Listen to Berkeley Talks episode #163: “The rise and destruction of the Jewish fashion industry.”
Intro: This is Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can follow Berkeley Talks wherever you listen to your podcasts. New episodes come out every other Friday. Also, we have another podcast, Berkeley Voices, that shares stories of people at UC Berkeley and the work that they do on and off campus.
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Hannah Weisman: It’s my pleasure to welcome you this evening, as well as our distinguished guest, Uwe Westphal. If you are a returning visitor, thank you for continuing to engage and connect with us. And if you’re new, welcome. The museum’s collections, exhibitions, and programs document and reflect global Jewish life. Before we get started, I’ll just ask you to take a moment to silence any devices that you have with us and note the emergency exit at the back of the room. I also invite you to return another time to view our current exhibition In Twilight, Ori Sherman’s creation, and to attend upcoming events.
Elisheva Baumgarten will be here at 5:00 PM on Tuesday next week to offer the Center for Jewish Studies’ Helen Diller Annual Lecture. You can find more information about all of our exhibitions and programs at magnes.berkeley.edu. This evening, we are proud to partner with the Center for Jewish Studies, Goethe-Institut San Francisco and the Consulate General of the Federal Republic of Germany, San Francisco to present this program. Please join me in welcoming Deputy Consul General Elena Simms.
Elena Simms: Ladies and gentlemen, Hannah, John, Noemi and Uwe, welcome, everybody. Please let me start with some thank yous. A heartfelt thank you to The Magnes Collection and to the Center for Jewish Studies of the University of Berkeley for partnering with us once more. This is already our second event together after we successfully hosted the Shared History traveling exhibit last September. And for sure, this won’t be our last event. And to the Goethe-Institut for partnering with us and introducing Uwe Westphal to us and, of course, to Uwe for being here with us tonight and shedding light on a part of Jewish life that otherwise would be relatively little known about.
Today’s lecture will touch on the rise and destruction of the Jewish fashion industry in Berlin. I don’t know how many of you had the opportunity to visit Berlin yet, but for those of you who had the opportunity, you might know that the closest metro station to the foreign office is the Hausvogteiplatz.
And it is right there at the Hausvogteiplatz where once the heart of the city’s fashion industry was located. So every morning on my way to work, when I leave the station, the first thing I see are little placards that have been placed on the steps leading up to the Hausvogteiplatz. And these placards are part of a memorial by [inaudible]. The placards are engraved with the names of Jewish fashion companies that once were located at the Hausvogteiplatz and whose businesses were destroyed by the Nazis. And some of the placards are empty. They serve as placeholders for the many companies who can not be named there. There were more than 2,700 companies, mostly under Jewish ownership. And for me it was always, especially the absence of the names, that symbolized a void, a loss of something that had been irrevocably destroyed.
So the pogroms of November in 1938 set an end to the thriving Jewish fashion industry. And these effects are still felt today as there are no major big fashion entrepreneurs in Berlin. So today we have the opportunity to learn more about the history and the fate of the Jewish fashion industry, and just as important, today we also have the opportunity to look back and learn from the past so we can prevent history from repeating itself. So let us all take the empty names on the placards, on the steps of the Hausvogteiplatz as a stark reminder that we can’t bring back what has been destroyed. We can’t bring back the many lives who are brutally ended by the Nazi regime, but there is something that we can do. We can make a promise that we will honor the legacy and remain vigilant whenever we encounter antisemitism right in its beginnings.
In this context, education and remembrance work are of fundamental importance. It is important to keep connecting to the past and our present life, and based on this to shape the future. A future in which we recognize a human being in every human being and encounter each other from person to person. Today, once again, we are living in a time of profound change, and in such times the danger is always particularly great, that those who react to the difficulties with supposedly simple answers will gain popularity. So simple answer is that too often go hand in hand with the brutalization of language on the streets as well as on the internet. This is the beginning that we have to counter decisively, and that’s why I’m really extremely grateful that we together with the Magnes and Goethe, and the Center for Jewish Studies of the University of Berkeley are able to welcome Mr. Uwe Westphal here tonight to educate us about the history of the Jewish fashion industry, and the lessons that can be taken from it.
So thank you so much. I wish us all a very insightful lecture and discussion. And now without further ado, I’d like to hand it over to Noémie Njangiru, the director of the Goethe-Institut in San Francisco. Thank you.
Noémie Njangiru: Thank you so much. Thank you, Elena, and thank you, Hannah, for your really important and touching remarks. I just want to give you a brief story of how we got to be here tonight.
The first time I heard about Uwe Westphal was about one or two years ago at a dinner party. I was approached by two wonderful and wise women by the name of Gunda Trapp and Barbara Osher. And they were telling me, “Have you read this book? It is brilliant. You have to look into it. It might be something for the Goethe-Institut. Please do.” And so I did, and Fashion Metropolis Berlin was absorbing me and it was frankly an eye-opener to the many untold stories and experiences of creativity, of immense loss and suffering, but also survival within the Jewish fashion industry in Germany. My deep gratitude goes out to Gunda and Barbara for making me aware of this important work and for making this night possible. Without them we wouldn’t be here.
And also this, by the way, is how we as Goethe-Institut try to work. We try to be in continuous conversation with all of you and we try to understand the questions you have, the feedback you might have, the thoughts and ideas you might have. So please keep reaching out to us. Please tell us, I already had a few really nice conversations tonight and tell us what is moving you and what you would like to hear from us. We do have Berlin & Beyond, a film festival coming up end of March that might be of interest to you, and we do have German courses, both online and offline. So please reach out to us and we love to be in this kind of dialogue with you. I want to extend my heartfelt thank you to the magnificent team of The Magnes Collection and also of the German Consulate, all the people involved, Laura, Etta, Jennifer, Garby, Elena, Betina. It was wonderful working on this with you together and coming up with this event tonight.
