A New Look at “Diary of a Department Store”

Exterior view of grand berlin department store, h joseph and company, in the 1930s.
Shoppers stroll past a line of trolley cars outside of H. Joseph Department Store in Berlin circa 1929.

I’m constantly fascinated by the emails that periodically arrive on my computer from people I don’t know. These are folks who either found something in my film, “For the Life of Me”, or in one of the stories in my blog that pertained to them in some way. It’s those reasons that I always find fascinating.

This one turned out to be from a woman in Berlin, Germany, who had more additional information to add to my earlier story, “Diary of a Department Store”. However, she didn’t want to talk on the phone, but insisted that we meet via Zoom instead . . . and on the Fourth of July, yet.

And so we did!

We hooked up on Zoom on July 4th, and spent a very interesting two and a half hours discussing details about the sale of the department store that once belonged to my relatives. Plus, she had further information about important details that I never knew before I wrote the “Diary of a Department Store”. And then there was more about what happened to the store both during and after the war.

The woman from Berlin was Sabina Friedland, who was also the grand daughter of Max Friedland, the gentleman who bought the department store at the time the Nazis began to “Aryanize” Jewish businesses.

The store, which was built around 1900, had originally been a partnership between my grand uncle, Saloman “Sally” Rehfisch, and his friend and brother-in-law, Hermann Joseph. Sally happened to be married to Hermann’s sister, Julie Joseph. But Sally died a few years before the Nazis took away Jewish businesses. So, by then it was totally in the hands of his partner, Hermann Joseph.

Sabina wanted to update me with more details about what happened to the store after Hitler came to power, and throughout the war. She also wanted to correct a few errors of omission that I made in the original story. She did this by following up with notarized documentation from a long time key member of Hermann’s staff. But more on this shortly.

As a partial refresher, in the original “Diary of a Department Store”, it was circa 1900 when Sally Rehfisch and his partner, Hermann Joseph, bought a building that had been a German music hall that had fallen on hard times. Their intention, however, was not to revive the music hall, but to turn it into a “Kaufhaus”, or department store. They did, and soon developed what became a very successful business, known then as Mode-Warren-Hause; H.Joseph & Co.

Exterior front of h. joseph department store in the 1930s.
Flags flying, men and women in best clothes walk, ride bicycles, or hop on trolley cars outside H. Joseph Department Store on what is now Karl-Marx Strasse, Berlin. Circa 1929.

Located on Karl-Marx Strasse, it grew over the years, beginning with women’s wear, then men’s and children’s clothing, later adding household goods, footwear, and on to food and groceries, and finally a café.

1930 view of women dressed in fur coats shopping for housewares grand berlin department store, h joseph and company.
H. Joseph in its heyday: women in fur coats and dresses peruse housewares and food in the 1930’s.

Ironically, on January 30,1933, the day that Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, giving the Nazi Party total control, Sally Rehfisch passed away. But we have no idea whether or not his death had any thing to do with Hitler becoming chancellor! We can only guess.

But now that Sally was gone, Julie Rehfisch, nee Joseph, took over her husband’s half of the business. Regardless, from then on, Hermann ran the business.

While the Nazi takeover of Jewish businesses began in 1933, it didn’t reach H.Joseph & Co., until three years later, in 1936. But it was here, in “Diary of a Department Store” that I made my first error by implying that the Nazis actually took over Hermann’s business.

Having nothing more to go on, I assumed that being “Aryanized” by the Nazis meant that they simply and aggressively took over the entire business. While they probably did come into the store to force all the Jewish employees out, the transaction in Hermann’s case was far more reasonable and genteel.

According to documentation sent by Sabina Friedland, and written and notarized by August Gleu, who had worked for Hermann Joseph from 1921 to 1936, it happened as follows:

At the time of the sale, H.Joseph & Co. belonged to both Hermann Joseph and his sister, Julie Rehfisch, nee Joseph, in equal parts.

On December 1, 1936 Herman Joseph simply sold the company and a warehouse to Max Friedland. But, Hermann kept the physical building, and only leased it to Max, along with the inventory in the store.

As a result, while Max now owned H.Joseph & Co. — the company — he continued to pay rent for the building and all the inventory inside. Never the less, he took the opportunity to change the name of the store, which then became, “Kaufhaus Friedland”.

But, Hermann was only able to continue leasing the building for the next two years. On December, 31,1938, the Nazis ratified the “Aryanizason” law for ALL Jewish businesses. That finally forced Hermann to sell the entire building and the inventory to Max.

From the information that we had originally, Hermann Joseph apparently disappeared from Germany as early as 1936. That was based on the assumption that the Nazis had taken over his business, and that Hermann fled from the country because of it.

