Fleeing Hitler

A new biography about Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Billy Joel recounts his family’s struggle to escape Nazi Germany.

Adapted from "Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography" by Fred Schruers '71

Fleeing Hitler

A smokestack rises from the hulking brick factory. Along its flank, large descending letters once read "JOEL." It is a grainy black-and-white image, part of the documentary called The Joel Files  that was made about Billy Joe's family and their struggles to survive— and escape—the rise of the Nazis in Germany. In a striking film portrait of war’s aftermath, Billy and his half-brother Alex meet the family of the Nazi industrialist who usurped the Joel family fortune—and went on to be a highly regarded member of the German commercial elite in the post-war years. The shot of the factory was taken in Nuremberg during the height of the family’s textile operation in the late 1930s. There’s no trace of the factory now, but there is a small family cemetery where some of Billy’s relatives are buried.

As a student of history, Billy knows that the odds his father beat in getting out of wartime Europe were long. Only when he visited that graveyard in Nuremberg did he fully realize how many of his family members—uncles, aunts, granduncles, grave marker upon grave marker of Joels — were less fortunate. And there’s also the knowledge of those who were never brought back, whose bodies are gone forever. Billy grew up hearing the names of the lost sporadically in family conversations, but only in recent years has a fuller picture of his family history emerged.

THE JOEL FAMILY’S tumultuous journey to America began with Billy’s paternal grandfather, Karl Amson Joel, who came from a family in Coburg, in Bavarian Franconia, in Germany’s scenic southeast. The patriarch was a man named Faustus Joel, whose son Julius became a tailor and eventually began the small textile business Billy’s grandfather expanded into Waschenmanufakturer Joel. Karl married Meta Fleischmann, and their only child and Billy’s father, Helmut (later anglicized to Howard), was born in 1923. By the time Karl was 39, in 1927, he had enough savings to start a business in household linens, the Karl Joel Linen Goods Company, which grew from a four-room apartment foothold into a substantial line of mail-order clothing. By the early 1930s, the family had moved into an imposing villa in a prosperous section of Nuremberg.

But Hitler and the Nazis were steadily seizing power in 1933, bolstered by an influx of money from the major industrialists, who were hoping to collect favors later—and would do so, in one particular case, to the Joel family’s detriment. The family firm had grown prosperous during the 1920s, despite the post-World War I woes of hyperinflation and the communist uprisings it triggered.

At one stage before the currency was revalued in the mid-1920s, inflation in Germany ran so rampant that Reichsmarks were virtually worthless. Billy recalls hearing the story that at that time, “You needed a wheel-barrow of bills to pay for a loaf of bread.” Still, Hitler’s ominous Munich (or “Beer Hall”) Putsch of 1923 failed. But later in the decade, as government cutbacks accompanying deflation mixed with fears of a world-wide financial crisis—the American stock market crashed in 1929—the national mood was bleak. Says Billy, “Everybody started looking to the Nazis for salvation.” Young Helmut was part of the Jewish population that would be caught up in the building nationalistic fervor.

"I've read a lot of this history, and because it affected my own upbringing, it’s hard not to take it personally,” Billy says. “I think anti-Semitism was always kind of innate in those Middle European cultures anyway. In Germany, Austria, and even France, to an extent, there’s a long history of anti-Semitism that was simmering for generations. Hitler tapped into it. He knew how to exploit popular prejudice.”

Billy still wonders how his grandfather Karl, who was supposed to be sharp-witted, couldn’t see what was coming until Kristallnacht in November 1938. Even then, Karl, loath to sacrifice what he had built through decades of hard work, was still trying to make a deal with his connections to get the proceeds from selling his business to German entrepreneur Josef Neckermann.

Neckermann was a Catholic conservative who joined the Nazi Party when he saw the advantage in it. Using a Nazi innovation known as Aryanization—by which the General State Prosecutor’s Office of the State Court of Berlin would put citizens on “trial” for being Jewish, homosexual, or “asocial”—he made the Joel family his first sizable target. In the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum database titled “Index of Jews Whose German Nationality Was Annulled by Nazi Regime, 1935–1944,” Karl is listed as being accused of Devisenvergehen (monetary or currency offenses) in records of two separate “trials” in the 1930s. Says Billy, “After taking part in the making of The Joel Files, I realized what the film’s director, Beate Thalberg, had discovered: My relatives were hounded out of the country and forced to sell the largest business of its kind in Germany at an absurd price—a paradigm of the economic casualties during the Nazitakeover.”T he Nazi takeover rumbled up from below, as Karl and his lifelong best friend Rudi Weber (actually not Jewish and later drafted into the German army) would experience. In Steffen Radlmaier’s German-language book on the Joel family history, Karl recalls the two boys passing a glass display case with a newspaper bearing the headline “The Jews Are Our Misfortune.” The headline was the work of a Hitler acolyte (so much so he was dubbed “The Franconian Führer”) named Julius Streicher. Streicher’s Der Stürmer, a propaganda sheet of a newspaper that he had founded as the hounding of Jews caught fire, was waging a vendetta against Billy’s grandfather Karl.

In May 1933, Der Stürmer ran a front-page article calling Karl a “Yid” and accusing him of underpaying and sexually harassing his workers. Just months before, the Joel family had epitomized comfortable normalcy, moving into a bosky section of the city where their sizable two-story home boasted a telephone and a gramophone, with a chauffeured sedan in the driveway. But as the Nazis rose in power, the party established a parade ground in the park near the Joel home. The commands, songs, and rallying cries of the brownshirts became the soundtrack for lives governed more and more by fear and a growing helplessness.