I want to thank Betina also, our program creator at the Goethe-Institut for being a magnificent curator, also an amazing host. I don’t see you right now, but I know you took good care of our guest Uwe Westphal. Thank you so much, Uwe and your wonderful wife [inaudible] for accepting our invite and coming to the Bay Area and sharing your important work with us tonight. So also without further ado, let me introduce the moderator and host of tonight’s event. Professor John Efron, Koret Professor of Jewish History and Faculty Director of the UC Berkeley Center for Jewish Studies. He specializes in the cultural and social history of German Jewry and writes on German-Jewish engagement with medicine, anthropology and antisemitism. He’s also elected fellow of the American Academy of Jewish Research. Welcome. Welcome, John Efron.
John Efron: Good evening, everybody. Lovely to see so many of you here. I also want to sincerely thank our co-organizers and sponsors and they are the UC Berkeley Center for Jewish Studies, The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, the Goethe-Institut of San Francisco and the Consulate General of the Federal Public of Germany in San Francisco. And we are really grateful to be able to continue our collaboration together. If we were to play a word association game and sort of ask you say to someone, “German, German Jewry between 1871 and 1933.” I’m a historian, there has to be dates. So that’s the dates from when the Jews were emancipated in Germany in 1871 to the end, 1933. Now even though that’s a very, very brief period, 60 years, only 60 years, and that was a period of glittering genius. So it’s quite likely that our participant in this word association game will rattle off a list of gifted individuals.
Some forgotten today, but many of them still household names. There were people who in many cases changed western culture in its many forms. Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, Otto Klemperer, Max Reinhardt, Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, Albert Einstein, Theodore Herzl, Franz Kafka, Schnitzler, Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig, Walter Benjamin, Gershwin Scholem, Hannah Arendt, Else Lasker-Schüler, Paul Ehrlich, and Arthur Eichengrün, who you may not know, but he invented aspirin. In every area of cultural, intellectual and scientific endeavor, German-speaking Jewry were representatives of modernism and or the avant-garde. The 600,000 Jews in Germany at this time represented less than 1% of the total population, but they made up 50% of the doctors in Berlin, 60% of the doctors in Vienna, 40% of the lawyers of Berlin when Hitler came to power.
But the total percentage of Jews in the free professions and the free professions are sort of law, medicine, journalism was only about 8%. By contrast, over 60% of German Jews were involved in commerce or trade. Today, unlike the galaxy of stars that I just named, we’d be hard-pressed to name any of these people, and that’s a shame because by including them, we get a far better sense of German Jewry’s contribution to the modernization of society. And what we will see is that in the realm of business, the practices of Jewish businessmen stood apart in important ways from the practices of German business people. With centuries of orbit enforced commercial practice, Jews were well-equipped to meet the demands of modern commerce and immediately sense what was required at the start of the consumer revolution.
The hallmarks of Jewish business were risk taking and innovation. Jews in Germany were the first to use advertising, start mail order businesses, installed telephones in workplaces, introduced the department store, and made it their business to travel to international trade fairs and world exhibitions in search of products and opportunities, new products and opportunities. They also opened discount stores for the poorer working classes as well as luxury stores aimed to serve Germany’s rising and wealthy middle classes. Jews also tended to be more mobile, willing to move to wherever there was opportunity. Familial and friendship networks, both in and outside of Germany, made the import and export business very attractive to Jews, especially in the fields of clothing, textiles and furs. The owners of these businesses brought a fearless modernist sensibility and practice to business in general.
And the business most of them had something to do with was the garment industry, clothing industry. Here, German Jewry was not alone. In the 19th and 20th centuries, wherever there were large Jewish communities, Jews were in the schmatta business. The East End of London, the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and then Seventh Avenue, the south ward of Toronto, the Pletzl in Paris, and Flinders Lane in Melbourne where I spent a lot of time when I was a child in factories making a lady’s wear. Uncles and cousins and the whole thing. But all of this was preceded by what happened in Berlin, where at least since the 1830s, figures that I will leave to Uwe to tell us about, but major figures were among the pioneers of a new production model called the Berliner Konfektion, Berlin style inspired by Parisian haute couture, and they also offered the public off the rack clothing using standardized measures and prices.
All of those businesses and the fashion labels now known to us really were household names, easily as famous as Freud and Einstein. Perhaps even more so for most people. Something to think about. They were largely forgotten until the early 2000s when some historians began looking at the clothing industry in the Third Reich. As good as this work was, most of them looked at it from the perspective of the perpetrators. The story however changed with the work of tonight’s speaker, Uwe Westphal. For Uwe took seriously the need to stress the Jewish component of the German and especially the Berlin fashion industry. He has rescued all of those names from oblivion, and has in great and very readable detail made us aware of all the hard, innovative, commercially and fashionably modernist contributions of those Jews who did so much to cloth so many in affordable fashionable attire.
