The Business of Emancipation

The German-Jewish struggle for legal equality and economic prosperity

Israel

Second half of the 19th century: From entrepreneurs to major businesses

In 1815, Nathan Israel started his second-hand furniture store in Molkenmarkt, the oldest square in Berlin. Israel benefited from more general trends in Europe, such as the peace after Napoleon’s defeat, the progressive reduction of barriers to trade, and the ensuing boom in the retail sector. He also used his experience as a junk dealer and the relaxation of commercial restrictions on Jewish merchants, which allowed Jews to set up small stores offering dry goods. Over time, successful retailers like Israel were able to expand their shops, not least because they recognized the importance of the customer experience to their business. Kaufhaus N. Israel soon became one of the earliest examples of the modern department store and was Berlin’s largest for a time.

Advertisement of N. Israel department store, in Ost und West: Illustrierte Monatsschrift für das gesamte Judentum, October 1912. Public domain.

From economic to political participation

The New concept of shopping that changed consumers’ behavior and encouraged them to purchase buying luxury products for pleasure rather than out of necessity, allowed Nathan Israel to join highest circles of the Berlin society. By 1925 Israel’s the company employed over 2,000 people and was a member of the Berlin Stock Exchange. In the 1930s, N. Israel was one of the largest retail establishments in Europe.

1933 and beyond: From full-rights citizens to refugees and victims

The Nathan Israel Kaufhaus worked only with its own capital, relying upon neither loans nor mortgages. Its frugality served the firm well in 1933, enabling it to continue operating without financial institutions pressuring the owners into dismissing Jewish employees or selling the store. In 1938, however, the family sold the store to Emil Köster AG. The firm soon reopened under a new name as "Das Haus im Zentrum,", removing any association with the rightful Jewish owners. Following the takeover of N. Israel, Wilfrid Israel emigrated to England and his brother Herbert to the United States. 

Boycott of Jewish businesses in front of N. Israel department store, April 1, 1933. Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-14469 / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

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