Arnold Bernstein as portrayed by the Sonntagsblatt Staats-Zeitung und Herold in 1957
The difficult relationship between one's old and new homeland
Bernstein as a successful shipping company owner in the interwar period
Bernstein's expulsion from National Socialist Germany
A difficult new beginning in the USA
Bernstein's view of the newly founded German state and the question of his return
The American Banner Lines: a new success story?
In 1920 the Republican-leaning New Yorker Herold Sonntagsblatt merged with the tradition-minded Sonntagsblatt der New York Staats-Zeitung. The weekly Sonntagsblatt Staats-Zeitung und Herold, which published the article titled “Gespräch mit Arnold Bernstein” [“A Conversation with Arnold Bernstein”], was born. Although the newspaper had lost some of its significance and influence among German-Americans in New York City after the Second World War, it was still one of the German-language newspapers with the highest circulation in the U.S. metropolis. Therefore it is remarkable that the newspaper published an article on German-Jewish former shipping company owner Arnold Bernstein, who had not only lost his homeland and his property due to National Socialist persecution, but also parts of his family. In this article, the newspaper confronted its mainly German-American readers with a part of German history that had thus far been given little consideration in this publication and which differed significantly from its usual topics such as the Steuben Parade or German politics. At the same time, the article did not necessarily put the history of Bernstein's persecution at the center of the story, but focused instead on the success story of the Hamburg businessman, which is particularly evident in the subtitle. This shifts the emphasis away from the Jewish aspects of Bernstein's life and fate as an émigré to his quick integration and successful rise as a “self-made man” and thus someone who shared in the American Dream.
The unidentified author A. S. alternates between the narratives of persecution and success. The article's core message is contained in the first column and is presented as a direct quote from Bernstein: “It cost me 20 years to defeat Hitler. In 1937 my shipping company was taken away from me. In 1957 we were able to found the American Banner Lines, and next year our old house flag is going to fly for the first new American passenger shipping line in the North Atlantic in many years.” The paper used the occasion of the new shipping company American Banner Lines founding (1957) and the commission of its flagship “Atlantic” on the route New York-Zeebrugge in order to publish a biographical review of Bernstein's life. The strong ties which Bernstein and his company still felt with his homeland despite Germany's policies of persecution and extermination become evident in the article when it describes the rescued furnishings of his offices and residence, which now decorated his New York offices, taking every visitor back to the days of his grand Hamburg shipping company. Moreover, Bernstein's well-known initials, A. B., served as the company symbol both before and after the war: before the war the initials stood for Arnold Bernstein Shipping Company, LLC Arnold Bernstein Schiffahrtsgesellschaft m.b.H.; after the war they stood for American Banner Lines. On the one hand, this illustrated the caesura Bernstein and his shipping company had to suffer, and on the other hand it also expressed the strong will to pick up on the previous success and flourishing of his German company.
Although the article makes reference to Bernstein's life in Germany before 1933, it covers this part of the story only briefly. In little more than bullet points it mentions his Silesian roots (born in Wrocław on January 23, 1888), his early move to Hamburg (in 1909, the article gives an incorrect date of 1911), and his merit as a German soldier during the First World War (he was awarded the Iron Cross First and Second Class, for example). Neither his early involvement in his family's unsuccessful business selling alcohol and animal feed nor his financial difficulties during his first years in Hamburg, his influential experience as a German and Jewish soldier or his marriage to his wife Lilly Kimmelstiel in April / May 1919 are mentioned at all.
Instead the article focuses on portraying Bernstein as the owner of “one of the world's largest private shipping companies” in the interwar period, which had set new standards in the shipping industry by its use of the latest ship models such as the “-Stein” class. Meanwhile the extent to which Bernstein's new rules for transporting cargo, such as his rejection of traditional wooden crates as shipping containers for cars, influenced and revolutionized commercial shipping from the U.S. to Europe does not become clear in the article. Yet it was precisely his innovative ideas and practices that allowed him and his company to become one of Germany's most important maritime businesses besides the Hamburg-Paket-Aktiengesellschaft (Hapag, Hamburg) and the Norddeutscher Lloyd (Bremen). Among other things, his success was based on the business and private connections he had made in the U.S. early on, thus building on his already existing international network. When the First World War had ended and the stipulations of the Versailles Treaty took effect, it was precisely these networks that provided Bernstein with his first customers and eventually led to cooperation with large companies such as Ford, which secured his shipping company's future in the long term.