Uwe Westphal is an internationally renowned author and journalist. He resides in both Berlin and London. He’s a political foreign correspondent for German Public Broadcasting in the UK and the U.S. He’s worked for the International Pen Association of Writers and as a journalist and producer for PBS and CBS in New York. He’s the author of four works on the history of the Third Reich and numerous essays for the Leo Baeck Institute. Uwe’s work has appeared on Radio Four and the BBC and in the New York Times, and most recently he has lectured Yad Vashem and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, and at FIT, the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. His wonderful book, Fashion Metropolis Berlin 1836 – 1939: The Story of the Rise and Destruction of the Jewish Fashion Industry, is also the title and subject of tonight’s talk. Please join me finally in welcoming Uwe Westphal.
Uwe Westphal: Well, first thing, I need a sip of water. Thank you very much to all of you. Thank you very much to all the speakers and the wonderful things I’ve just heard, about myself, about the book. The book is important, it’s not me. And I also want to say thank you very much, because it’s such a long way back, that my name actually was put forward to the Goethe-Institut by Gunda. Gunda, I can’t see you. Where are you? All right. Hi. Thank you very much again.
Okay, before I start my talk about the history of Jewish fashion firms in Berlin, I would like to tell you a little bit more about myself. When I began my writing career, I dreamt of being a foreign correspondent. Ultimately later, I actually achieved that, but I wanted to be in a major newspaper early days in my career. Needless to say, no editor actually was going to hire me, a complete novice to such a prestigious position. But as life would have it, a Berlin paper offered me a freelance job as a fashion reporter.
Well, the problem was I had absolutely no clue about fashion, but the editor said I would soon pick it up and I accepted the challenge. It was a very steep learning curve, I can tell you that. And one of the joys of the job, I traveled to all the major fashion shows in Paris, London, Milan, New York, and I loved it. I loved it, but I had to write about it. That’s a different story. So however, I somehow managed. But what was actually very interesting was that at the end of the 1980s I met Jewish fashion designers who had once lived and worked in Berlin. And they came from London or from New York and they’ve flown into Paris to see the haute couture fashion shows. They were happy to tell me their stories about life in the 1920s Berlin and gave me a vivid description of the new innovative designs and the incredible glamour of the Berlin fashion scene during the Weimar years.
But they also told me about how they were forced to flee Germany when the Nazis came into power. And so I thought this is something nobody has ever heard about it before, maybe in little stories, but the actual story hasn’t been written about Jewish fashion in Berlin. So I put adverts into various Jewish magazines, the AJR, Association of Jewish Refugees in London, in New York, and a few weeks later I received boxes of documents and photographs in the mail, something that was still existing in that time [inaudible]. So literally, really, from all over the world, Argentina, from France, from England, quite a few.
And so I’m really grateful to all of these people who so willingly shared their personal stories with me. Without their help, I would never been able to write my books and about the lost history of Jewish fashion companies, which once flourished in Berlin. And thanks to those documents and interviews with Holocaust survivors, I was able to help some claimants negotiate restitution cases in Germany. All together, nearly 70 cases.
You will be as shocked as I was when I learned about how German fashion designers and manufacturers and companies have never ever talked about what happened between ’33 and ’45, 1933 to ’45. But why was there such a deafening silence? And that is something that I found personally very interesting when I was a young journalist, and I still do actually find it interesting. Why was that? And my answer is because the German fashion industry profited from the wholesale Nazi confiscations of the once Jewish-owned companies. And as beneficiaries of antisemitism, the last thing anyone wanted to do was to own up to their own participation. The destruction of the entire fashion industry meant forced labor, government-organized theft and the murder and the deportation of Jews. Today, 78 years after the end of World War II, unlike most other industries in Germany, fashion producers small and large have not yet taken on responsibility for what happened.
These days, a few days after the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the German fashion industry kept their silence on what actually happened. Hiding behind the smokescreen of glamour, on new ideas of sustainable fashion, is in my opinion, not an option. As important as innovative forces in the 21st century fashion industry is really looking for, they will not work out if the historical connection between fashion and the Holocaust remains hidden. I agree with Jennifer Fisher, a U.S. fashion accessory designer who said, “The fashion industry has an ethical and social responsibility to show the world how fashion can be a powerful tool in combating antisemitism. As a brand whose product does not discriminate, we champion diversity, inclusion, and equality. We believe that fashion can be an agent and a positive change in this world.”
I didn’t have anything to add to that because it was just right. Now, let’s go back in history and let’s talk about how it all began. First of all, I would like to show you a short video about the actual place where Jewish fashion, and it has been mentioned by John as well, where actually fashion has been created. The Hausvogteiplatz, that’s quite a mouthful, but you will get used to it because it was a place just right in the center. A very old traditional name, but it was in a very interesting place. So can I please see the video?
So we are here at Berlin Hausvogteiplatz, which was once the old Berlin fashion Center. All the shops and firms counted in 1932 were mostly Jewish firms. And this is actually the center of the Hausvogteiplatz, the old fashion center of Berlin. This memorial you can see here, was set up by my publisher by the Jewish community in Berlin in 1992. Don’t forget, in 1938, all of these buildings have been raided by Nazi hooligans. They have thrown out index cards, fabrics. They actually forced them to give up their business. So 2,700 companies were in this immediate neighborhood. Nearly all of them were Jewish. And was the Kristallnacht, that was the end of the Jewish Berlin fashion industry. Not a lot of the old buildings are still there, but some. After the 1820s, Jews were officially allowed to produce new garments. They invented efficient sizing systems and so began Berlin’s fashion industry.
