The Hirschland Bank’s Hobson’s Choice

Compiled by Victoria Hess from various sources. — updated Jan. 30, 2010

About 15 years ago, I had the pleasure of having dinner with Gaby Grunebaum, widow of Erich Grunebaum, one of the principles of the Simon Hirschland Bank. Erich had managed the Hamburg branch. Though Gaby was the wife of my first-cousin-once-removed, but she said to call her Aunt Gaby: everyone else did.

Persona Dramatic  There are a lot of Kurts, Erichs and Ernsts in the family. Here is a key to the persons in this document.

Agathe Grunebaum, and Franz, Georg, and Kurt Hirschland are siblings. Judge Ernst Grunebaum was Agathe’s husband.

Agathe’s children include Erich and Kurt, who managed the Hamburg branch of the bank. Gaby is Erich’s wife, their children included Michael and Irene Grunebaum, and Vicki Koppel is Irene’s daughter.

Franz Hirschland already lived in the US when all of this occurred, and the author and Joan Meijer are his granddaughters.

Kurt and Georg Hirschland were principles of the Simon Hirschland Bank based in Essen. They may be referred to as the Uncles.

We had a wide ranging conversation about her life in the 30’s in Germany, so interesting that even my boys, aged 4 and 6, sat in rapt attention. In addition to her story of sending her children to safety in Switzerland, she also told us of her escape from Germany.

Research suggests that a disproportionate number of the Hirschlands that made it to the United States were affiliated with the Hirschland Bank. It was not that Franz Hirschland, my grandfather, didn’t bother with other Hirschlands. (He did, witness Walter and Ruth’s story, and the assistance he gave others such as Margot Hirschland and her bother Karl [later renamed Charles Hannam] in finding work and education outside Germany). But helping the immediate members of his family, who were entwined in the Bank, was a primary concern.

Aunt Gaby told us that by the time late 1938 came around, this prominent German Jewish family was given a Hobson’s choice. It could hand over to Aryan control one of the more important banks in Germany, and perhaps go free to another country, or the family could gut the bank – destroy its assets, assuring their own confinement by the Nazis, but perhaps damaging the German war effort significantly. Gaby was certain that the damage would be significant, as the Simon Hirschland bank was an important presence in the Ruhr industrial area. An academic publication notes that “By October 1937, the Gestapo was attacking the Hirschland bank as the ‘focal point of Jewish financial dominance in the Ruhr District.’” James, Harold. The Deutsche Bank and the Nazi Economic War Against the Jews, 77 (2003. Cambridge University Press.)

Again, as I said, a Hobson’s choice: certain death for an entire family, or possible death and an extended war of many others. What decision would you make? Ultimately, the Hirschland family gave up the bank, negotiating circumstances for its more favorable takeover:

Although the national socialist state had deprived the Jews of their citizenship, the owners of the Hirschland banking house stayed in Essen for another few years after the “Machtübernahme” (takeover of power).  In 1937/38 the first negotiations took place with Dr. Gotthardt von Falkenhaus, who since 1935 had been the director of the “Deutsche Bank” in Essen, and with the head office in Berlin. On (Dr. Georg) Hirschland’s suggestion, on October 4, 1938 the banking house was taken over by the limited partnership of Burkhard & Co. whose capital was principally in Essen’s banks and major enterprises.

Schröter, Dr. Herman: The History and Fate of the Jews of Essen: A Memorial book to fellow Jewish citizens of the city of Essen, page 9 (1984) published by the Alte Synagogoe of Essen, and translation arranged by Richard Hirschland. See Resources.

Judge Ernst Grunebaum & Family 1935 Charlotte (Lotte), Agathe Grunebaum nee Hirschland, Judge Ernst Grunebaum, their daughter Kathe, Gabriele H Grunebaum nee Neumann, aged 25 years old ; back row from left to right : Kurt, his older brother Ludwig (Lutz), Kurt’s wife (perhaps then fiancee) Anneleise, Lutz’s wife Doris nee Ullman, Max Weinberg, and Erich Grunebaum.

