Arts & Culture

The Nazis Ruined Condoms, Too

I was still in high school when the preview for Roman Polanski’s "The Pianist" spurred the realization that I had no desire to watch another Holocaust movie. To this day, I haven’t seen all of "Schindler’s List." I have, however, … Read More

By / December 2, 2009

I was still in high school when the preview for Roman Polanski’s "The Pianist" spurred the realization that I had no desire to watch another Holocaust movie. To this day, I haven’t seen all of "Schindler’s List." I have, however, sought out and enjoyed movies about German life, often set in Berlin: Goodbye Lenin, The Edukators, Gegen Die Wand (Head-On), The Lives of Others. Before reading Fromm’s, what I knew about Germany was an amalgam of these movies, visits to more than one Holocaust Museum, and facebook information from two close friends who lived in Berlin being hip. Fromm’s: How Julius Fromm’s Condom Empire Fell to the Nazis by Götz Aly and Michael Sontheimer (translated from the German by Shelley Frisch) follows the rise and fall of Julius Fromm, a Russian-shtetl-to-Berlin-villa success story made interesting, not so much by the character of Julius Fromm himself, but by his willingness to profit off a controversial good: contraception. The backdrop is the migration of Eastern European Jews to Weimar Republic Berlin, World War 1, the rise of the National Socialist Party, and exile abroad. Fromm’s lifework and the fates of his family members were unjustly determined by the Nazis, and this book dwells on the material and pecuniary parts of those fates more than the emotional and romantic. The subtitle, "How Julius Fromm’s Condom Empire Fell to the Nazis," misleads. That is one part of the story (surprisingly juicy–two castles and one menage-a-trois), but before a condom empire is taken away, it must be erected. Luckily, brothels in the battlefields of the Great War and a "dance mania" helped boost demand for condoms. Fromm cleverly marketed his new product (now seamless) in language that wouldn’t be banned for lewdness or for encouraging family planning, which might have further threatened Germany’s birthrate. Against opposition, he even installed the first condom vending machines. Condoms, as the commercial breakthrough detailed in Fromm’s, make way for colorful conversations; otherwise, a profile of another dogged entrepreneur cheated by politics would convey the injustice of Aryanization just the same. It’s fun to imagine riding in a 1930s automobile paid for in 3 condom increments. Of course, feeling aghast accompanies the reading experience. Julius Fromm badly wanted to be German and was the first of his 6 siblings to attain citizenship. On his application form, he wrote, "I am ardently devoted to my second homeland, and for me, a return to Russia would be worse than death." The country that he loved turned against him, one election and law at a time. This is relevant reading, casting aspersion on moral-less loopholes, banks complying with lawmakers, and other abuses of power, making you wish for a Nazi-era ACORN. Far from petty, the materialistic side matters: people still seek restitution today from the German government for confiscated property that, in some cases, was taken once by the Nazis and again redistributed in East Germany. Moreover, Fromm’s is a painful reminder of who funds wars and governments. Aryanized assets went to the Reich war chest. Ironically, Jews exiled abroad were granted enemy alien legal status, and under the enemy asset administration could claim ownership over property left behind. Not to be outdone, the Nazis then repatriated the Jews so they could sell the German Jews’ wardrobes of gowns secondhand and move into their houses. Architecture, too, makes the case for the relevance of the style of objects. For his biggest factory, Fromm commissioned two architects. One was influenced by Bauhaus, Der Blau Reiter, and after moving to Palestine, the other wrote a book called Study of Kafka. The building is a reflection of philosophy, politics, and aesthetics. Its wide glass windows, reminiscent of a Mies van der Rohe inspired 70s era bank, challenged neighbors in gabled houses and laborers to re-imagine the work environment. The sunlight would fill the "office workers with pleasure in carrying out their duties." The book’s afterword is by Julius Fromm’s grandson, who reconciles the fact that this book measures property, at moments cataloging stolen jewelry’s worth in Euros today. (We even get a sense of Fromm’s ancestors’ social standing in the shtetl–at his parents’ wedding, "their possessions were valuable enough to warrant a prenuptial agreement.") He says, "my generation of children of Continental European Jewish parentage have very few items to remind us of the past." The lives of German Jews, especially those most assimilated, were built of the accessories, furniture, and styles of German culture. And, as Julius Fromm’s life attests, Jews contributed to German culture as well. Since reading Fromm’s I anticipate appreciating three things more: Berlin film festival imports; Holocaust movies; and my stuff.