Sophie Preußer asked me the other day where I got my ideas for MDP.
Sometimes someone just hands it to you on a plate.
There’s a theory that there are 6 degrees of separation between any 2 people on the planet – with 6 well-connected intermediaries, you can locate anyone in the world.
In New Zealand, it’s 2. This post explains it quite well, I think.
Robin Fullmer, good friend, wife of ceramicist Steve Fullmer was listening to Jim Mora on Radio NZ the other day and heard the story of Egon Schönberger, a scion of the Schönberger family in Mainz. [Listen]
There’s currently an exhibition of his life story and his emigration to New Zealand in 1939 at the Auckland Museum, accompanying a touring exhibition of the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam. (Even made it on TV)
Robin mailed me, I started researching, this is what I found, mostly from the Center for Jewish History Archives
The Schönberger family was one of the leading producers of sparkling wine in Germany, with cellars and offices in No 5 and 10 Walpodenstrasse in Mainz.
Just off my regular bike route into town. That’s what it looks like today. No trace of the original buildings, although some of their neighbours of the era have survived.
The company was founded by Egon’s grandfather, Abraham, a wine merchant, in 1876 and on his death in 1902, his sons, Arthur (Egon’s father) and Eugen focused exclusively on the production of sparkling wines, founding the Schönberger Cabinet AG in 1922.
Arthur died in 1931 at the age of 50 and Eugen continued develop the business as the only Jewish Sektkellerei among over 100 competitors and ranked 3rd nationally by the mid-1930s. The company had a close relationship with Heidsieck, the champagne producers, acting as their agent in Germany with Eugen a member of the supervisory board and the Kempinski hotel group.
His standing in the industry, the prominence of his product and his leading role in the Mainz Chamber of Commerce appears to have protected Eugen and Arthur’s widow Johanna, together with Egon and his sister Doris from the worst of the repressions until the Kristallnacht of 1938, when their
house apartment above the company offices in the Kaiserstrasse Walpodenstrasse was burned to the ground destroyed and Eugen was forced to “resign” at gunpoint by the Gauleiter of Mainz.
Egon was by this time studying in Switzerland (Jews had been excluded from higher education in Germany since 1933) , completed his thesis in 1939 and received permission – as 1 of only 100 German Jews – to emigrate to New Zealand.
In 1939, Egon, his uncle, aunt, mother and sister were permitted to leave Germany – Egon for New Zealand, the rest of the family to France upon payment of the Jewish Contribution and Reichs Flight Tax of RM 700,000, the equivalent of US$2.4m today.
They were imprisoned in the Gurs concentration camp from which Eugen and his wife escaped, going underground for 2 years until they were able to escape to America in 1941, the same year in which the Schönberger Cabinet AG was aryanised to the Sektellerei Alt-Mainz.
[Correction after further research: Only Eugen’s wife, Edith, was arrested and interned in the Camp de Gurs, 60km from the Spanish border. Eugen somehow arranged her release – his connections to the leading champagne manufacturers in France may well have helped – and both went underground until they managed to obtain visas for Spain and eventually Portugal and from there to America]
The documents Eugen deposited with the Center for Jewish History show that in August 1941
his application to the Foreign Exchange Office in Darmstadt for a monthly RM20 financial support from their estate (held in “safekeeping” by the state…) for his sister-in-law was turned down, the Dresdner Bank charging RM3 for acting on his behalf.
[Correction after further research: The application was made by Bertha Schönberger, Eugen’s 71 year old spinster sister, who remained in Mainz with her younger (68 years old) sister, Jenny, also a spinster. Both women committed suicide in August and September 1942 shortly before their deportation]
Egon’s mother’s and sister’s stories end shortly afterwards with their deportation and subsequent murder in Auschwitz.
Eugen – aged 70 – started from the bottom in America. Bottle washer, filler, packer, cleaner until he was offered the job of “Champagne Maker” at Cook’s Imperial Champagne Company in St Louis where he rose to the position of Vice President until his retirement at 82.
The company was returned to him in 1948 – perhaps an indication of his previous influence and standing in the community in Mainz – and was relocated to Hochheim, a town on the other bank of the Rhine.
To what extent Egon benefited from the restitution is unclear and his uncle doesn’t appear to have played an operational role in its reincarnation
The last trace of the company that I’ve been able to identify is an envelope for sale on ebay, (€8, if you’re interested) addressed to Schönberger Cabinet AG and franked in Mannheim in 1957.
2 degrees of separation, a bit of research and a 20km bike ride later….