The Berlin Zoo and its Jews

A Report to Former Jewish Berliners 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 was illegal and therefore invalid. So in fact we are still owners of this stock, not "former owners."

Outline of Facts

I am now in touch with about twenty former Jewish Berliners, all of whom remember visiting the Berlin Zoo in their childhood as Aktionäre, i.e. owners or children of owners of Berlin Zoo stock shares. On the books of the Zoo corporation, all of us appear to have been stripped of our property. Moreover, we twenty are obviously a very small portion of all those similarly affected.

The most important dates for the confiscation of our Zoo property are the following: November 12, 1938, when Jews were barred by the government from entering public places like the Zoo, and December 1938, when Jews were no longer allowed to own stocks and bonds in Germany.

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

Our continuing ownership of Zoo stock has not been recognized by the post-war management of the Zoo. These people have in fact rebuffed all our inquiries for several decades. In this attitude they are unfortunately not alone. They have acted, and continue to act, very much like the Nazi-generation managers and executives of many other German enterprises.

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

The Background

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

The Zoo dates from the middle of the 19th century and was incorporated in 1845. The enterprise was conceived as a quasi-public corporation that sold shares of stock in order to raise money from the public. This stock was sold, from the beginning to now, with the understanding that the stockholders' benefit was cultural and recreational rather than financial: each stockholder, Aktionär, would receive unlimited free admission to the Zoo for himself and his family but little if any hope of financial gain.

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

In brief, the Zoo was an institution in which Berlin Jews felt at home and which they supported financially and otherwise. The Zoo, in turn, owed much to the Berlin Jews. I find it amazing that the current leadership of the Zoo has chosen to ignore this moral debt, as indeed it also tries to ignore its legal responsibilities.

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

The current leadership of the Zoo is in deep denial about the corporation's Nazi connections. Its quasi-official history Von der Menagerie zum Tierparadies; 125 Jahre Zoo Berlin (by Heinz-Georg Klös, 1969) has no Nazi period. It mentions the Second World War and the bombs that hit the Zoo, but no Hitler regime; it has pictures of Soviet soldiers visiting the Zoo after the war, but no SA men during the Hitler period; there is room in this curious history for Kaiser Wilhelm, for Theodor Heuss, for Willy Brandt and 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 the Zoo's board), deal with events at the Zoo during the later years of Nazi rule. There was a "zoological sensation," he reports (p. 114), in the spring of 1939, when tens of thousands of visitors came to see a panda bear visiting from China. That among these tens of thousands there were no Jews, who had been barred the previous November, nor Jewish stockholders, whose Aktien had been confiscated, he never reports. He never seems to think of these Jewish pioneers among the Zoo supporters. Nor do they occur to him later, when he writes of various Zoo developments in years when the Zoo's Jews were already on their way to the gas chambers.

Another history of the Zoo, again under Zoo auspices, appeared in 1994: Die Arche Noah an 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 Zoo director during the Hitler period, Lutz Heck, as an important Nazi functionary. This volume even acknowledges that Jews were banned from the Zoo after 1938. But on the crucial matter of the "aryanization" of Zoo stock, this volume is as quiet as its predecessor.

Despite my repeated requests for this information, I have not been given details of how the expropriation of Jewish Aktionäre took place. I have written repeatedly to the Zoo, but have received only the information that the stock which my father acquired on February 28, 1928 (when I myself was two years old) became the property of a Mr. Ferdinand Kallmeyer on August 13, 1938. Mrs. Edith Fox, another Jewish former Berliner, was told that her grandfather acquired Zoo stock in July of 1902, and that this stock became the property of a Mr. Martin Plesse on April 5, 1940. The Zoo has claimed not to know how much money, if any, was paid to our parents and grandparents at the time the Zoo stock was transferred away 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 still more of a pretense to legality than there was later, Göring explained that Jewish property would be expropriated, a fraction of 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 party members, to recompense them for harm they may have endured in Austria or Czechoslovakia, could be given Jewish property at the prices paid to the Jews. (Poliakov & Wulf: Das Dritte Reich und die Juden, pp. 75, ff.)

My father's Zoo Aktie was apparently taken in August of 1938, while Mrs. Fox's grandfather was not expropriated until 1940. I would assume, because of the different dates of "aryanization" - but I cannot know until the Zoo's records are released - that my 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 faith that I have encountered, this year, in dealing with the Zoo.

