It’s one of the most unusual stories to emerge from the Holocaust. So much so that its plot might have been written by a Hollywood scriptwriter.
It proves that truth can be stranger than fiction.
These thoughts came to mind after one one of Germany’s wealthiest families, the Reimanns, recently donated more than $5 million to a new emergency assistance fund designed to help ailing survivors of the Holocaust. Earlier this year, they gave $11 million to institutions that help former forced laborers and their families
These are remarkable gifts because they were donated by a family that was once stridently pro-Nazi and antisemitic.
The most recent donation, announced 10 days ago, will be administered by the Reimanns’ new humanitarian arm, the Alfred Landecker Foundation, in concert with the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which will spend about $600 million in 2020 to assist Holocaust survivors.
“The funds being provided through the Alfred Landecker Foundation will make a significant difference in the lives of so many who deserve so much,” said Julius Berman, the president of the Claims Conference. “Elderly, poor Holocaust survivors need food, medicine and heat in the winter. These funds will enable thousands of survivors to live in dignity.”
As its website states, the Alfred Landecker Foundation is “dedicated to educating current and future generations about the Holocaust and the terrible price paid when intolerance and bigotry reign. The Foundation supports a free and democratic Europe, as well as a future based on shared values and respect for the individual.” The work of the foundation is “firmly rooted in the lessons we must learn from the collapse of European civilization in World War II, epitomized by the murder of millions of Jews at German hands.”
Based in Berlin, the foundation funds “carefully selected research, education and awareness-raising projects (and) seeks to build partnerships with leading institutions active in academia, public policy, education, history and remembrance.”
Through the JAB Holding Company, the Reimanns run a $20 billion business empire that owns or has a controlling interest in contemporary brand-name companies like Krispy Creme Doughnuts, Einstein Bros. Bagels, Panera Bread and Peet’s Coffee.
JAB’s predecessor, Benckiser, had a far less auspicious history, having exploited upwards of 200 slave laborers and prisoners of war in its factories during the war.
Benckiser’s proprietors, Albert Reimann and his son, Albert Jr., were ardent antisemites and early supporters of the Nazi movement and its leader, Adolf Hitler. In 1937, a year before Kristallnacht, Albert Jr. sent a letter to SS chieftain Heinrich Himmler attesting to his family’s devotion to Nazism: “We are a purely Aryan family business that is over 100 years old. The owners are unconditional followers of the race theory.”
During the 1930s and 1940s, Benckiser employed between 400 to 650 workers and was a supplier to the food industry. Its main products were processed cheese, salts for blood treatment, supplements for baby food, and chemicals to soften water. Established in the 19th century, it originally specialized in the manufacture of industrial chemicals. The Reimanns purchased it in the 1850s.
Despite his racist views, Albert Jr., a married man, fell in love with an unmarried woman who was beyond the pale insofar as the Nazis were concerned. She was Emilie Landecker, the half-Jewish daughter of Alfred Landecker and one of his employees. Emilie, whose mother was Catholic, was baptized after the Nazis took power in 1933.
But as a German of partial Jewish ancestry, she was considered racially impure and was always in danger of being deported to a Nazi concentration camp. It’s unclear whether Albert Jr. was aware of her racial background.
Alfred Landecker, a Jewish accountant, was born in 1884. In the spring of 1942, he was deported from Mannheim to Izbica, a ghetto in Poland which funnelled Jews to the Bełżec and Sobibór extermination camps. In all probability, he perished during this period. By all accounts, Emilie tried to save him.
Beginning in the 1950s, Albert Jr. and Emilie had three children out of wedlock, and he adopted them in the mid-1960s. Today, two of them own 45 percent of JAB. They claim they were unaware of their family’s Nazi connections until quite recently.
In 2016, the Reimanns hired Paul Erker, a professor at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, to conduct a study of their company’s political history from the early 1920s to 1945. The fate that befell Alfred Landecker was an integral part of Erker’s research. Erker discovered that Albert Reimann and Albert Jr. were outspoken in their antisemitism and keen supporters of Hitler and the Nazi regime. Father and son attended rallies during which Hitler delivered speeches, joined the Nazi party and made donations to the SS police force.
That the Reimanns are now helping Holocaust survivors and former forced laborers is a tangible sign that they are trying to make amends for an ugly past.