17 January 2017

Wannsee Conference (1942) in a beautiful Berlin villa

History of the Wannsee Villa homepage says that the beautiful home was first built in SW Berlin in 1914-15. The original owners of the home, merchant-factory owner Ernst Marlier and his wife Margarete, were photo­graphed standing in their front doorway in 1916. The photograph of the dining room shows how the room was fur­nished: Queen Ann chairs, Oriental rug, chandelier and wall tap­estry. The Wintergarten, the sun room next to the dining room, is still lovely. The house had 1,500 sq ms of living space, and a very large garden. One of the great joys of living in Wannsee was proximity to beautiful parks, lakes and beaches.

Ernst and Margarete Marlier sold the house in 1921, to a firm bel­ong­ing to the industrialist Friedrich Minoux. The first important conf­erence was held in this villa in Feb 1923. This was when Minoux mediated an un­successful discussion between the chief of the army command and the former quartermaster general on measures to be taken against the French occupation of Germany’s coal-rich Ruhr region.

Wannsee Villa, 
surrounded by well kept, peaceful gardens

Wannsee beach

According to the museum, Minoux was also involved in Hitler's failed Putsch in Nov 1923. On that date, which was the 5th anniversary of the overthrow of the 500-year old Hohenzollern dynasty of Germany by the Jewish-led Social Democrats, Hitler made an attempt to overthrow the democratic Weimar Republic.

In 1940, Minoux was arrested for fraud and embezzlement in his busin­esses. In Nov 1940 he sold the villa, with all its furn­ishings and art works, to the Nordhav SS Foundation set up by Reinhard von Heydrich. The foundation's role was to build and main­tain vacation resorts for the SS Security Service. Hey­drich, Himmler's second in command of the SS, wanted to use the Wannsee villa for official functions and as a hol­iday resort. It offered renovated guest rooms, a music room, a billiards room, the gorgeous winter garden and terraces facing the Wannsee.

With the invasion of Poland in Sep 1939, the persecution of European Jewry was raised to unprecedented levels. But worse was to come in June 1941 after the onset of Operation Barbarossa against the Sov­iets. On 31st July 1941 Hermann Göring gave written authorisation to Heydrich to prepare and submit a plan - he had to create a Total Solution of the Jewish Question in territ­ories under German control and to coordinate the participation of all involved government organisations.
The Wannsee Museum rooms,
as lightfilled and spacious as they were in 1914

Thus the Wannsee Conference. It was a meeting of 16 senior government officials of Nazi Germany and SS leaders, held in the house on 20th Jan 1942. Called by director of the Reich Main Security Office Rein­hard Heyd­rich, the conference was to ensure the cooperation of administrative leaders of various government dep­art­ments in the final solution to the Jewish question. State sec­re­t­­aries from the Foreign Office, the justice and interior ministries, plus representatives from the Schutzstaffel/SS heard the plan, and pooled their expertise. It took less than two hours for Heydrich to outline how European Jews would be rounded up from west to east, and sent to the General Government i.e the occupied part of Poland. Once the mass deportation was complete, the SS would take complete charge of the extermination camps.

Many records were destroyed. And it was only in March 1947 that the Wannsee Conference even came to light, by accident. One copy of the Wannsee Protocol with circulated minutes of the meeting survived, found by the Allies among files that had been seized from the German Foreign Office.

In 1965 the villa was proposed as an ideal site for the study of Nat­ional Socialism and its Consequences, organised by historian Josef Wulf and largely financed by the World Jewish Congress. But the Ger­man gov­ern­ment was not prepared to allow the Jews to buy the property or use it as a document centre. Only on 20th Jan 1992, EXACTLY on the 50th anniversary of the conference, the site was finally opened as a Holocaust Memorial and as the House of the Wannsee Conference Museum.

Most of the ground-floor rooms have large panels on the walls with text about the Nazi era and the Holocaust, along with a collection of pictures related to the evacuation of the Jews, as planned at the Wannsee Conference. The Joseph Wulf Bibliothek-Mediothek on the second floor houses a large collection of books on the Nazi era, plus other materials such as microfilms.

Reinhard Heydrich on the front cover of
Professor Mark Roseman's book

The 75th Anniversary Wannsee Conference Commemoration will be taking place in Melbourne on the 29th January 2017, chaired by the Federal Member of Parliament for Melbourne Ports and opened by the President of the Jewish Holocaust Centre.

If readers are planning to attend the Melbourne commemoration, it may be worth reading Mark Roseman’s book The Villa, the Lake, the Meeting: Wannsee and the Final Solution (Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 2002) first. Or read the review in The Guardian.

14 January 2017

A very fine Chinese and Jewish museum in Memphis Tn - guest post

My son was in Memphis Tennessee on business. He was surprised and delighted to see that Memphis now tops the list of American cities with Melbourne's iconic old green trams! The Tennessee city was apparently keen to acquire the trams that had originally been sold to the southern city of New Orleans. These gorgeous trams now make up over a third of the Memphis fleet. Here is his story.

