«You have to shed light on the past!»

Four questions to Muriel Gerstner and Sandra Sykora.

The coll­ec­tion of the Jewish Muse­um of Switz­er­land con­ta­ins records of the Höch­berg and Flörsheim/Flersheim fami­lies, inclu­ding a mar­ria­ge con­tract and a citi­zens’ oath from the 19th cen­tu­ry. At the time, the fami­ly estab­lished seve­ral cha­ri­ta­ble foun­da­ti­ons in Frank­furt. During the Nazi dic­ta­tor­ship, the foun­da­ti­ons were liqui­da­ted, the board mem­bers per­se­cu­ted, and the assets loo­ted. Now, their des­cen­dant, our len­der Muri­el Gerst­ner, a Basel stage desi­gner, is tra­cing their histo­ry tog­e­ther with the lawy­er Dr. San­dra Syko­ra. Dr. Nao­mi Lubrich spo­ke with them about their rese­arch.

Nao­mi Lubrich: Muri­el, during the pan­de­mic, you rese­ar­ched the fate of your family’s three foun­da­ti­ons and came across an uncan­ny sto­ry. What is it?

 Muri­el Gerst­ner: My ances­tors, among them two women, foun­ded and ran three foun­da­ti­ons in Frank­furt in the second half of the 19th cen­tu­ry. The­se foun­da­ti­ons enab­led dis­ad­van­ta­ged young peo­p­le to recei­ve a good edu­ca­ti­on. They also ran an orpha­na­ge. Befo­re World War II, Frank­furt hat more than one hundred cha­ri­ta­ble Jewish foun­da­ti­ons, which hel­ped finan­ce such important initia­ti­ves as the Goe­the Uni­ver­si­ty (1914). During Natio­nal Socia­lism, howe­ver, Jewish foun­da­ti­ons were disen­fran­chised and then arya­nis­ed. Your term «unheim­lich» (lite­ral­ly un-homey, uncan­ny) appli­es to the fate of the orpha­na­ge: The docu­ments show that in 1941/1942, all the resi­dents of the orpha­na­ge, carers and orphans ali­ke, many of them under the age of ele­ven, were depor­ted. The home, which had offe­red the child­ren pro­tec­tion, beca­me a dead­ly trap.

NL: What are your next steps?

MuGe: San­dra rese­ar­ched the foun­da­ti­ons and was able to shed light on the Nazi appa­ra­tus as it acted on insti­tu­ti­ons, not only on indi­vi­du­als. Now, we would like to bring the insights we gai­ned from the public archi­ves to bear on my family’s docu­ments and publish our con­ver­sa­ti­ons as a dia­lo­gue bet­ween the rese­ar­cher and the des­cen­dant. The pro­ject is rele­vant: Foun­da­ti­ons are key play­ers in our socie­ty today. They sup­port our cul­tu­ral, sci­en­ti­fic and social life to a gre­at ext­ent. The libe­ral Jewish citi­zens of the 19th cen­tu­ry, com­mit­ted to the ide­as of the Enligh­ten­ment, unders­tood this ear­ly on.

NL: San­dra, you are a lawy­er, an art his­to­ri­an and an expert on pro­ven­an­ce. What did your rese­arch reveal?

San­dra Syko­ra: Muri­el alre­a­dy had view­ed some docu­ments from the Insti­tut für Stadt­ge­schich­te (Insti­tu­te for Urban Histo­ry). I built upon her rese­arch and found many more files. They docu­ment the sys­te­ma­tic plun­de­ring of the foun­da­ti­ons by the Nazi city admi­nis­tra­ti­on, as well as the bul­ly­ing and per­se­cu­ti­on of the board mem­bers in such detail and reve­al so much depra­vi­ty, that my blood often fro­ze in my veins when I read them. At first, I told Muri­el only bits and pie­ces of what I found. It was lite­ral­ly unbe­ara­ble. Then we agreed that I would com­pi­le my fin­dings in a report, refe­ren­cing both the his­to­ri­cal and the legal scho­lar­ship. This was and is a joint pro­cess. And it con­firms what Muri­el says: you have to shed light on the past!

NL: The laws regu­la­ting foun­da­ti­ons were shame­l­ess­ly under­cut. How was that possible?

 SaSy: Actual­ly, the foun­da­ti­on law, which was writ­ten in the 19th cen­tu­ry, remain­ed lar­ge­ly unaf­fec­ted. Nazi lawy­ers tur­ned other cogs in the legal sys­tem of the time. They clas­si­fied foun­da­ti­ons that did not exclu­si­ve­ly bene­fit «deut­schen Volks­ge­nos­sen» (Ger­mans, defi­ned raci­al­ly) as non-cha­ri­ta­ble, which affec­ted their taxa­ti­on sta­tus and allo­wed assets to be deduc­ted. Jews were ous­ted from boards of direc­tors, as were Jewish names in the foun­da­ti­on names. Foun­ders’ goals were gross­ly dis­re­gard­ed. Pro­per­ties were acqui­red by the city below value. Most Jewish foun­da­ti­ons, inclu­ding tho­se foun­ded by Muriel’s fami­ly, were incor­po­ra­ted into the Reich Asso­cia­ti­on of Jews in Ger­ma­ny; their assets then fell to the Ger­man Reich. The fate of the three foun­da­ti­ons is repre­sen­ta­ti­ve of count­less others as they were regard­ed as «resour­ces» by the Nazis. For­mer board mem­bers could only revi­ve a small num­ber of foun­da­ti­ons after the war. With Jewish foun­da­ti­ons gone, a valuable tra­di­ti­on of Jewish patro­na­ge and civic spi­rit was lost as well, along with trust in the sta­te. The sta­te had pro­mi­sed that foun­da­ti­ons were to be estab­lished for eternity!

NL: Thank you for this insight into a pro­mi­sing project!

verfasst am 20.10.2022