Bay Area family visits Germany to reclaim, then donate, Nazi-looted heirloom

The Jewish News of Northern California 21 July 2022
By Alix Wall

When Gabie Berliner was growing up in San Francisco, the only thing she knew about her father’s cousin Klara was that on the occasion of Gabie’s birth, Klara had given her a silver spoon.

“It was in a case, and it had her calling card in it,” said Berliner, 87, about the gift. “As a kid, I wondered why someone would give a baby a big spoon.”

In May, Berliner traveled to Hanover, Germany, on behalf of Klara, the cousin she never met, who was murdered in the Holocaust.

She was accompanied by her cousin Yossi Fendel, of Berkeley, and his daughter Shoshana Fendel, a student at UC Davis. The three were invited by the city of Hanover for the ceremonial return of a large, Rococo-style, wooden linen cabinet and embroidery panel that the Nazis had looted from Klara’s home.

The event (delayed because of Covid) was set in motion by two Germans, a journalist and a historian, who worked to trace the origin of the items from the original owners to their heirs as a form of restitution.

Klara Berliner’s linen cabinet, looted by the Nazis, ended up in a Hanover museum before its Bay Area heirs learned of its existence.

Berliner and the Fendels are among 80 descendants in the U.S. — about half of them Bay Area residents — of the same prominent Jewish family from Hanover. The matriarch and patriarch were Sälly Friedman and Samuel Berliner; they had 12 children, including Klara’s father, Joseph Berliner, who became wealthy by founding the first European telephone factory and Deutsche Grammophon, the oldest surviving record company in the world (now owned by Universal Music Group).

The cabinet — nearly 7 feet high and 8 feet wide, crafted in the late 18th century — originally belonged to Joseph and was inherited by Klara, along with her father’s considerable assets. The Nazis confiscated all of the family’s property before Klara was sent to Theresienstadt.

Johannes Schwartz, a historian who works in Hanover’s city cultural department for Nazi-era provenance research, is the author of a 36-page report, now translated into English, on the fate of Klara Berliner and how the cabinet and embroidery panel came to be obtained by the Museum August Kestner in 1942.

“The history of Klara Berliner’s persecution under the National Socialists is so singular,” the report says, “because in this case one of the richest women in Hanover was completely dispossessed with(in) the period of five years. As she herself wrote, at the end she did not even have enough money to buy a rope with which to hang herself.”

Schwartz noted that with paintings, heirs are more easily able to identify what belonged to their ancestors and hire lawyers to trace and reclaim the art. This was not at all the case with the cabinet.

“It was our decision to go looking for its heirs,” he said. Noting that the museum has many items in its collection from the Nazi era, he said, “I have much to do there.”

Yossi Fendel serves as a trustee of a trust created by a family member to manage any property that belonged to Berliner heirs; he was first contacted about the existence of the cabinet and embroidery panel by journalist Lorenz Schröter just before the pandemic. In his role as a trustee, Fendel writes an occasional newsletter with family updates. In 2020, he alerted the family about the discovery.

“No one really wanted it,” he said. But Gabie Berliner said she was interested in finding a resolution. Fendel initially suggested they sell the cabinet and donate the proceeds to the local Jewish community, but Schwartz, as a historian, convinced them it should stay in the museum to illustrate what happened to the Jews of Hanover, using Klara Berliner’s story.

The description next to these items on the wall will now be reflected to share Klara’s story; Schwartz believes she was working on the embroidery panel when she was deported.

The day Berliner and the Fendels signed over symbolic ownership of the cabinet, an American flag hung outside the town hall in honor of the guests. The local press covered the visit as well. Lord Mayor Belit Onay spoke about how the objects “symbolize the various stages of [Klara’s] persecution, and are therefore invaluable for our work in resolving Nazi crimes committed in our city.” He concluded, “Your visit reminds us of the commitment we made: We will push ahead with our research and will continue our efforts at restitution with energy and passion.”

Yossi Fendel speaking at the signing ceremony, which officially donated the cabinet back to the city of Hanover

Fendel and Berliner gave speeches as well. “We express our wish today that the August Kestner Museum will continue to show such honor to that story,” said Fendel, “so perhaps one day our grandchildren or great-grandchildren will themselves journey to Hanover to learn the story again.”

Berliner talked about the antisemitism her father, Bernhard, endured and his decision to emigrate in 1935 (he went on to found the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute and Society). “May the [cabinet] forever be a reminder to all who see it of the sacrifices made by millions of Jews,” she said, “who tried in vain to remain in and loyal to Germany and lost their lives during the Holocaust.”

While Fendel said they were deeply touched by the Germans’ efforts to find and invite them to Hanover, he kept thinking about the fact that as the descendants of a very wealthy family, they were getting attention because something of theirs was valuable enough to be in a museum, while there were so many poor Jewish families in Poland and other parts of Europe whose stories would never be told, a concern he shared with his hosts.

Berliner said she was “in awe” over the depth of Schwartz’s knowledge about her ancestors, most of which she didn’t possess herself, and was emotional seeing the house where her father had grown up. Fendel, who documented their experience on Facebook, wrote: “It is very odd to encounter people who are unrelated to you but are nevertheless more familiar in many ways with your ancestry than you are.”

Schwartz, who has made the Holocaust his area of specialty, said simply, “As historians, it’s our duty to know more.”
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