It was Billy Joel’s 74th birthday on 9 May, and I was thinking about writing a piece about his musical history, going back to the times when he joined a band called “Echoes,” at age 16 to the times when he joined the bands “The Hassles” and “Atilla.” Then I came across a story which connected Billy Joel with World War II, the Holocaust and a large German retail and travel company, and indirectly to 4 Olympic games—and I thought that would make a much more engaging story.
Billy Joel was born William Martin Joel on 9 May 1949 in the Bronx, New York, and grew up in Long Island. Billy’s father, Howard (born Helmut) Joel, was a classical pianist and businessman, born in Nuremberg, Germany, to a Jewish family. He was the son of merchant and manufacturer Karl Amson Joel.
Karl Amson Joel started a business in household linens in 1927. The business was so profitable that he, his wife and their young son, Helmut, moved to an affluent area of Nuremberg. As his business rose in prominence—the Nazis rose in their power. The Nazis put their sights on eliminating the Joels and all Jewish businesses.
After the rise to power of Nazism in 1933, Karl Amson Joel was increasingly discriminated against by the regional Nazi Party leaders, especially Julius Streicher, the founder and publisher of the virulently antisemitic newspaper Der Stürmer.r.
In May 1933, Der Stürmer ran a front-page article calling Karl a Yid and accusing him of underpaying and sexually harassing his workers. Billy Joel’s father, Helmut [aka Howard], was one of four Jews in his Nuremberg classroom directed to sit apart from their classmates.
Karl Amson Joel moved his company to Berlin in 1934, renting a factory in Wedding, and installing new packing machines in the stitching department. However, had to remain in Nuremberg. As persecution increased (e.g. deliveries had to be marked with a “J” for Jude [Jew]). Jewish firms became Aryanized (the forced expulsion of Jews from business life in Nazi Germany, Axis-aligned states, and their occupied territories. It entailed the transfer of Jewish property into Aryan hands), Joel was forced to sell his company in 1938 to Josef Neckermann.
For fear of further persecution, Karl Amson Joel moved to Switzerland in July 1938 and later to the United States via Cuba.
Neckermann made his fortune as the owner of one of Europe’s largest department stores. His business made him the director of a very successful mail-order company under the slogan Neckermann Macht’s Möglich (Neckermann makes it possible) and also a travel company.
Shortly after World War II, Neckermann was sentenced to one year in a military prison.
In 1949, Karl Amson Joel successfully sued Neckermann for compensation in a Nuremberg court. Eight years later, the parties settled, and the files were closed.
In 1957, Karl Amson Joel got a compensation of 2 million West German marks for his former company from Neckermann, who at that time ran the most successful German mail order selling company.
As I said earlier on in this blog there is also a connection to 4 Olympic games, albeit indirect. Josef Neckermann was also a German equestrian and Olympic champion. He was one of the richest private citizens to have ever competed at the Olympic Games, and he did quite well, winning six medals in the dressage. Neckermann’s Olympics medals were as follows: 1960 – individual bronze, 1964—team gold (both for the mixed German team), 1968—team gold and individual silver, 1972—team silver and individual bronze, all for West Germany.
Other members of Billy Joel’s family were killed during the Holocaust.
I could not finish this blog without at least including one of his many songs. This is my favourite Billy Joel song.
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