«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