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.
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.
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
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 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.
Lea Simon (2023), Berlin Benchmarks. An Unusual Search for Traces.
- Sebastian Panwitz, Die Gesellschaft der Freunde 1792–1935. Berliner Juden zwischen Aufklärung und Hochfinanz, Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 2007.↩︎
- Grain merchants made sense because there had been a room for food retailers, the so-called commodity exchange. ↩︎
- Christof Biggeleben, Das “Bollwerk des Bürgertums.” Die Berliner Kaufmannschaft 1870–1920 (Munich 2006). ↩︎
- Katrin Richter, Die Medien der Börse. Eine Wissensgeschichte der Berliner Börse von 1860 bis 1933, Berlin: Lukas Verlag, 2020.↩︎
- Georg Schweitzer, “Berliner Börse,” in Berliner Pflaster. Illustrierte Schilderungen aus dem Berliner Leben, ed. M. Reymond and L. Manzel (Berlin 1891), 324–25.↩︎