Young Philip Belz (1904-2000) left Russia (now Western Ukraine) in 1910 to join his father who had already migrated to Memphis Tennessee. In 1935 Philip Belz started a company that specialised in building inexpensive flats, which eventually grew into a major real estate company. And as he became more successful in business, Philip Belz's charities expanded to include schools, hospitals and medical research facilities, opera and concert foundations in Memphis and in Israel. His son Jack (1927- ) joined him in the business and continued to build Belz Enterprises.

Son Jack & Marilyn Hanover Belz, who were married in the elegant Peabody Hotel in 1948, learned the concept of community service from dad. Jack purchased the Peabody Hotel from his father in law, Isadore Hanover, in 1975. Rescuing the old city landmark from its aged condition, he re-opened it in 1981, and planned to revitalise the Central Business District with Peabody Place.

The Peabody Hotel was soon recorded on the National Register of Historic Places listings in Tennessee.

The Belz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art
South Main Street in Memphis.
Note the old Melbourne tram gliding past.

Jack's collecting passion was very special. The Belz Asian Art Collection started in 1960s when Jack and Marilyn made their first purchases from a gallery in Los Angeles. This collection rapidly grew over the decades, focusing at first on jade. Eventually the museum pieces came to include ivory, coral, rose quartz, tiger eye, cloisonné and cinnabar, but Mongolian silver jade still accounts for one third of the collection. As the Belzes started collecting pieces, they worked with Christie’s of London because of Christie’s reputation as a safe source and its connection with larger, reputable museums, including the British Museum.

In 1995 Jack Belz agreed to donate some of their collection to a temp­or­ary exhibition at the Pink Palace Museum in Memphis - it was a major science and historical museum that specialised in exhibits ranging from archaeology to chemistry. The Belz dis­play was part of a complementary exhibit to the Wonders: Imper­ial Tombs of China exhibition taking place at the Cook Convention Centre.

By 1998 the Belz Foundation had been established and their mus­eum was named Peabody Place Museum; it was located in South Main Street in Memphis, in three small rooms on the lower level of the Pembroke Square building. It featured hundreds of works of jade, tap­es­tries, furniture, carvings and other art objects.

The museum was often referred to as The Jade Museum, since one of the main materials featured was sculptured jade. The main Asian collection featured artworks from the Qing Dynasty which ran from 1644-1911. Fortunately for art lovers, the Qing rulers were known for their love of beauty rather than conquest; many pieces were commissioned by royalty and adorned palaces, temples, and institutional buildings. At least until the Revolution of 1911 that over-threw China's last imperial dynasty.

Intricately carved jade boat with sails and connecting chains 
Photo credit: I Love Memphis

Ivory pieces were also prominent in the Asian section. Many of them were created from prehistoric woolly mammoth tusks found in the permafrost of Siberia. On their discovery, the tusks were traded to China and often carved into dioramas by artists. And on display near the ivory were blue and white pottery from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and 2,000-year-old neolithic pottery and burial pieces.

The Imperial Retreat Gallery represented an emperor’s private space, complete with a rosewood lounging bed, meditation room and seating space for contemplation; on the walls were beautifully hand-crafted silk robes and accessories worn in the Qing era.

Over the years, the museum has expanded and now encomp­asses 24,000 square-feet of exhibition space and 1,400 objects. Theirs is now one of the largest private collections of Asian art in the USA, so more display rooms were needed.

In 2007, the Belz family opened a new section dedicated to Judaic art, so the institution was renamed: Belz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art. The Judaic Gallery contained 200+ works of art created by contemporary Jewish artists working and living in Israel. The works featured here were bronze relief panels and sculptures by Daniel Kafri and paintings by Ofra Fried­land, both from Jerusalem. Kafri’s richly rendered panels and sculptures represented events from the Torah i.e the first five books of the Bible. Friedland’s large, vivid paintings included scenes from the Holocaust and the rebuilding of the nation of Israel.

Also in the Judaic section is an early 1900s violana virtuoso, a com­bination player piano and violin that plays superb Jewish Russian music.

Bronze relief work by Kafri
Judaic gallery

Occupying two rooms in the Judaic section is the Holocaust Memorial Gallery, which opened in 2014. The Tennessee Holocaust Commission focused on the torture and annihilation of 10 million people, Jews and non-Jews, under Nazi Germany. The other room is dedicated to the fate of survivors who made a new world for themselves in the USA. So now there are 5 permanent exhibit galleries: 3 Asian, 1 Judaic and the Holocaust Memorial Gallery.

In taking on a role as an educational instit­ution, most field trips were organised for local high-school students. But there are only c8,000 Jews in Memphis, so these field trips needed wider advertising. They got it! Most of the 10,000 visitors who toured the museum last year were not from Memphis. Special exhibits, brought in every six months, are increasingly part of the attraction.

10 January 2017

Kolmanskop Namibia - wealthy town to ghost town

German South West Africa/later Namibia was claimed by Otto von Bismarck in 1884 for Germany. German citizens were starting to move to the distant colony in the 1890s and into the Edwardian decade.

