An Asian elephant at the Berlin Zoo.
An archive image of an Asian elephant at the Berlin Zoo. Photo by Reuters
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During World War II, the Berlin Zoo was one of the first establishments to push out Jewish patrons – even before the Nazi regime had asked institutions to do so. More than 70 years later, the zoo is trying to own up to its misdeeds.

In 1938, the Berlin Zoo got rid of Jewish board members and forced Jewish shareholders to sell their stock at a loss, before re-selling the stock in an effort to "Aryanize" the institution. The zoo has now commissioned a historian to identify these past shareholders and track down their descendants, according to a report by AFP.

"Jews were very important for the zoo," the historian, Monika Schmidt, told AFP. "But they were pushed out step by step by the zoo itself, before the Nazi state asked any institution to do those things."

According to the report, roughly a quarter of the zoo's 4,000 shareholders in the '30s were Jews.

At the time, the Berlin Zoo was something of a social hotspot; instead of receiving dividends, the shareholders and their families enjoyed free access to the zoo, as well as the prestige of supporting an important institution.

"…in former times, the zoo was a very important meeting place for the city," said Schmidt, who works for the Center for Research on Anti-Semitism in Berlin.

Schmidt has managed to locate Jochanan Asriel, 89, whose grandfather was a shareholder. As a boy, Asriel would ride his bike to the zoo every afternoon.

"I remember all the animals, and I remember where they were placed," Asriel told AFP. "I don't remember what I ate yesterday, but what I remember from the zoo, I remember very well."

Asriel, who fled Germany as a teenager in 1939, now lives in the northern Israeli city of Haifa.

According to the report, Schmidt plans to publish the names and biographies of the shareholders in a book next year.

The zoo's dark past came to light in 2000, when retired New York sociology professor Werner Cohn asked the institution about his father's shares.

The zoo initially responded by saying that there was "neither force, nor compulsion" in the transfer of shares from Jews to non-Jews, but later decided to commission Schmidt to begin her research.

She then exposed the stock sales, the zoo's removal of Jewish board members, and the barring of Jewish visitors from the institution starting in 1939.

According to AFP, the zoo installed a plaque commemorating the Jewish shareholders.

"It is important to make the decision to continue to engage with this topic, to not forget what is possible," said zoo spokeswoman Claudia Bienek.

According to Bienek, reparation payments are not being considered.