This building is actually the Valentin Manheimer business office, and they even did fashion shows in here. The Valentin Manheimer coat factory was world-famous, the king of coats. He was huge. He had nearly 8,000 employees. The old original gate is still here. You can see the V and the M, Valentin Manheimer. He exported globally. The astonishing boom in the Berlin fashion trade and its emergence as a new dynamic fashion capital drew top fashion designers from Paris. As women became increasingly emancipated, hundreds of fashion magazines stimulated customers to shop at grand new department stores like Nathan Israel, Herrmann Gerson and Valentin Manheimer. Soon Berlin had around 2,700 fashion retailers and workshops…
Uwe Westphal: Well, it stopped a bit quick, but the actual message was, and you got that, that the Hausvogteiplatz was the center and it had actually spread out from there in all the various parts of the Berlin art and into intellectual life. And that was the important part, what the fashion industry during the time in the 1920s is actually very different from that, what we have today. But I come to that later. Berlin’s fashion industry boomed. The city became a hub for talent and design. Young Jewish fashion designers open up new firms and shops. Berlin’s growing film industry and the new movie stars like Marlene Dietrich, Josephine Baker, musicians, theaters, popular Broadway shows, writers and composers, gay and lesbian bars and clubs, architecture, and of course, the Bauhaus. All of this merged into a new style in fashion. The fashion designers were part of this. They created what was later called the Golden 1920s or Berlin Chic. Let’s have a look how life actually was when Marlene Dietrich was still around and how fashion metropolis actually worked in the entertainment industry.
So what was the actual secret to there being so many Jewish fashion producers and designers in Berlin with such an incredible success. That was one of my major points in my research I did over probably about six, seven years, and that continued over the last years. The answer is actually very easy. There was no secret. Jews made use of their know-how of making clothes with the right fabrics. They had a feeling for what people liked and they had an international, they had many international connections to textile producers. They knew what a good fabric is and what a kind of good fabric is and what a really bad fabric is. And they had a full understanding of what kind of fabric and additional stuff you need to produce a coat, and what price range that can be sold afterwards to the big superstores in Berlin. Fashion styles that spread across Europe were adopted in Berlin by those who could actually afford buying fancy dresses. To all others, including the thousands of female office workers, of which you had actually quite a few in Berlin, Berlin fashion offered cheap, stylish, and high-quality day-to-day clothing.
The liberal political climate of the young Weimar democracy enabled new creative fashion trends. Jewish tailors, designers and businesses were masters of their craft and know-how, and they welcomed the inspiration by new art movements like the Bauhaus. Fashion in the 1920s stood also for a democratic fashion style. That is actually an expression that has been used in the 1920s, not only by intellectuals, that was also written by Gerson in the shop window. They really, really had a full understanding of how to express themselves in a new time period. Don’t forget, the years before, back to the Emperor, that was a tough time for women to wear clothes, fashionable clothes. So it really was a moment where Berlin woke up and had a completely different idea about what fashion is. So Bauhaus was, as I said before, a very clear influence.
Wertheim, the big superstore, the main department stores in Berlin were actually run by Jewish families because they knew how to do this. Wertheim, Karstadt, Tietz, Nathan Israel, to just name a few. Department stores were first established in the U.S. To the Berlin fashion producers, they offered a unique opportunity to sell fast and to showcase their pieces in elaborately, almost theatrically decorated settings admired by potential customers catching the glimpse of the glamour through the windows, all along [German language] as well. Or at seasonal fashion shows. That was something completely new. In the stores, people loved fashion and they were actually happy to pay also quite a bit of money for that. But not all of them liked fashion. At the end of the 19th century, already antisemitic political organizations and newspapers stigmatized Jewish fashion firms and designers as decadent or a danger to German economic decency.
For the first time, since right-wing nationalist movement focused on Jewish fashion producers and their shops, that was actually something that wasn’t heard before, although it was known, but it wasn’t heard in the political circles. In 1899, the Association of Aryan Businesses called for a boycott of non-Aryan clothing. Antisemitic political parties became part of the parliament. Prejudice, an irrational hatred against Jews broke fresh ground at this time. “Innocent German citizens,” wrote the magazine, antisemitic correspondence, “Do not even have far the influence of the Israeli alliance and the resulting Jewification of Germany understood it is a real danger. Fashion is dictated.” That is a quote from the magazine. “Fashion is dictated to us by Jews,” that was by the way, something that Adolf Hitler actually used again later on.
Still, more and more young fashion designers became popular in Berlin, and the majority of customers did not care who made their clothes. The new generation of successful Jewish fashion designers created a truly international style. It was called The New Objectivity or Neue Sachlichkeit in German. Norbert Jutschenka was one of the rising stars of the Berlin fashion world, and you will hear about him a little bit later. In the mid 1920s, Berlin fashion became a strong competitor of the Paris couture. Berlin fashion designers traveled pretty frequently, actually every three months, from Berlin in a special train to the haute couture shows in Paris. They went to the couture shows and they took the ideas that were actually produced in Paris for a lot of money back with them to Berlin, but produced the clothing in Berlin and turned them into day-to-day clothing. So something that everybody could buy and wear.
That was actually quite a clever concept. It is actually today, it’s the same kind of thing all over the world. It’s just nicking and stealing the ideas from the great fashion designers. Women’s liberation and the democratic idea of fashion. Paris couture was innovative but expensive. On the other hand, Berlin Konfektion all ready to wear served mass market and the demand for a day-to-day clothing. Berlin Chic was a branding that helped selling modern and stylish garments outside Germany. New customers were found in the United States, Netherland, England, Scandinavia, Argentina. 78% of the exporting Berlin fashion firms were Jewish. They knew how to handle large exports because they had qualified staff and thousands of seamstresses working in small workshops in the suburbs and from home.
