Was Moritz Oppenheimer Forced by the Nazis to Divorce His Wife and Declare Bankruptcy?

I have written several posts about my cousin, Moritz Oppenheimer, the nephew of my great-great-grandfather Bernard Seligman. Moritz was an extremely successful business owner and also racehorse breeder and owner who ended up committing suicide as a result of the persecution he experienced by the Nazis.

Emma Neuhoff and Moritz James Oppenheimer
photo courtesy of Angelika Oppenheimer

My cousin Wolfgang Seligmann recently discovered additional information about Moritz and his family, including an application filed in 1966 in Wiesbaden by Moritz Oppenheimer’s widow Emma Neuhoff, seeking compensation for the harm done to her husband and the financial losses suffered.

Emma Neuhoff Oppenheimer 1966 application for reparations

In reviewing those documents (with invaluable help from Wolfgang), I focused on two questions that had been raised by readers who commented on my earlier posts about Moritz Oppenheimer. First, were Moritz and his non-Jewish wife Emma forced to divorce by the Nazis in 1936, or did they choose to divorce? Second, was Moritz forced into bankruptcy by the Nazis in 1933, or were his businesses already failing before the Nazis came to power?

The first question is addressed by the court in its opinion approving the settlement between Emma and the government. The court recognized that Emma and Moritz had only divorced to protect Emma and their two children, who were not Jewish.

Court notes on divorce of Emma and Moritz Oppenheimer in decision approving settlement of Oppenheimer 1966 reparations claim

I used DeepL to translate this language and for the other translations in this post:

The marriage of the applicant with the persecuted person was divorced by judgment of the regional court Giessen 2 R 51/1935 of June 25, 1936 through his fault. In the judgment of the regional court Giessen 4 R 585/50 dated 6 October 1950 it was determined that the divorce judgment was incorrect because the divorce had actually taken place in order to protect the non-Jewish wife and children from persecution — but its legal validity remained unaffected.

With respect to Emma’s application for compensation, the court concluded that even if Emma was no longer legally married to Moritz at the time of his death and thus not technically his widow, she was nevertheless entitled to pursue her claim for compensation for the harm done to her husband and her family.

The applicant is entitled to claim. It can be left open whether she is the widow of the deceased, … or this is treated as a blameless divorced wife.

Thus, Emma and Moritz chose to divorce to protect Emma and their two children. It was a decision based on love, not a lack of it.  Although the Nazis did not require the Oppenheimers to divorce, the circumstances the Nazis created compelled the couple to divorce.

The question regarding the bankruptcy is more complicated. Emma contended that Moritz was forced into bankruptcy by the Nazis when he was arrested in September, 1933, the first of many arrests that eventually drove him to suicide in 1941, as has been described in earlier posts. Emma wrote in the third paragraph of her statement in support of her application for compensation in 1966:

Emma Neuhoff Oppenheimer statement filed in support of her 1966 application for reparations

In the prison in Hammelgasse, my husband was forced to file for bankruptcy on his property. In my opinion, this was pure Nazi harassment. There was never a reason for bankruptcy. The bankruptcy was actually carried out afterwards.

But a man named August Hartmann filed an accusation against Moritz with the Nazi party in which he claimed that Moritz had defrauded a family from Frankfurt out of almost one and a half million Reich Marks;  these fraud claims were never fully litigated because Moritz died before that could happen. Hartmann also claimed that the businesses owned by Moritz were heavily in debt and that Moritz was a flight risk.

Statement of August Hartmann regarding claims against Moritz Oppenheimer

Here is the DeepL translation of Hartmann’s statement:

The well-known industrialist and racing stable owner Consul Moritz Oppenheimer has lived for many years only on credit fraud. In the years 1931 and 1932 he swindled a very respectable Frankfurt family out of the round sum of one and three-quarter million Reichsmark in cash under false pretences. This case is all the more blatant because this amount of money came from assets confiscated during the war in America. That was only released at the end of 1929 and taken to Germany by the family, out of national interest in making this large amount of money available to the ailing German economy.  Despite the fact that this fraudulently damaged creditor has known for half a year now how the finances of Consul Oppenheimer are, he has now refrained from taking radical steps which were in his personal interest, in order not to make more than 250 German workers unemployed. But because of the great expenses of Mr. Consul O., for example maintenance of the Erlenhof Stud Farm, which requires a monthly subsidy of about 15,000, financial conditions have deteriorated to such an extent that bankruptcy is only a question of time, the strong suspicion arises that this Jew wants to run off to a foreign country where he in all probability has stashed a considerable fortune.

It was this letter from August Hartmann that led to the arrest of Moritz Oppenheimer in September 1933 and then to his alleged forced bankruptcy. Thus, Moritz may have been pushed into bankruptcy proceedings, but if Hartmann’s letter is true, Moritz was already in serious financial trouble.

