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An International Pop Star’s German Roots

If it weren’t for the Third Reich, could Billy Joel have been Germany’s richest man?

April 17, 2002

If it weren't for the Third Reich, could Billy Joel have been Germany's richest man?

Back in 1938, when Josef Neckermann took over a flourishing Nuremberg mail order business from its founder, he had little idea his grandchildren would be blushing about it 60 years later.

The founder of the business was a man named Karl Joel — and he was Jewish.

Thus, he was subjected to Nazi Germany’s racial purity laws.

In the year following the anti-Jewish riots in November 1938 — known later as “Kristallnacht” — Mr. Joel was forced to sell his mail-order firm for a fraction of its market value.

Mr. Joel also had to leave his villa in Berlin’s upscale Charlottenburg section. When he asked whether the business deal would guarantee his safety, Herr Neckermann advised the successful businessman to find safety elsewhere.

Mr. Joel did survive. He fled to the United States — via Switzerland and Cuba. His son, Helmut Joel, almost perished in the Holocaust.

He was held at the Dachau death camp until it was liberated by the Allies in 1945. As a small-time salesman in New York, Karl Joel never managed to match the business success he had achieved in pre-war Germany.

However, Mr. Neckermann — the man who had purchased a thriving business in a distress sale — soon found prosperity in the manufacture of uniforms.

The company he had purchased for almost nothing eventually grew into an enormous multi-billion dollar conglomerate in post-war Germany.

This sad story, unfortunately, was repeated many times over. Thousands of German Jews were forced to sell their property for nothing when they were barred from doing business by the Nuremberg race laws.

The Nuremberg laws were imposed in September 1935, during the gruesome rule of the Nazis. Those Jews who managed to escape with their lives counted themselves lucky.

Like so many others, this story would have been consigned to obscurity — except for one thing. Helmut Joel’s son, Billy, became world-famous as an American pop star.

In fact, a television documentary was made called “The Joel File.” It featured an interview with the Neckermann grandchildren, who appear visibly uncomfortable about the story behind the family business.

Even though they were not directly at fault, there is a measure of satisfaction in seeing the Neckermann grandchildren’s discomfort with the past.

There is also a message of hope. Billy Joel’s grandparents returned to Germany after the war — and they eventually died there.

They were buried in the Jewish cemetery in Nuremberg, which was restored after being destroyed in 1944. Helmut Joel — who survived the Holocaust — lives in Austria, where his other son, Billy’s brother Alexander, is Director of the Vienna State Opera.

And Billy Joel, although still deeply immersed in American culture and music, also returns to Germany often. In fact, he has played a concert on the Zeppellinfeld, the spot where the Nazis used to hold their rallies.