Herrmann Gerson was one of the major, actually the major company, fashion company in Berlin. He delivered high-class fashion to the royal families in Greece and in England. Gerson became what was known today as the Harrods in London, but a new generation of businesses and fashion designers was already waiting and waiting for their chance. Like in Paris, Berlin fashionmakers closely collaborated with artists and intellectuals. This was also the case for the fashion enthusiastic painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Fashion design and color stimulated the artist and the clothing manufacturers alike. Fashion became an integrated part of the Berlin’s intellectual and cultural life. The painting by Kirchner you can see here is actually the best example for that. After 1918, the share of Jewish fashion manufacturers fell from a total of 85% to 60%, but still, Jewish firms dominated the worldwide exports of women’s fashionable clothing from Berlin in 1927.
Like many others, the company Löb & Levy was in the area of the Hausvogteiplatz. Now, Berlin’s Jewish fashion companies employed 90,000 tailors and an unknown number of seamstresses around the city. Fashion as well as accessory companies became the second-largest industry in Berlin. The first largest was Siemens with about 120,000 employees. And the fashion companies, 90,000 plus an unknown number of seamstresses. So I assume that actually the fashion industry was the largest industry in Berlin, but I can’t prove it because it was an unknown number. So all these seamstresses, they worked very hard for just a bit of money, but the number is not really clear. So with 90,000 tailors and an unknown number of seamstresses in around city as well as accessory companies was a economical factor in the city.
But the global economic crisis in ’28, ’29 led to mass insolvencies and business closures. However, the export market picked up soon afterwards. Antisemitic right wing parties continued campaigning against the participation of Jews in the fashion industry. However, large Jewish fashion companies with high export numbers were still working and generating profit in 1936, so the year of the Olympic Games, like Leopold Seligman, just around the corner of the old fashion center in Berlin. The photographs you are going to see now are actually the only photographs of an operating top Jewish fashion company in 1932. It’s a series of photographs of five or six photographs. Can we see them, please? No, that’s unfortunately not the one. Can we go back to slide 21 please? And continue. Here. So that is the firm Leopold Seligman in 1932. And continue. This is the what they called The Expedition. That’s where they actually, the made clothes were actually wrapped up in boxes and they were sent by mail.
And continue. That’s the storage place for all the fabrics. Before the models actually went on the catwalk, they had to get the approvement from the big boss, from Mr. Seligman who is on the right-hand side on chair. And these were the ready-made models. So they went also with these kind of clothing onto the catwalk and the customers were actually waiting for that. Okay. And that’s also an unusual photograph. By the way, maybe you might be interested how I found these photographs. It was on a flea market, on the flea market, London Camden flea market. I went there and I saw, as it is, you see a book with photographs and you open it and you think, “This is unbelievable, I’m writing about this. This is the subject I have in my everyday work.” So I bought this box of… this album of altogether about 18 photographs, and these are the only ones I have checked.
It was the Berlin Jewish Museum. Nobody has got these photographs, so it’s fantastic. And you can see the people. Most of the people I assume, I couldn’t research all of them, actually ultimately went to London to get out of Berlin. Okay. Right. I’ll come back to these gentlemen behind me.
So, why did the Nazis actually focus on the Jewish fashion companies in Berlin? I have found three major reasons. Number one is nearly 3,000 Jewish fashion companies represented capital in real estate in the center of Berlin, close to the headquarters of Hitler’s government’s departments. In 1940, just eight of these companies were left. Non-Jewish fashion designers took over, now without the competition from Jewish firms. It was the first time since 1836 that fashion in Berlin was made without Jews.
My point number two, I found for the reasons why the Nazis were so hard on confiscating Jewish property, the objective of the Nazis was to confiscate Jewish property and turn Hausvogteiplatz building into as party offices.
And the final reason, number three, the final motivation for confiscating Jewish fashion companies was simply greed, and ultimately getting Berlin’s fashion firms ready for the war by producing uniforms like the company of the NSDAP member, Hugo Boss. Demonstratively, Dr. Schacht, Hitler’s state bank president gave a speech on the subject at Hausvogteiplatz. By this time in March 1936, all Jewish firms had been cut off from bank loans, supplies, insurances and bank accounts. All of those are essential to produce fashion. You don’t need only good ideas, you need the financial basis. You need insurances to show what you actually made. Forced liquidations of Jewish fashion firms allowed NSDAP members and Nazi-loyal designers were promoted by the government. Fashion shows had to be approved by the NSDAP, the Nazi party.
In November or the November pogroms, during the so-called Kristallnacht were just a culmination of the systematic persecution and government-run theft of Jewish capital in Berlin. Can we see the writing again? Yes, thank you. This is what an eyewitness actually reported to me. And that eyewitness was Ruth Phillips whom I met because I put an advert into the Association of Jewish Refugees in London, and she wrote to me and sent me her stuff. And it of course makes me very happy to say that we have the grandchild of Ruth Phillips in here. It’s Ben Wood. Ben, where are you? Hi. And she was absolutely right with her assessment of what actually happened. It was actually not from the ninth to the 10th, it was from the 10th to the 11th of November that all this happened at Hausvogteiplatz. So the place was littered with office index cards and clothing. Some of them were burned, the patterns were still thrown out of the windows.