In response to my letters to the Zoo I received a letter from the 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 previous letter from the Zoo had conceded), and about the law preventing Jews from owning stock. So when he writes as he does he gives evidence of bad faith.

Somewhat later in his letter Dr. Lehmann says that the Zoo has never cared to which faith its Aktionäre belong, and that, even in the Nazi period, there never was any sort of discrimination against its Jewish Aktionäre. Dr. Lehmann of course knows better. As we noted above, even the Zoo's own history, published in 1994, acknowledges that Jews were banned from Zoo grounds during the Nazi period. Lehmann is not a newborn infant. He says in his letter that he was born in the year 1917 and so he was an adult during all the years of Nazi persecution. These statements of his, like those I have described just before, are evidence of bad faith on his part and on the part of the Zoo for whom he acts as agent.

A very startling report of the bad faith of the Zoo's present leadership is given by the German journalist Steffi Kammerer in the Süddeutsche Zeitung of 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 version of Kammerer's article click here. For the full original German version, click here.

How Much Money is Involved ?

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

For this moral injury there is no pecuniary remedy. But if we are willing to bracket off the larger question and address ourselves to what can be thought of in dollars and cents, the following considerations may serve as a beginning. As you will see, much here must be conjecture and estimate.

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

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

There is a much more precise method of estimating the number of Jewish Aktionäre in the early Nazi years. This method would require access to the Zoo archives. I have recently applied to the Zoo for such access. I explained this method to the Zoo as follows:

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 directed to the Zoo, has remained essentially fruitless. It is true that the Zoo has sent me a number of letters in recent months, but only after the press took an interest (see below). These letters from 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 explain in a minute, I favor the third, viz. an amicable settlement if one can be negotiated. Nevertheless I also favor exploring the other possibilities in the meantime.

a. Litigation.

I have been in touch with a law firm in Germany about the feasibility of this course of action. Unfortunately I am not at all acquainted with German legal norms. There are a number of issues that need to 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 of money that could be recovered. Some disadvantages are the complexity of such procedures, the time they would take (remember, most of us are in our eighties !), and, not at all least, the atmosphere of ill will that inevitably surrounds legal action.

The legal advice that I have received so far is that the German legal ideas of Verjährung, statute of limitation, would make litigation very difficult and perhaps impossible.

But the issue of statute of limitations is more complex than some of the lawyers will let on. Under German law, there simply is no time limitation for certain kinds of claims, for example when there has been bad faith (Verstoss gegen Treu und Glauben). In practice, however, lawyers do not like to handle cases on a contingency basis if the amount and probability of proceeds are judged to be smaller than the effort of litigation.

b. Publicity

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

c. Amicable Settlement

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

It is obvious that neither I, nor anyone else, can waive the claim of any other individual. In what follows I outline a possibility that I have embraced personally and that I hope you will consider as well.

I was in Israel in the summer of 2000 and had the opportunity of visiting the zoos in Ramat-Gan ("Safari") and Jerusalem (the Biblical Zoo). Both are outstanding institutions and merit our 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 delineated limits. It is accessible to the public by automobile or special minibus.

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

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

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

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

Any such projects would be dedicated to the memory of the Jewish families who had title to Berlin Zoo stock. I have written to Dr. Terkel to the effect that, provided the Berlin Zoo makes a meaningful gesture of this kind, I assign any rights I have to the Ramat-Gan zoo. I have also told her that I would recommend a similar assignment, in whole or at least in part, by the other Aktionäre with whom I am in touch. You may wish to write to 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 You Can Help

While an amicable settlement would be in the interests of all concerned, the Zoo has so far shown no interest in this approach. I think that we should all appeal to public opinion and especially to that large majority of younger Germans of good will. If my analysis is correct, it is we, the former Jewish Berliners, who supported the Zoo in its early years out of all proportion to our numbers. In many ways the Zoo is ours more than it belongs to its current leadership, stuck as this leadership seems to be in the morass of the Nazi period.

Your Comments, Please

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


Werner Cohn
November 15, 2000


The Cohn-Zoo correspondence


German newspapers report on the Berlin Zoo and its Jews


Steffi Kammerer's article in English translation


Some bibliographic notes concerning the Zoo-Nazi connection


My family's German passports



Click here to go to home page of Werner Cohn


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