Dutch businessman initiated probe into his family’s Nazi-era history

Marcy Oster

BERLIN (JTA) — A Dutch textile magnate who initiated a probe into his family’s exploitation of Jewish competitors and laborers during the Holocaust said he was shocked by the findings.

Dutch entrepreneur Maurice Brenninkmeijer, from one of Europe’s richest families, has become the latest business leader to confront his family’s Nazi-era history.  In an interview with Zeit newspaper, published July 13, Brenninkmeijer – owner of the Dutch-German C&A chain of department stores, which Forbes magazine recently called “one of the most secretive companies in the world” – said revelations about the company’s Nazi-era use of slave labor and its profiting from the forced sale of Jewish property were “disturbing and shocking” for his family.

The self-searching was triggered by a 2011 exhibition marking the centennial of the business, which revealed some details about the firm’s dealings during the Third Reich. The family hired historian Mark Spoerer, professor at the University of Regensburg, to probe the firm’s archives. “We wanted to be sure that we really know our family history,” Brenninkmeijer told Zeit.

The resulting book is to be published in the coming days.

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According to Zeit, the German branch of the Brenninkmeijer family benefited from the forced “aryanization” of Jewish property and from the work of Jewish and non-Jewish slave laborers, in the Lodz ghetto and in Berlin.

The firm reportedly did make some restitution after World War II, but

the story of its actions during the war remained buried.

In the past two decades, several major German corporations, banks and government ministries – including Volkswagen, Dresdner Bank and the Foreign Ministry – have brought in outside historians to pore through their archives and put their Nazi-era history on the table. Hundreds of German companies large and small made donations to the German Government and Industry Fund, established some ten years ago to aid

former slave laborers and support educational programs about this history. A few large firms have been slow to open their archives, leading some observers to suspect they have something to hide.

Brenninkmeijer said he was particularly shocked by the accounts of expropriation of property. He believed his predecessors were “just thinking about the business, lost track of our values and made unethical decisions.” He said he was sure they were not committed Nazis but behaved in a “heartless” manner, and added that he “wished it could have been different.”