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TheBerlin Zoo and Its Jews


In the Cage of Forgetting

Steffi Kammerer

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


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


In March of this year a letter arrived at theBerlin 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 HardenbergStreet. He and his sister Hilde stood almost daily in front ofthe cage of Roland, the sea lion. Their father owned a share ofstock in the Zoo, so they were admitted free. Now, nearing theend of his life, he writes that he wants to know what happenedto this share which his father had bought in 1926. He was neverable to ask his father, who had killed himself in 1940, two yearsafter he was able to save his Jewish family to America. The photoover 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 ownedby its stockholders. Now as ever, a Zoo share is counted as astatus symbol in Berlin society. There are only 4000 of theseshares and generally they get passed on from generation to generation.Very rarely is it possible to purchase one of these collector'sitems. Priced at over 7000 Euro, a Zoo share is today one of themost 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 registrationnumber 1114, was sold to a certain Ferdinand Kallmeyer on August13, 1938. Nothing further is known. Unfortunately, neither thesales price nor the circumstances of the sale can now be recovered.Cohn probed further. In April 2000 he received another letterfrom Berlin. Upon instructions from the Zoo, the lawyer RichardF. Lehmann now wrote from the beautiful Fasanen Street.

Mr. Lehmann informed Cohn that no expropriationof Jewish stock shares ever took place, that when his father'sshare was transferred there had been "neither pressure, norcompulsion, nor duress." He could "personally assertwith absolute certainty that I have never found any sort of anti-Jewishplacards or instructions. In any case, the Zoo does not care towhich faith its stockholders may subscribe. For this reason, nospecial 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 forcethe Zoo to confront its past. He inserted advertisements and beganto search the internet for others similarly affected. So far abouttwenty elderly people have responded, from the USA, Latin America,Israel. They report that their parents, too, had been owners ofZoo stock shares. Cohn estimates that until the end of the 1930'salmost half of the Zoo stock shares were owned by Jews. "TheJews of West Berlin had very close ties to the Zoo," he recounts."In our circles it was something that was expected, to beinvolved with the Zoo." After this property was mostly "aryanized",there would be something of a moral debt of more than ten milliondollars. After all, argues Cohn, these shares were not availableto the Jewish owners for 60 years. He does not claim this sumfor the individual Jewish stockholders but rather for the benefitof the Zoo in Tel Aviv.

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

More recently the Zoo has attempted a softertone. After all, the Zoo's director Hans Frädrich had toendure questions from his colleagues at the Los Angeles Zoo, lastAugust, about his failure to do something. "The truth ofthe matter," he instructed Cohn in his next letter, thatsomeone has been busy for weeks, going through the old stockholderrecords. Some 180 clearly Jewish names have already been found.And he admits: "A conspicuously large number of stock salesdid indeed take place in 1939. This suggests forced sales."The Zoo board, said Frädrich, will meet in October to decidehow to react to such findings. "The Zoo and its leadershiphave nothing to hide."

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

I was grateful that Werner Cohn, who livesin 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 lifebecause of German guilt. "And now, when even the forced laborersare paid for damages, this Mr. Cohn, who has nothing better todo in his retirement, feels called upon to chime in with demands."

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

He welcomes Jews just as much as the 200,000"Mussulmen" who live in Berlin, says Czupalla. But hedoes not understand what kind of claims the Jews could have. "TheZoo that you see today, no Jewish citizen has contributed anythingto it." Everything was destroyed in 1945. "It was rebuiltby 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 decentman who fought in the trenches during the war"), well, bothmen now consider it "clumsy." Lehmann had underestimatedcertain sensitivities. And that there were no placards forbiddingJews to enter the Zoo, that too can no longer be ascertained withany certainty. Even considering a "half-Jewish" womanwho had testified that she had gone to the Zoo regularly wellafter 1938.

Wolf Gruner of the Berlin "Zentrum fürAntisemitismusforschung" (Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism)insists that Berlin Jews were barred from the Zoo at the latestafter the November pogrom of 1938. He has a document accordingto which the Zoo director at the time, Lutz Heck, had suggestedas early as the beginning of 1938 to bar Jews from all Germanzoos.

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


Translated by Werner Cohn


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