Magazine article Tablet Magazine

A Soho House's Hitler Youth

Magazine article Tablet Magazine

A Soho House's Hitler Youth

Article excerpt

If you've been to Berlin you've seen them: The half-bombed-out building that is now an art gallery and bar; the old Nazi building that is now the Federal Ministry of Finance; the former checkpoint on the Berlin Wall that is now a cheesy tourist trap.

"That's Berlin," Thomas Ertman, a sociology professor at NYU who specializes in interwar German history and runs the university's summer programs in Berlin, said recently. "There are many ironic twists to many sites in Berlin."

Ertman was speaking generally, but he did have one site in particular in mind: the 84-year-old monstrosity that towers over the corner of Torstrasse and Prenzlauer Allee in East Berlin's fashionable district of Mitte. Most people who've visited this neighborhood know the building, generally because it is so large. At 860,000 square feet it is roughly 15 times larger than the White House and a little bigger than Buckingham Palace.

The main clue to the building's present-day purpose can be found by looking at the roof. Tips of tasseled beach umbrellas poke out from the top and you can see sunbathers, leaning over the railing to take in the vast panoramic view. These are members of Soho House, a private club and hotel for media types, of which I am a member. The Berlin outpost, one of the franchise's largest, is essentially an eight-story playground for adults. Hopscotch boards and foosball tables line the lobby. A spa, with a large Turkish bath, fountain, and treatment rooms, occupies another floor. The clubhouse level has black-and-white tiled floors, gorgeous waiters, and a menu full of comfort food and creative cocktails. When you're relaxing on the striped, cushy chairs with a glass of champagne in hand, the worries of the world feel a million miles away, as does the building's history during the Nazi eraas the headquarters of the Hitler Youth.

The original building was commissioned in 1928 by two enterprising Jews, Hermann Golluber and Hugo Halle, who wanted to turn their small watch company, Jonass, into a full-blown department store. (The structure was designed by the architects Georg Bauer and Siegfried Friedlander in the Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity style that emphasized making a building practical and useful, rather than intricate and beautiful.) With no experience and many competitors, they did have one novel idea to entice customers into their huge and expensive store: Jonass would allow customers to buy items on credit.

When Hitler and the Nazis rose to power, they placed economic pressure on businesses owned by Jewish owners. Jonass responded by bringing in two non-Jewish partners to be the face of the company. In return the new partners shoved out the original owners and took the company for themselves. Golluber escaped to America. Halle's whereabouts are unknown. Their non-Jewish partners, who now owned the business, decided to rent their store to the Nazis.

While the neighborhood, outside central Berlin, was not an obvious pick for a government building, the Nazis had clear reasons for their choice. First, it was close to the headquarters of the Communist Party, in a historically Jewish neighborhoodand therefore a good way to plant the Nazi flag in the heartland of their enemies. Second, Horst Wessel, a young Nazi activist who was martyred after being killed by a Communist, was buried in a cemetery across the street, allowing the Reichsjugendfuhrung or German Youth Leadership, to plan after-school activities, weekend trips, and summer camps to indoctrinate and train millions of children in view of a hero's grave. …

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