What can prompt a person to take on a difficult, obstacle-strewn, and sometimes painful task?
For Dr. Joanne Intrator, the reasons to pursue her mission — the restitution of Wallstrasse 16, a Berlin property stolen by the Nazis — grew as she moved forward.
When the New York-based psychiatrist was offered a chance to regain the family-owned building in what is now East Berlin, she approached the prospect with caution. But after learning later that the building subsequently was used to produce both Nazi flags and the yellow stars Jews were forced to wear, she grew bolder, demonstrating both courage and tenacity in her struggle.
Ultimately, after about nine years, Dr. Intrator won. But — as both German officials and her own lawyer told her — her case was unusual. Most claimants die without seeing any results.
Dr. Intrator, who lives on Long Island City, will speak about her experiences on November 9 at Mahwah’s Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in a Kristallnacht commemoration co-sponsored by the synagogue and the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Ramapo College. A regular contributor to the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, Dr. Intrator has spoken about Holocaust and restitution issues in both Germany and the United States. The story of her family’s experiences under the Nazis was included in a special exhibit of the City Museum of Berlin. The exhibit, “Stolen Heart,” will be shown at the Center for Jewish History in February 2016 under the auspices of the Leo Baeck Institute.
“I was born in the United States right after the war,” Dr. Intrator said, and both her parents, Gerhard and Lotte Intrator, were refugees from Germany. “They owned a great deal of property, but they had to sell it bit by bit to get money to get out.” Their connection to the building in East Berlin — then in the center of the city — only surfaced after the Berlin wall came down.
When her father died in 1993, Dr. Intrator knew that he was “connected to the building in some way. His name appeared in the Grundbook,” which recounted the history of the ownership of the building. “Our name came up as well as that of another family related to us who our grandfather was in business with.” Although her father always had maintained that they would “never see a cent” from the Germans, she took over his claim.
A German history major in college, Dr. Intrator said she was “brought up in the shadow of my parents’ experiences.” While reclaiming the building was, as she explained, “meaningless financially, the family share was minute, the whole issue was one of principle.”
Her journey began when a lawyer from Berlin came to see Dr. Intrator and her brother, Jack, about the building. His fee, he explained, was being paid by a Zurich-company that was owned by a former concentration camp survivor who had done well and now was financing cases such as these. The lawyer urged Dr. Intrator to sign on to the restitution effort. Relatives in her extended family had already done so, he said.
But something disturbing surfaced at that meeting, which would cause trouble later on. Apparently, the building in question changed ownership — sold in a forced auction — before November 9, 1938 — Kristallnacht. That meant it could be excluded from the German law that held that any property taken for religious or philosophical reasons would be returned to the Jewish owner. This did not include forced auctions, Dr. Intrator said.
“The lawyer said the burden of proof was on the Jewish claimant. We’d have to prove that anti-Semitism was the reason the building was sold. I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ On April 7, 1933, my father was told he would have to prove he wasn’t Jewish or he would have to give up his position as a judge. He lost the position.”
While the lawyer thought the family ultimately would win, he was sure that the representatives of the people who bought the building in the forced auction would take them to an appeals court. That, he said, was not covered in his arrangement with the firm in Zurich, and it would be very expensive. It would also take quite a long time, “by which time, he said, some members of your family will be dead,” Dr. Intrator said. “That was quite a statement.
“He went further and said we should make a deal with the people who took the building and split the proceeds” for its sale. “My brother and I exchanged looks: How could we go into a business relationship with the people who took the building?
“I was a mother, a wife, I did the first brain imaging on psychopaths, I had an academic career. But I was going to figure this out. Since I was going to Munich that fall to present the findings of my research, I told the lawyer I would come to Berlin and see the building and we’d talk.” In the meantime, she and her brother began to dismantle the family home in Forest Hills “and I found file drawers I had never opened.” In the drawers were some 3,000 documents, now in the Jewish Museum in Berlin.
“They were primarily letters between my father, grandfather, and other relatives trapped in Germany or Eastern Europe who were ultimately killed,” she said. The letters also discussed her father’s legal issues. “They supported the position that [the family] was under persecution,” Dr. Intrator said.
She sent the files to Berlin.
Still, as the time approached to go to Germany, “I was getting apprehensive,” she said. “I didn’t know much.” Fortunately, she found Hans Frank, a former partner in the international law firm Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson. Mr. Frank, who since has died, was a tax expert who helped fellow victims of Nazism.