According to Vicki Koppel, Gaby’s granddaughter, Gaby, her husband Erich, and her newborn daughter Irene first tried to leave Germany by train in late 1937-early 1938, not long after Irene’s birth. This first try failed, with the train screeching to a halt, baby Irene rolling off her mother’s lap, and the German police confiscating their passports, even though the family had appropriate exit documents. It was all Gaby could do to hold herself together. Vicki remembers Gaby saying “I didn’t lose control, because I couldn’t lose control. It wasn’t possible.” A few months later,
Irene was sent to safety in Switzerland, where her brother Michael had been sent earlier.

Gaby recalled that after this failed attempt to leave Germany, Erich and Kurt Grunebaum went to the new owners of the bank, and threatened them. (Apparently, the Hamburg branch sold earlier than the main office.) As Gaby said, they had told the new owners that “it could be very embarrassing for the bank if the Hirschlands did not make it out of Germany.” The new owners were sympathetic. They were friends and colleagues of the Hirschlands, and embarrassed enough to have been part of this takeover.

The police returned the passports, and sometime later, a second attempt was made to leave by train, this time with documents to exit Germany and to enter the Netherlands, every document dearly bought. Vicki reported that this second time, her grandparents were allowed to leave Germany, but were turned away at the Dutch border. Relations between Germany and the Netherlands were not easy at the time, and the Dutch did not want to let these Jews through their country.

Kurt, Franz, & Georg Hirschland. Kurt & Georg were the bank’s owners. Franz had moved to New York in the 1900’s.

Vicki told me that the forced sale (“Aryanization”) of the Simon Hirschland Bank in Essen was completed shortly before the High Holidays in 1938. “Because of the Holidays, the uncles and aunts didn’t consider packing or doing anything to get ready to leave,” according to Vicki. “They should have been running for their lives.” My grandfather, Franz, had frequently urged his siblings to leave Germany, but they had not thought there was any need to so do.

It is uncertain when Gaby and her family made their third, and successful, effort to leave Germany. Aunt Gaby told my family about the fears brought about by Kristallnacht, then having to leave suddenly, and with almost nothing. Vicki said that the third exit attempt was made by plane, accompanied by a lawyer, Kurt Grunebaum, and some other family members. Additional documents has been procured, and the lawyer was there to use them to get the family out of the country and into trhe next.

At the same time, family members in Essen were also making their exits. However, before leaving Uncle Georg obtained paperwork from the Essen police granting him and his family the right to return to Germany at any time. Vicki recalls her grandmother telling her, that even as the Hirschlands were fleeing, and in an airport, some of them were having business meetings with others about Simon Hirschland Bank business. Kurt Hirschland (one of the bank’s owners), stayed behind to tie up some loose ends and Kurt spent the war in the protection of a Swiss sanitarium. Some have said that he had a breakdown, not hard to believe given the circumstances, but Gaby insisted that it had just been a safe place for him to stay.

There are different stories about how and when the Hirschland family left Essen. David Hirschland, Henry Hirschland’s son, writes:

My father Henry turned 13 in 1938.  Apparently at his Bar Mitzvah the family secretly made plans to leave Germany since, as with the Grunebaums, the government was not inclined to let them leave.  As the story was told to me: a plan was made for the various parts of the family to all planned temporary vacations outside of Germany.  That would explain the documentation (on the Georg Hirschland family).  They apparently all went to different borders at a prearranged time and left.  They had no intention of returning.  The children, including my father, had no idea of what was going on until after they had left the country. My impression is that (they left) before Kristallnacht.

Madeline Hirschland, David’s sister, expanded:

Apparently, on October 7th, the German government decreed that every Jew had to have a star stamped in his or her passport.  Although they had been planning the escape since at least my father’s bar mitzvah – @ March 13th, 1938 – a time when they could be together to discuss this without raising suspicion – the family realized then that they had just the few days between the decree, and its being implemented, to escape.  The plan is that they were all to look like they were going on holiday.  My father used to delight in telling us that, to reinforce the perception that the family had no intention of  leaving, his family had their driveway paved to last “until Hell froze over.”

Another member of the family told me that the Essen Hirschlands left immediately after Kol Nidre. As with so many other stories in this family, the principles are gone, and all we have left to go with are the tales told to children and grandchildren.

