Werner Cohn, a retired sociology professor living in New York, remembers a sea lion called Roland from childhood visits to the zoo in Berlin. Cohn’s father was a shareholder in the zoo, which gave the family free admission.
“My father would go there every morning for breakfast,” Cohn, 85, said by telephone. “We would go there on our own as children and meet our friends to play.”
His family fled in October 1938, a few weeks before the Nazi pogrom known as Kristallnacht. Cohn campaigned for decades in letters to the zoo to find out what happened to his father’s share and the stock of other Jewish shareholders in Zoologischer Garten Berlin AG.
It is only since 2002 that the zoo has begun examining its anti-Semitic Nazi-era policies, which entailed excluding Jews as board members, stockholders and, finally, as visitors. And it has only now found a way to commemorate the shareholders -- with a plaque on the Antelope House, unveiled yesterday.
“Everyone is aware of the fact that it is too late,” Hermann Simon, a historian specializing in Jewish history and the director of the Foundation for New Synagogues in Berlin, said in an interview. “But does that mean they should wait another 10 years? Better late than never.”
Beneath the minarets of the opulent antelope house built in 1871, Gabriele Thoene, the zoo’s business director since 2008, pledged to investigate the company’s past in more detail. It was at Thoene’s instigation that the plaque was erected.
“We don’t want to stop at the memorial plaque,” she said in an interview. “We also want to look into these forgotten biographies. We are planning to publish a book.” Compensation for the dispossessed shareholders is not on the agenda, she said.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the zoo played a central role in the social life of the city, Thoene said. “It was ‘bon ton’ to be a shareholder of the zoo,” she said. Many Jews were among those who helped build up the zoo and keep it going.
After the Nazis came to power in 1933, a policy of exclusion took root. According to the 2002 report commissioned by Berlin Zoo from historian Monika Schmidt, the four Jews on the supervisory board of 12 were gradually ousted and replaced with Nazis -- including Julius Lippert, a friend of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and a former editor-in-chief of the Nazi newspaper “Angriff.”
Then (as now) there were only 4,000 shares in the Berlin Zoo and their owners are required to be registered by name. As is still the case, the shares changed hands rarely and tended to pass from one generation to the next.
From 1938, Jewish shareholders were banned from bequeathing or selling their shares and could only sell them to the zoo at a price vastly lower than they paid. Jews could no longer acquire the shares and, according to Schmidt’s report, the requirement that all shareholders were registered by name became “an instrument of repression, of ‘Aryanization.’”
Schmidt said that it’s possible Jews were forced to sell their shares to the zoo. Those who sold shares after 1938 needed the money to survive or to flee, her report said. The Berlin Zoo benefited financially from the sales, she wrote.
From late 1938, the zoo hung signs outside its gates saying “Juden unerwuenscht,” or “Jews not welcome,” and from early 1939, Jews were denied entry.
The fate of the zoo’s Jewish supporters is even documented in fiction. In her autobiographical novel, “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit,” Judith Kerr describes Onkel Julius, a naturalist whose pass to the zoo is revoked in an official letter. He never recovers from the shock and kills himself with an overdose.
Yet as late as 2000, Cohn received a letter from the zoo’s lawyer, Richard Lehmann, saying that no Jewish owners had been expropriated of shares. Lehmann also said he could “confirm with absolute certainty” that he himself had never seen signs hostile to Jews in the zoo as a child. He also insisted that the zoo welcomed all visitors equally during the Nazi era.
“The zoo now is willing to talk about its own Nazi period, but in the years from 1945 to 2002 -- a 57-year span -- it sought to cover up this history, repeatedly lying to inquiring former stockholders like myself,” Cohn said.
At yesterday’s ceremony, Thoene and Berlin Culture Secretary Andre Schmitz paid tribute to Cohn’s tirelessness in prodding the zoo to reveal the truth. Schmitz described Lehmann’s letter to Cohn as a “sad episode.” Thoene said she wrote to Cohn to tell him about the plaque and send a photo.
Yet for Cohn, it may all be much too little, much too late.
“It adds insult to injury at this stage,” he said from New York. “It took nine years to do this, but far worse, it took more than 50 years to realize there is even an issue. They behaved so badly.”