The Joel family’s situation was soon barely tenable. Radlmaier describes how on April 1, 1933, the “systematic persecution” of the Jews began with leaflets falling from the sky, and as part of the campaign admonishing the populace “Don’t buy from Jews!” the lingerie shop owned by Karl’s brother Leon in nearby Ansbach was listed as off limits to any not wishing to be marked as “traitors to the Fatherland."

Helmut was one of four Jews in his Nuremberg classroom; they were directed to sit apart from their classmates. While the city’s Jews still had access to the zoo, where Helmut enjoyed the elephants and talking parrots, they could no longer use the public swimming pool.

“My grandfather thought he might still ride out the crisis,” says Billy. Karl traveled to Berlin, a five-hour train ride north, in early 1934 and sought supposedly neutral advice from a textile manufacturer named Fritz Tillmann, the Nazis’ “economic town counselor.” Later Tillmann would lead efforts to round up the city’s Jewish population and ship them to the death camps.

Under the nominally more lenient administration in the capital, Karl would be permitted to move and reopen his business there, and he announced as much in mid-May to his employees. (Three-fourths of them would join him; he was, in fact, a well-liked boss.)

Seven articles appeared that year denouncing “Jew Joel, the bloodsucker and oppressor,” and after the massive Nuremberg Rally, where crowds roared for Hitler in the swastika-bedecked streets, Karl Joel was arrested three times in short order—and freed each time upon word from Tillmann, who had plans for the family business.

"Just think of the irony of relocating your business from Nuremberg, the Nazi Party headquarters, to Berlin, only to see Berlin end up as the new Nazi power base."

While Karl was optimistically reestablishing his business under strict new regulations, installing German-made machinery and putting up a mandatory sign declaring that the business was Jewish-owned he took the precaution of shipping Helmut to an elite boarding school in St. Gall, Switzerland. (Helmut would inherit from his father, a Wagner fan, a deep love of classical music.)

Even as Der Stürmer (loosely, “The Attacker”) regularly inveighed against the “Nuremberg Linen-Jew Joel,” Helmut would come back to Germany sporadically, including a visit for his bar mitzvah in June 1936. However, any sense of normalcy was giving way to strict new rules for his father—certain suppliers began cutting him off, a German plant manager was installed, and Karl was ordered to stamp all his outgoing packages with a "J". Then in June 1938, a new law passed, forfeiting all Jewish businesses to Aryan ownership. Karl was visited by Josef Neckermann, who engineered the purchase of the company for some 2.3 million Reichsmarks, then roughly equivalent to a half-million US dollars but less than a fifth of its real value.

Billy's grandfather signed the papers that July. The transaction was overseen by Tillmann, as Karl was forbidden to use his own attorney. He asked for some assurance that the agreed-upon sum would be paid and was answered with ominous threats that he would be wiser to look after his own security. Neckerman also took possession of the family house, whose inventory included the children's bedroom set that Helmut had used.

Karl and Meta checked into a hotel to await payment, but the prelude to the Nazis’ “Final Solution”—propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels had been quoted as saying, “The Jew is a waste product. It is a clinical issue more than a social one”—was ramping up. A great number of Berlin’s Jewish population had already been incarcerated in the Gestapo’s Moabit district prison, later infamous for the executions committed there, when a warning came to Karl and Meta that the Gestapo planned to arrest them. Karl literally ran out the back door of the hotel where the meeting had been scheduled to take place. “My grandparents fled in the night,” Billy says, “and, using fake passports, escaped via the Bahnhof Zoo Station, across the Swiss border to Zurich. They got in touch with my father at his school and told him that they had left Germany for good and planned to stay in Switzerland.”

As the family sheltered in a one-room flat in Zurich, the drama took one more twist when Karl Joel was notified by a letter from Josef Neckermann that there had been a problem clearing his payment; the letter advised him to return to Berlin to settle the deal.“That was ambiguous,” Billy’s father says in The Joel Files. “In a way, it was a death threat.”

Wary of a trap, Karl nonetheless traveled to Berlin and met surreptitiously in a café with Fritz Tillmann, who asked him for a check for 100,000 Reichsmarks for his efforts to straighten things out. Tillmann told Karl, falsely, that Karl couldn’t cash the Neckermann payment check himself because the banks had invalidated Jews’ accounts. Meanwhile, Karl was detained for a week before escaping once again to Switzerland. He had realized that he would never be properly paid for his business, even the reduced amount he had agreed to.

“I think,” says Billy, “that’s when my grandfather realized that remaining in Europe was simply untenable. Just think of the irony of relocating your business from Nuremberg, the Nazi Party headquarters, to Berlin, only to see Berlin end up as the new Nazi powerbase.”

KARL FINALLY REALIZED he had to take immediate measures to save the family. The account that follows owes much to the expert researchers of the Holocaust Museum. One thing that’s certain is that given the rigors of escaping Europe at that moment in history, as well as the difficulty of finding a way into America, the Joel family was among a very small minority of those who successfully evaded the Nazis’ clinical, exterminating wrath, if not their depredations.

Fred Schruers enjoyed a high-profile career as a writer at Rolling Stone, chronicling musicians, television personalities, and filmmakers, among them Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Madonna, David Letterman, Chris Rock, Jack Nicholson, and Matthew McConaughey. Fred would like to extend a tribute to late classmate and great friend Bruce Fishelman ’71, who made the introduction that won him his first job at The Boston Phoenix.