Diary of a Department Store: The Nachmann-Joseph-David Connection

Author’s Note: Also see my follow-up to this post, A New Look at “Diary of a Department Store”.

Margot rehfisch smiling seated in the front of an open-top vintage roadster holding her dog, circa 1929.
Margot Rehfisch from the David/Nachmann film, Berlin ca 1929.

For those of you who are new to my Blog, most of my stories are based on the research I originally did for my film, “For the Life of Me”, or new information that resulted from it. But now much of it come from the posts on my Blog. Most recently they’ve been about my Mother’s side of the family. Her maiden name was Rehfisch.

Ever since I found myself involved in researching my family’s history I’ve been amazed at how fascinating and rewarding an experience it’s been. Finding a new connection is like a drug induced high; that sudden rush when a breakthrough happens and brings to life an otherwise faceless name.

It’s the realization that there’s a real person in there, with an identity, a place in the real world and a potential story to tell.

That’s the part I love, finding the stories behind the people. Ever since my Blog posts became public, a lot of my current research is prompted by others who’ve found my stories and have new information to pass on. Information that often reveals yet another family member with an identity and an interesting story to tell.

But this one is different. While it too began as a simple story about one person, now it’s evolved into the history of four families, and their interlocking connection. And for me it’s also the revelation that these people are really part of my family.

The Nachmann Connection

It all began when I found a connection with the name, “Nachmann”. It first came up a few years ago, when I was deeply involved in researching the life of my cousin, Margot Rehfisch. The sensational pieces of her life had already evolved into two complete stories that began just prior to WWII, and continued through her survival and successful career as a psychiatrist and philanthropist. The only thing lacking was her life before Hitler, before she fled to Amsterdam. In other words, what she and her life was like as a younger woman.

One incidental piece of information in her story mentioned the name, “Nachmann” for the first time. But it merely said that after the war Margot made a brief trip to America to visit her sister, Erna Nachmann nee Rehfisch, who was living in New York. She had married a man by the name of Martin Nachman, and they had immigrated to the U.S. before WWII, and were living in Kew Gardens with their son. But nothing more.

So, that’s all I knew. And there the Nachman’s remained – in my data base, totally inert until just a few months ago when new information fell in my lap. That’s when I was sent a home movie from the Jewish Museum in Berlin that featured my cousin, Margot, along with her sister, Erna and her husband, Martin Nachmann.

The story of how I got a copy of the film and what led up to it can be found in my earlier post, titled “Serendipity”.

There was also a detailed, multi-page family description that came with the film. It identified all the folks who took part in it, along with brief histories of many of them. Since it was part of the “David/Nachmann collection”, it not only brought the “Nachmann” name to life but it also established a link with the “David” family, a name that was brand new to me. Then to cap it all off, it had links to some important photos that led to the revelation of some very significant historical events from that side of my family.1

But first, let’s go back briefly and set the stage for what’s to follow:

The Rehfischs get Linked with the Josephs.

My grandfather, Louis Rehfisch had five brothers, one by the name of Sally, short for Salomon. Sally had married the sister of his business partner, Hermann Joseph. Her name was Julie Joseph (or Julchien as she was known).

Sally and Julie had three daughters: Hertha, Erna and Margot. Sadly, we know precious little about Hertha. She was a victim of the Nazis and perished in Sobibor during WWII.

While we already know a lot about Margot from her previous stories in my Blog, we’re now beginning to learn about her older sister, Erna. But until I received the film footage and the details about the Nachmanns, all I knew was that she had married a businessman by the name of Martin Nachmann, and that they had a son, and lived in Kew Gardens, NY. Still no meat on the bones yet. Just two names of people who had lived in a suburb of New York City.

But with the arrival of the Nachmann/David film and the other details from Berlin’s Jewish Museum, a whole new side of my family was being revealed. Here’s what I just learned:

By the time the Nachmanns came on the scene, Margot and Erna’s father, Sally, was already a wealthy businessman in Berlin. In fact, the opening scene in the film shows Margot and her cousin, Lieschen David (nee Nachmann) walking out of her father’s department store. This is Berlin circa 1929.

