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Keys without Locks: Remnants of Life before Emigration

From Our Holdings

Thirty-one keys – that's all that remains of the luggage the Sommerfelds took with them when they left Berlin. Like thousands of German Jews, Margot and Franz Sommerfeld were forced to emigrate because they saw no future for themselves or their twin sons, Günter and Peter (b. 1933), in Nazi Germany. Despite great difficulties and harassment by the authorities, they obtained the necessary papers and made preparations to give up their household. Their ship was scheduled to leave the port of Hamburg for New York City on 31 August 1939.

Brown-leather wallet with thirty-one keys spread out

Keys to the Sommerfeld family’s luggage; Jewish Museum Berlin, Gift of George and Peter Summerfield, photo: Jens Ziehe

Last-Minute Escape

But a few days before departure, a relative who had heard a foreign radio show warned them that war was about to break out. Fearing they would be trapped in the country, the family decided at short notice to travel by train to the Netherlands with just the bare necessities in their hand luggage. They traveled by ship from the Hook of Holland to England.

Seized Luggage

The moving truck left Berlin with their luggage as planned. The contents were listed on the moving documents: every single object had to be carefully accounted for. The Sommerfelds kept these lists in their hand luggage, along with the keys to their suitcases and chests. But they never saw the shipped luggage again. It was confiscated by the Gestapo in Hamburg and later sold at auction.

New Beginning in England

The outbreak of war prevented the Sommerfelds from traveling on to New York City, and they stayed in London for the time being. When the war ended, the family was already so well established in England that they gave up plans to move onward to the United States. In 1948, they became naturalized citizens and eventually changed their last name to Summerfield.

Title Keys to the Sommerfeld family’s luggage
Collection Material Culture
Year of origin before 1939
Medium Leather, metal
Acquisition Gift of George and Peter Summerfield

The Secret Police (known by its German abbreviation Gestapo) was the political police during the Nazi period from 1933 to 1945. As a tool of the Nazi government, it wielded extensive powers for combating political opponents.

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Selected Objects: Material Culture Collection (10)

Material Culture Collection

Our objects from material culture recount Jewish life stories from Germany, attesting to athletic achievements, weddings, professional and military careers, but also disenfranchisement, persecution, and emigration.

Flag with the Star of David

In 1935, Martin Friedländer hung a blue and white flag from his window, making a confident statement against the racist Nuremberg Laws.

Frieda Neuber's Leather Pouch

Shortly before being deported to Theresienstadt, Frieder Neuber gave this leather pouch to her niece. The letters inside it document her desperate attempts to leave the country.

Memmelsdorf Genizah

In February 2002, workers renovating a house discovered a burlap sack filled with papers and personal items when they opened up a section of the ceiling. The house had been owned by Jews from 1775 to 1939.

Model of the Cargo Steamer Max

The Hamburg shipowner Arnold Bernstein received this model of his first ship in 1929 as a gift for his company's tenth anniversary. Eight years later, his career ended abruptly. He was detained and only managed to escape Germany at the last minute.

Dr. Oscar Hirschberg's Office Signs

A total of seven office signs used by Dr. Oscar Hirschberg document both his career as a practicing physician and the political changes and antisemitic exclusion during the period of Nazi rule.

Challenge Trophy from the Oberspree Jewish Rowing Club

The member of the Oberspree Jewish rowing club who logged the most kilometers in the water over the course of a year was awarded a challenge trophy. Fred Eisenberg won the award three years in a row.

Stamping Hammer, Invented by Gustav Maletzki

This stamping hammer, made around 1930, is one of the patented inventions for which the apparel furrier earned several awards. In 1938, Gustav Maletzki was forced to escape Germany and brought the hammer to exile in Bolivia.

The Sommerfelds’ Thirty-One Keys

Thirty-one keys – that's all that remains of the luggage the Sommerfeld family took with them when they emigrated from Berlin. They only managed to leave for England at the very last minute – just before the Second World War broke out.

Max Haller's Collection of Medals

Max Haller fought in the First World War for the Imperial German Navy. When SA members threatened him during the April Boycott of 1933, he pointedly placed a velvet cushion with his military distinctions in the shop window.

Cardboard Key for the Korants’ Wedding

Margarete Apt and Georg Korant received an unusual gift for their wedding on 4 October 1903 in Breslau. The dark brown key is made of cardboard and can be opened.