It was the end of the Jewish fashion industry altogether. A few months later in 1939, nearly 90%, 98% of all Berlin fashion firms were confiscated, insolvent or expropriated. Some of the former companies’ owners immigrated or were imprisoned, later sent to concentration camp and forced labor camps. Here’s a minute of rare silent film footage of the Bedzin slave labor camp. Bedzin was small town in the immediate neighborhood of Auschwitz. This film was made by a Nazi propaganda unit.
(Plays silent film)
As I said, it was a propaganda film. The realistic assessment of that, what happened in these first labor camps, has been written down by people that actually have been there. Some also say those of those people that actually had to work there and forced into these textile workshops, they survived because of that. So they didn’t have much rougher and harder work and labor conditions. So some actually survived, but they knew pretty well what they have been through. Now, German governments in uniforms were produced in roughly 18 slave labor camps close to the concentration camps. Did the German public know about this? They did know who produced their clothes and they were wearing and they bought them. Sure, everybody knew this because advertising in all the papers, in all the Nazi papers, was actually advertising clothing from forced labor camps. It was no secret. Berlin fashion companies, now without Jews, ordered directly from ghetto slave labor camps what they wanted.
And there is actually an order form. Can we see this letter here? So the unbelievable fact behind this letter is that the person who called this company Charlotte Rohl, was former Leopold Lindemann. Leopold Lindemann had to sell his company. It was exactly on Hausvogteiplatz 11A. Now, the person who actually had that company, he actually produced at the ghetto in Litzmannstadt. So it became common sense for the German public and for the German fashion companies to order clothes in forced labor camps. The bitter irony is that Leopold Lindemann actually had this company for over 10 years. All his interior was confiscated, including all the sewing machines. It was actually brought to lodge in the forced labor camp. And here, the Jewish employees of the former Leopold Lindemann company in Berlin, they have been arrested as well and they brought them again to the forced labor camp. So the entire setup of this company, Charlotte Rohl, was actually delegated to a forced labor camp.
And this is, of course, something where I always had difficulties to understand what is actually happening here and what is going on during these Nazi years. However, in the meantime, and in as of 1941, German fashion designers happily ordered fashionable goods from forced labor camps. Public displays in forced labor productivity in 1943. Now, I give you some numbers, not too many. Lodz ghetto had between ’41 and ’44, about 13 to 14,000 women and men working there. Productivity increased by 1000% during that time. In 1942 alone, 3.9 million pieces of female clothing were made in these camps. Those who could not keep up the pace, weakened by illness were immediately deported to the death camps. One company, among many others was Hugo Boss, the Führer’s tailor. Boss deported seamstress from Bedzin to their forced labor camp at Hugo Boss headquarter in Metzingen in Bavaria.
So he decided, “I just turn it around. I’m not recruiting forced labor camps in the camps or close by the camps. I deport the forced laborers to my company, to my factories in Bavaria.” Relatives of Holocaust survivors are still trying to get at least a pension from Hugo Boss until this very day without success. At the end of the war, there was the most visible end of the war when you went to Hausvogteiplatz. That’s what basically was left there. Time to ask what actually happened to those designers who immigrated, and that’s why I’m coming to my final section of this presentation. The old fashion center was destroyed by allied bombing raids. Only a few Jewish designers were able to build new careers after fleeing Berlin. Among them was Leopold Seligman who saw… You heard about him earlier. He fled Berlin with his family in 1937, first to London, then to New Mexico to Albuquerque. And he was the only German-Jewish immigrant refugee that actually went to Albuquerque.
But why did he do that? Well, he had a reason. Here, Seligman built a new company called Pioneer Wear. Seligman was actually pretty good in doing this kind of more traditional stuff with a Spanish influence and he knew that there is a market. Over the next 15 years, the company became the second-largest clothing company in the United States, probably due to the invention of the popular Marlboro western style. Seligman’s restitution case, however, was rejected by Berlin court in the 1950s. My example number two is Norbert Jutschenka. I mentioned his name before. Another leading, cutting edge fashion firm in Berlin was Norbert Jutschenka’s. Originally from Cracau, he was recognized for his modern and uncompromised couture style. Here, Norbert Jutschenka is with his wife Liselotte in front of a plane of 1937. Shortly after that he actually left Berlin. Norbert Jutschenka was put under Nazi pressure to sell his company with 120 staff members.
He knew that he had no chance to save his business. In 1938, he agreed a forced sale. 86% below the estimated value he had to sell his company. He immigrated with his wife to New York City. Jutschenka changed his name to Jay, J-A-Y, and rekindled his success on 498 Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. The media praised his designs as the renaissance of fashion. Norbert Jay was compared for his stylish dresses in New York with the top elite fashion couture. Jutschenka’s business’ assets, remaining bank accounts in Berlin were confiscated by a fraudulent successor of Norbert Jutschenka in 1941. He never received restitution and he died in 1954. His daughter, Gloria, lives in New York and his grandchild as well, Jennifer. And I’m very grateful they gave me all the information that I could actually revive the credibility and the fantastic talent of Norbert Jutschenka. So go from here to post-war Berlin. ’45 was not the end of the story, as you can imagine.
In 1956, this picture actually shows what and how West Berlin was actually run by a new elite of fashion designers. But all of these gentlemen on this photograph from 1959, they were all members of the Nazi party, and they were all part of the confiscation of Jewish property in the fashion industry the years before, or some actually had an apprenticeship in these Jewish companies. When I got into the subject in the 1980s and I confronted some of these gentlemen, they were then rather old, and I said to them, “So why did you say anything about it?” because they needed actually your words, because they were actually looking for documents that these companies were actually owned by Jews. Actually these guys have confiscated, they had the documents, but they didn’t give them to those. They were looking for restitution.
