German president’s villa remains haunted by its past

Frank-Walter Steinmeier is under pressure to commemorate building’s Jewish ex-owner

Berlin’s leafy Dahlem neighbourhood has always been a good address – except if you were a Jew selling a villa there in 1933.

Now, almost 85 years later, the tragic story of pearl factory owner Hugo Heymann has become a state tragedy. Because his former home, a pretty white plastered villa under a red-tiled roof, is now the residence of Germany’s federal president.

Until 2014, official Berlin claimed not to know the history of the villa in the Pucklerstrasse.

When the German government moved back from Bonn to Berlin, the federal president’s official seat moved to Bellevue palace on the banks of the river Spree.

While presidents still use it for work and representative events, many forego the isolated structure for the cosier Dahlem villa with a large downstairs public area and a private apartment upstairs.

But until 1933 the villa was the home of Hugo Heymann. Days after the Nazi takeover in 1933 he sold it to the Nazi publisher Waldemar Gerber.

Historian Julien Reitzenstein contacted the presidential office in 2014 with the details of its previous owner and what he viewed as a forced sale below market value.

Brass plaque

In 2015, Reitzenstein and locals in Dahlem contacted the president’s office to inform them of plans to lay a small brass plaque before the villa, to recall its history.

So-called “Stolpersteine”, or stumbling stones, are visible all over Germany, installed by artist Gunther Demnig to remember Jewish residents who fled or were murdered by the Nazis.

President Joachim Gauck declined an invitation to attend and instead commissioned his own report into the building’s history.

Last December the report was filed, showing how Heymann bought the villa in 1926 for 150,000 goldmarks and sold it for 86,000 Reichsmarks seven years later – a loss of about 40 per cent.

But the report’s author, historian Michael Wildt, said the collapse in the sale price “could not singularly be linked to the fact that Heymann as a Jew could be blackmailed”.

Economic chaos

Instead, he wrote, the low price was due to the collapse in property prices in the early 1930s. Given the economic chaos of the late Weimar era, which brought Hitler to power, nobody wanted a villa in Dahlem with more than 300m2 floor space.

“The price achieved does not indicate a discrimination of the Jewish salesman Hugo Hofmann but the fact that Heymann saw himself obliged to sell despite the unfavourable situation on the property market,” wrote Wildt in his report.

In 1951, Heymann’s widow Maria sued for the restitution of the villa she said was sold “under considerable disagreement”.

“The buyer, Gerber, not only instigated the sale, and advised it urgently, because a Jew would not be able to keep the property,” she said.

Gerber disputed this version of events and the restitution claim was rejected.

After moving from the Dahlem villa, Heymann sold his factory and other property, under increasing duress of the Nazi authorities.

He hoped to use the proceeds to flee the country but, on June 5th, 1938, died suddenly after being tortured by the Gestapo secret police.

Historian Julian Reitzenstein and Berlin’s Jewish community have reacted with annoyance at perceived foot-dragging by the president’s office, arguing its report splits legal hairs and ignores the moral component of the villa’s history.

“The president’s office will never be liberated from the embarrassment of this discourse so long as Hugo Heymann is not remembered properly in front of the villa,” wrote Rabbi Nachama in the Jüdische Allgemeine newspaper.

After a three-year debate, and growing public pressure, president Frank-Walter Steinmeier has said he would “make sure that agreement is reached over appropriate commemoration”.