There is a fairly detailed description of the negotiations in The Deutsche Bank and the Nazi Economic War Against the Jews: The Expropriation of Jewish-Owned Property by Harold James 77-80 (Columbia University Press, 2001) excepted on line by Google books.

Giving up the bank, and leaving with their lives was not the easy choice for the Hirschland family. From Dr. Schröter:

The Hirschland family was able to hastily leave Germany after paying the huge amounts required by the “Reichsfluchtsteuer” (Reich flight tax), the “Judenvermögensabgaben” (the Jewish capital levy) and contributions to the religious community as well as millions of marks to the Golddiskontbank  in order to receive the permit for the export of personal property. In 1938 the family arrived in America via the Netherlands.  Negotiations for restitution after the war led to the return of part of the property and to a silent partnership of the family with the Bernhardt banking house which merged with the Trinkausbank in Dusseldorf in 1971 and today continues the tradition of the Simon-Hirschland-Bank as a private bank under the company Trinkaus & Burkhardt. Ibid.

According to Vicki, and her uncle, Michael Grunebaum, it took far longer for Gaby’s family to get settled.  Seven years after fleeing Hamburg, the family finally settled into a home in Westchester County, NY, and received a shipment of crates of household goods that had been packed up by her housekeeper after the Grunebaums had fled. These crates were supposed to be filled with soft goods, bedding, linens, and the like, but as Gaby unpacked, she found stuffed into the middle of the crates the family silver and china, which had been snuck in at the risk of the housekeeper.

Reparations were later sought and obtained, at some low rate, and money trickled out of Germany for some time. Incidentally,reparations resolutions are still going on in the 21st century.

Books by Charles Hannam, nee Karl HirschlandA Boy in That Situation: An Autobiography

Almost an Englishman

Outsider Inside

Not all the Hirschlands left Essen in this effort. In his book, A Boy in that Situation, Charles Hannam, born Karl Hirschland, and son of the owner of the Levi Hirschland Bank in Essen, learned from his father one morning not long after his Bar Mitzvah that “The other Hartlands (Hirschlands) have gone! They went without telling anyone and without saying goodbye and left everything behind ….” Hannam, Charles, A Boy in that Situation, P 112 (Harpers & Roe, 1977). Karl had played regularly with Georg’s son Heinz, who later took the name Henry, and this sudden departure left him without his playmate, and with few friends at all, since many of the Jewish children of Essen had been sent away. Though Karl and Heinz were third cousins, the family apparently was not close enough to be included in the Bank’s departure from Essen. Karl and his sister, survived, but their father and grandfather died at Theresienstadt.

Dr.  Schröter summarized that:

Although the Hirschlands were one of the wealthy families, they shared a common fate with their co-religionists as the following information ascertained from family members will show. Relatives of their family died in concentration camps while others succeeded in emigrating sometimes literally in the last minute. Their exit permits were always dearly purchased. Some members of the Hirschland family did not want to be reminded of their German origins after emigrating and assumed a new name. The Hirschlands of Essen who survived the period of persecution and destruction now live in the USA, Canada, South America, the Netherlands, England and Palestine…. Ibid.

My sister, Joan Meijer, added this follow-up to the Hirschland escape from Essen:

After Grossmutter’s death in Essen, the family decided it was too dangerous to remain in Germany. They bought their way out by giving the bank to the Nazis and escaping with one suitcase each in a moving van in the dead of night.

When they got to America they were penniless. They stayed at Papa’s house in Harrison for a time (it was a big house) and then it occurred to them that the bank had money all over the world and that all they had to do was call it in. They did this and in a matter of weeks had $xxxxxxx, which in those days wasn’t exactly pocket change. The US Government in all its brilliance decided they were Nazi spies. They were under investigation until either shortly before or shortly after Uncle Georg died (in 1942). The US just couldn’t get it into their heads that the Nazis were slaughtering Jews.


One thought on “The Hirschland Bank’s Hobson’s Choice

  1. […] the Georg S. Hirschland family left Essen, the Villa was used by Gauleiter Josef Terboven, the Nazi regional leader for Essen, as a guest […]

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