In August and September 1935, businessman Werner “Fritz” Fürstenberg, his fiancée Käthe Smoszewski, and their dog, travelled from Berlin to Amsterdam in Fürstenberg’s Packard Sedan. The young couple stopped along the way to take photographs, compiling a travelogue of their journey.
But the photos from their trip are not carefree and scenic. Rather, these photographs documented antisemitic signage, which was proliferating outside of German towns and villages along the Reichsstraße 6 cross-country highway.
Fürstenberg, originally from Berlin, established a Dutch branch of his family’s business in Amsterdam after the German boycott of Jewish-owned businesses in 1933. He traveled frequently from Berlin to Amsterdam until 1938, when the family was forced to sell their Berlin company to non-Jews. It was on one of these journeys that Fürstenberg stopped to photograph the antisemitic signs, at great personal risk – we imagine Smoszewski and their dog posing for photos so as not to raise suspicion from the residents who put the signs up. Some of the locations identified from his photos are Lübbecke, Osnabrück, Bad Bentheim, and Oldenzaal.
Most of the antisemitic signs were not professionally made, rather they were made by the people who displayed them. A few had spelling errors; one had a swastika on it. The signs, which would have had the approval of the Nazi Party, are a window into the community support and belief in Nazi values and antisemitism.
Some examples of these signs from the album:
Aftermath of Fürstenberg’s Trip
After arriving in Amsterdam in September 1935, Fürstenberg likely developed the film, saved the originals, and gave a copy to Dr. Alfred Wiener and the Jewish Central Information Office (JCIO). Wiener left Germany for Amsterdam in 1933 and, with a partner, created the JCIO to collect and disseminate information about the situation facing German Jews. Wiener moved himself and transferred the JCIO to London in 1939.
Researchers believe it was the JCIO who cropped Fürstenberg’s original images to emphasize the signs, removed any traces of identifying faces or objects by painting over them, and then made at least five nearly identical albums of the photographs. This is especially clear when comparing Fürstenberg’s original photographs with the “Motorcycle Album” in the Museum’s Collection: the introductory text is in a different language in each album; the album in the Museum’s Collection is in German, but other albums have text in English, French, and Dutch.
The JCIO, aware of the danger Fürstenberg and Smoszewski would be in if their identities were revealed, likely created a cover story that the photographs were taken by a Dutch motorcyclist traveling from Amsterdam to Berlin in the fall of 1935. , also an attempt to conceal the photographer’s identity. Smoszewski’s face was painted over in one of the photographs, as revealed by comparing it to the original photograph that Fürstenberg had kept for himself.
In November 1935, the JCIO used seven of Fürstenberg’s photographs in a presentation on the “situation of the German Jews,” along with other documentation. The photographs were misidentified – probably intentionally – as having been taken along the “Dusseldorf to Berlin motorway.”
About the Photographs
Most of Fürstenberg’s photos are void of people. It seems that he only took photographs of the antisemitic signs if nobody was around. Fürstenberg’s status as a private, Jewish photographer would likely have led to assaults against him and/or prison time had he been caught photographing the signs. That his fiancee’s face was painted over also indicates that he took at least one photo of her in order to capture the signs. Other photographs were taken from inside the car, further supporting the supposition that he was being careful not to be discovered.
Though little documentation remains beyond the photographs themselves, historians and archivists note that Fürstenberg took more photos in and around the town of Lübbecke than anywhere else. It is unclear why, but there is speculation that one of the people helping to set up the signs in Lübbecke was Karl-Friedrich Höcker, who went on to become the adjutant of Richard Baer in Auschwitz. Höcker himself made a photo album during the Holocaust, now often referred to as the Höcker Album, with photographs documenting Nazi officials enjoying their lives while working at Auschwitz.
Other photographs in the Fürstenberg family collection show that Werner Fürstenberg often photographed road signs; it is unclear if Fürstenberg knew ahead of his trip what he would find on this particular journey to Amsterdam. His connection to Alfred Wiener is also unknown; they may have been acquainted with each other, but it’s possible that Fürstenberg was aware of Wiener’s work with the JCIO since they were both German Jews in Amsterdam.
The Motorcycle Album in the Museum’s Collection
Fürstenberg survived the Holocaust in hiding in Amsterdam. He died in 1971, and left the original photographs of antisemitic signs to his children, and they are currently on permanent loan to the Jewish Museum Berlin.
Four other known motorcycle albums are at the Wiener Holocaust Library in London, the successor to the JCIO.
The Museum’s album was donated in 1984 by Holocaust survivors Rose and Nathan Minsky to the Yaffa Eliach Center for Holocaust Studies, which merged with the Museum in 1990. The cover of the album they donated is black with a greenish tint, implying the cover may once have been greener. There is a ship embossed on the front cover, representative of a classic Dutch photo album from the 1930s.
Though the history of the photographs and the person who took them is known to some Holocaust historians, the JCIO’s cover story about the photos being taken by a Dutch motorcyclist continues to be taken as fact by many today.
The Museum’s copy of the Motorcycle Album will be on view in the upcoming exhibition The Holocaust: What Hate Can Do, sharing the real history behind the album with visitors of all ages and backgrounds.
Further Reading: “Crossing Borders in the Summer of 1935: Fritz Fürstenberg’s Photographs of Persecution I National Socialist Germany” by Christoph Kreutzmüller and Theresia Ziehe, Leo Baeck Institute Year Book Vol. 64, 73-89.