Return of the Café Nagler

On the trail of a coffee shop

It was a very special moment for me when I got to unpack recently a new collection for the Archive. A small package from Tel Aviv lay in front of me. The sender was Mor Kaplansky, an Israeli film-maker, with whom I had been corresponding since spring of this year.

Jörg Waßmer presenting a phototograph of the former Café Nagler

Unpacking the collection of the Family Nagler; Jewish Museum Berlin; photo: Ulrike Neuwirth

It had all begun in March, at the finissage of Nosh, the Jewish Food Week. In a small café in Kreuzberg, the documentary film Café Nagler had just been shown. The film is about a coffee shop of that name, which had once stood on the Moritzplatz. While in Berlin today, there is no evidence that the café ever existed at the site, descendants of the Naglers in Israel have kept its memory alive right through the present day. The film moved me greatly. I was excited to see on the screen that Naomi, grandmother of the film-maker, had preserved certain treasures such as a coffee service with the emblem of the café and a set of silverware bearing the initials “N”. I also noticed various photographs and documents.

How I would love to be able to sift through this file of memorabilia myself, I thought! As soon as the film’s credits had finished running, I took out my mobile phone and searched for Mor Kaplansky on Facebook. I found her and sent her a message. I congratulated her on the film and let her know that the Jewish Museum Berlin would be very happy if she were to donate any documents, photographs, and other objects pertaining to her family. A few hours later, I already had an answer. Mor told me that her grandmother Naomi had unfortunately just died, but that she almost certainly would have wanted some of her memorabilia of the Café Nagler to return to Berlin: “I would be more than honored to bring some of the Cafe’s artefacts to the museum.”

Since then, Mor and I have stayed in touch. She also connected me with Jon Altman, a relative in Australia. He, too, was immediately prepared to give the Museum some objects on permanent loan. The first package that arrived came from Melbourne.

Signet with the engraving “I. Nagler. Cafétier. Berlin”; Jewish Museum Berlin, on permanent loan from Jon Altman; photo: Jörg Waßmer

Opening it, I found silverware, but also a stamp engraved with the name of the “cafétier” Ignatz Nagler and two lovingly kept baby diaries, dating from 1926 on. A few weeks later, I also received the package from Israel, which held 80 documents and photographs. Mor enclosed an index, in which she had listed the precious contents of the package to the best of her knowledge. As she herself cannot read German, let alone decipher the old German handwriting, she had had to mark several documents with a question mark or the word “unidentified.”

With great joy, I set about making an inventory of the collection. In doing so, I dove into the family history of the Naglers. I accompanied Ignatz Nagler (1870–1929) from Czernowitz (Chernivtsi), then the capital of Bukovina, to the metropolis of Berlin. Here, he worked starting in 1896 in various restaurants and cafés. Based on the letters of recommendation from employers which his family have preserved, I was able to follow his career up to the time at which he became independent and opened his own coffee shop on the Moritzplatz. I held the Naglers’ Ketubah in my hands and succeeded, after clearing a few hurdles, in deciphering the name of the city in which their wedding took place, in 1896: “Krone an der Brahe” was written in a spidery Hebrew scrawl. Ignatz Nagler’s wife Rosa had come from the Prussian province of West Prussia. They had three children, whose birth certificates I also had on my desk. In order to keep an overview of it all, and better understand the kinship ties, I drew a family tree. Only then did I understand how the family branches in Israel and Australia were even related. In perusing the collection, I saw how the big stage of politics directly affected the life of the Naglers time and again – whether on account of military service during the First World War or the loss of their Austrian citizenship after the demise of the Habsburg Empire. I then followed the family’s further journey as they emigrated to Palestine in the 1920s.

documents and a photo

Work references, letter paper, and a postcard; Jewish Museum Berlin, on permanent loan from Jon Altman and the family of Naomi Kaplansky; photo: Jörg Waßmer

Carefully, I studied the surviving photos of the Café Nagler’s interior and tried to imagine how it was laid out spatially. One picture interested me particularly: on it, you see a large banquet hall, extending over two floors, with a balcony along its perimeter. I had my doubts from the very beginning that so grand a hall could have been located within the Café Nagler. After conducting research in various picture databases, I finally solved the riddle! Of course, I had to share the news with Mor right away: “You’re such a detective!”, she wrote back – a message I confess I read with not a little pride.

On 27 November, the Museum will hold a public screening of the film Café Nagler. Mor Kaplansky will be there to answer questions from viewers afterwards. In addition, I shall present a few highlights from the collection – and make public my solution to the mystery behind this intriguing photograph.