But according to August Gleu, Herman didn’t leave Germany for another four years. This was confirmed by a friend of Gleu’s, who spoke to Hermann just before his departure. By then, for Jews to get out of Germany was extremely difficult. But obviously Hermann had planned well ahead, had all his paper work in order, and undoubtedly had money stashed away outside of Germany. Then, he simply headed for Lisbon, Portugal, and then on to Havana, Cuba, and ultimately New York City, where he spent the rest of his life.

Meanwhile, the store was still owned by Max Friedland, and somehow it remained in operation throughout the entire war. But in April,1945, when the war ended, civilians immediately began looting what was left in it.

Kaufhaus friedland department store partially burned and looking like an enormous hulking wreck in this circa 1948 photo.
The building appears to be a bombed out shell, but Max kept it open throughout the war. Then the Russians, and later the Americans, used it as a supply depot. While Max retained it, he also tried to refurbish and reopen it. Circa 1948.

At that point the government authorities stepped in and seized the building, turning it in to a storage warehouse/supply depot for food and material. That sector of Berlin was under Russian control at the time, including the storage warehouse.

That made it totally off limits to all civilians . . . including Max. Yet, he still owned the building. Finally, after months of negotiations, he was able to gain access to a single office in it. While he was no longer able to sell anything, at least Max was finally able to evaluate the damages caused by the war and all the looting. And, he could also figure out his next move.

That came in 1946 when Berlin was officially divided among the allies, which put the store in the American sector. Although it was now in the hands of the American government, and he now had access to it, poor Max was still paying off a huge mortgage on the building, that dates back to the original purchase, before the war, in 1936. So, he took a stab at trying to reopen it again, hoping that he could generate some kind of income flow to offset his expenses. But that didn’t work out either.

By 1948 or ’49, he began to receive mail from two of Sally’s daughters and Sally’s wife, asking him to consider returning the store to them through post war German “reparations”.

But while Max was certainly aware of his financial difficulties, he didn’t want to give up the store if he didn’t have to. However, he was no longer dealing with Hermann, even though Hermann had filed for restitution from the German government, and was determined to get back as much as he could financially. But now Max would be dealing solely with Martin Nachmann, husband of Erna Nachmann, nee Rehfisch.

Hermann and Sally had known the Nachmann family for years, long before Hitler came to power. Gustav Nachman, Martin’s father, had been a long time supplier of men’s and boy’s clothes to their Neukölln department store (Neukölln is one of twelve boroughs in Berlin). And a few years before Sally died, his daughter Erna had married Martin Nachmann.

Hermann was satisfied with what the reparations where returning to him, and felt quite confident in putting his share in Martin’s hands. And so did Erna, as well as Sally’s other daughter, Margot Rehfisch, and Julie Rehfisch, Herrmann’s living partner.

That put Martin and Erna Nachmann in total control of further negotiations.

At this point it was apparent that Max Friedland and Martin Nachman got together and found a way for the family to get back their department store. And ultimately a deal was made.

But the Nachmanns had no interest in returning to Berlin to rebuild and reopen what was left of the family’s once thriving business.

So, with their family’s blessing, Erna and Martin sold the building to Hertie Company, a very successful retail chain that had been in business since 1882.

Hertie department store on karl marx Strasse in berlin, germany, circa 1970.
The grand department store reborn as a Hertie Store, as it looked in the 1970s.

By 1952, after some serious reconstruction and refurbishing, Hertie reopened the Kaufhaus under the Hertie banner, and enjoyed what turned out to be more than a half century of success. Then, to stay on top of there success, Hertie invested millions of Deutschmarks in a major expansion of the their building: not once, but twice. First in 1968, sixteen years after they bought the building, and then again in 1983.

Nevertheless, by 2003 their profits began to decline. And by 2005, Hertie Company was facing a very serious business downturn. Then they were hit by a recession the following year, and in 2008 the Hertie Company filed for bankruptcy, and shut down completely in 2009.

A short time later the Kaufhaus was purchased by Karstadt Warenhaus, GmbH, another large retail chain based in Essen, Germany. But apparently they couldn’t get it going at all, because the building was soon taken over by a private capital investment company called DC Values.

Obviously the “Warenhaus” market had change dramatically, as Hertie began to realize after more than a half century of incredible success.

But what was the cause?

It doesn’t take much to realize how computers and the advent of buying online dramatically changed the way people shopped. As a result, big shopping malls began closing down as relics of the past. Plus the demographics changed in many places, as they did in Neukölln.

But now what is it that remains of the once glamorous Hertie Kaufhaus? Now, you will find that within the building, individual shops have taken over. Each with its own space, and each one now leasing that space from the investment company.

Yes, the glamor of the Kaufhaus is now gone. But has that made the way we shop better, or worse?


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