cultural apparatus. Located centrally in Berlin,being such an important component of the city, it became partand parcel of Nazi Berlin. Moreover, it also fitted in with theNazi cult of Tierschutz, of which Hitler was the principalpatron, which taught "kindness to animals" as one ofthe major aims of the Third Reich.

The current leadership of the Zoo is in deep denial about thecorporation's Nazi connections. Its quasi-official history Vonder Menagerie zum Tierparadies; 125 Jahre Zoo Berlin (by Heinz-GeorgKlös, 1969) has no Nazi period. It mentions the Second WorldWar and the bombs that hit the Zoo, but no Hitler regime; it haspictures of Soviet soldiers visiting the Zoo after the war, butno SA men during the Hitler period; there is room in this curioushistory for Kaiser Wilhelm, for Theodor Heuss, for Willy Brandtand even for Robert Kennedy, but not for Hitler, not for Göring,not for Goebbels.

Some of the most objectionable passages in the book by Dr. Klös(who, by the way, still appears to play a leading role on theZoo's board), deal with events at the Zoo during the later yearsof Nazi rule. There was a "zoological sensation," hereports (p. 114), in the spring of 1939, when tens of thousandsof visitors came to see a panda bear visiting from China. Thatamong these tens of thousands there were no Jews, who had beenbarred the previous November, nor Jewish stockholders, whose Aktienhad been confiscated, he never reports. He never seems to thinkof these Jewish pioneers among the Zoo supporters. Nor do theyoccur to him later, when he writes of various Zoo developmentsin years when the Zoo's Jews were already on their way to thegas chambers.

Another history of the Zoo,again under Zoo auspices, appeared in 1994: Die Arche Noahan der Spree, by Klös, Frädrich, and Ursula Klös.This volume, marginally more informative than the earlier one,acknowledges that there had been a Nazi period and names the Zoodirector during the Hitler period, Lutz Heck, as an importantNazi functionary. This volume even acknowledges that Jews werebanned from the Zoo after 1938. But on the crucial matter of the"aryanization" of Zoo stock, this volume is as quietas its predecessor.

Despite my repeated requests for this information, I have notbeen given details of how the expropriation of Jewish Aktionäretook place. I have written repeatedly to the Zoo, but have receivedonly the information that the stock which my father acquired onFebruary 28, 1928 (when I myself was two years old) became theproperty of a Mr. Ferdinand Kallmeyer on August 13, 1938. Mrs.Edith Fox, another Jewish former Berliner, was told that her grandfatheracquired Zoo stock in July of 1902, and that this stock becamethe property of a Mr. Martin Plesse on April 5, 1940. The Zoohas claimed not to know how much money, if any, was paid to ourparents and grandparents at the time the Zoo stock was transferredaway from them on the books of the corporation.

Of course by now we know something about how "aryanization"the confiscatory transfer of Jewish property to non-Jewish ("aryan")hands -- took place in general. In 1938, when there was stillmore of a pretense to legality than there was later, Göringexplained that Jewish property would be expropriated, a fractionof the value would be paid to the Jewish owners, the new "aryan"owners would pay full value, and the profit would go to the state.But there would be exceptions: particularly deserving old partymembers, to recompense them for harm they may have endured inAustria or Czechoslovakia, could be given Jewish property at theprices paid to the Jews. (Poliakov & Wulf: Das Dritte Reichund die Juden, pp. 75, ff.)

My father's Zoo Aktie was apparently taken in August of1938, while Mrs. Fox's grandfather was not expropriated until1940. I would assume, because of the different dates of "aryanization"- but I cannot know until the Zoo's records are released - thatmy father was given more than Mrs. Fox's grandfather.

The Zoo Acts in Bad Faith

The sorriest chapter in the story I have to tell is the bad faiththat I have encountered, this year, in dealing with the Zoo.

In response to my letters to the Zoo I received a letter fromthe Zoo's lawyer, Dr. Richard F. Lehmann, dated April 4, 2000.In the transfer of my father's Aktie in 1938 to a Mr. Kallmeyer,Dr. Lehmann writes, there was "weder Druck, noch Zwang,noch Nötigung," "no pressure, no compulsion,no duress." Dr. Lehmann, who says that he writes as a "jurist,"obviously knows as much as we do about Göring's "aryanization"program, about the ban of Jews from the Zoo grounds (which a previousletter from the Zoo had conceded), and about the law preventingJews from owning stock. So when he writes as he does he givesevidence of bad faith.

