Erwin and Lore Jacobs and their children fought for almost 30 years to get compensation for the business that Nazi Germany stole from Erwin’s family.
Their claim was finally paid last February – 23 years after Erwin Jacobs died and barely a month before Lore’s death in March. Now their children have given their share of the settlement to a Holocaust education fund that’s overseen by the Hamilton Jewish Federation.
For the couple’s daughter, Gale Halpern, it was not a hard decision to make.
“While it brought closure, it didn’t heal the wounds. It just seemed too much to bear to have my mother on her deathbed and this money coming in. It was just too horrible to contemplate,” she said. “We felt the best thing to do with it was donate it.”
The Erwin Jacobs Holocaust Education Fund was established at Erwin Jacobs’ request upon his death in 1996. Its has supported numerous Holocaust education programs and seminars in Hamilton, Ont.
With the newest lump sum, Erwin Jacobs’ son, Peter, hopes the program will be placed on a stable footing for the future, after an emotionally exhausting bureaucratic battle.
“This was something that seemed to emotionally resonate with us, to be able to take these funds and utilize them in a way we think honours our parents and helps the younger generation understand these events,” he said.
Halpern and Jacobs won’t disclose the amount of the settlement.
The business for which they fought so hard was established in 1904 by Erwin Jacobs’ paternal grandparents. Operating first from their home in Berlin, and later from a rented factory, the company manufactured women’s coats that were then sold through department stores. The company, Martin Jacobowitz Damenmantel Fabrik, eventually grew to 15 sewing machines and 18 employees.
In 1937, the modest world the Jacobowitz family had built for themselves came crashing down. That year, they were “invited” to sell the business to a Nazi employee for a fraction of its true value and to remain as employees rather than owners. The next year, Erwin and his father managed to avoid being arrested during Kristallnacht, after a customer, the wife of a policeman, warned them about what was coming.
The Jacobowitz boys were eventually sent out of Germany – Erwin’s brother Gunther went to Sweden, and Erwin was later sent to England. Lore also escaped to the U.K. as a teenager on the Kindertransport. Both Lore and Erwin’s parents, and many of their close relatives, were killed in the Holocaust.
Erwin and Lore met at a refugee club in Birmingham, England, in 1942 and married in London in 1944. After the war, they left Europe for a new life in Canada. The young couple settled first in Toronto in 1953 and moved to Hamilton in 1956, where Erwin Jacobs found work in a Westinghouse plant building turbines and generators, a job he stayed at for 35 years.
Despite a happy family life in Hamilton, the memories of the Nazi era never entirely healed. In 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Erwin Jacobs applied for compensation for the loss of the family business. But he died before the claim could be processed, touching off a bureaucratic battle over who were his rightful heirs that dragged on for almost 27 years.
“The German government would not accept Lore’s heirship, even though she had married my father during the war. They wouldn’t accept Peter and my heirship either, even though we were his children,” Halpern said.
The problem was aggravated by the death of their uncle in Sweden and Germany’s refusal to accept Swedish documents as proof of his passing.
“They just made such a big thing out of it. It was all bureaucracy. Nothing we did was acceptable to them, so in 2012, we just gave up. We thought the claim was denied and there was nothing we could so about it,” Halpern said.
That’s where the problem stayed until 2018, when Halpern, while in Israel on a sabbatical year with her husband, decided to do some family research at Yad Vashem and in Berlin. She contacted claims officials again and was told that there had been a terrible mistake and that the family’s claim had been approved.
Having the money go towards educational efforts in Hamilton is especially important to the Jacobs family.
“Hamilton became the place that offered our parents a chance to make a new life, so it’s a way to honour Hamilton, as well. They got to make a life in Hamilton and raise his family there and we all benefited,” Halpern said.
Holocaust education, she added, remains as important today as it was in 1945.
“I think the fact that people don’t remember much about it is really a problem. As we get further and further away from it, people have lost track of the most horrendous crime in all of history,” she said. “It just can’t disappear in a generation. We have to evolve how we understand it, but we can’t forget it.”
The donation was announced as part of an inaugural event for Hamilton’s Book of Life program, an initiative to recognize donors who leave a charitable legacy through the Federation’s Legacy Endowment Fund. The 2019 signatories include the Goldblatt, Gould, Katz, Loewith, Rymberg, Morris, Roth, Wynperle and Lewis families.