Wertheim – Europe’s Biggest Department Store

1896 to 1906 saw the development of what was then Europe’s largest department store on Leipzig Square (Leipziger Platz) in Berlin. The store drew crowds with its 240 metres of street frontage on Leipziger Strasse and 90 metres on Leipziger Platz, ornate tiling, mosaics and summer garden. From myriad delicatessen foods to musical instruments and books, the store sold everything that modern consumer society had to offer. Visitors could also take time out from their shopping to visit art exhibitions and a tea room. The store was owned by the Wertheims – a largely assimilated Jewish family. Many of the family members had been christened; some – like Georg Wertheim – had non-Jewish spouses. When the Nazis took power, Jewish companies came under increasing pressure. From attempts to intimidate suppliers and customers, or to influence banks lending money to business owners, and even acts of outright vandalism, the Nazi regime increased the pressure on Jewish businesses until they were liquidated or forcibly handed over to non-Jews.

“It was a proper day of boycott for Jewish businesses […] so we went along Leipziger Strasse and at least 50 or 60 customers were just standing there. They wanted to go in, but didn’t dare. Anybody who went in got spat on by the [SA] guards”, recalls the son of Georg Wertheim when asked about 1 April 1933.

Georg Wertheim attempted to save his company by signing over his shareholding to his non-Jewish wife, Ursula. The family also complied with the ‘Aryanization’ ordinances, requiring, among other things, that they dismiss ‘non-Aryans’ and rename the company. Nevertheless, they were forced to relinquish the company in 1937.

Partially destroyed in Allied air raids, the complex was demolished in 1956. Only its former vaults were used as a nightclub from 1991 to 2005. A legal battle raged for many years between the Wertheim heirs, the Berlin Senate, which had sold the property for a symbolic value of 1 Deutschmark to Hertie, and KarstadtQuelle, which had taken over Hertie and sold the property. The dispute ended in 2007 with an out-of-court settlement. A shopping centre is currently being built on the site.

Angelika Benz