C&A and the Nazi Regime

Although C&A is considered to be a global company it really only has stores on the European mainland,Brazil,Mexico and China. In total there are approximately 2000 stores.From 1922 to 2001 the company also had outlets in the UK.However most people around the globe will be familiar with the Fashion giant.

Although technically a Dutch company it has strong links to Germany. The 2 founders were Clemens and August Brenninkmeyer.

The first trading Brenninkmeyers left the family farm in Mettingen,Germany in 1671 to become traveling linen sellers in the Netherland. It is said that even then they were secretive about their business. At this time, secrecy gave them a commercial advantage and permitted the avoidance of customs charges.

In 1841, the brothers Clemens and August Brenninkmeyer abandoned the itinerant life and laid the groundwork for the C&A chain when they opened their first store in the small Dutch town of Sneek.

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The small firm of textile sellers was very successful, and within the next few years further stores were opened in the Dutch cities of Leeuwarden, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Rotterdam, Groningen, Leiden, Haarlem, and Enschede. Many of Clemens and August Brenninkmeyer’s descendants have been active in the company throughout its history.

The Brenninkmeyers were and are still very strict and devout Roman Catholics.Their new shop openings would often be done by holding a mass rather the throwing a party.Many of those who didn’t work for the company would become priests or nuns.

In 1911 it had its 1st international expansion in Berlin.

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C&A’s most successful field of operations, Germany, was coming under the control of the strongly nationalist and anti-Semitic Nazi regime. The Dutch Catholic family had to come to terms with this new German government. C&A’s Dutch background put its German expansion plans at risk. Nazi laws required the firm to gain government permission to open new branches. Some Nazis were also suspicious of the firm’s church connections.

The firm emphasized its pre-Nazi, anti-Jewish hiring policies and the family’s distant German origins. In a 1937 application to open a store in Leipzig, the board asked for assistance from Hermann Göring, the author of the state economic plan, and successfully argued that it had struggled against Jewish-owned business and prohibited the employment of Jews in the past.

In an attempt to build relations, bosses sent a letter to  Hermann Göring in 1937.

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The letter boasted how the firm ‘never employed Jews’ and took on ‘Jewish supremacy’ of the textile trade.  As a result, the company was able to expand, as Goering greenlighted the C&A takeover of a Leipzig store that was Jewish-owned and the company proudly displayed a sign stating that the business was ‘Aryan’.

Hermann Göring’s wife EmMY would often buy clothes in C&A.

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Against further 1938 allegations by influential Nazi party members that C&A was Dutch, the firm’s Berlin representatives stressed the Brenninkmeyer family’s German roots in Mettingen. They claimed the family had been forced to take Dutch citizenship by a 1787 law.

While the company was gifted expensive paintings, C&A paid huge sums of money into the Nazi fund – masquerading as the Winter Help collections which was for protection they acquired after striking up a relationship with Joseph Goebbels.

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At least half of 16 properties acquired in the years 1937 and 1938 in Berlin came from Jewish-owned families. All were acquired at less than market price, as was a plot of Jewish owned land in Bremen.

In Berlin the Bialystock family had a fashion shop next to C&A , Heinrich Chaim Bialystock had already left Berlin for Belgium due to increasing crimes committed against Jews. His wife Franya had stayed behind to finish up the shop and would follow her husband.

During the Kristall Nacht their shop got damaged but also some of the C&A shop. The Brenninkmeyers insisted and made Franya Bialystock pay for the damages to the C&A shop too.The Bialystocks were eventually arrested in Belgium and both died in Auschwitz on 21 September 1942.

In the Jewish ghetto of Lodz, 70,000 people had to perform forced labour.

Around half of them worked in tailoring, shoe and leather manufacturing.

By the autumn of 1944, the German arm of C&A was turning over 22 percent of the whole of the ghetto’s industry turnover.

During the course of their employment with the firm, four young women and five children died of malnutrition deaths  C&A is mainly responsible for.
Although C&A’s headquarters before 1939 were in Amsterdam, the British arm of the company turned over one of its warehouses in 1940 for use by the Dutch government in exile.

Bernard Brenninkmeijer in London hoped that the Germans would soon be stopped.

But his cousin Rudolf Brenninkmeijer in Berlin sucked up to the regime in Berlin and dreamed of the ‘final victory’ over Britain.

‘There can be no doubt after reading the history that the German line of the firm had exploited the plight of Jewish owners.

‘It was less out of ideological than for opportunistic reasons,’ said the Neue Zürcher newspaper in Switzerland.To give credit to the Brenninkmeyer family, in 2011 they commissioned historian Mark Spoerer, to research the company’s dealings with the Third Reich.His research uncovered all these findings.The family have opened up an archive relating to their time during WWII.

Currently the 6th generation of the Brenninkmeyer family is at the helm of the business.

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