Berlin Zoo seeks Jewish members stripped of shares

Berlin Zoo seeks Jewish members stripped of shares
Picture taken on December 10, 2010 shows the world's most famous polar bear Knut sitting in his enclosure at the zoo in Berlin. Berlin Zoo will keep the rights to the name of Knut, the cuddly polar bear that devastated fans when he died, an EU court ruled on September 16, 2013.

BERLIN - More than 70 years after the Berlin Zoo forced Jewish shareholders out of its ranks, the institution is trying to come clean about its own dark chapter during the Nazi era.

A Berlin historian is combing through thousands of names to identify members made to sell their shares back to the zoo at a loss under the Third Reich, and has begun tracking down their descendants ahead of publishing her findings.

"Jews were very important for the zoo," said historian Monika Schmidt, who estimates up to a quarter of the zoo's 4,000 shareholders in the 1930s were Jewish.

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

Zoo shareholders did not receive dividends, but their families enjoyed free entry and the prestige of supporting an important social institution.

Their exclusion is just one example of how Jews were pushed out of public life in 1930s Germany and stripped of their assets.

"Today, the zoo is just a zoo, with animals to watch," said Schmidt, with the Center for Research on Antisemitism in Berlin.

"But in former times, the zoo was a very important meeting place for the city."

As part of her research Schmidt found Jochanan Asriel, 89, whose grandfather was a shareholder.

As a boy, Asriel lived close enough to ride his bike to the zoo's playground.

"I went there every day in the afternoon, and there was a big coffee house in the open, where they served beer," Asriel told AFP by phone. "Every day there was another orchestra playing."

Asriel fled Germany as a teenager in 1939 and now lives in Haifa, Israel.

"I remember all the animals, and I remember where they were placed," Asriel said.

"I don't remember what I ate yesterday, but what I remember from the zoo, I remember very well."

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