So at the end, 1989, the wall came down. GDR closing before these years wasn’t actually worth talking about, but it was still big business. West Germany bought clothing in East Germany. Somehow a late U.S. allied commander of Berlin, he was just puzzled and he said, “It is incredible how quickly Berlin fashion recovered from the war.” Well, I wasn’t too surprised because the used all the money from the confiscated companies and the properties to run their own business without Jews. In 1992, I took the initiative, was published in the Jewish community, you have all heard about this already, to establish a memorial for Jewish fashion designers at the Hausvogteiplatz. And that is the memorial. You have seen it in the video as well. Some last thoughts about all of this, what I was talking about today and what’s maybe interesting for the future.
In 2023, Berlin fashion companies, the Berlin Fashion Week and the Fashion Council Germany refused to remember how Jewish fashion was stolen and destroyed by the Nazis and how they actually have profited from a Jew-free fashion scene in Berlin. There is no fashion designer award in the name of the Jewish founders of fashion in Berlin. In fact, most young Berlin fashion designers today have no idea about the Jewish roots and tradition of the glamorous times of fashion in the city. Higher education design departments at universities are still reluctant to teach their students what actually happened in the past. More recently, startups for fashionable and sustainable fashion in young Israeli fashion designers flocked to Berlin with new ideas. And that’s a positive sign. But Berlin’s fashion scene has never recovered its glory and fame and is now internationally not exactly a high-flyer. London, New York City, Milan, Paris is still very much on the agenda and certainly Asian producers as well.
Nor has the Berlin fashion scene fully admitted its role in destroying the once famous and creative fashion industry and the Jews who built the scenery for over a hundred years and led the fashion scenery to a success. Campaigns like this one by the Council of Fashion Designers of America is unfortunately not running in Berlin. I don’t know why that is, but I have got some ideas. For many years I have tried to tell a forgotten story. That’s why I wrote my recently published book. A younger generation needs to understand the connection between the Holocaust and the destruction of the Berlin fashion industry. The link is obvious and everybody who wants to know can find out about it. Sustainable fashion, the use of environment conscious materials for fashion, the fight against slave labor conditions in Asia and Europe, all of this is an important step in the right direction.
We should not forget 75% of today’s slave labor in fashion products where victims are girls and women, women of color from Africa and South Asia. And we will not forget the crimes against Jewish fashion firms and people in Germany between 1933 and ’45. And this is where the past and the present is actually linking up. Preserving our heritage is preserving our memory. We cannot build a sustainable future of fashion without remembering what happened in the past in Germany. Thank you very much for listening.
Duncan MacRae: Thank you so much, Uwe. An incredible talk. Maddening talk, but an incredible talk. I’m Duncan MacRae, I’m one of the faculty members here at the UC Berkeley Center for Jewish Studies, and I’m just going to help out with moderating the questions. And we have about 15 minutes for questions, so we have plenty of time. So if you just please put up your hand and wait for a moment, a microphone will come to you. I think the first one, yes, in the white. Thank you.
Audience 1: What percentage of the workers were Jewish in the factories?
Uwe Westphal: Can you repeat that, please?
Audience 1: What percentage of the workers, the seamstresses, the tailors were Jewish in this industry?
Uwe Westphal: Before they started forced labor, that’s what you mean? Yeah?
Audience 1: Yeah.
Uwe Westphal: Okay. I just know that the number of Orthodox Jewish tailors in Berlin was absolutely vast after 1910 and shortly after the first World War. So the number in the influx of Orthodox Jews into Berlin, and that was also significantly at the Jewish quarter in Berlin, which was basically very close to the Hausvogteiplatz. And there were sewing machines all over the place. But you are asking me for numbers. I can’t give you the numbers because nobody actually made the effort during that time, not as far as I know, to count the relationship between Jews and non-Jews in the fashion industry.
Duncan MacRae: Yes, further forward here in the gray.
Audience 2: Oh, thank you. You mentioned that Jews had a feeling for fabrics. Can you expound how they got that feeling?
Uwe Westphal: I wish I would. If I would, then I wouldn’t be here. I would probably sell my capacity somewhere else. I think looking back into the development of the Jewish fashion industry only in Berlin, there was a huge influx from Galicia of tailors and textile importers because of the pogroms in these regions in Eastern Europe. And they actually came to Berlin. Berlin became a point of, it was something where you can actually make some money and that was a chance to do new clothing that wasn’t allowed for Jews before 1835. They weren’t allowed to produce new clothing, so they were just forced in to settle into clothing they were actually selling, secondhand clothes. So what you are asking me is unfortunately your question I can’t really answer.
It is something that you do have a good relationship to fabrics. You have to know what fabrics. I mean, German tailors were always good in producing uniforms. That’s why Hugo Boss actually still looks like a uniform maker. You can figure that. I mean, I have got a thing with Hugo Boss, I don’t know what it is. However, so German tailors were very good in very thick fabrics, and the fashion industry, they needed actually fine cotton fabrics. That’s something a German tailor couldn’t even touch. So it actually needed a lot of Jewish tailors and other tailors to produce a new, completely different kind of clothing.
Duncan MacRae: Yes, the guy in here in the gray. Thank you.
Audience 3: Hi. So many contemporary clothing makers in the United States, in particular fast fashion, rely on and exploit labor in third-world countries. Is that true for today’s German corporations, and do they respond to public pressure in a different way than they do the accusations about the Nazi past?