The reader of this article learns little about the economic success of Bernstein's shipping company, and the period of his persecution in National Socialist Germany remains fairly nebulous as well. Only the sentence "Arnold Bernstein was imprisoned by the Nazis for 2 1/2 years until they had sold his ships abroad and he was finally allowed to leave Germany" refers to the period of persecution, plundering, and extermination of German-Jewish life in National Socialist Germany. As a highly decorated veteran of the First World War and – in his mind – German citizen, Bernstein had long continued to feel safe in the progressively consolidating National Socialist dictatorship. He chose to ignore the increasingly wide-ranging laws and regulations used to harass, exploit, and eventually persecute and exterminate the German-Jewish population.
After the National Socialist takeover, the lucrative Bernstein shipping company soon attracted the attention of Nazi authorities since it was a highly profitable business that played an important part in the emigration to America, but also to Palestine (in 1934 Bernstein founded the Palestine Shipping Company, and he bought the Red Star Line in 1935). Bernstein was officially charged with a currency offense by Nazi authorities; he was arrested in 1937 and sentenced to two and a half years in prison, as the article mentions. His shipping company was put under forced administration and later “aryanized.”
The extent to which his wife struggled with the social changes in Hamburg during the National Socialist period is ignored entirely in the article. Neither does the author mention how hard Bernstein fought to send his children and family abroad and thus to safety (his first child was able to leave for Great Britain while the second one went to Switzerland), and how his imprisonment in the Hamburg Fuhlsbüttel concentration camp pushed him to his physical and psychological limits. All the reader learns about is Bernstein's and his wife's departure and their arrival in New York on September 1, 1939, that is on the day war was declared.
While the author mentions that Bernstein was unable to take any of his property with him, there is no detailed discussion of his financial hardship during the war and the early postwar years. Rather, the article focuses on the image of Bernstein as a “self-made man” who overcame a difficult beginning. Thus Bernstein by implication becomes a symbol of the American Dream.
The article fails to mention how hard it had been for Bernstein after the end of the Second World War to succeed with his claims for restitution against Nazi authorities as well as former business partners and to receive compensation for the losses he suffered both in business and privately. To this end, he filed several lawsuits in the U.S. to sue his former partners who had cooperated with Nazi authorities and due to the forced sale of Bernstein's shipping company had taken over docking rights and docks in New York, for example. Moreover, Bernstein hired a law firm to file a claim for restitution of his expropriated assets in Hamburg, which also led to a lawsuit. Nor does the article make any mention of the complicated processes of restitution and the slow processing of his claims by German authorities that frustrated and disillusioned Bernstein.
Interestingly, the article does point out Bernstein's first visit back to Hamburg in 1950. In his autobiography written in his new home in the U.S. between 1962 and 1964 and published posthumously in 2001 , Bernstein describes this visit as a rather ambiguous and emotionally difficult approach to his old homeland. By contrast, the article stresses the positive encounters: according to it, he had been received in Hamburg “with honors and much cheer.” The author addresses the question of Bernstein's possible return to Europe or Hamburg only in a roundabout way: the article expresses disappointment at the fact that ships no longer called at Hamburg's port. Bernstein's reply that the mouth of the Rhine, meaning the ports located there such as Zeebrugge, had always been his traditional business territory may therefore also be understood as a hidden refusal to return. The experience of antisemitism in Germany and the measures of persecution and extermination combined with the memory of his murdered family members (such as his sister Rose and her daughter Anita) probably weighed too heavily on him. Returning remained unthinkable for him.
In the article Bernstein sought to direct attention to his partners in the process of rebuilding his shipping company: he named Ronald Barnes, his son; Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter, military attaché at various embassies, first director of the CIA (1947-1950), and inspector general of the U. S. Navy; and Robert A. Kilby, all three of whom were instrumental in the rebuilding of Bernstein's shipping line.
Although the newspaper article suggests a new success story, the commissioning of the “Atlantic” by the American Banner Lines did not turn out to be the beginning of a new career in shipping in the USA for Bernstein. In 1959 the "Atlantic" was sold and Bernstein retired from the increasingly difficult commercial shipping industry and the American Banner Lines. On March 6, 1971 Arnold Bernstein died at the age of 83 in Palm Beach, Florida.
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Björn Siegel, Dr. phil., is research assistant at the Institute for the History of the German Jews (IGdJ). His research interests are: German-Jewish and Austrian-Jewish history of the 19th and early 20th century, history of migration and economical history.
Björn Siegel, “It Cost Me 20 Years to Defeat Hitler.” Hamburg Shipping Company Owner Arnold Bernstein in the USA (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, June 05, 2018. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-242.en.v1> [April 01, 2023].