“He was my dad’s age and had been in the same program to become a municipal judge,” Dr. Intrator said. “He came here in 1933.” Mr. Frank, she said, “was like an angel, very supportive throughout the whole period.” Joining her in Berlin, Mr. Frank disagreed with her attorney, who urged that she should negotiate with the new owners. “He said we had a strong case and there was no reason to.”
Returning to New York, “there was not much happening. It was like hurry up and wait. They needed this and that,” constantly delaying consideration of her case. “They said they were backed up. They had so many cases and not enough help.” In 1995, however, Dr. Intrator “got my act together.” She had the letters translated and became more familiar with their contents. Returning to Germany in 1995 for the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, she felt increasingly optimistic.
“I met with the lawyers and it was the same story. They blew me off,” she said, although she did learn then that the Nazi flag had been produced in the building and suggested — unsuccessfully — that this might prove the Nazis had engineered its seizure.
Finally, in 1997, her lawyers came up with the idea that she should confront the judges directly. “I went to Berlitz, improved my German, and went,” she said. “There were three officials. The first one attacked my grandfather, saying he was a bad businessman. I told him to stop, adding that my father had said we would never get a cent. Then I pulled out a camera and photographed them. I said I would show my family in the U.S. what they looked like. Pandemonium broke out, and they said they would put the case on the top of their pile. The chief bureaucrat handed me candies while I was crying. At least I got their attention.”
That action, pulling out her camera, was “intuitive and spontaneous,” she said. If people are not moved by guilt, sometimes they may be moved by shame, she added.
Still, “there was one obstacle after another.” In 1999 Dr. Intrator hired an international investigative agency, which discovered a number of interesting things, apparently overlooked by her own lawyers. “They were American-born, useful, and smart,” she said. Not only did they uncover the Nazi membership of the people who took the building, but they found that those new owners had rented space in the building since the 1920s, “and were aware they were renting from a Jewish landlord. They watched the deterioration of his economic life, then took the building in a forced auction. It was appalling that the lawyers didn’t know this.”
Those same lawyers, however, were making headway with other members of her family, who held larger shares in the building. While they had supported Dr. Intrator’s restitution effort, an uncle had fallen on hard times and could sorely use the money he would gain by negotiating with the new owners.
“Hans Frank helped find a way for me to negotiate,” she said. “In the file cabinet was a letter from a cousin describing in minute detail what being rounded up was like. I had it translated and sent it in English and German to all the relatives. I said, ‘We can’t negotiate with them. This happened to one of our relatives.’ We all became a unified force.”
Shy at the beginning of her quest, Dr. Intrator said she grew “angry and infuriated. I wasn’t shy anymore.” Indeed, she said, her family was worried about her determination “to take this to the bitter end.”
The story, however, ends well. Although the value of the Berlin building had deteriorated, the family was able to sell it and saw some financial gain. But even more, “The process allowed me to go though the letters and learn about my family,” said Dr. Intrator, who is now writing a book about her “life-changing” experience.
“It was a hard thing to do,” she said, adding that information that would have proved helpful in restitution efforts has only recently been uncovered by “brilliant scholars in their 40s looking under rocks. The information was not available. The wall had just come down, and the East and West had not united in terms of information. The lawyers should have helped me, but it was just a business venture for them. They were not really interested in restitution, or our family.”
Dr. Intrator said that she speaks about her experiences “because stuff like this shouldn’t happen again. If I had not found out the details, the level of participation of the Nazis and depth with which they went into our lives would not be known. I watched the stages of the destruction of my family — subtle but persistent. This can happen anywhere in the world.”
While the generation of survivors is almost gone, “it is important for my son’s generation,” she said. “I needed to show him who his family was and that his mother is fierce.”
Beth Haverim Shir Shalom’s rabbi, Joel Mosbacher, feels strongly that it is important to keep the memory of the Shoah alive. “Now more than ever, with fewer and fewer survivors, it becomes ever more incumbent upon us to remember and tell the stories of the Holocaust, and how it came to be that man could be so inhumane against man,” he said. “Now more than ever, our children, who will never meet an actual survivor, need to know that the Holocaust was real, and that it can happen again in the world — to us, to others — unless we are diligent, and unless we learn the lessons of the past.
“It’s not that we teach kids to be Jewish because of the Holocaust; we don’t. It’s not that we say, ‘be Jewish otherwise Hitler wins.’ That doesn’t work as an educational philosophy. We teach about the power, meaning, and values of living a Jewish life. And we also teach about what can happen when human beings fail to live up to their humanity.
“The two are not mutually exclusive.”