Uwe Westphal: I don’t know, or I don’t have the full picture of how the American public responds to that fact. But of course there is a growing movement of particularly younger people, probably between 16, 18 and 20, and they are actually pretty keen into producing or buying sustainable fashion. The German situation is a little bit like they run behind the development that has been actually set up in the U.S. And there are some companies, startups, they try to produce clothing in a different way, but then again, they occasionally forget that if you want to be successful in fashion, you have to produce large numbers, except you are in the old couture business, then you can ask for one dress that cost you easily 18 to 25,000 bucks. That’s different, if you want to just produce easy to wear clothes. And because the fact is also, there is so much stuff already on the market, and in Germany they try it, but I wish they would be successful. But I have my doubts it will work out.
Duncan MacRae: Just we’re going to switch sides of the room. We have two here at the front, so one is the… Oh, yeah. Okay. We have here and then in the front. Go ahead.
Audience 4: So why is it that you think it’d be that so many of the German brands now and the schools deny this past or the Jewish history in fashion? Is it a pride thing or is it a corporate, a profit thing? What are some of the reasons that there might be?
Uwe Westphal: The reason why it isn’t taught in universities, for example?
Audience 4: Yeah, or just like you talked about, the American fashion didn’t advertise that antisemitism thing in Germany. Why is that?
Uwe Westphal: Well, that’s a fantastic question and I would love to give you an answer because I don’t know. I don’t know. I just know that there is some kind of internal, maybe even a psychological hurdle to get over that fact that if you want to talk about the development of fashion in Germany over the last 50 years, you can’t get away from the fact that there was a Nazi state that has confiscated basically everything that had the potential of creating great, fantastic, and good fashion. And if you don’t take that into account, and if you don’t take that into your everyday life and practice as, for example, a university professor, a teacher, and you don’t make people aware that that happened, then I don’t know what’s what is wrong.
Because it is so completely the opposite of many other industries in Berlin. The banks, they have published reports about what they did during the Nazi years. Or insurances. You can read everything about it. But the fashion industry and the German fashion culture, which is unfortunately supported by the German state with tons of tax money, they are not getting their act together and say, “Okay, this is where we are. Now, we are actually making or preparing something for next year or for the next ninth or 10th of November this year. And let’s just do a memorial service. Let’s just remind people of what Jewish fashion was.” But this is something I find difficult to understand. Maybe others don’t.
Duncan MacRae: We have so many questions. I think only two more. So there’s a gentleman in the red here at the front and then at the end of the front row.
Audience 5: I was in London in the ’70s at an Orthodox Jewish firm as an auditor. And we had lots of Jewish rag trade clients. So I’m curious to know, was Berlin ahead of London and New York? What was the relationship between these three cities in this period of time? Do you have some ideas?
Uwe Westphal: Well, the rag trade in London was pretty cruel and brutal. I’m would love to say, but there was no, actually, there was no union for the rag trade. And Germany had a union. They were to a certain degree far more organized. But also that backfired once the system changed into a political dictatorship. And comparing it with the U.S., I mean there are already some fantastic novels about the schmatta trade and the rag trade in New York. I mean there was crime, of course there was crime. That was a pretty wild time in the ’50s, ’60s, and even in the ’70s. But obviously, this industry has also had a tendency to pull in some people … I wouldn’t like to meet them in the dark. Let’s put it this way.
Duncan MacRae: My regrets, we have one more question.
Audience 6: First of all, I want to thank you for a fabulous presentation and I’m just sorry to …
Uwe Westphal: Thank you. Thank you.
Audience 6: And I’m sorry that you don’t have your book over here so we could purchase it and have you sign it, but we’ll find out where we can get it. I just wanted to give you a little personal history of my father who was a Jewish tailor in Lodz, and he became a tailor. His father wanted him to be a scholar, a Talmud scholar. He would run away from [inaudible] because he had no food. If he wasn’t invited, he went hungry. So he would say to his father, “I’m hungry.” He said, “God will provide.” But he has a younger brother who was not as smart in the Talmud, said to him, “[Inaudible], if you want to eat, you better learn a trade.” And my father said, “A trade. Okay, what about a tailor? Okay.” This was considered the lowest of the trades. His father was mortified. He said, “The butcher’s son is going to the yeshiva and my son is becoming a tailor.” Well, he apprenticed. He became a tailor.
The story goes, when we were in the Soviet Union and he had to make some extra money, he made ladies coats and he was a great designer and he made a fabulous coat for a KGB man’s wife. And it was fabulous. And she told him, “If you ever make another coat like that, you better watch out.” So she was going to be the only one. We end up in DP camps, there’s a sewing class, and I want to take a sewing class. I said to my father, “I’m going to learn how to sew.” And he said, “I don’t want you to be a seamstress.” And I said, “Why? I like sewing.” And I did so, but he did not think because he remembered what kind of work it was for women. So I’m going to thank you very much for a fabulous presentation.
Uwe Westphal: You are very kind. Thank you.
Duncan MacRae: Thank you for that question. And thank you again, Uwe Westphal, we’ve been lucky to have you. Thank you.
Uwe Westphal: Thank you. Thanks. But one little thing, because the lady actually mentioned the book, that’s actually something I should do. And indeed, indeed you can buy it, and indeed I get a cut from it, and indeed you can actually order it in a bookshop or, I don’t want to do advertising for something for Amazon, I don’t know, heard about this company. So it is there. It’s still in America and there are still about, I don’t know, 500 English copies left. So go and buy them. Thank you.
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