“WE THOUGHT we knew our story, and we knew it wasn’t great,” says Maurice Brenninkmeijer, chairman of COFRA Holding, which owns C&A, a 175-year-old Dutch clothing retailer with over 2,000 stores globally. Yet the full account of how the German branch of his family behaved in the second world war “tore through your heart when you heard it”, he adds. Mr Brenninkmeijer’s ancestors—considered to be genial, virtuous, Catholic and reserved—turned out to have been avid Nazi collaborators. Old letters revealed cosy, corrupt, ties to Hermann Goering. From 1942 onwards C&A and Siemens, a German engineering firm, together exploited forced Eastern European labourers in Germany, keeping them in such a wretched state that malnutrition killed several women and children. C&A profited from “Aryanisation”, grabbing business and property from terrified Jewish owners. Perhaps worst, it used Jewish tailors and leather-workers, corralled in Lodz, a dreadful ghetto in Poland. Of some 200,000 people trapped in inhumane conditions there, only 1,000 survived to liberation.
Such grim details are now public thanks to Mark Spoerer, a historian in Regensburg who specialises in archival research to assess companies’ dark pasts, putting “immoral business behaviour” into historical context. Remarkably, his new book “C&A: A family business in Germany, the…Continue reading