Billions of dollars worth of cash, property, art, heirlooms and more were seized from members of the Jewish community during the Second World War, along with political prisoners, LGBQT Germans, and others sentenced to terms in work and concentration camps.
Decades later, Germany and the world are still dealing with the aftermath of this staggering theft of property, heritage and culture, with numerous organizations dedicated full time to hunting down appropriated property and returning it to its rightful owners. As one restitution seeker, Peter Sonnenthal, knows firsthand, the process of reclaiming stolen family goods can be an agonizing one.
One of the many actions the Allies undertook shortly after the war was the formation of a committee to evaluate troves of art discovered in German museums, Nazi hideaways, private collections and other locations. The committee members were responsible for determining the provenance of the art and returning it if it had been looted, seized or stolen from Jews disenfranchised under the war. Quickly bogged down in the sheer volume of art to process, the committee didn’t even come close to returning all stolen artworks to their original owners, as illustrated by the recent find of a massive trove of Nazi art in Munich.
Meanwhile, Allied governments were attempting to settle claims on cash, land and other property that had been stolen, in the swirling chaos of a post-war environment where many people had lost the documentation for the very property they were trying to claim. Inevitably, those stepping forward with claims weren’t always satisfied, leading to the formation of groups and organizations to help people regain their property rights, a quest that remains ongoing to this day, with some of the most active organizations based in Israel.
For Peter Sonnenthal, the quest for his inheritance, and heritage, has become an intensely personal one. The German-American attorney used to work for the Securities and Exchange Commission, hunting down some of the worst of the worst of Wall Street, but for the last 20 years, he’s also been fighting for what rightfully belongs to him and his family. The quest to retrieve some highly valuable property in the town of Teltow, near Berlin for his family has become such a full-time job that he’s relocated to the city in the hopes of being able to apply more pressure to the German government.
Sonnenthal’s family has a long and rich history in Germany, and before the war, they were counted among some of Berlin’s highest society. No small surprise that they had considerable assets, including prime real estate, in their hands by the mid-1930s — assets which were torn from them under Nazi seizure laws. The family fled in advance of the war, sensing the dangers that lay ahead, with the exception of one member who went to ground in Berlin and managed to survive.
In the great push towards restitution after the war, though, the family quickly ran into a snag: their property was in Russian-occupied Germany, and they couldn’t submit a successful claim until the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1989, more than 50 years after the property had been originally seized. That set the stage for a dramatic court battle that has had Sonnenthal scrambling, and refusing to give up, as he attempts to regain title to the extremely valuable properties.
While the high court appeared initially willing to rule in his favor, granting restitution and restoring the properties to the heirs of the family members who were forced to turn them over without compensation to the Nazis, Teltow officials feel differently. They threw a wrench into the works with claims that the family had voluntarily sold their land and weren’t persecuted by the Nazis, despite substantial evidence to the contrary, and while the city has grudgingly agreed to settle, that’s not enough for Sonnenthal, who wants full restitution.
The prolonged case, and fireworks flying around it, illustrate both the horrific legacies left by the Nazis in Germany, and the complex relationship the nation has with its wartime past. Restitution continues to be an ongoing struggle for Germany on a political, personal and practical level as those harmed by the Nazis, and their descendants, seek some kind of closure on a particularly bitter historical era.
Photo credit: Andrew Mason.