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Numerous small white porcelain name tags are lined up on a wooden table.

145 porcelain name plates–and the photo that started the research into their origin; private

Berlin Benchmarks

An Unusual Search for Traces

How did a pail with small porcelain signs end up being buried deep between tree roots in the north of Berlin? Why were the signs consigned to the Jewish Museum? How many experts does it take to solve this puzzle? An unusual search for traces.

In the yard outside a Berlin daycare center, in 2020, the owner of a landscaping business came upon the remnants of a metal pail filled with 145 porcelain nameplates. He initially held on to his find for safekeeping. His wife noticed that two of the signs had the last name “Brasch,” one of them Joseph, the other Leo. She was familiar with the name from the movie about the Jewish Brasch family. Might Leo and Joseph be part of that same family?

The couple contacted the Jewish Museum Berlin and offered to donate the find to the museum archives. On the photographs they initially presented, the following could be made out: The white signs with rounded edges have holes on the left and right, indicating that they had been screwed on to something. Written on them in various styles are the names of persons as well as companies and banks. The design of the nameplates suggested that they were presumably created around 1900. Before its collections department accepted the find, the Jewish Museum Berlin decided to research the origin of the nameplates and what purpose they served.

They seemed most likely to be signs for doors from somewhere near where they were found, which could easily be verified by perusing old Berlin address books. We did some random checks in the address books from the years 1900, 1913, and 1923, and also looked at the 1930 Jewish address book, since not only the name “Brasch” but also some others indicated a potentially Jewish name. The search revealed that none of the address books listed all the names. And the addresses of the businesses and people listed were by no means identical.

Three white porcelain signs one below the other with the names Hugo Bloch, A. Bernstein, Joseph Brasch and Leo Brasch written in cursive.

Some of the plates indicate a potentially Jewish name.
Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Roman März

Or might they have marked seats in a synagogue?
However, the address books gave us a new idea: All of the names that were in fact found in the address books were listed as “businessman” or “banker.” This suggested that all of them carried out a similar activity and all might be wealthy. Could the signs have been used by a club or organization to personalize lockers or mailboxes? Some of the names were found on a membership list of the Jewish organization Gesellschaft der Freunde (Society of Friends) in Berlin1, but that didn’t help in explaining the rest of the names.

Or might they have marked seats in a synagogue? This hypothesis could also quickly be discarded, since Albert Schappach, a Protestant whose private bank was also mentioned on one of the signs, would certainly not have had a labelled seat in a synagogue. So were they from an organization after all? The search for fitting groups was discontinued because it was impossible to narrow down the possibilities from among the hundreds of organizations in Berlin. So where else could such porcelain labels have been screwed into place? Maybe in a theater or the opera, as a sign of someone having sponsored a seat, as is still done today?

In a conversation with the theater scholar Ruth Freydank, who worked for many years in the Märkisches Museum, Berlin’s city museum, we learned of two possible cultural institutions with substantial civic financing: First, the building that preceded the opera house of the Deutsche Oper, and second, Schiller Theater. The Schiller Theater archives, however, had been burned, and the building itself had already been researched in depth by Ms Freydank, who had discovered no reference at all to the porcelain nameplates. The building that preceded the Deutsche Oper had been built in 1913, but the banker Alwin Abrahamsohn, whose name appears on one of the signs, had already died in 1902, so the signs could not have served to indicate the name of a seat sponsor in that building.
Four white porcelain signs one below the other with the names Abrahamsohn, Aks, Schappach and Loewenherz written in cursive.

The private bank of the Protestant Albert Schappach is also mentioned on one of the signs.
Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Roman März

The finders had deliberately left dirt and sand on them in order to preserve their condition at the time they were found.
The next step involved examining the signs themselves closely. The finders had deliberately left dirt and sand on them in order to preserve their condition at the time they were found. As they were carefully cleansed, a factory mark of the LHA Schmidt porcelain manufactory in Berlin-Moabit was uncovered on the back of some of the nameplates. Luckily, the collection of the Moabit porcelain in the Märkisches Museum can be searched online, also including pieces of Schmidt porcelain.