Jörg Waßmer very much looks forward to meeting Mor Kaplansky in person.

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Comment by Edina Meyer-Maril on 25. November 2017 at 06:21

Naomi war eisern, sie kam bis kurz vor ihrem Tod wöchentlich in das Schwimmbad ihrer Schwiegertochter und nahm am Aerobic Kurs teil. Sie konnte unendlich viele Sprüche, erzählte faszinierend-kurz, eine dominierende Persônlichkeit. Um den Film lässt sich noch viel mehr machen und ich freue mich, dass Sie als Historiker nun vieles ergänzen.

Comment by Jon Altman on 13. January 2018 at 07:03

Thanks for a terrific story Jorg.

As the first anniversary of the demise of Judith Altman nee Nagler approaches (born 27 July 1926 in Berlin, died 31 January 2017 in Sydney, Australia) I sift through a trunk full of family history material that she bequeathed to me (and my brother David) and ponder how to eventually tell the life story of the grand-daughter of Ignatz.

Judith was a person of multiple names, she was variably Yudit/Judith/Judy (first names) and Nagler/Shehori/Shehori-Altman and Altman (surnames); multiple nationalities (born German but brought up in Palestine, then in turn Palestinian (British Mandate) from 1938, Israeli from 1948, British (by marriage) from 1950 and New Zealander by naturalisation from 1970. She spoke Hebrew, English and German and lived in countless countries eventually settling in Sydney, Australia from 1988, the year her husband Gerry Montague Altman but also Yehuda Shehori passed away.

Judith saw Café Nagler in Sydney in September 2016 when already diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. She bravely recorded a radio interview in English and in Hebrew with the Special Broadcasting Service here (SBS Radio). I first contacted Jorg in April 2017 introduced via email by Mor Kaplansky the granddaughter of the late Naomi Kaplansky Judith’s very close first cousin. It is such a shame that Judith was not around to be interviewed by Jorg and to have her input to the Café Nagler project.
I look forward to doing that on her behalf. I partly make this post inviting any reader who knew Judith to make contact if they so wish. I also want to thank Jorg for rekindling my own interest in my German ancestry and Berlin connections, I have only been to Berlin once in 2011 paradoxically searching out my imagined location of Café Nagler based on an address provided by Judith and Naomi.

While Café Nagler was a part of Judith’s personal history she never visited it. While she was born in Berlin this was a birth location of convenience, her parents Heinz and Ruth Nagler already lived in Palestine and returned soon after her birth. I believe she only visited Berlin once more in her long life, in 1936 after the Naglers had sold the café and migrated to Palestine to join Heinz. The visit was not a pleasant experience, she has written a short story about this in English. And it played a part I suspect in her blocking off her German ancestry and heritage, something that might have also been influenced by the loss of some immediate family members during the Holocaust in death camps. German connections and loss of family were largely expunged from my upbringing especially after we migrated to New Zealand in 1963.

Jorg and the Jewish Museum in Berlin have left the door open for me to provide additional material to the Café Nagler archive. I look forward to doing so, hopefully with some curatorial guidance from Jorg and his colleagues. Needless to say the empathetic treatment of elements of my family history now with the Museum is much appreciated and very moving, it is as if a part of Judith Nagler is rightfully returning to her city of birth.

Comment by Brian Paterson on 3. March 2024 at 22:26

I have seen the video several times and was always disappointed that the young narrator and grand daughter could not evidentiarily verify that Cafe Nagler did in fact exist like the family stories and traditions said it did. One scene in the film is zn interview with a Berlin civic Official who says that it’s just a legend. The film goes to the Moritzplatz to show the weedy little area where it should have stood.
Has any more evidence come out of your work? The postcard is very compelling. It goes with the stories of the four floors of operations the top of which was apparently used for a meeting place for lovers who needed it. Will we ever know?
My specialization is as an adapter of five books concerning how a secret coalition of three groups comprised of Zionist youth, an anti-nazi cell called ‘Onkel Emil, and two groups of Christians one led by the famous Countess Maria von Maltzan. – helped hide and provide for many ofthe last Jews in Berlin. My research is extensive and many years long. The copyrighted film or series adaptation is entitled “Submerged in Berlin”. It is about 50 pages that make up a blueprint for how to storyboard and script the film, with character sketches, plot diagrams, scene descriptions and a flowchart of the combined plots one of which is a romantic intrigue between the ‘griefer’ Stella Goldschlag and a document forger who helped Jews hide. Thanks for reading! B P

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