For three nights in August, JEWISHcolorado traveled to mountain communities—Aspen, Vail, and Steamboat Springs—for the 2023 Summit Series featuring journalist and author David de Jong. The evening in Vail was presented in partnership with B’nai Vail and Vail Symposium.
De Jong’s book, Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany’s Wealthiest Dynasties, is meticulously researched history embedded in a family narrative of boundless greed, unmitigated cruelty, and unacknowledged crimes.
“Tonight, I am going to talk about how I came to the topic of Nazi billionaires and why I chose the five families I wrote about in the book,” de Jong said. “How did they get involved with the Nazi regime, how did they get away with their crimes after the war, and how are their heirs covering up that history today?”
JEWISHcolorado in the mountain community
JEWISHcolorado President & CEO Renée Rockford began the presentation each of the three evenings with a reminder of the role that JEWISHcolorado plays in the life of the community. “There are likely things in your lives that we touch,” she said. “You may have no idea we are behind these programs.”
To illustrate, she pointed to PJ Library which sends free children’s books with Jewish themes to more than 5,000 families in the state each month. She told people in the audience that JEWISHcolorado sends stipends to local synagogues for each student in religious school. Finally, Rockford reminded everyone that JEWISHcolorado is their voice in the Colorado State Capitol, lobbying for mandatory Holocaust education in schools and grants to ensure the physical safety of nonprofit organizations.
“In partnership with the national Secure Community Network, JEWISHcolorado’s Safety & Security Initiative does safety training, site assessments, and offers microgrants to local synagogues and gathering places to improve security,” Rockford said. “There has been so much demand for this work that JEWISHcolorado is now hiring a second regional security officer.”In her introduction of de Jong, Rockford noted that the 2023 Joyce Zeff Israel Study Tour traveled to Poland for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic. During that time, 65 teens retraced the steps of Rockford’s father who, as a teenager, spent five years in five different concentration camps before being liberated from Mauthausen.
“That was my father’s experience, but David’s book tells another side of Germany and Europe in the 1930s and 1940s,” Rockford said. “There is no better way to tell the story of history than through the lives of those who lived it.”
A time of literary reckoning with the Nazi Billionaires
De Jong has reported for such notable publications as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Bloomberg Business Week. In 2011, he was on assignment for Bloomberg News, reporting on family-owned companies in German-speaking countries.
“What struck me in my reporting was that the families that control companies like BMW and Porsche today celebrate their fathers and grandfathers for their business successes through global charitable foundations, media prizes, academic chairs, museums, and corporate headquarters named after them,” de Jong said. “But they leave out any mention of their war crimes and their Nazi affiliations even after there is a record of their crimes.”Instead, de Jong pointed out, if a Nazi-related scandal touches a beloved company or patriarch of that company, the German business owners commission a study by an independent historian. Years may pass before the study is published to little or no attention.
“It struck me that these families were doing a brazen whitewashing of history,” de Jong said. “I wanted to shine a light on that.”
De Jong had specific criteria for choosing the families he profiled. They are still in business today, controlling large companies that are household words in many parts of the world including the United States. The families are still involved in the companies, continuing dynasties through very small shareholder groups. Historically, these were families that engaged in mass profiteering off the Third Reich through the production of armaments, the Aryanization of Jewish-owned businesses, property, and assets, and the mass exploitation of slave labor.
De Jong talked about the role that the U.S. played in the failure to bring these companies and their leaders to justice after the war ended—in some cases, even after they were found guilty in court. He also described actions taken and results achieved after the book was published in Germany and other countries including a company that has renamed its foundation and redirected its fortune to Holocaust education—fulfilling de Jong’s goal to achieve “radical historical transparency.”
“These are still some of the wealthiest and most politically influential families in Europe,” he said. “They should be able held accountable when it comes to transparency about the past. That is what I want to do with Nazi Billionaires.”