I knew the capital of Namibia was Windhoek, and I even found the isol­ated coastal port of Luderitz on the map. But I had never heard of Kolmanskop/Kolmannskuppe and could not find it anywhere. That is be­cause it is now a ghost town covered in desert sand in southern Namibia, 850km south-west of Windhoek.

Coastal Luderitz was fully connected by a railway service to the rest of the country. But why did anyone go inland from Luderitz into the sand dunes? In 1908, something very strange happened. A railway worker found unidentifiable stones in the sand dunes and showed the stones to his boss August Stauch, the railway inspector for the region. Mr Stauch, a former employee of De Beers in South Africa, took the stones into Luderitz and found they were diamonds!

map of southern Africa
Press on the map to see that Kolmanskop in Namibia is highlighted

When the rumours of the discovery in German South-West Africa were first heard in sophisticated British Cape Town, no-one quite believed it. All the available ground in the vicinity of Luderitz was quickly pegged out and claimed. Labourers, organised in search lines and protected against the blowing sands, crawled along on all fours carrying jam jars for their finds.

German citizens started to arrive, so the German govern­ment quickly encouraged its men to mine the diamond deposits profession­ally. As soon as the first miners made a lot of money, they needed to build the pleasant homes and facilities they would have had back in Germany. So one architect, Herr Ziegler, was brought in to design all the amenit­ies and institut­ions of a middle class town - hospital, ballroom, power station, primary school, casino, theatre, sporting facilities and a pub with imported German beer. All the houses were pleasant but the ones built to accommodate the town's architect, teacher, doctors and mining managers were splendid.

Infrastructure for the town was critical. Since there was no local water, fresh water had to be bought in by rail from 120km away and pumped into storage tanks. An ice plant was established to make blocks to use in food coolers and to make soft drinks. The water also nurtured lush gardens with manicured lawns, rose beds and eucalyptus trees. And since the miners wouldn’t travel by camel, the first small train service had to be built linking Kolmanskop to the beach town of Lüderitz, a 10 k trip.
Elegant German architecture
designed by Herr Ziegler pre-WW1.
Now half destroyed by wind and sand

The primary school was well designed to cope with the heat

The maximum population of Kolmanskop was only 1,300 (360 German adults, 40 children and 900 contract workers). So German entertainment, for citizens far from home, became even more essent­ial. A lovely hall was built, with acoustics so fine that opera companies could be imported from Europe to perform professionally. The hall was also used by the local orchestra, theatre group and gymnastic performers. (The mine paid for the cultural facilities, presumably to keep the townsfolk active and content).

In 1912 alone, the area apparently produced a staggering million carats of diamonds. So despite the heat, dryness and distance from civilisation, shops and professional practices opened for service. The town soon had a local butcher, baker, post office, a hardware shop, two doctors’ offices and a medical clinic. In these six years just before the war, the Kolmanskop diamond mine was at its most productive - five million karats of diamonds were extracted!

WWI interrupted mining operations somewhat, but in any case, the resumption of mining in the 1920s saw a slow depletion of deposits. Even worse, rich diamond deposits were newly located in 1928 in Oranjemund along the Orange River, 270km south of Kolmanskop!! Many of Kolmanskop's inhabitants joined the rush to the Orange River, deserting their lovely homes. Eventually there were no more diamonds to be found in Kolmanskop and the mine was closed in 1954. By 1956 not a living soul was left.


Kolmanskop’s history was short. Within 40 years it had become a well designed town in an unwelcoming land, then it flourished and finally it died. Today the area is operated jointly by De Beers and the Namibian government, so visitors to the ghost town are encouraged to book a tour from Luderitz and spend time with a knowledgeable guide.
Kolmanskop's communal facilities
shops, hospital, ballroom, primary school, casino, theatre etc

The Kolmanskop Museum, which was established by De Beers in 1980, represents a fascinating history lesson on the local diamond fields. There is a focus on the diamond rush of 1908, and there is an extensive collection of photo­graphs from 1908 on. Plus visitors can examine a yard filled with mining equipment that was used by the early diggers for sorting the diamonds from the sands.

The lovely homes with their elegant German architecture have been blown apart and or half covered by moving sand dunes. Each roof is open to the sky and the glass windows have separated from their ornate frames. Inside the homes, colourful tiles remain fixed to the walls and some hand-painted wall designs are still clear. But if tourists want to visit the homes and the communal facilities now, they should know in advance that they will be knee-deep in sand. Kolmanskop is popular with set designers and photographers who need to evoke ghost towns.

Prepare in advance. Most buildings are in ruins these days (see Strange Abandoned Places), but some have been well re­novated. And read Kolmanskop's own history page.

The town is part of the Sperrgebiet/restricted zone, an area of 26,000 square ks that can only be visited with a permit. Fortunately the whole Sperr­gebiet is also a natural park, for which tours are available each morning.