Moritz’s son Walter Oppenheimer, in his affidavit in 1966, admitted that his father had incurred a great deal of debt by 1929, but argued that he would have been able to overcome these financial reversals but for the Nazis. He wrote in part (and translated as best I could, with help from DeepL and Google Translate):

Portion of the letter Walter Oppenheimer filed in support of 1966 reparations claim

If my father’s business got into financial difficulties in the years after 1929, it was because the racing stable required unexpectedly large sums. My father was the founder of the stud and racing stable Erlenhof, which he had also created out of nothing and brought to world fame. The most successful German racehorses were bred at Erlenhof. Erlenhof was also the first German stud farm which was able to export breeding horses to the United States, and to which, for example, the stud farm of the English king sent mares.

The economic crisis at that time hit the paper trade particularly hard, so that the whole industry was in dire straits. But without the advent of National Socialism, my father could have certainly overcome these difficulties perfectly. The President of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce, Honorary Professor Karl Heinrich August Luhr, himself an economic expert of his time, admitted that without the advent of National Socialism, my father could have overcome all the financial difficulties of the time far beyond the borders of Germany, thanks to his organizational gifts and, above all, thanks to his enormous expertise. … So that if a so-called standstill agreement was maintained, the companies could have recovered quickly from the good economic developments that had already begun and had brought large profits. Especially the last months from the middle of 1932 onwards showed this very clearly in the business development of my father’s factories. Professor Luhr also told Mr. Allecke, who was an accountant at the time, very clearly that it was only for political reasons that it became impossible to put things back on a level playing field.

Where the truth lies is impossible to determine. It certainly appears that Moritz was having serious financial troubles before 1933, but were they serious enough to require bankruptcy? Would the business have recovered if he had not been arrested and persecuted by the Nazis? If he had been given more time, could he have turned around his companies’ financial situation?

In the end, the 1966 court approved a settlement that provided Emma with some compensation for the loss of her husband and the suffering he endured as well as for her own economic losses. It was less than what she wanted, but it did recognize that despite the divorce, she was entitled to compensation, implicitly recognizing that they had not freely chosen to divorce. But the settlement did not compensate her for the failure of her husband’s businesses.

Almost twenty years later in 1984, the descendants of Moritz and Emma Oppenheimer filed another claim, this time with the District President in Darmstadt, seeking compensation for the economic damage sustained to the business of Moritz Oppenheimer, according to another set of documents that Wolfgang discovered in the Wiesbaden archives. As Wolfgang explained to me, the Germany government adopted new laws over time that updated the process for obtaining reparations by those who suffered harm because of the Nazis. This new claim was presented under a statute called Bundesentschadeugungsgesetz-Schlussgesetz or Federal Compensation Act-Final Act.

1984 decision on the application for reparations by the heirs of Moritz and Emma Oppenheimer

As with the claim filed back in 1966, this claim for compensation for the financial losses suffered by Moritz’s business was rejected. The district president found that Moritz would not have been able to sell the stables or racehorses to cover his business losses, given the economic conditions of that period and the extent of his business liabiltiies.  Thus, he concluded that the economic damage was not the result of Nazi persecution. In addition, the district president concluded that Moritz’s medical condition disabled him from seeking other employment, not the Nazis, so there would be no compensation for lost income from such potential employment.

Of course, Moritz’s medical condition could very well have been and probably was caused by or at least exacerbated by his arrest and persecution. And no one can know with absolute certainty that he would not have been able to rescue his business but for that arrest and persecution. But at least two different decision-making bodies concluded otherwise and rejected the family’s claims.

17 thoughts on “Was Moritz Oppenheimer Forced by the Nazis to Divorce His Wife and Declare Bankruptcy?

  1. The tragic story of Moritz Oppenheimer’s fate has touched me deeply. Not only did he lose his property, but also his wife and two children. I agree with you that he could have probably saved his marriage and property had the Nazis not come to power in 1933. It was good to read that his widow received at least some compensation from the West German government.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. How awful Moritz felt coerced into a paper divorce from the woman he loved and married. The disrespect shown to Moritz through the Hartmann statement quoting “this Jew wants to escape” must have been heartbreaking for his descendants to read.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So infuriating and tragic, Amy. Surely the Hartmann who facilitated his arrest was the same villain who wrote the awful accusatory letter, combining unfounded speculation, defamation and Nazi self-interest. I would like to suggest a couple of changes in the last run-on sentence of that translation:
    But because of the great expenses of Mr. Consul O., for example maintenance of the Erlenhof Stud Farm, which requires a monthly subsidy of about 15,000, financial conditions have deteriorated to such an extent that bankruptcy is only a question of time, the strong suspicion arises that this Jew wants to run off to a foreign country where he in all probability has stashed a considerable fortune.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Jean, for your thoughts and for your translation. That makes much more sense. That’s the problem with relying on something like DeepL or Google Translate. Even after four years of trying to learn German, I still am at a loss! I am going to incorporate your translation. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m glad these documents came to light to help add some understanding to their situation. How sad that the situation forced them to divorce! The business matter is certainly much more up in the air. Had the political situation been different, perhaps he could have remained solvent. It seems that is a risk that many businesses have to contend with.

    Liked by 1 person

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