There the donor is listed, Frank Buschenhagen, a descendant of the company founder. When we sent a message using an online contact form for his print shop asking if he was the porcelain donor, he responded promptly, confirming that yes, he was the donor, and he also sent us his “porcelain contact,” which he said was a better contact address in this regard. Buschenhagen and his wife were delighted to be asked about the purpose of the nameplates and they joined in the search to discover their origin. The porcelain expert was not familiar with these signs, but he could recognize that it was a custom-made product, like, for example, the signs in the Botanical Garden to identify the various plants.

It was his wife who finally solved the puzzle: Might the combination of companies, bankers, and businessmen not suggest that the signs came from the Berlin stock exchange? It was then possible to specify more precisely the occupation “businessman” in the various address books by referring to the commercial register. It turned out that all those listed pursued occupations that were active on the stock exchange, including grain merchants2–such as the brothers Joseph and Leo Brasch–and stockbrokers. The Berlin stock exchange has already been researched, by Christof Biggeleben for one, who has dealt extensively with the corporation of the merchants, that is, the stock exchange management.3
A black and white photograph of a large neoclassical building on a riverbank and a bridge crossing the water.

The Berlin stock exchange with the 1892/93 extended Friedrichsbrücke, 1901; Landesarchiv Berlin, F Rep. 290
Nr. II3343 / photo: Waldemar Titzenthaler

According to the owner of the landscaping company who found the pail, the root growth of the tree would indicate the time the pail was buried about seventy or eighty years ago, that is, between 1940 and 1950.
When speaking with him on the telephone, Biggeleben presumed that the signs marked the locations where the companies or merchants stood. That was close to the mark. The ultimate solution was offered by Katrin Richter, who wrote her doctoral thesis on The Media of the Stock Exchange4 and could show us pictures of the exchange: White signs on the benches can clearly be seen on numerous drawings, paintings, and photographs. She was also familiar with the description written by the journalist and travel writer Georg Schweizer in 1891: “Those alcoves between the columns along the walls of the hall … are leased at handsome prices to the major companies, and that is where their representatives take a seat every midday. In fact, there are no spaces on the two-seater benches with a shared armrest or on the benches at the base of the columns that cannot be reserved for a particular party for a tidy sum. The small, white porcelain signs on both sides of the backrest display the names of the lessees.”5

But how did the pail with the porcelain nameplates end up under the tree in the yard of the Berlin daycare center? According to the owner of the landscaping company who found the pail, the root growth of the tree would indicate the time the pail was buried about seventy or eighty years ago, that is, between 1940 and 1950. Perhaps the signs were buried by someone who considered them significant. Perhaps an employee of the Berlin stock exchange who wanted to save them from getting damaged in air raids? Be that as it may, today the signs are considered “abandoned property,” and their owner is the State of Berlin, which has given them to the Jewish Museum Berlin as a permanent loan. Even though there were a total of more than one thousand such nameplates in the stock exchange, it was certainly a stroke of luck that at least a portion of these material remnants of the Berlin stock exchange survived and is now available for historical research.

Lea Simon

Lea Simon has been a research trainee at the Jewish Museum Berlin since May 2022. Having studied Musicology and Romance Studies in Heidelberg, Tours, and Weimar, she recently completed her PhD thesis on Classical Composers in Kibbutzim from the 1930s to the 1980s at the Berlin University of the Arts.

This article was first published in 2023 in issue 25 of the print edition of the JMB Journal.

Citation recommendation:

Lea Simon (2023), Berlin Benchmarks. An Unusual Search for Traces.

  1. Sebastian Panwitz, Die Gesellschaft der Freunde 1792–1935. Berliner Juden zwischen Aufklärung und Hochfinanz, Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 2007.↩︎
  2. Grain merchants made sense because there had been a room for food retailers, the so-called commodity exchange. ↩︎
  3. Christof Biggeleben, Das “Bollwerk des Bürgertums.” Die Berliner Kaufmannschaft 1870–1920 (Munich 2006). ↩︎
  4. Katrin Richter, Die Medien der Börse. Eine Wissensgeschichte der Berliner Börse von 1860 bis 1933, Berlin: Lukas Verlag, 2020.↩︎
  5. Georg Schweitzer, “Berliner Börse,” in Berliner Pflaster. Illustrierte Schilderungen aus dem Berliner Leben, ed. M. Reymond and L. Manzel (Berlin 1891), 324–25.↩︎

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