Somewhat later in his letter Dr. Lehmann says that the Zoo hasnever cared to which faith its Aktionäre belong, andthat, even in the Nazi period, there never was any sort of discriminationagainst its Jewish Aktionäre. Dr. Lehmann of course knowsbetter. As we noted above, even the Zoo's own history, publishedin 1994, acknowledges that Jews were banned from Zoo grounds duringthe Nazi period. Lehmann is not a newborn infant. He says in hisletter that he was born in the year 1917 and so he was an adultduring all the years of Nazi persecution. These statements ofhis, like those I have described just before, are evidence ofbad faith on his part and on the part of the Zoo for whom he actsas agent.

A very startling reportof the bad faith of the Zoo's present leadership is given by theGerman journalist Steffi Kammerer in the Süddeutsche Zeitungof October 12, 2000:

Peter Czupalla, the Zoo's CEO, reluctantly agreed to a conversation in his office, which was also attended by the Zoo's director, Dr. Hans 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."

To see the full English versionof Kammerer's article clickhere. For the full original German version, click here.

How Much Money is Involved ?

I think that what we lost in the "aryanization" of ourstock is largely in the realm of a moral blow: an institutionwhich our parents supported loyally for many years, and from whichwe could perhaps hope for a bit of support in return, turned onus in lock-step with the rest of Germany during the Nazi period.Moreover, now, long after the war, at a time when much of thenew Germany has turned away from its Nazi past, this Zoo of ourforebears seeks to perpetuate the Nazis' theft of our property.

For this moral injury there is no pecuniary remedy. But if weare willing to bracket off the larger question and address ourselvesto what can be thought of in dollars and cents, the followingconsiderations may serve as a beginning. As you will see, muchhere must be conjecture and estimate.

The current market value of Berlin Zoo stock is about $6000 (7000Euro), for stock without Aquarium, and just a bit more for stockwith Aquarium. Since the main value of the stock lies in admissionto the Zoo, any accounting of loss must address the loss of thisprivilege for the last sixty-two years. In some cases, a nominalamount may in fact have been paid to our parents at the time ofthe "aryanization," an amount that one could deduct.Finally, given the persistent bad faith of the Zoo in fieldingour inquiries over the years, the idea of punitive damages, orits equivalent, would certainly arise. Putting all these considerationstogether, a ball-park figure of around $15,000, per claimant,suggests itself.

The next question is how many Jewish Aktionäre wereaffected by these forced "aryanizations." The threeneighborhoods surrounding the Zoo contained about 60,000 Jewsin 1935, or about 20,000 Jewish families. Say two thousand ofthese were Zoo Aktionäre, or half of the total ofZoo stockholders, which, then as now, numbered four thousand.Two thousand is perhaps a high estimate, but for reasons I havegiven above I would expect the proportion of Jews who had boughtZoo stock to have been very high. This somewhat arbitrary assumptionwould suggest a Zoo liability of about thirty million dollars.

There is a much more precise method of estimating the number ofJewish Aktionäre in the early Nazi years. This method wouldrequire access to the Zoo archives. I have recently applied tothe Zoo for such access. I explained this method to the Zoo asfollows:

There are a number of ways of estimating how many of your Aktionäre were Jewish. We know that about 2.6% of Berlin Jews in this period had one of the following surnames: Cohn, Levy, and Lewy. (Jüdisches Adressbuch für Gross-Berlin, Ausgabe 1931). So if we know the number of Aktionäre bearing these names in 1936, we can estimate the total number of Jews among the Aktionäre at that time.

I would [also] like to know what became of the Aktien belonging to each of these families, i.e. I would like to know the current status of all Aktien that were registered under Cohn, Levy, and Lewy in 1936.

I respectfully request that you furnish me with this information, as well as with such additional data that you determine to be relevant and helpful to me.


This request for information,like all the other recent correspondence that I have directedto the Zoo, has remained essentially fruitless. It is true thatthe Zoo has sent me a number of letters in recent months, butonly after the press took an interest (see below). These lettersfrom the Zoo were evasive. For the full text of this correspondence,click here.

What is to be Done ?

Three courses of action suggest themselves. As I will explainin a minute, I favor the third, viz. an amicable settlement ifone can be negotiated. Nevertheless I also favor exploring theother possibilities in the meantime.

a. Litigation.

