Original picture from the Bayer archives of Dr Hans Finkelstein conversing with colleagues in a laboratory at the Uerdingen site of I.G. Farben, recorded in 1932.

Interview Johannes Finkelstein

Fates that must not be repeated

During our research for the foundation, we sought permission from Johannes Finkelstein, son of Berthold Finkelstein and grandson of Dr. Hans Finkelstein. Johannes Finkelstein is the family representative and a member of the Advisory Council. In March 2023 he visited Bayer’s Headquarters in Leverkusen for an interview.

 

Despite our knowledge of the Second World War, we often overlook the connection between the past and the present. Numerous accounts of victims have been shared, yet there are still many untold stories. In this interview, it became evident yet again how the fates of Dr. Hans and Berthold Finkelstein continue to have an impact on the present.

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Johannes Finkelstein © Marcus Mueller-Saran

Bayer has established the Hans and Berthold Finkelstein Foundation to promote independent research projects and a culture of remembrance within the company. It has also been set up in honor of your family. You only know your grandfather Hans Finkelstein through the stories you have heard about him. How does your family remember him?

For many years, very little was said about what happened to my grandfather. Given the traumatic nature of the experience, it was a taboo subject for the family. My grandmother’s generation in particular simply didn’t talk about what happened during the time of national socialist crimes, but that’s not because they didn’t want to – it’s because they couldn’t. 

 

Has that changed over the years? Was there a time when you started asking questions?

Not talking about my grandfather’s death was a long-standing consensus. Everyone in my family could sense how the pain and the trauma lingered. When my grandfather took his own life in 1938, my father was 13 years old. He was still a child. He also spoke very little about his relationship with his father. It was only long after my father’s early death that I started to talk to my aunt about the past.

 

What kind of a man was Hans Finkelstein?

I never knew him personally, of course. If you read his family chronicles, you get the impression he was a life-affirming and very family-oriented person. He gave my grandmother and his children a lot of freedom – something that was certainly very unusual at the time. You could also describe him as a proud German who felt a strong connection to his country. For example, he had the opportunity to emigrate to the United States, but never even considered it. At first, he had no idea of how events in Germany would ultimately turn out and couldn’t have imagined the fate that lay in store for him. It’s important to understand that my grandfather didn’t see himself as a Jew. He had converted to Protestantism at an early age. It was only the Nuremberg Race Laws that made him a Jew. In the end, it was his keen sense of justice and this strong bond with his country that broke him. In his mind, his suicide in 1938 was his only way out. It had become clear to him that he would end up in a concentration camp. Some other members of our family would be murdered in Theresienstadt later on. He did not wish to die as either a martyr or a broken man. In his farewell letter, he also wrote that he wanted to save his wife and children from greater suffering.

 

As a laboratory manager in Uerdingen, your grandfather had a prestigious position at I.G. Farben. How did his personal and professional life change after the National Socialists seized power in 1933?

I don’t know. We have never spoken about his scientific and professional life. As far as I can recall, the name Ter Meer has never been mentioned in the family either. As a family, we’d be really interested to find out more in the future, through the Foundation’s work.

 

Let’s turn to your father, Berthold Finkelstein. 

My father was a very warm-hearted, very well-educated person who spoke several languages. Naturally, the events of his childhood left an indelible impression on him. He was traumatized as well, and had to work as a forced laborer in the I.G. Farben laboratory in Uerdingen. He spoke very little about what happened to him there. After the war, he worked extremely hard on promoting European understanding. It was his life’s work. He passed on this appreciation for the European community and the importance of reconciliation to me. 

 

Why did you allow the Foundation to use your family name?

Unfortunately, racism, xenophobia, homophobia and antisemitism have not disappeared – quite the opposite, in fact, as they are even growing in many countries. The issue of marginalization is more current than ever. Revisionism, that is to say, the desire to deliberately reframe history or make people forget historical events, is also growing. The Foundation is promoting tolerance and reconciliation just as my father did. I view my own personal involvement as a way of carrying forward my father’s legacy. That gives me a real connection to his life. 

 

When Bayer approached you with the request, did you and your family need time to think it over?

No, we made the decision really quickly. It’s important to champion freedom and tolerance, and the Foundation is another, very special way of demonstrating that. However, I also see the Foundation as a major opportunity for us as a family, as it gives us the chance to find out a lot more. We looked into things, of course, but we very quickly came to realize how seriously Bayer is taking this and that setting up a Foundation such as this is the right thing to do. What happened to Hans and Berthold Finkelstein must never happen again. The Foundation can make an important contribution in this respect.