Lieschen david and margot rehfisch walk small dog outside entrance to h joseph department store in berlin 1929.
Lieschen David and Margot Rehfisch leaving H. Joseph & Co., Kaufhause, Margot’s father’s department store. Berlin, ca 1929.

Around 1900 Margot and Erna’s father, Sally, and his partner, Hermann Joseph, bought a building that housed, among other things, a German music hall. It was called “Cafe Germania” and apparently had fallen on hard times. But Sally and Hermann had much bigger plans and turned their new acquisition into a successful department store, or “Kaufhaus”. It became known as “Mode-Warren-Hause; H. Joseph & Co.

Exterior view of grand berlin department store, h joseph and company, in the 1930s.
This is what Sally Rehfisch and Hermann Joseph created.

Hermann and Sally’s Kaufhaus.

Located on what is now Karl-Marx Strasse, over the years the partners expanded it from women’s fashions and textiles to include men’s and children’s clothing, as well as household goods, and footwear. Then as they continued to expand they added what today would be called a “food court”; a department that sold food and grocery items. And ultimately they added a cafe.

H. Joseph & Co., was quite successful for many years, and probably became the model for the post war department store marvel, KaDeWe. But things changed in 1933 when the Nazis came to power. First, Sally passed away from heart failure. Ironically it was on the same day as Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany by the German president, von Hindenburg. But whether or not Sally succumbed because of Hitler assuming total control over Germany is certainly open to speculation.

That was January 30, 1933.

Then three years later in 1936, H. Joseph & Co. was “Aryanized”, which is the polite way to describe the Nazis’ forced takeover of Jewish businesses. Hermann Joseph disappeared around that time. From then on the store was known simply as Kaufhaus Neukolln. Any references to Jewish names were gone, as well as any Jewish employees.

Expanding the Nachmann Link

Now let’s jump back a dozen years before Sally Rehfisch and Hermann Joseph started their own department store. That would have been circa 1888 when Gustav Nachmann acquired a small factory that manufactured mens’ and boys’ clothing. It was already a successful business that had been built by an entrepreneur named “Ignatz Meumann”. Gustav chose to leave the name alone, and over time expanded it and added a successful retail outlet as well.

Meanwhile, Gustav and his wife, Fanny had four children, two boys and two girls. The boys were Martin Nachmann and his older brother, Manfred. Manfred happened to be born the same year that Gustave acquired Ignatz Meumann.

Ad copy in German for ignatz meumann.
Ad copy for Ignatz Meumann as it appeared in the CV-Zeitung, Berlin.

The David’s Link with the Nachmann’s

Their two girls were Elli, and Elise or Lieschen. And this is where the “David” link comes in because Karl David, a dentist (with artistic leanings) married Lieschen Nachmann in 1920, and thus the Davids became connected with the Nachmann family. And then through Martin’s wife, Erna, the David’s become connected with the Rehfisch family – all from the maternal side of my family tree.

While the rest of the David’s story is not germane to this one, they are a very important family because it is from the David Collection at the Jewish Museum in Berlin that this wealth of information came from – the foundation and motivation for writing this story – all starting with the film. But even though the David story takes a different direction, it may well turn up in one of my future posts.

It is Lieschen (now David) who you see in the film frame, walking with her cousin, Margot Rehfisch, in front of H. Joseph & Co.

But one year after Lieschen Nachmann and Karl David were married, her father, Gustav Nachmann passed away. That led to Lieschen’s two brothers inheriting Ignatz Meumann. Gustav would have been proud because under their guidance the company continued to thrive . . . that is until 1938 when it too became “Aryanized”.

Obviously the two brothers sensed what was coming, because they got out of Germany for good on October 9, 1938. That was exactly one month before Krystallnacht, and the day the SS Nieuw Amsterdam sailed out of Rotterdam with Martin, Manfred and their families all on board. Both families not only fled Germany together but ended up living together in Kew Gardens, NY.