I have been in touch with a law firm in Germany about the feasibilityof this course of action. Unfortunately I am not at all acquaintedwith German legal norms. There are a number of issues that needto be explored in order to evaluate the practicality of litigation.Since only so few claimants are known and so many are unknown,some approach similar to a class action would seem appropriate.The advantages of litigation might include an optimal amount ofmoney that could be recovered. Some disadvantages are the complexityof such procedures, the time they would take (remember, most ofus are in our eighties !), and, not at all least, the atmosphereof ill will that inevitably surrounds legal action.

The legal advice that Ihave received so far is that the German legal ideas of Verjährung,statute of limitation, would make litigation very difficult andperhaps impossible.

But the issue of statuteof limitations is more complex than some of the lawyers will leton. Under German law, there simply is no time limitation for certainkinds of claims, for example when there has been bad faith (Verstossgegen Treu und Glauben). In practice, however, lawyers donot like to handle cases on a contingency basis if the amountand probability of proceeds are judged to be smaller than theeffort of litigation.

b. Publicity

The German press has taken a great interest in our cause. A numberof German daily newspapers have published extensive stories, and,as a result, we have been able to put our place before the Germanpublic. I give the text of the articles that have appeared beforethe middle of November. More are on the way. I also give an English translation ofone of these articles.

c. Amicable Settlement

This approach is based on the following assumptions: a) We JewishZoo stockholders continue to support the aims and purposes ofa Zoo; b) the Berlin Zoo is a not-for-profit organization; c)a younger generation of Germans is slowly making its way in theZoo leadership; d) most of the Jewish Aktionäre are not indesperate need for money and will be willing to forego personalfinancial claims in favor of a public-interest settlement.

It is obvious that neither I, nor anyone else, can waive the claimof any other individual. In what follows I outline a possibilitythat I have embraced personally and that I hope you will consideras well.

I was in Israel in the summer of 2000 and had the opportunityof visiting the zoos in Ramat-Gan ("Safari") and Jerusalem(the Biblical Zoo). Both are outstanding institutions and meritour interest and support.

The Ramat-Gan zoo is the larger and more ambitious institution.The zoo proper is surrounded by a large territory ("safari")where various species, notably lions, can roam within delineatedlimits. It is accessible to the public by automobile or specialminibus.

I had a discussion with the curator, Dr. Amelia Terkel (Ph.D.University of California), and learned that she has friendly professionalrelations with the Berlin Zoo and its new, younger leadership.In our discussion, Dr. Terkel and I conceived of using the storyof the Jewish stockholders in the Berlin Zoo as an opportunityfor it, the Berlin Zoo, to sponsor certain projects at Ramat-Gan.These could include the breeding and conservation of Israeli animalsat Ramat-Gan, including new enclosures, breeding space, and educationalgraphics. Dr. Terkel has outlined the options as follows:

1) Mesopotamian fallow deer (these animals are being bred andreleased into the wild)

2) Carnivores (such as Fennec foxes, caracals, leopards, honeybadger, wolf, etc.)

3) Bald ibis and other water birds scheduled for captive breedingand reintroduction to the wild in Israel.

Any such projects would be dedicated to the memory of the Jewishfamilies who had title to Berlin Zoo stock. I have written toDr. Terkel to the effect that, provided the Berlin Zoo makes ameaningful gesture of this kind, I assign any rights I have tothe Ramat-Gan zoo. I have also told her that I would recommenda similar assignment, in whole or at least in part, by the otherAktionäre with whom I am in touch. You may wish to writeto Dr. Terkel directly to this effect, or for any other information:Dr. Amelia Terkel, Curator, Zoological Center Tel Aviv Ramat-Gan,PO Box 984, Ramat-Gan, Israel 52109, Telephone 972-3-6313531.

Outlook, and How YouCan Help

While an amicable settlementwould be in the interests of all concerned, the Zoo has so farshown no interest in this approach. I think that we should allappeal to public opinion and especially to that large majorityof younger Germans of good will. If my analysis is correct, itis we, the former Jewish Berliners, who supported the Zoo in itsearly years out of all proportion to our numbers. In many waysthe Zoo is ours more than it belongs to its current leadership,stuck as this leadership seems to be in the morass of the Naziperiod.

Your Comments, Please

I would very much appreciate your comments, especially concerningthe course of action I propose above. In any case, I expect tobe in touch with you again. Please feel free to pass this reporton to anyone who might be interested, especially fellow Aktionäre.


Werner Cohn
November 15, 2000


TheCohn-Zoo correspondence


Germannewspapers report on the Berlin Zoo and its Jews


SteffiKammerer's article in English translation


Somebibliographic notes concerning the Zoo-Nazi connection


My family's German passports



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