Kew Gardens would soon become a haven for not only the Nachmanns but Rehfischs and Josephs as well, all displaced by the Nazis and the war.

With my mother already here in the U.S., Erna conveniently used her name as their family’s American connection: a required piece of information on their paperwork to be able to enter the U.S. as refugees.

I wonder if Erna was ever in touch with my mother after they arrived. I doubt that they were close as children since my mother grew up in Hannover while her cousin, Erna grew up in Berlin. But, it was around that time that my mother began her own quest to get her parents and sister out of Germany. Yet it took until 1940 to get them here. And they ended up living in mid-town Manhattan, not Kew Gardens.

Tragically of the four Rehfisch family members then living in Amsterdam, only Margot survived. Julie and her daughter, Hertha, perished in Sobibor, and my uncle Paul died in transit from Bergen-Belsen to Theresientstadt only days before the Nazis surrendered to the allies.

However for Hermann Joseph’s to reach America was not quite as simple as the two Nachmann families, and remained a mystery for quite awhile; in part because one source implied that he was forced to flee from the Nazis. But that was never substantiated. Yet we’ve been led to assume that he got out of Germany as early as 1936, when the Nazis first took over his business. But whether or not he was forced to we don’t know, because in 1936 German Jews still had the choice to stay or get out.

Either way, that left a five year gap that kept us wondering when did he actually leave Germany and under what circumstances. We have since learned that Hermann’s journey took him to Havana, Cuba sometime during that period. Then he ultimately showed up again in March 1941, when he left Havana and arrived at Ellis Island. From there he went directly to Kew Gardens to be near family.

Whether he left Germany by choice or not, it is possible that he spent most of the five years in Havana waiting for his name to come up on the U.S. Quota list for immigration. But for now it remains a mystery. Yet as has happened before, maybe some helpful person who reads this will drop the answers in my lap.

A man and woman seated at a restaurant table laugh with a second man, also at the table.
Erna (left) and Martin Nachmann (right) celebrate the return of the family business.

After the war, as many other Germans did, Hermann Joseph filed for restitution. He was determined to get back as many of his assets and possessions as possible, stolen from him by the Nazis. That included his beloved Kaufhaus. When restitution was finally made, his partner’s share of the building was returned to the Rehfisch sisters, his partner’s daughters, Erna and Margot. Then Margot put her share in the hands of her sister and brother in law. And apparently Hermann did so as well, giving Erna and Martin total control of the hulk that remained.

Kaufhaus friedland department store partially burned and looking like an enormous hulking wreck in this circa 1948 photo.
What remained after the war of H. Joseph & Co. A burned out shell.

But while they may have considered it briefly, I doubt that either Erna or Martin had any intention of returning to Germany to rebuild and reopen the burned out shell of what had once been the family’s thriving retail business. So, with Hermann and Margot’s blessing, Erna and Martin sold the building to a retail chain named “Hertie” – a very successful company that was founded in 1882 by Hermann Tietz, who combined both his first and last name to come up with the name Hertie.

As the photo shows, Erna and Martin did return to Germany to celebrate the sale. As a result, both Erna and her sister, Margot were able to live quite comfortably from their portion of it. And I assume Hermann did as well.

Meanwhile after some serious reconstruction and refurbishing, Hertie re-opened the Kaufhaus in 1952. But after a very successful run, by the year 2005, the company was facing a business downturn. Then hit by the recession the following year, by 2008 the Hertie Company filed for bankruptcy and shut down in 2009. A short time later the Kaufhaus was purchased by Karstadt Warenhaus GmbH, another large retail chain based in Essen, Germany.

Revitalized once again, what you see below is how it looks today.

People cross street in front of modern neukolln store.
Now a 21st Century shopping experience.

1.My apologies for the long delay in publishing this story. I started writing it well over three months ago, only to realize that there was way too much that I still didn’t know. So, its completion had to wait until we were able to unearth all the necessary details to finally make sense of it all and to tell a complete story – and then only after I enlisted the help of my wonderful friend, and benefactress, Amelie D. in Berlin.


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